Until the late Qing, the state of Chinese courts, jails, and punishments gave European powers an excuse to insist on the privilege of extra-territoriality in order to protect their citizens. The arbitrary nature of Qing jurisprudence made it seem that this was in the best interest of various merchant communities. Dikotter argues that extending this privilege to foreigners was not the major issue for the Qing that later reformers believed it was – it was part of normal concessions given to foreign trading partners I an effort to mollify them in their demands, and was not given exclusively to European imperial powers.
Defeat by Japan in the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese war led reformers to argue that China needed to reform its judicial and prison systems as part of the greater efforts at Self-Strengthening promoted by Kang Yuwei and others. European powers roundly argued that Qing jails and punishments were barbaric due to the high incidence of corporal punishments and lack of effort at reforming prisoners. Flogging, exile, and death by torment were used rather than confinement as the primary punishments. Reformers agreed with Europeans that a change in penal regime was necessary. They wanted a systematic and bureaucratized system aimed at reforming prisoners. Activists had two primary motivations in pursuing this course – ending extraterritoriality, and strengthening China so that it could compete with other powers.
While there was an emphasis on scientific methods of reform, rules, regulations, and record keeping, European scientific rationality was not the basis for Chinese efforts. Instead, Dikotter argues that reformers were using modern methodology to achieve a traditional Confucian goal. Prison reformers wanted to use education and spiritual guidance to improve the mass of Chinese people, strengthening individuals for the collective good of the nation that needed to strive against others. Reformers met with sporadic success and failure due to overcrowding and lack of funding, much like in prison systems elsewhere in the world. Despite this, late Qing and Republican prison reform achieved much more than later Communist propagandists would admit. Many prisons became orderly, safe, and clean, and sentences more humane in the effort to reform the nation. These new prisons met with the same problems as those in the West – recidivism and systemic violence. As such, they were firmly in line with modern developments in prison and prisoner management, despite being constituted to achieve traditional goals.