Betrayal in Paris: How the Treaty of Versailles Led to China’s Long Revolution
e-Penguin, 2014, 81 pp., $3.38
On November 18th, 1918 Peking was given over to riotous celebration. The most devastating and far-reaching war the world had ever seen had officially come to an end seven days earlier. President Hsu, the newly sworn-in leader of the barely seven-year-old Chinese republic, called for a three-day holiday to celebrate the Allies’ victory. A massive parade was organized, with more than 100,000 in attendance, including 10,000 uniformed men from the British, French, American, and Chinese forces. Airplanes flew overhead, dropping Chinese flags and peace messages, and fireworks lit up the cityscape. China celebrated “Western-style democracy as its great hope, and the end of the Great War as a victory over tyranny.” But such optimism would be pitifully short-lived, cut short as it was by an unexpected but painful letdown at the Paris Peace Conference, where it failed to regain territory lost to Japan during the war. That betrayal is the subject and title of the latest book by acclaimed China hand Paul French.
Out of the heap of literature on the Treaty of Versailles, only a few books contribute more than a brief discussion of China’s role in the Paris Peace Conference. French’s book, then, is a welcome addition, not least for his well-crafted knack for nonfiction storytelling and extensive knowledge of modern Chinese history. French describes how Japan coerced Woodrow Wilson into betraying China, and how that betrayal put Japan on the path to war and China on the path to Maoism.
China had enjoyed centuries of regional domination and prestige, but was remarkably weak at the turn of the 20th century. The Qing Dynasty, toppled by a bloodless coup in 1911, had been replaced by a nationalist republic made up of intellectuals and idealists. The first President of the republic, a former Qing General and megalomaniac named Yuan Shih-kai, died quickly after reaching power, leaving an ineffectual government divided between north and south. Large swaths of the nation soon fell under the control of competing strongmen, thrusting China into an era of warlordism that would last for nearly two decades. With its economy smoldering, its people afflicted with disease and opium addiction, its territory splintered by imperialist land grabs and warlordism, and its political elite split in two, China was in desperate need of a pick-me-up by the end of World War I.
Paris, in contrast, was a city rejuvenated: “Outwardly the city was alive again, the blacked-out, khaki-clad streets of wartime receding as the City of Lights re-emerged…The world had come to Paris for victory, for defeat, and to attempt to wrong historical slights.” The Chinese republic, still new to the world, had come neither for victory nor defeat, but for reparation. Its delegation, the youngest of the whole Peace Conference, was determined to take back what had been stolen.
During the period of unequal treaties from the 19th to the early 20th centuries, in which China was carved up by various imperialist powers, Shantung (Shandong) province was leased to Germany. At the outbreak of the Great War, with the Kaiser preoccupied by his offensive in Europe, a growing and resource-hungry Japan spied an opportunity. Japanese forces invaded Shantung, quickly taking over the tiny German outpost there, and solidified their control over the province. Soon thereafter, in early 1915, the Japanese issued an infamous document known as the Twenty-One Demands, which legitimized nearly all of Tokyo’s business and territorial claims on Shantung. The frail Chinese republic, altogether unable to resist the Japanese, were forced to sign the treaty. (Dreadnoughts and machine guns were drawn into the watermark on the document, in case they had second thoughts.) This was a massive loss to China; a growing class of nationalists called the day of the signing National Humiliation Day. Shantung, a crucial intersection of north-south and east-west trading routes, was also the birthplace of the great sage Confucius, whose ideology had made up the nervous system of Chinese culture since antiquity; it was a holy land for the Chinese people. President Hsu and the new republic saw its return as essential to reunifying the Middle Kingdom. The Shantung Question, as it was referred to in the newspapers of the time, was “at the heart of the Chinese cause in Paris.” Japan’s occupation forces there, in the words of Peking’s lead delegate Wellington Koo, were like “a dagger pointed at the heart of China.”
The dagger, as French notes, was an apt metaphor: “Tokyo did indeed see Shantung as the way to pierce China’s hinterland and transport Japanese goods, power and influence into the heart of the country, and from there across East Asia.” Peking knew that Japan, a newly realized great power and a far superior nation by most modern measures, would not willingly relinquish its hold on Shantung. Yet despite this, Koo and his fellow delegates felt supremely confident that the conference would side in Peking’s favor; their argument, on both legal and moral grounds, was undeniably compelling. And when it came time for the debonair Koo to argue his case to the conference, he did so with eloquence and unwavering confidence. Koo was, as his secretary Wunsz King wrote, “a star with the international diplomacy crowd in Paris and with the Chinese students.” But Tokyo’s lead delegate Baron Makino, a calculating strategist, was unmoved by persuasive ethics. He was going the route of realpolitik, and had the American President in his sights.
Woodrow Wilson had come to Paris with more than just the goal of resolving the Great War. With his grand dream of a League of Nations, he was out to put an end to war altogether. A champion of self-determination and the rights of weaker states, Wilson reserved a particular fondness for the Chinese. As a devout Christian, he had been deeply affected by missionary reports from the Middle Kingdom; his cousin edited a Presbyterian missionary weekly out of Shanghai. He was a self-declared “friend of China”, and Peking thought highly of him:
China had placed most of its hopes at the conference on support from the Americans; after all, had China not complied with America’s wishes during the war? It had condemned German use of unrestricted submarine warfare and then declared war on Berlin. Wilson’s highly publicised Fourteen Points appealed to China—encompassing free trade, open agreements, democracy and self-determination.
While the Chinese hoped that Britain and France would side with them against Japan, they didn’t get their hopes up. Britain and France were both imperialist powers, and stripping Japan of Shantung would open a can of worms regarding their own colonial possessions. Moreover, Britain had benefited greatly from Japan, which had provided naval assistance in 1917, and felt indebted to Tokyo. Wilson was the delegation’s greatest hope for regaining Shantung, and it was Wilson who would ultimately betray China.
It’s hard to overstate how important the League of Nations was to Wilson. As the Shantung Question was at the “heart of the Chinese cause in Paris”, so was the League of Nations to Wilson’s. But the grandiose ideals upon which it was founded elicited intense skepticism. What, exactly, did “self-determination” mean? What constituted a state? Would the League use force or moral suasion? Most people were fine with the idea, but doubted that it could be successfully implemented. French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau famously quipped, “I like the League, but I do not believe in it.” Yet, for others, the voiceless and powerless peoples, Wilson’s idealism was uplifting. The Japanese however, saw the League as Wilson’s Achilles heel. It was through threatening the destruction of his beloved League that the Japanese would secure their hold over Shantung.
The Japanese, knowing exactly what they were doing, insisted on adding a clause on racial equality to the League’s charter, a clause that stated the inherent equality of all races and peoples. They wouldn’t be a part of the League without it. Wilson then was set between a rock and a hard place. America was a segregated society in 1919. Wilson knew, as Makino also knew, that he wouldn’t have any chance of getting America’s membership in the League approved by Congress with such a clause in its charter. Yet at the same time, Wilson couldn’t afford to lose Japan’s membership—Italy, one of the other great powers, had already dropped out of the conference altogether; losing Japan too would discredit the League beyond salvaging. Convinced as he was that the League was the only way to secure a lasting peace, and that the United States ought to lead it, Wilson could not give up. Japan, knowing this, had offered a way out.
If America would leave Shantung to Japan, Tokyo would rescind its equality clause. Wilson felt that he had no choice. He stalled for as long as he could, desperate to find a compromise. But when the time finally came to make a decision on the fate of the province, Wilson begrudgingly sided with the Japanese. Its delegation, immensely bitter, refused to sign the treaty and made their way back to Peking.
The Shantung Question weighed heavily on Wilson; he “claimed he could not sleep after the decision.” He demanded detailed descriptions and maps of everything that Japan was getting in China. The Japanese assured Wilson they would eventually give Shantung back, but they refused to put anything on paper. In Paris, public denunciation of the decision was so strong, most of it directed at Wilson, that the President’s security detail was beefed up. Back in China, people were outraged.
Students at Peking University organized a massive protest at Tiananmen Square. One young man cut off his finger and wrote demands for the return of Tsingtao, an island in Shantung’s north, in blood on a wall. Protesters stormed a residence housing the Chinese Ambassador to Japan and beat him nearly to death. The movement’s momentum moved south and workers in Shanghai went on strike. The day of the unrest, May 4, became a seminal day in Chinese history. This was the first time that there had been a mass, truly inclusive movement for democracy and civil rights. Fed up with an ineffective, intellectual elite, the masses began rallying around more populist-based movements. The fierce nationalisms unleashed during the comparably tame 1911 Revolution metastasized during the protests, sparking what French calls the “long revolution”: from the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 to the betrayal in Paris in 1919 to the forming of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai in 1921, the ensuing civil war, and the takeover of China by the Communists in 1949.
The reverberations from the outcome of the Shantung Question were of tremendous consequence for China. The May Fourth movement, sparked by the news of Shantung’s loss to the Japanese, launched the political careers of many who would become the most prominent, left-wing activists of the coming decades. Among them were Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, two of the founding members of the Chinese Communist Party. Disillusioned with the West and angered at the governing class, China was ripe for revolution following May 4. As French explains, “In 1919 the country’s intellectual elite and radicalized youth were left hating Japan, and feeling betrayed by America. If there was a winner from this, it was perhaps the new regime in Bolshevik Moscow and its supporters within China.” The civil war that would break out soon thereafter between the Chinese Nationalists led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai (and heavily supported by the Soviets) would trace its origins to the unrest of May 4 and the betrayal in Paris.
Japan, too, was greatly affected by the outcome of the Shantung Question. Though it got its way on Shantung, the Japanese delegation came away from Paris feeling humiliated and disrespected. The Western powers felt wary of the Japanese, who were quiet and reserved and could speak only basic English and French. (The Chinese, in contrast, spoke perfect English.) The Western delegations didn’t take their Japanese counterparts seriously. This was evident when it was decided, for the sake of expediency, to set up the Council of Four, a central decision-making body made up of the conference’s great powers, and Japan was not included. Furthermore, even though they had willingly sacrificed the equality clause to get their way on Shantung, the loss stung Tokyo. All of this pushed Japan away from the West, and toward unilateralism: If they wanted respect, they would have to secure it by force. And, as French notes, its territorial ambitions were only encouraged by the outcome of the Shantung Question. The inter-war years, characterized by the illegal build-up of Japanese military and naval forces, were to be for Japan, as Churchill called them, a “loaded-pause.”
Of course, the shockwaves from China’s betrayal in Paris can still be felt today; just take a look at the abysmal state of Sino-Japanese relations. Yet, within contemporary squabbles between Tokyo and Beijing, the injustices of 1919 are scarcely cited, overshadowed as they are by painful memories of World War II. Perhaps it’s because, unlike the Nanking Massacre or the Battle of Shanghai, the diplomatic machinations of Versailles, while dramatic in their own right, don’t grab headlines as effectively. Or perhaps World War I, now 100 years removed from the present, is beginning to feel less relevant to our modern affairs. As Betrayal in Paris makes clear, however, nothing could be further from the truth.