To understand the nature of China today we need a starting point. Some fixed moment in history from which we can draw a straight (-ish) line to help us understand Beijing’s current diplomatic obsessions and phobias, its back brain reasonings and historical knee jerks. The 1911 revolution, Xinhai, is perhaps most obvious – the moment China chose to reject dynastical turns of history and monarchy and to embrace republicanism and the modern in many forms (not just political systems, but railways, roads, urban planning and a greater engagement with international culture, arts and sciences). But that doesn’t explain China now and its obvious reticence, despite the official rhetoric, to fully engage with international cultural trends and social currents.
Despite the flying start of 1911, something interjected a note of caution, a pulling back from full engagement to a more overtly nationalistic and restricted sense of the nation of China and the notion of Chineseness. An event that presaged a sense of self-isolation and retreat from globalism for so long and, in many arenas, still remains steadfastly in force today, front and centre in Beijing’s geo-political thinking. A moment when China decided to pursue its own, largely uninfluenced, course of development, which necessarily required a top down, nationally agreed, narrative of history and an accepted cast of characters both good and bad.
That moment, I would argue, was China’s severe disappointment at the Paris Peace Conference convened in the French capital in 1919 to remake the world in the wake of the “Great War” of 1914-1918. It was billed as an attempt to rewrite wrongs and serve up international justice by the victors to the losers. But China, which saw itself as having been on the side of right and a victorious power in that conflict, was not to sign the resultant Treaty of Versailles designed to remake the world. Rather China was to feel let down and betrayed by those that claimed to be allies. China’s young intellectuals felt it essential to protest this betrayal and, being unable to force the world’s “Great Powers” (Britain, France and, the latterly emergent, United States) to support China’s claims in Paris, turn in on itself and do the only thing it could – remake Chinese politics in the face of international intransigence.
From that duplicity in Paris nearly a century ago a path of history can be drawn through the nationalist politics of the 1920s and 1930s, the long bitter and bloody clash with Japan, civil war and the communist revolution of 1949. Further, that betrayal and rejection helped shape the politics of the new People’s Republic through the 1950s to the 1980s and continues to shape the historical narrative and self-image of China’s leaders today. Simply put, you can’t understand Beijing’s diplomatic policy goals today without understanding what happened in Paris in the spring of 1919 – history resonates.
China’s goals in Paris in 1919 were simple and her claims at the Peace Conference just. Looked at in hindsight the Japanese annexation of Chinese territory in Shandong from German occupation in 1914 was clearly a land grab presaged by the chaos and diversion of war in Europe. China’s high hopes in 1919 for the restitution of Shandong were not expected to be overly contentious by the Chinese delegation that travelled to Paris to negotiate. The Conference of the victorious powers would clearly see Tokyo’s motives and opportunism against a weaker state in the early years of a new republic and restore its territorial rights. But it was not to be. Global real politik prevailed.
China, though an ally, was not a combatant itself during the First World War, but the negotiations in Paris in 1919 proved a long and intellectually bloody battle, of words and arguments rather than battalions and regiments, of promises rather than manoeuvres and field orders, demands for justice rather than bravery on the battlefield. The casualties were significant – China’s prestige, its sovereignty, its faith in its fellow republic of the United States, any trust it may have had in the good word of the European Great Powers. It’s a twisted tale, too long to tell in full here, but suffice to say that Britain and France looked to preserving and extending their own empires and global trading networks in China after the war and a stronger China didn’t fit with that agenda. America promised China its backing but retreated eventually from full support. The protests that erupted in Beijing, those events that came to be known as the May 4th Movement, rejected that marginalisation of China and demanded strong government and a clearer national identity.
It is fair to say that the Treaty of Versailles ultimately encouraged Japan’s long-term territorial ambitions in East Asia. The inter-war years for Japan were to be, as Churchill characterised them, just a ‘loaded pause’. Wellington Koo, the supremely gifted Chinese diplomat who debated the Japanese face-to-face in Paris, prophetically declared that their decision on Shandong could lead to war within ten years. He was just a few years out. Japan annexed Manchuria barely a dozen years later. The European and American appeasement of Japan in 1919 was to accelerate a process that led to the eventual war for the Pacific and control of East Asia just two decades later, and to forge a seemingly lasting enmity between China and Japan that virulently persists to this day.
The aftershock of Versailles reverberated down through modern Chinese history. Lessons learnt in Paris in 1919 became constant truths for Chinese politicians after 1949. Foreign nations were not to be trusted; China could never rely on any foreign capital to represent its interests and support its national ambitions. Chinese communism consistently played down the internationalist element that had been intrinsic to the original worldwide socialist project. It demanded not just complete distrust of the West, but also of those who appeared to be friends and allies, such as the Soviet Union.
When the Communist Party came to power in 1949 they understood, from the start, that any seeming weakness or prevarication when it came to either Japan, or any foreign power, could easily be the spark that ignited protest and possibly lead to them losing their “mandate of heaven”. Consequently the Party, always obsessed with regime survival, sought to learn the lessons of history and to accentuate nationalism and self-sufficiency as primary objectives.
Paris 1919 and the Treaty of Versailles is the moment when the West ceded the high ground in the China debate. It was a moment when the iniquities of the Opium Wars, and the “land grabbism” of the treaty ports, could have been reversed. When London, Paris and Washington could have sided with China against an aggressor and partially made right previous wrongs. It would not have been a perfect solution, nor a full atonement, but it would have been the morally right thing to do. And it was not a difficult thing to do – the awarding of a piece of territory to the country it belonged to may have temporarily annoyed Tokyo but it would not necessarily have permanently poisoned the well, either. Japanese militarists may have been warned off of China and been rather more circumspect in 1932 and 1937 than they were. Sino-Japanese relations may have been something entirely different from now, something more positive, more collaborative. It’s a great “what if?” of history, and in no way excuses either the excesses of Japan in the 1930s and 1940s in China nor the dark years of Maoism, but it does offer an alternative pathway for both nations; a path that could have meant, ultimately, a more stable, less rancorous East Asia than we are faced with today.
The other side of the coin of course is that we should remember that if Britain, France and America had made decisions more morally in 1919 regarding China and Japan, rather than wholly in the name of self-interest, then perhaps the last century of East-West relations might have been significantly more conducive than they have been.
“What ifs?” of history are just that – what if? But if we are all to learn from the past then we need to consider not just what actually happened and its outcome but also what might have possibly happened and what those outcomes might have been? There are always alternatives, there certainly were in Paris in 1919. When we look back, we should consider those and reflect upon them.