In 1949, Mao pronounced an important policy prefacing it with China’s “100 years of suffering and humiliation” by Western Imperialist powers. In the future, China would avoid any relationship that would subordinate its political, ideological, economic, cultural and military interests. Its abiding principles would be “self-reliance, equality and mutual benefit”. Other nations would be expected to conform to China’s norms and values. President Xi Jinping’s confrontational speeches on January 4, 2019 and May 26, 2020, to China’s armed cadres are an extension of this policy.
No book describes this “humiliation” better than “Paris-1919-Six Months that Changed the World” by Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan. It recounts how the Big Four (Britain, France, Italy and United States) carved up the post-War world to suit their interests. They also left several grave problems unattended, which are responsible for many disputes even today.
China was then a “helpless, hopeless and inert mass”, as contemptuously described by British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon. The weak Qing dynasty had allowed foreigners to occupy their lands, described as “Concessions”, enforcing their own rules: “The Russians in the North, the British in the Yangtze valley, the French in the South, the Germans in the Shantung peninsula and the Japanese here, there and everywhere”.
Shantung, the cradle of Chinese civilisation being the birthplace of Confucius, was seized in 1897 by Imperial Germany which forced Peking to lease it for 99 years. In 1914, during the First World War an Anglo-Japanese force captured Tsintao port in Shantung. Since then Shantung was the emotional rallying point for the Chinese students and intellectuals who wanted to throw out foreigners.
However, Japan adamantly continued as an occupying power in China, bribing War Lords, politicians and military officials. They argued at the Paris Conference which started on 18 January 1919 that Shantung was merely between Germany and Japan with no role for China. Britain, France and Italy were disinterested although the then ruling Beiyang government of China had extended massive assistance to them for the War. They sent one lakh labourers to relieve the Allied army to fight the Germans.
China had pinned hope on US President Woodrow Wilson as the arbiter in the Paris Conference. He was convinced of their case. However, he also shared the worry that Japan would walk out of the Conference like how Italy did on April 21over quarrels over Austro-Hungarian Empire lands including the Adriatic port Fiume.
Also, Wilson wanted Japanese cooperation on his proposal for the League of Nations, which he had obsessively campaigned. Japan, by then the 5th “Great Power”, had put across a counter proposal on “Racial Equality” clause for the League of Nations Charter which had raised hackles among the Western dominated international system with its hall mark of colonial rule over non-whites.
Thus, Wilson gave priority to the trade-off with Japan for dropping the “Racial Equality” clause by granting them Shantung, which the Chinese had described as “a dagger pointed at the heart of China”. The Chinese were crushed when the decision was announced on April 30.
That ignited a storm which erupted as Chinese nationalistic protests. Till then even Chinese liberals had supported Western culture, education and values. Deeply disappointed, they gravitated towards the template of 1917 Russian Revolution. After a stormy meeting on Rue Danton in Paris, the Chinese students held massive demonstrations at Tiananmen Square and other places on May 4, which became a turning point.
That was the day China “awakened” with an anti-imperialistic, cultural and political movement. It split into the "Nationalist" way (Kuomintang) and “Communist” path when Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao founded the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 followed by Mao. Both cooperated against Japanese but split again.
Ironically, Wilson’s efforts on trade off with Japan on Shantung did not benefit him politically. He was not able to convince his own country on the League of Nations despite travelling 8,000 miles across America in 22 days and suffering a serious health crisis. The Senate refused to ratify on November 19, 1919. America never joined the League of Nations. Japan invaded China in 1937. The World War II started in 1939.
In retrospect, would China have been a Western modelled State had the 1919 Conference granted them Shantung?
(The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views expressed are personal)