Modern history


A Dagger Pointed at the Heart of China

WHEN THE NEWS that the Great War was over reached China, the government declared a three-day holiday. Sixty thousand people, many of them nationalist students and their teachers, turned out for Peking’s victory parade. To popular rejoicing, a monument put up by the kaiser’s government to a German diplomat who had been killed during the Boxer Rebellion two decades earlier was torn down. The Chinese press was full of articles about the triumph of democracy over despotism and of enthusiasm for Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Among young Chinese especially, there was an uncritical admiration for Western democracy, Western liberal ideals and Western learning. Many Chinese also hoped that the peace would bring an end to interference by the Great Powers in China’s affairs.

China had declared war on Germany in the summer of 1917 and had made a substantial contribution to the Allied victory. The trenches of the Western Front required an enormous amount of digging and maintenance. By 1918 about 100,000 Chinese laborers had been shipped to France, where they freed valuable Allied soldiers to press the attack against the Germans. Many Chinese died in France, through shells or disease. More than five hundred were drowned when German submarines sank a French ship in the Mediterranean.

It was easier for China to find laborers for the war effort than experienced diplomats for the peace. Peking stripped its Foreign Ministry of its best talent, calling on its ambassadors from Washington, Brussels and London and the foreign minister. The delegation did not include either China’s president or its prime minister, mainly because the political situation in China was so precarious that neither dared to leave. It did, however, hire several foreign advisers who were supposed to help explain China to the world and vice versa. (The American government, hoping to be the honest broker in Paris, would not let any of its nationals work for the Chinese—at least not officially.)

The group of some sixty Chinese and their five foreign advisers that finally assembled in Paris at the Hôtel Lutétia epitomized China itself, balanced uneasily between the old and the new, the north and the south, and with a strong hint of outside influence. It was not clear what they represented, for China was falling to pieces. While one set of soldiers and their supporters controlled the capital, Peking, and the north of China, another had proclaimed an independent government in the south, at Canton. Even as the Paris Peace Conference met, another peace conference was being held at Shanghai to try and reconcile the two governments. The delegation in Paris had been chosen by both sides and its members did not trust each other or their nominal government back in Peking.

Its leader, Lu Zhengxiang, a man in his late forties, epitomized how China was changing. He came from Shanghai, the great port which had grown under the stimulus of Western trade and investment. His father, a Christian, worked for foreign missionaries and sent him to Western-style schools, where he learned foreign languages, not the Chinese classics that so many generations of Chinese boys had studied.1 Such men were anathema to the older generation of scholars (the mandarins, the West called them), who for centuries had run China. The minds of such scholars were subtle beyond the comprehension of most Westerners; their self-control and manners were impeccable. Their predecessors had governed China for centuries, but all their skills were no match for the guns and steamships of an aggressive West.

Lu had grown up at a time when the old civilization was fighting a losing battle against the forces of change. For centuries, China had run its own affairs in its own way. The Chinese called their country the Middle Kingdom—“middle” not in importance but because it was at the center of the known world. When the first Westerners—“long-nosed hairy barbarians”—had begun to appear in China’s gaze, they made no more impression than a gnat might on an elephant. But in the nineteenth century the periphery had begun to disturb the center, selling opium, intruding through its traders, its missionaries and its ideas. The Chinese had resisted, bringing upon themselves a long series of defeats. By the end of the century, China’s government had lost control of its own finances and tariffs, and China was dotted with foreign enclaves, ports, railways, factories and mines, and the foreign troops to guard them. The Great Powers threw the cloak of extraterritoriality around their subjects on the grounds that Chinese laws and Chinese judges were too primitive to deal with the products of Western civilization. It was even said that the sign at the entrance to the park in the foreign concession area of Shanghai read, “No dogs. No Chinese.” The Chinese have been trying to deal with the awful blows to their self-esteem and their established world order ever since.

As an eminent Chinese thinker famously asked, “Why are they small and yet strong? Why are we large and yet weak?” Gradually, for it was not easy to jettison the habits of two thousand years, the Chinese began to learn from the foreigners, sending students abroad and hiring foreign experts. New ideas and new techniques were already seeping in, through the missionaries who opened up colleges and schools, via the businessmen who settled in the big ports such as Canton and Shanghai, and from the increasing numbers of Chinese who went abroad to make their fortunes and came back to look for wives and to be buried.

Lu had the new sort of learning that China needed if it was to survive. He entered the diplomatic service, itself an innovation, and spent many of the years before the Great War in one European capital or another. He caused something of a scandal, first by marrying a Belgian woman, then by cutting his long pigtail. He also espoused increasingly radical views, blaming the dynasty for China’s problems and arguing for a republic.

China’s situation was grim. Foreign nationals were staking out their spheres of influence: the Russians in the north, the British in the Yangtze valley (the Yangtze ran for 3,500 miles from the China Sea to Tibet), the French in the south, the Germans in the Shantung peninsula—and the Japanese here, there and everywhere. The Americans, who did not join in—partly, said the cynics, because they did not have the resources— talked idealistically about an open door through which everyone could exploit the Chinese equally. The danger, as Chinese nationalists saw clearly, was that China would simply be carved up and the Chinese nation and what was left of Chinese civilization would disappear. If not for the fact that there was a standoff among the powers over how to do the carving, this might well have happened by the time of the Great War.

Fear stimulated the growth of modern Chinese nationalism. Terms such as “sovereign rights” and “nation” began to make their way into the Chinese language, which had never needed them before. Plays and songs told of a sleeping China awakening and sending its tormentors packing. Radicals formed shadowy and usually evanescent secret societies to overthrow the ruling dynasty, now seen as an obstacle to China’s salvation. The first boycotts of goods produced by China’s enemies, and the first demonstrations, began to shake China’s great cities after 1900. There was a rash of patriotic suicides. These were tactics born of weakness, not of strength, but they showed the first stirrings of a powerful force. The Chinese increasingly settled on Japan as their major enemy.

In 1911 Lu and the other nationalists got part of their wish when a bloodless revolution toppled the last emperor, an eight-year-old boy. China became a republic mainly because modern institutions seemed necessary for dealing with the modern world. Few Chinese outside the cities had the slightest idea what a republic was. In the inland towns and villages, many did not even know that the dynasty had gone. (Indeed, a Red Guard who was sent out to the backwoods in the 1960s was startled to be asked by local farmers, “Tell us, who sits on the Dragon Throne these days?”)

Lu served the new republic loyally as both foreign minister and prime minister. There were some hopeful signs. China’s economy was beginning to stir—in the big cities, at any rate, where modern industries were coming to life. As the new knowledge permeated the schools and universities, China began to throw off some of the old repressive ways. Unfortunately China’s first president, an imposing general called Yuan Shikai, came from the old conservative world. Within four years of the revolution, he was trying to make himself emperor. Although he died before he could get away with it, he left a deadly inheritance: a divided country, a weak and ineffectual parliament and, most ominous of all, a series of local armies headed by their own generals. China by 1916 was entering a period of internal chaos and warlord rule that was not to end until the late 1920s.

The great Chinese writer Lu Xun compared his countrymen to people sleeping in a house made of iron. The house was on fire and the sleepers would die unless they woke up. But if they did wake, would they be able to get out? Was it better to let them perish in ignorance or die in the full knowledge of their fate? For all their doubts, Lu Xun and the other radical intellectuals of his generation did try to wake China up. They made it their responsibility to speed change by clearing away the debris of the past and forcing the Chinese to look to the future. They published journals with names such as New Youth and New Tide. They wrote satirical plays and stories scorning tradition. Their prescription for China was summed up in the slogan “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy”—science to represent reason, and democracy because that was what they thought China needed to bring unity between government and people and thus make China strong. They admired the Allies and hoped that they would treat China fairly, according to the principles Western leaders had so often enunciated during the war. Shantung would be the test.

A hilly, densely populated peninsula that juts into the north Pacific just below Peking, Shantung was as important to China as Alsace-Lorraine to France. It was the birthplace of the great sage Confucius, whose ideas had for so long been part of the glue that held China together. (Even today, some twenty-six centuries after his birth, there are families in Shantung who claim to be his descendants.) Whoever held Shantung not only commanded the southern flank of Peking but also menaced the Yellow River and the Grand Canal which helped link north and south China. For Westerners, its name was synonymous with a popular soft silk fabric which was made there and, in more recent and horrifying memory, with the base from which the longhaired Boxer rebels had come with their mission of extirpating all Westerners and all Western influence from China.

It was inevitable that Shantung would attract the interest of outside powers during the general scramble for concessions and influence in China. Its population of some thirty million offered markets and cheap labor. It had coal and other mineral deposits that were crying out to be exploited. When the German traveler Ferdinand von Richthofen called the attention of his kaiser and the German navy to the fact that it possessed one of the finest natural harbors on the China coast—at Kiachow (Jiaozhou) on the south side of the peninsula—they listened with interest. Germany was on a search for world power, and in those days that meant colonies and bases. Providentially, two German missionaries were killed in local disturbances in 1897. “A splendid opportunity,” said the kaiser, and sent a naval squadron to seize Kiachow. The Chinese government protested ineffectually and in 1898 signed an agreement giving Germany a ninety-nine-year lease on about a hundred square miles of Chinese territory around Kiachow harbor. Germany also got the rights to build railways, to open mines and to station German troops to protect its interests.

The German government lavished money on its new possession, far more than it spent on any of its much larger African colonies. It enticed German business, which was curiously reluctant to invest in Shantung, to build a railway and dig mines. (None ever showed a profit.) The navy took charge of the new port at Kiachow. Tsingtao (Qingdao), as it was known, was a model development with superb modern harbor facilities, neatly laid-out paved streets, piped water and sewage, an up-to-date telephone network, German schools, hospitals, and even a brewery that made excellent German beer, as it still does today. One admiring foreign visitor called Tsingtao “the Brighton of the East.” By 1907 it was the seventh most important port in China. The only drawback was that it was many thousands of miles from the nearest German colonies and from Germany itself.2

For all the bluster with which the kaiser had demanded concessions in Shantung, the German government showed considerable tact in the years before 1914 in dealing with the Chinese authorities. It allowed Chinese troops to guard its railway line and mines when it could have insisted on its own soldiers; it gave up the right to build other lines; and it let Tsingtao become part of the Chinese customs system rather than keeping it as a free port. The result was that by 1914 German concessions were much more limited than they had been under the agreement of 1898 and Sino-German relations were relatively amicable. That fact did not help Germany when war broke out. The German chargé d’affaires in China sent a cable to Berlin saying “Engagement with Miss Butterfly very probable”— a message that the British, who were reading all the cables coming from the East, did not have much trouble decoding. The Chinese government was not in a position to intervene when Japan attacked, and there was nothing Germany itself could do. The kaiser had only his sympathy to spare: “God be with you! In the coming struggle I will think of you.” And so the German concessions in Shantung, the railway, the neat little port and the mines passed into Japan’s control.3

Japan talked about handing back the concessions to China, but the Chinese, not surprisingly, did not put much faith in this. During the war, Japan did what it could to ensure that it would hang on to its acquisition. Right from the start the occupation authorities had busied themselves building new railways, taking over the running of the telegraphs and the post office from the Chinese, and extracting taxes and labor from the local inhabitants. Japan achieved control of Shantung beyond anything Germany had enjoyed. 4

Japan also did its best to tie up the ineffectual Chinese government in legal and other knots. It advanced large amounts of money to China, some of which came suspiciously close to bribes, to induce Chinese officials to support its goals. Private Japanese nationalist groups, factions within the military, and financiers pursued their own goals, often at cross-purposes to their own government. Arms went to southerners rebelling against the government in Peking, which Japan had recognized. In south Manchuria and the adjoining part of eastern Mongolia, the Japanese military authorities and adventurers intrigued with rebellious warlords. The consequence was that Japanese policy in China appeared extraordinarily devious when in fact it was more often simply confused and incoherent.

At an official level, successive Japanese governments tried, rather clumsily, to get China under their control. In January 1915, the Japanese minister in Peking paid a courtesy call on China’s president. The minister talked about the close and friendly relationship of the two peoples over the centuries and said that it would be a shame if outside powers forced them apart. There were, he added, a few troublesome issues that it would be nice to settle. He then presented the astonished president with a list of twenty-one demands. If China refused to agree to them, Japan might have to take what he vaguely termed “vigorous methods.” Some of the demands simply confirmed Japan’s existing activities in China, but another set asked the Chinese government to agree in advance to whatever arrangements Japan and Germany should come to over the German concessions. Worse still was a final, secret set which would have virtually turned China into a Japanese protectorate. ( Just in case the Chinese government had second thoughts, the paper on which the Japanese presented their list had a watermark of dreadnoughts and machine guns.5)

The Chinese government stalled and quibbled on every point. It also leaked the demands, which produced nationalist protests throughout China. Japan reluctantly dropped the more drastic provisions but on May 25, 1915, forced the Chinese government to sign a treaty guaranteeing that Japan would get what it wanted in Shantung. The Chinese nationalists declared National Humiliation Day. In Tokyo, Saionji was so distressed at the blundering incompetence of his own government that he made his displeasure felt by blocking the foreign minister’s attempt to become prime minister.6

Other nations watched with concern but did little. Britain badly needed Japan’s help at sea. Japanese ships were already carrying out patrols in the Pacific, and the British hoped they might do the same for the route around the Cape of Good Hope and perhaps even in the Mediterranean. 7 France and Italy were content to follow the British, and Russia, which was taking terrible losses in Europe, had no desire to antagonize its powerful neighbor in the Far East. In its secret agreements of 1917 with Britain, France and Italy, Japan was assured support for its continued possession of the German possessions and privileges in Shantung.

The one power to object openly to Japan’s activities in China was the United States, which was increasingly worried about Japan’s growing power in the Pacific and on the mainland of Asia. Even before what Wilson called “the whole suspicious affair” of the Twenty-one Demands, there had been friction over such issues as the American navy’s demand for a coaling station on the China coast and the high rates that the Japanese-run railway in Manchuria was charging for American goods.8 American businessmen complained that Japanese competition was driving them out of the China market. During the long-drawn-out negotiations between China and Japan, the American government urged Japan to modify its position; in Peking, the firmly anti-Japanese American ambassador encouraged the Chinese to stand firm. The Americans sent a note to both the Chinese and the Japanese governments saying that it would not accept any agreement that undercut American treaty rights in China or China’s own political or territorial integrity. (That reservation became very significant in 1931, when the United States used it as the basis for its objection to Japan’s seizure of Manchuria.)

The Japanese government backed down in 1915, but it did not give up trying to establish the upper hand in China. In 1916, it signed a treaty with Russia under which Russia recognized Japan’s special position in southern Manchuria and eastern Mongolia. At the same time, it sent Viscount Kikujiro Ishii to Washington to try to get American recognition of Japan’s position in China. The talks between Ishii and Lansing resulted in an exchange of notes which each side interpreted to suit itself. The Americans believed they had simply recognized that Japan already had special interests in China because of geography; the Japanese maintained that the Americans had given their approval to Japan’s special position in a much wider sense.9

The Russian Revolution of 1917 added to the Japanese determination to stay in China. As Ishii confided to his diary, “While foreign governments would not feel themselves endangered by calamity, epidemic, civil war or bolshevism in China, Japan could not exist without China and the Japanese people could not stand without the Chinese.”10 That was why the Japanese often referred to an “Asian Monroe Doctrine.” Just as the United States for its own security treated Latin America as its backyard, so Japan had to worry about China and neighbors such as Korea and Mongolia.

In 1918, with the war nearly over, Japan made a final effort to get matters in China settled to its satisfaction. In May it signed a defense treaty with the Chinese government, and in September it exchanged secret notes reiterating the 1915 agreements on Shantung. In a phrase that was particularly damaging to China’s case in Paris, the Chinese representative in Tokyo said that his government “gladly agreed” to the notes. In other words, the Chinese government compromised its own bargaining position before the war ended. Chinese delegates in Paris claimed that they knew nothing of the secret agreements until they were produced by the Japanese in January 1919. 11

By 1919, Japan’s maneuverings in China had left a bad impression on many outside observers. Even the British, who were committed to supporting Japan, were worried by what they perceived as Japanese arrogance and ambition. The British were particularly concerned about Japan’s inroads into their economic sphere in the Yangtze valley. Their ambassador in Tokyo warned darkly, “Today we have come to know that Japan—the real Japan—is a frankly opportunistic, not to say selfish, country, of very moderate importance compared with the giants of the Great War, but with a very exaggerated opinion of her role in the universe.” The British were further irritated by the way the Japanese press criticized the performance of British soldiers in the taking of the German concessions in China. The problem was that China seemed such a hopeless cause. Curzon, Balfour’s successor as foreign secretary, drew a pointed comparison with Japan: “Within sight of their shores you have the great helpless, hopeless, and inert mass of China, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, utterly deficient in cohesion or strength, engaged in perpetual conflict between the North and the South, destitute of military capacity or ardour, an easy prey to a nation of the character I have described.”12The French, on the China question at least, were in agreement with the British.

House also agreed. As he told Wilson during the war, it was unreasonable not to expect Japan to move into the mainland of China when so much of the white world was closed to the Japanese. “We cannot meet Japan in her desires as to land and immigration, and unless we make some concessions in regard to her sphere of influence in the East, trouble is sure, sooner or later to come.” He added, with excessive optimism, “A policy can be formulated which will leave the door open, rehabilitate China, and satisfy Japan.” The Japanese, when they analyzed the American delegation in Paris, put him down as a friend.13 They could not find many others.

Years later Breckinridge Long, who was third assistant secretary of state with special responsibility for Far Eastern affairs before and during the Paris Peace Conference, told an interviewer that from 1917 onward suspicion of Japan was a constant factor in American thinking. Even Lansing, who prided himself on his reasonable approach to the world, felt the shift. In 1915, he argued for the need to conciliate Japan, even suggesting giving it the Philippines, and criticized people who had “hysterics about the deep and wicked schemes of Japan.” But, as far as China was concerned, he became convinced that a line must be drawn. He sailed to Paris determined, he later said, “to have it out once and for all with Japan.” He also took to referring to Japan as “Prussia,” which was not meant as a compliment.14

As the Peace Conference started, it looked as though Wilson might take the same view. He was against secret treaties such as the ones Japan had made, and against handing out peoples and territories without consideration for their wishes. He was also deeply interested in China, an interest that had been fed by reports from the many American missionaries who worked there. One of his cousins edited a Presbyterian missionary weekly in Shanghai. He spoke of wanting to help China, of its moral regeneration, a task in which the United States stood ready to help as “friend and exemplar.” Wilson’s ambassador to Peking, Paul S. Reinsch, a progressive university professor from Wisconsin, showered Washington with accusations, some of which were true, that Japanese in China were stirring up rebellion, selling morphine and bribing officials, all with the aim of dominating the whole of East Asia. “Should Japan be given a freer hand and should anything be done which could be interpreted as a recognition of a special position of Japan,” he warned, “either in the form of a so-called Monroe Doctrine or in any other way, forces will be set in action which make a huge armed conflict absolutely inevitable within one generation. There is no single problem in Europe which equals in its importance to the future peace of the world, the need of a just settlement of Chinese affairs.” 15

Wilson appeared to be listening. In 1918, he took the initiative in reviving a moribund multinational consortium for making loans to the Chinese government. Desultory talks dragged on throughout the Peace Conference, with Japan agreeing to enter the consortium while at the same time making sure that it did not lend money for any developments that might weaken its influence. That was just what the Americans hoped to do. “No mention was made,” said a senior American official, “of the ultimate objective, to drive Japan out of China.”16

But was that what the United States really wanted? If Japan could not expand westward into Asia, would it turn to the Pacific, toward the Philippines, perhaps even farther east? Wilson and his advisers were torn, as indeed their successors would be in the 1920s, between the pragmatic goal of cooperation with Japan and the idealistic one of helping China. Could China be helped at all? Was it worth risking a conflict with Japan?

Just before he left for Paris Wilson summoned Wellington Koo, the Chinese ambassador in Washington, for a friendly chat. Koo, who was only thirty-two in 1919, was already a forceful and distinguished personality. Clemenceau, not usually given to praise, described him as “a young Chinese cat, Parisian of speech and dress, absorbed in the pleasure of patting and pawing the mouse, even if it was reserved for the Japanese.” Koo knew the United States well. At Columbia University in New York, where he had earned both an undergraduate and a graduate degree, he had been an outstanding student. (In Paris he spent a happy afternoon singing old university songs with a former professor who was one of the American experts.) He had also been on the university debating team, as the Japanese delegates would learn to their cost. Koo came away from his meeting with Wilson convinced that the United States was going to support China at the Peace Conference. In a friendly way Wilson had suggested that Koo travel to France on the same boat as the Americans.17 The Chinese saw this as a good sign.

Another good sign was the composition of the American delegation itself. Lansing, in his early career in Washington, had acted as counsel for the Chinese government, and one of the delegation’s experts, E. T. Williams, the head of the Far Eastern affairs division in the State Department during the war, had lived in China as both missionary and diplomat. The mood of the delegation was generally anti-Japanese. Even those who were prepared to consider the Japanese case had a visceral distaste for the militaristic, nationalist side of Japan which, they felt, had dominated Japanese war aims. Despite Wilson’s often expressed wish that the United States should remain neutral in Asian matters, the American delegation showed a definite bias in Paris, helping the Chinese to draw up their demands and passing them information. The Chinese responded by asking the Americans for advice, and taking it. 18

Because of its own internal dissension, the Chinese government did not brief its delegation to Paris very fully, but one instruction came through clearly: China must get back the German concessions in Shantung. In December 1918, as the delegation prepared to set off, it gave a press conference (itself a sign of how times were changing in China) with a wildly optimistic shopping list for the Peace Conference. China was going to ask for a sweeping settlement of relations with the powers, including the abolition of extraterritoriality, greater control of its own tariffs and of its railways, and the return of the German area in Shantung. In return, China would allow foreign trade in Mongolia and Tibet.19

Unfortunately, the Chinese delegation mirrored all too well the country’s internal divisions. Its members suspected one another of selling out to the Japanese. Even on the way to Paris there had been some curious incidents. Lu had held a two-hour meeting with the Japanese foreign minister in Tokyo. Versions of what took place at the meeting differ: the Japanese apparently believed that they got a promise that China would be cooperative at the Peace Conference; the Chinese later claimed, rather unconvincingly, that Lu merely recognized the existence of the secret agreements of 1918 between China and Japan, without accepting their validity. During the same stopover in Tokyo, a box in the Chinese luggage containing important documents, including the full text of the secret agreements between China and Japan, was stolen. In Paris, C. T. Wang, a graduate of the Yale law school who represented the south China faction, sent a cable to Shanghai newspapers with dark accusations about “certain traitors” among his colleagues. He may have meant Koo, who was rumored to be engaged to a daughter of a notorious pro-Japanese official. (In fact Koo had fallen in love with a beautiful young Indonesian heiress who was in Paris.) Lu was dogged by reports that he had taken bribes from the Japanese. He became increasingly morose and withdrawn as the months went by.20

Shantung did not come up in Paris until the end of January. Wilson had still not decided what he should do. He explored possible alternatives. Perhaps, as he suggested to Koo, Britain might be persuaded to help China, in spite of the Anglo-Japanese alliance. Perhaps the Japanese would voluntarily give up their claims to Shantung. After all, various officials had suggested that Japan was willing to give the German concessions back to China. Perhaps Japan could save face by taking possession formally and then handing over sovereignty to China.21

The Japanese showed little disposition to compromise. On the morning of January 27, when the Supreme Council turned its attention to the fate of Germany’s colonies in the Pacific, Makino tried to lump the Shantung concessions in with the various islands that had been seized from Germany. He argued that Shantung was merely a matter involving Japan and Germany and that there was no need for China to be there when it came up. He was clearly hoping that Shantung would be disposed of briskly, along with the Pacific islands, as part of the spoils of war. The other powers decided that Shantung should be discussed separately and that China should be invited to the discussion later that afternoon.22

In the break between the morning and afternoon sessions the Chinese did what they could to pressure their friends. Lu, their nominal leader, was nowhere to be seen; it was the young Koo who called on Lansing to ask whether China could expect support from the United States. Lansing was reassuring but added that he was worried about the European powers.23

That afternoon the Chinese perched on uncomfortable gilt chairs at the Quai d’Orsay to listen to Makino give a halting and unimpressive summary of Japan’s case. (Koo claimed that Wilson told him afterward how disturbed he had been by the speech.) Koo replied for China the following morning. Although his voice shook at first, he tore into the Japanese in a dazzling speech replete with learned references to international law and Latin tags. It was true, he admitted, that China had signed agreements with Japan in 1915 and 1918 which seemed to promise that Japan would get the German rights in Shantung, but China had signed under duress and could not be held to the agreements. In any case, all questions dealing with German possessions had to be dealt with by the Peace Conference.24

China, Koo went on, was grateful to Japan for liberating Shantung from the Germans. “But grateful as they were, the Chinese delegation felt that they would be false to their duty to China and to the world if they did not object to paying their debts of gratitude by selling the birthright of their countrymen and thereby sowing the seeds of discord for the future.” National self-determination and territorial integrity, those Wilsonian principles, obliged the powers to give Shantung back to China. 25

Shantung was, said Koo, “the cradle of Chinese civilization, the birthplace of Confucius and Mencius, and a Holy Land for the Chinese.” Moreover, to allow Shantung to fall under foreign control would be to leave a “dagger pointed at the heart of China.” Ironically, that was very much how the Japanese military saw it: the war minister in Tokyo told his government that the railway running inland from the coast in Shantung was the “artery” pumping Japanese power into the Asian mainland. Borden called the Chinese presentation “very able,” and Lansing thought that Koo had simply overwhelmed the Japanese. Clemenceau’s warm congratulations, which were supposed to remain private, were common knowledge later the same evening.26 On eloquence alone, the Chinese were the clear winners.

Unfortunately, the issue of Shantung was not decided in January. It had to wait until the frantic race in April, when the final clauses of the treaty with Germany were put together. By that time the peacemakers were juggling hundreds of decisions, giving way on one, insisting on another, trying to satisfy impossible demands so that there would be a treaty for the Germans that all the Allies would sign. The Chinese and their hopes were a small and insignificant part of the calculations. Wilson himself was being forced into the sort of horse-trading he hated, gaining Japan’s assent to the League covenant, even without the racial equality clause, at the cost of his own principles. If the League was the best hope of the world, then perhaps the sacrifice of a small piece of China was worth it.

In the long hiatus, the Chinese and Japanese delegations were busy. Both sides showed that they had grasped an important element in the new international relations as they argued their case in public through speeches and interviews. While the Japanese delegation in Paris had a highly effective information section, most bystanders felt that China got the best of it, perhaps because their demands were more in tune with the mood of the times. During the first part of February, there was a very public dispute over the release of the secret agreements that China had signed with Japan. The Japanese delegation was taken aback when Clemenceau and the other leaders suggested that it might be a good idea to lay the documents before the Peace Conference. Koo, seeing a chance to embarrass Japan, agreed with alacrity and wired his government for copies. In Peking, the Japanese ambassador made a heavy-handed attempt to persuade the Chinese government not to release any documents without the consent of the Japanese government. News of this leaked into the press and not only further inflamed Chinese opinion but deepened American mistrust of Japan.27

The Chinese delegates wined and dined the experts and the foreign journalists. Lu arranged for the Chinese government to make donations to the French and Belgian governments to rebuild schools in Verdun and Ypres. But behind the scenes the Japanese did better. In private interviews that spring with Lloyd George and Balfour, with Clemenceau and his foreign minister, Pichon, they got the reassurance they wanted. Although they did not expect much from the American delegation, they had cordial interviews with House. As the Japanese explained it, the Chinese were attempting to renege on solemn promises. What helped Japan’s case most of all was their willingness not to push the racial equality clause.28

On April 21, just before the Italians walked out of the Peace Conference, Makino and Chinda called on Wilson and Lansing to tell them that Japan wanted the dispute with China settled before the treaty with Germany was finished. They warned that failure to do so would create great resentment among the Japanese public. Wilson conferred that afternoon with Clemenceau and Lloyd George; the three leaders, who had hoped to postpone a decision on Shantung, recognized that they must give way to the Japanese demand. As Hankey put it, “It would be bad enough before handing over the German Treaty to lose the Italian Delegation, but if the fifth of the inviting Powers [Japan] had also withdrawn its representatives, the three remaining Powers responsible for the Treaty would be in a very awkward fix.” Lansing complained that the mood in Paris was one of “selfish materialism tinctured with a cynical disregard of manifest rights” and asked, “Will American idealism have to succumb to this evil spirit of a past era?”29

On the morning of April 22, Makino addressed the Council of Four to restate Japan’s claims. He also thoughtfully produced drafts of clauses for inclusion in the German treaty. Wilson appealed to Japan to consider the long-term interests of Asia and indeed of the world. Nations were going to have to think less of themselves and more of one another. That, after all, was what the League of Nations was all about. If Japan insisted on its rights in China, it would leave China bitter and mistrustful. And that would hurt everyone. “There was a lot of combustible material in China and if flames were put to it, the fire could not be quenched.” The Japanese delegates listened politely but reminded the assembled statesmen that, if they did not get what they wanted, they could not sign the treaty.30

That afternoon was the turn of the Chinese. The Japanese delegates absented themselves, having decided, wisely, that they did not want to debate with the formidable Koo. The Chinese delegation listened to the peacemakers trying to justify what they were about to do. Lloyd George explained why the British had promised to support the Japanese claims. Remember, he urged, the desperate situation in which Britain had found itself in 1917. It had needed Japan’s help to survive the German submarine campaign. “We had to ask Japan urgently to send us destroyers, and Japan made as advantageous a bargain as she could.”31

Wilson offered reassurance. The League would ensure that the Chinese need not worry about future aggression from Japan or any other nation. And he, too, made a plea for understanding. The powers were in a very embarrassing position because of all the agreements that had been signed during the war. He was very sympathetic to the Chinese but they must recognize that treaties, including their own with Japan, were sacred. “Since this war began by the protest of the western nations against the violation of a treaty, we must, above all, respect treaties.” Lloyd George agreed: “We cannot consider treaties as scraps of paper which can be torn up when one no longer needs them.” With what one embittered Chinese observer described as “an air of innocence, ignorance and indifference,” Clemenceau noted that whatever Lloyd George said went for him as well.32

Koo used all his eloquence and cleverness to reverse the tide. Again he denied that China’s agreements with Japan had any validity. And in words that were prophetic, he warned his audience that China was at a parting of the ways. The majority of Chinese wished to cooperate with the West, but if the peacemakers failed to treat them justly they might turn away, perhaps toward Japan. “There is a party in China which favors Asia for the Asians.” (In the 1930s, when Japan started to take over large parts of China, it did indeed find willing collaborators.) He finished with a warning. “It is a question of whether we can guarantee a peace of half a century to the Far East, or if a situation will be created which can lead to war within ten years.” Koo achieved nothing except admiration for his effort and a decision to refer the Shantung question to a committee of experts. These were to report back by April 24 to the Council of Four on the relatively unimportant question of whether China would be better off if Japan got the German concessions as they had existed in 1914 or the concessions it had extracted in the wartime agreements. The committee produced a report in the record time of two days, opting for the former.33

The next few days were among the most tense at the Peace Conference. Italy had finally walked out. A worried Wilson reread his Fourteen Points for guidance. The principle of self-determination was clear: Italy should not have Fiume and Japan should not get Shantung. The crisis over Italy intensified the maneuverings over Shantung. The Chinese sent a memorandum and letters to Wilson; the Japanese delegates came to call. Makino and Chinda also visited Bonsal, House’s assistant, to complain about the unkind things the Chinese press was saying about Japan and to threaten again that Japan would not sign the treaty. Makino, Bonsal noted, was in a fury. Saionji wrote a polite note to his old acquaintance Clemenceau, saying that Japan wanted the Shantung question settled as soon as possible.34

On April 25 the Council of Four (now reduced to three by Italy’s defection) sent Balfour to talk to the Japanese about a possible compromise. Would they perhaps promise to hand back the German rights to China one day? On his own initiative, Wilson sent Lansing off on a similar mission. Neither Balfour nor Lansing got very far; the Japanese insisted on their rights. To Balfour, they suggested a bargain. If the powers accepted their claims on Shantung, Japan would promise not to make a fuss about the omission of racial equality when the League of Nations came up for final approval at the plenary session of the conference. To Lansing, they complained that the United States was always suspicious when Japan was merely acting in good faith.35

On Saturday, April 26, as Balfour was preparing his report on Japan’s position, he received another visit from Makino, and a tentative bargain over Shantung was made. If Japan could take over Germany’s economic rights in Shantung, the port at Tsingtao, railways (including those that had not yet been built) and the mines, it would be prepared to pull its occupation forces out. Japan, Balfour reported, would generously allow citizens of other nations to use the port and the railways. Moreover, it was prepared to hand back political control over the disputed area to the Chinese government soon. The Chinese understandably remained suspicious when they learned about this promise. By this stage, in any case, Shantung had become such a nationalist issue that it would have been difficult for them to accept any type of Japanese control. For their part, the Japanese felt that they could not make further concessions. Orders were coming from Tokyo to stand firm; Japan would lose prestige throughout the Far East if China were allowed to treat it with contempt. 36

As Balfour reported to the Council of Four on Monday morning, Makino “with great delicacy but perfect clearness” pointed out that Japan’s claims must be treated as a package. Japan had already lost on the racial equality clause; it would be “very serious” if it were to lose over Shantung as well. There was not much time; the plenary session of the Peace Conference was meeting that afternoon to give final approval to the League of Nations. It would be extremely embarrassing for the powers if Japan were to protest strongly at the omission of racial equality from its covenant. It would be worse if Japan were to vote against the League. With Wilson’s reluctant acquiescence, the Council decided that Balfour should write to the Japanese accepting the bargain over Shantung.37

Baker, Wilson’s press secretary, warned the president that world opinion supported China over the Shantung issue. “I know that too,” Wilson replied, “but if Italy remains away & Japan goes home, what becomes of the League of Nations?” When Makino made a bland speech at the plenary session on April 28 in which he barely touched on the racial equality clause, Lansing, who had not been told of the final deal, knew immediately what had happened. He whispered to House that it was a betrayal of principle. House replied, “We have had to do it before.” Lansing said angrily, “Yes, it has been done and it is the curse of this Conference.” In the statement that he later drew up for the press, Wilson described the settlement as being “as satisfactory as could be got out of the tangle of treaties in which China herself was involved.”38

The Chinese were shattered. Lu sent Wilson a dignified note. China had put its faith in the Fourteen Points and on the promise of a new way of conducting international relations. “She has relied, above all, on the justice and equity of her case. The result has been, to her, a grievous disappointment.” Wilson’s own advisers were almost unanimous in urging him to reject Japan’s claims, whatever the consequences. Bliss considered resigning in order to avoid signing the treaty; with the support of his fellow delegates Lansing and White, he sent a stern letter to Wilson saying, “If it be right for a policeman, who recovers your purse, to keep the contents and claim that he has fulfilled his duty in returning the empty purse, then Japan’s conduct may be tolerated.” And he put his finger on the moral issue. If Japan got Shantung, why shouldn’t Italy get Fiume? “Peace,” he concluded, “is desirable, but there are things dearer than peace, justice and freedom.”39

Wilson did what he could to limit the damage, and the effort nearly finished him. “Last night I could not sleep,” he told his doctor, “my mind was so full of the Japanese-Chinese controversy.” Grayson reported that he had never seen him so tired. Wilson insisted on detailed descriptions of what Japan was getting in China, right down to the composition of the railway police in Shantung. (They were to be Chinese with, where necessary, Japanese instructors.) When the Shantung clauses of the treaty came up for their final consideration at the meeting of the Council of Four on April 30, he also got a verbal assurance from the Japanese delegates that Japan would eventually give back sovereignty in Shantung to China. The Japanese steadfastly refused to put this in writing on the grounds that any appearance of giving way would inflame public opinion at home.40

By this point, the news that things were going badly for China had leaked out. Paris was full of rumors, which the press picked up. On the evening of April 29, Chinese students in Paris held a very stormy meeting in a hall in the Rue Danton. Speaker after speaker denounced the West. Wang Chingwei, who later won fame as the head of a Japanese puppet government in China, warned in fluent English of the reaction among the Chinese. A young woman art student called for an end to talk of peace: “We must go in for force.” Eugene Chen, a journalist who was later to be China’s foreign minister, introduced a resolution condemning the Big Four and singling out Wilson for particular mention. It was passed unanimously. That night Wilson’s security was stepped up.41

The Chinese delegation got the full details of the settlement on April 30. One member threw himself to the floor in despair. When Baker arrived at the Hôtel Lutétia late that evening to convey Wilson’s excuses and his sympathy, he found a very depressed group who blamed the president for letting them down. Some of them wanted to leave Paris at once rather than sign the treaty. (Koo later told Bonsal that he would sign only if his government gave him a direct order: “I hope they will not make me sign. It would be my death sentence.”)42

The negotiations in Paris had been followed with intense interest on the other side of the world. The Chinese delegation had been bombarded with telegrams, from Chinese student organizations, chambers of commerce, even unions, all expressing their faith in Wilson’s Fourteen Points and their confidence that the Peace Conference would respect China’s claims.43 By the first weekend in May, newspapers in China’s major cities were reporting that the Shantung rights were going to be handed over to Japan. Chinese nationalists were bitterly critical of their own government but they were even angrier, if possible, with the Western powers.

On the night of May 3, a Saturday, students at Peking University, always a center of nationalist agitation, called together representatives from all the city’s universities and colleges to plan a demonstration for the following morning in the great square of Tienanmen. The meeting was packed and highly emotional. The students agreed to send telegrams to the Chinese delegation in Paris asking them not to sign the treaty. One young man cut his finger and wrote on the wall in blood demanding the return of Tsingtao.44

The fury of the Chinese nationalists, significantly, went beyond merely condemning the Shantung decision. As one student recalled:

When the news of the Paris Peace Conference finally reached us we were greatly shocked. We at once awoke to the fact that foreign nations were still selfish and militaristic and that they were all great liars. I remember the night of May 2nd and very few of us slept. A group of my friends and I talked almost the whole night. We came to the conclusion that a greater world war would be coming sooner or later, and that this great war would be fought in the East. We had nothing to do with our Government, that we knew very well, and at the same time we could no longer depend upon the principles of any so-called great leader like Woodrow Wilson, for example. Looking at our people and at the pitiful ignorant masses, we couldn’t help but feel that we must struggle.45

The morning of May 4 was cool and windy. By lunchtime more than 3,000 demonstrators had converged on Tienanmen Square. Most wore the traditional silk gowns of scholars, but in a gesture to the Western world some also had bowler hats. Marchers carried placards saying “Give Us Back Tsingtao” or “Oppose Power Politics” or “China Belongs to the Chinese.” The leaders carried a manifesto which said dramatically, “This is the last chance for China in her life and death struggle.” By two P.M. the crowd was growing bigger and was moving toward the foreign legation quarter. When it reached the house of a minister widely suspected to be a stooge of the Japanese, the mood turned nasty. Demonstrators rushed into the house, smashed furniture and, when they could not find the minister himself, beat up the Chinese ambassador to Japan, whom they found hiding. The government tried to suppress the agitation by arresting the more prominent student leaders, which only inflamed opinion further. The dean of humanities from Peking University was seen handing out leaflets on a street corner. Demonstrations spread to other big cities in China, and nonstudents, from dockworkers to businessmen, began to join in. The government was obliged to back down; in a humiliating reverse, it released the students with apologies.46

The disturbances finished off that other peace conference—the one in Shanghai that was trying to reconcile north and south China. The southern faction tried to ride the wave of popular sentiment by demanding that the Peking government reject all the wartime agreements with Japan and refuse to accept the decision on Shantung. This was unacceptable to the northern faction, who were by now dominated by pro-Japanese military, and the Shanghai conference was suspended indefinitely.47 With the collapse of even that faint hope, China was condemned to another nine years of disunity and civil war.

The fourth of May was a landmark in the development of Chinese nationalism. It came to stand for the whole period of intellectual ferment; but what was more important, it marked the rejection by many Chinese intellectuals of the West. They had turned to Western democracy and liberalism before 1919, often because they could find no other model. Some had always felt uneasy with the Western stress on individualism and competition. The failure of the Chinese Republic and the spectacle of European nations tearing themselves apart in the war had deepened the unease. One distinguished scholar who was in Paris as an observer during the Peace Conference wrote home that Europeans “are like travelers in the desert and have lost their direction. . . . They are in utter despair. . . . They once had a great dream about the omnipotence of science. Now their talk is filled with its bankruptcy.”48

Coincidence counts for more in history than some may care to think, and in 1919 an alternative presented itself to the Chinese. Not the alternative of returning to China’s traditional ways, but the new order in Russia. The Russian Revolution offered an example of a traditional society, not unlike China’s, which had apparently skipped ahead to the future in one bold and glorious move. The disillusionment with the West, their own dismal experience with Western-style democracy after 1911, and the clear alternative presented by Russia all came together to make communism seem the solution to China’s problems. If further confirmation was needed, it came with an unprecedented gesture made by the new Bolshevik commissar for foreign affairs, who offered in the summer of 1919 to give up all the conquests and concessions squeezed out of China in the days of the tsars. (The Bolshevik government never actually delivered on the promise, but the Chinese at the time were deeply impressed by a generosity that no other power was showing.)

A year after the Paris Peace Conference, a group of Chinese radicals met to form the Chinese Communist Party. Many of the leading demonstrators from May 1919 were to become members. The dean of humanities who had handed out leaflets was the party’s first chairman. Under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai, who had also been active in the May 4 agitation, the party went on to win power in China in 1949.49

In Paris, Koo made a valiant but doomed effort to modify the agreement in China’s favor. At least he did not have to risk his life, for China did not sign the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. The government in Peking could not make up its mind and so sent no orders. In any case, Chinese students in Paris surrounded the Hôtel Lutétia to prevent any of the delegates from leaving.50 China eventually made its peace with Germany in September 1919.

Japan got Shantung through a determined use of pressure. Was it bluffing, or would it have refused to sign the treaty, as the other powers believed? The evidence is mixed. At the height of the negotiations over Shantung in April 1919, the government in Tokyo ordered its delegation not to agree to the League covenant if Japan’s claims were denied. Whether the government realized that the covenant was part of the treaty with Germany is not clear. During the same period, however, internal government documents show that Japan was afraid of becoming isolated. It might have backed down in the face of a determined refusal to give it the Shantung rights. Before the Shantung clauses were finally agreed on by the Council of Four on April 30, the Japanese prime minister, Kei Hara, told his delegates in Paris to wait for further instructions in case of such a refusal.51

The Japanese greeted their victory in Paris with mixed feelings. When the delegation returned home, its members were greeted by a crowd protesting their failure to get the racial equality clause. Saionji apologized in his formal report to the emperor: “I am sad that we could not accomplish our wishes in total.” He pointed out, however, that Japan’s standing in the world was higher than it had been in 1914.52 On the other hand, the delegates came away from Paris convinced that the United States was out to stop them in China. Perhaps they were right. In 1921 the election of Warren Harding as president brought a more anti-Japanese American administration. The already difficult relationship with the United States continued to be troubled in the 1920s by disagreements in China—over the loan consortium, for example, of which they were both members— and by continued discrimination against Japanese nationals in the United States.

The victory over Shantung proved costly in other ways. In China, nationalist agitation, far from dying down, grew in ferocity, proving a serious handicap to Japanese business. Moreover, Japan’s relations with other powers were damaged. The British began to think seriously about the future of the Anglo-Japanese naval alliance. The notion that Japan was a “Yellow Prussia” took firm root in the West. In the summer of 1919, Curzon lectured Chinda, now the Japanese ambassador in London, about Japan’s behavior in China. Japan had been unwise to insist on its rights in China; it had created hostility in China and apprehension in Britain. Curzon urged the Japanese ambassador to think of the future of the alliance between Britain and Japan, and of the more general question of security in the Far East.53

The Japanese government, which had not counted on the depth of opposition, began to think that it should keep the promise it had made in Paris to hand back its concessions in Shantung. At the beginning of 1920, it tried to open negotiations with the Chinese government to withdraw Japanese troops from the province. The Chinese declined to discuss the matter. In the autumn of 1921, Japan made a renewed effort; it suggested conditions under which it could give up its rights in Shantung. The Chinese government refused to give a clear answer.

Finally, at the Washington naval disarmament conference, with the British and the Americans acting as mediators, Japan got China to agree to a settlement under which China resumed full sovereignty in Shantung on February 4, 1922. The railway from the port of Tsingtao to the interior, which had caused such trouble, was sold back to China under a complicated scheme that effectively left Japan in control for the next decade. China was probably the loser in financial terms: the railway, as the Japanese had discovered, was unprofitable.54 In Washington in 1922, Japan also signed a treaty with the other powers guaranteeing China’s sovereignty and territorial independence. That guarantee ran out in 1937, when Japan invaded the mainland of China, and Shantung, along with all the coastal provinces right down to the south, passed under Japanese control.

The individuals who had played their roles at Paris went on to very different careers. After the debacle of June 1919, Lu Zhengxiang lost interest in diplomacy. He spent a few undemanding years as Chinese minister in Switzerland; then, when his beloved wife died in 1926, he entered a Benedictine monastery in Belgium, where he eventually rose to be abbot. He died in 1949 and is buried in Bruges. Koo continued to shine, serving China several times as its foreign minister, as its premier, and as ambassador in London, Washington and Paris. He represented China at the League of Nations and he was present at the founding of the United Nations. From 1966 to 1976, he sat as a judge on the International Court of Justice at The Hague. In 1977, Columbia University had a round of celebrations for his ninetieth birthday. In her memoirs, Madame Koo, the beautiful young heiress from Indonesia who had captivated him in 1919 in Paris, wrote rather sadly: “He was dedicated to his country. That he never saw me as an individual is not surprising. He was an honourable man, the kind China needed, but not a husband for me.”55 Wellington Koo died in 1985, at the age of ninety-eight.

Several junior members of the American delegation resigned over the American position on Shantung. Lansing hung on as secretary of state in spite of his distaste. He had always felt that the United States should avoid a confrontation over China. As he had warned on an earlier occasion, “It would be quixotic in the extreme to allow the question of China’s territorial integrity to involve the United States in international difficulties.” When Wilson fought unsuccessfully to persuade the American people to support the peace settlements, one of the issues that came up repeatedly at public meetings and in the Senate was the betrayal of China over Shantung. In the opinion of David Hunter Miller, the American legal expert at the Peace Conference, “most of the tears shed for the ‘Rape of Shantung’ were wept by Republican crocodiles, who cared no more for China than for Hecuba.” In his last week in office, Wilson sent a note to buy tickets for a ball for the Chinese Famine Relief Fund. “I am very glad to be of any assistance,” he wrote, “however slight.”56

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