Opinion: The View by Winston Mok
The failure of the Paris Peace Conference not only led to another world war, it also taught China to be wary of the US-led global order. It triggered the May Fourth Movement and a brand of nationalism that is still potent today
A century ago, Paris was the centre of the world’s attention, including China’s. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, unfair treatment of China triggered the May Fourth Movement – with profound repercussions for China’s intellectual, social and political development. Amid protests and boycotts, Chinese society was radicalised away from intellectual elitism. Western liberal democracy was discredited while Bolshevism’s appeal grew. The Communist Party of China was founded two years later.
The movement’s legacy has resonated through recent Chinese history.China’s recent naval parade in Qingdao, with Japan’s participation, was rich in symbolism. At the end of the first world war, former German concessions in Shandong, including Qingdao, had not been restored to China. Instead, Western powers acceded to the demands of Japan, which had seized the territories during the war – despite the contribution made by the Chinese Labour Corps in the war on the side of the Allies.
The situation was exceedingly complex. China’s entry into the war had perhaps been too little, too late. Japan had made secret treaties with some Western powers, as well as Chinese warlords. China was a country divided into north and south. Beijing’s communication with its delegation to Paris was confused. Under the circumstances, the Chinese delegation made heroic, though futile, attempts to argue China’s case, in impeccable French and English.
In Paris in 1919, the very young Republic of China was trying to find its footing. But even though it was on the winning side, it was treated like a third-class citizen at the conference. Fast-forward a century, and world leaders gathered in Beijing last month for the Belt and Road Forum. But there was no high-level representation from Japan, the villain of 1919, or the United States, the white knight who had failed to deliver at the Paris Peace Conference.
The May Fourth Movement presented China with Western models that were polar opposites – the US and the Soviet Union – but meant wholesale westernisation in either case. However, Liang Qichao, a leading public intellectual and reformist of China who had advocated the country’s entry into the first world war, toured Europe at the time of the Paris talks as a private citizen and returned with prescient insights into China’s development path.
Liang was sceptical of both capitalism and socialism. He believed China should forge its own path fusing East and West, with improved education as a key foundation. What he did not anticipate was that China would eventually embark on its successful economic transformation, without any grand ideology.
The tragic consequences of the Treaty of Versailles in Europe are well known. The harsh conditions imposed on Germany fuelled the second world war. While the treaty was too harsh on Germany, it was too indulgent to Japan, whose unchecked imperial ambitions led to the second Sino-Japanese war and huge casualties in Asia. In China, the anti-Confucian radicalism unleashed by the May Fourth Movement would cause grave suffering even after 1949.
A century on, the mistakes of Versailles have been largely undone in Europe, albeit at huge cost. After the second world war, the US redeemed itself for president Woodrow Wilson’s failures in 1919 with the Marshall Plan in Europe. Germany and France are now the best of friends. Germany is viewed as a more credible world leader than the US.Yet, Versailles has left an indelible mark on China, the only country at the Paris Peace Conference that refused to sign the treaty. The injustice and humiliation were seared into the national psyche. China learnt to distrust international communities that would sooner serve the interests of old boys’ clubs than newcomers’.
In China, the conclusion of the first world war had initially been celebrated as the triumph of right over might. Following US president Wilson’s Fourteen Points address, in which he proposed self-determination as a post-war objective, Chinese intellectuals had romanticised the arrival of a new epoch when ruthless competition would be replaced by mutual aid among nations. Instead, the Chinese were disappointed when might prevailed over right at the Paris Peace Conference and China’s hopes of gaining self-determination – and regaining Shandong – were dashed.
In the past century, China has been profoundly shaped by the US’ idealism and failings. The US might not like an increasingly assertive China, which it sees as a challenger of the US-led world order. But in the eyes of China, the path to that rules-based system has been strewn with injustice and hypocrisy.China must lay to rest its victim mindset over ‘century of humiliation’
Some of the Western powers which now resist China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” were the same countries which signed off on Japan’s control of infrastructure in Shandong back then. It is perhaps unfair to lay the primary blame for Versailles on Wilson. Nevertheless, had he stuck to his Fourteen Points, China’s history in the past century would have been rewritten.
The May Fourth Movement emerged as an eclectic movement combining nationalism and cosmopolitanism. But as the cosmopolitan element withered, the movement flared into anti-imperialist nationalism. In the post-Mao era, nationalism has become an expedient unifying force in China.
China’s agenda of national rejuvenation is partly about never allowing the events of 1919 to repeat themselves. The ghosts from Versailles continue to haunt today’s China, and therefore the world.
Winston Mok, a private investor, was previously a private equity investor