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May 05, 2018

The Historic Background of China's Perception of the West - by Carl Zha

Carl Zha publishes the Clash of civilizations and empires podcast.

This illustrated history was originally tweeted yesterday, May 4th 2018. It is slightly edited and republished here with the author's permission.


How the West’s betrayal of China in Versailles after World War I led to the long Chinese Revolution that shaped today's Chinese perception of the West

(Click on the pictures to enlarge)

99 years ago, on May 4th 1919, the original Tiananmen student protest broke out. The students protested the Allied Powers' betrayal at Versailles: The German Shangdong colony was given to Japan instead of returning it to China. This despite China's sending of 140,000 men to work on the Western front.


The story begins with the first Sino-Japanese War 1894-95. Japan, after going through a full westernization program, decisively defeated China which had a half-hearted 'Self-Strengthening' modernization program that tried to preserve Confucian traditions while adopting Western technology.

Japan defeating China triggered a new round of Imperial Powers scramble to carve up China. Germany was particularly eager to not be left out.

Germany took the port city of Qingdao (Tsingtao) on the Shangdong Peninsula where they brought over beer tech giving birth to Tsingtao Beer.

Qingdao(Tsingtao) became the major German base for its newly acquired Pacific colonies until the eve of World War I.

In 1890 Germany played a leading role in attacking the Chinese capital Beijing to suppress the Boxer Rebellion together with the 8 Nation Alliance of Britain, France, United States, Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan and Austria-Hungary.

Britain viewed German presence as threat to its colonies in China. After World War I broke out, Britain allied with Japan to besiege Qingdao. 23,000 Japanese and 1,500 British troops attacked 3,650 Germans and 324 Austro-Hungarians. Woodblock print and the Japanese flagship Suwo.

Britain promised the German Pacific colonies to Japan including Qingdao. Students explore a scale model of the Qingdao area depicting the city during the siege of the city by British and Japanese forces in October and November 1914.

As World War I wore on longer than anybody expected, the Allied Powers faced acute labor shortages. Britain came up with a scheme to recruit Chinese labors. But China was neutral so she had to be persuaded to join the war

China wanted to have the German Shangdong colony returned. Entered U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson asked China to join the war and promised support for China to gain Shangdong back after Germany’s defeat.

While the young republican China sees Britain and France as ruthless Imperial Powers, it has an enormous regard for the U.S. which it hopes to model itself after. Top Chinese diplomat was the American educated Wellington Koo. Madam Koo, an international style icon, popularized Cheongsam/Qipao dresses.

China did as Wilson asked, entered the war against Germany and send 340,000 men to help with the Allied war effort. 140,000 went to the Western Front, 200,000 went to Russia. Chinese comprised the largest non-European labor force on the Allied side during World War I.

On the Western front, the 140,000 Chinese labor were know as the Chinese Labour Corp. They dug trenches, worked in timber yards, build steamers, repair railroads. 6,000 were even sent to Iraq to work in Basra.

Chinese Labour Corp men load 9.2-inch shells onto a railway wagon at Boulogne for transport to the front line, August 1917.

Chinese Labour Corps men and a British soldier cannibalize a wrecked Mark IV tank for spare parts at the central stores of the Tank Corps, Teneur, spring 1918.

Chinese Labour Corps workers washing a Mark V tank at the Tank Corps Central Workshops, Erin, France, February 1918.

In other cases, Chinese workers staffed munitions factory during World War I.

Chinese Labour Corp men practice martial arts with swords in Crecy Forest, 27 January 1918.

200,000 Chinese men toiled in Russia. 10,000 Chinese build the Murmansk railway in the Arctic Circle. After the October revolution, 40,000+ Chinese would join the Red Army in the Russian Civil War.

The bulk of the 340,000 Chinese men sent to work in the World War I frontlines were recruited from Shangdong province, where Germany's colony of Qingdao was located. The map shows British and French transport routes for Chinese workers to Europe. Little is known about routes to the Middle East and Russia.

Unbeknownst to China, while China joined the war on the allied side at the U.S. urging, hoping to gain back Shangdong province, the U.S. and Japan signed the secret Lansing-Ishii Agreement in 1917 where they recognized each other’s special 'interests' in China. Japan’s interest is the German colony Qingdao.

Fully believing Woodrow Wilson’s promise of self-determination, the top Chinese diplomat Wellington Koo, who won the Columbia-Cornell Debating Medal in his American school days, argued passionately for the return of the Shangdong Peninsula at the Paris Peace Conference.

Opposite of Wellington Koo is the Japanese diplomat Baron Makino, a skilled go player. Makino played his hand tactically. He knew Wilson’s baby is the League of Nations. He proposed a racial equality clause knowing full well that the U.S., with its Jim Crow Laws, would oppose it.

Japan then threaten to veto the League of Nations, which would not work without Japan, unless ...  the U.S. agreed to give Germany’s former Shangdong colony to Japan. Wilson dutifully complied and decide to honor the Lansing-Ishii agreement, selling the Chinese down the river.

Wellington Koo is not the only Chinese diplomat in Paris. There is Trinidad born Eugene Chen who does not speak Chinese but represent another Chinese government because China was divided between a Beijing government in the north and a Canton(Guangzhou) government in the south.

Eugene Chen was a Hakka Chinese born in Trinidad to a former Taiping rebel who fled to the Caribbean. Eugene became a lawyer and married the French creole girl Agatha Alphosin Ganteaume. But he 'returned' to China after the 1911 Revolution overthrew the Qing Imperial government.

Growing disappointed with the Beijing government, Eugene Chen went to join Sun Yatsen’s Canton (Guangzhou) government in the south. Here is Sun Yatsen with a very young Chiang Kai-shek.

The October Revolution broke out towards the end of World War I. Suddenly an alternative political model appeared to the Chinese.

40,000 Chinese labor trapped in Russia joined the Red Army in the Russian Civil War. A White Army propaganda poster depicts Trotsky as Satan wearing a Pentagram, and portrays the Bolsheviks' Chinese supporters as mass murderers. The caption reads "Peace and Liberty in Sovdepiya".

The Soviets saw a chance to draw China away from the West and into their camp. They leaked details of the secret U.S.-Japan Lansing-Ishii agreement to Eugene Chen in Paris, who then leaked it to the Chinese press. Furious Chinese students took to street to protest at this betrayal especially by the U.S.

Previously young Chinese had looked up to the U.S. as a beacon of democracy. The Versailles Treaty made them realize that the U.S. only pays lip service to freedom and democracy while ruthlessly pursuing its self-interests.The May 4th movement is born to protest the weakness of the Chinese government and calls for reform.

Young people wanted to make China strong so it would not be bullied. They demand fundamental cultural and political changes to make it happen. There is a sense that Confucian traditions had failed China. China must welcome democracy and science and embrace modernity to move forward.

The seminal May 4th movement witnesses an upsurge of Chinese nationalism. New Chinese nationalists call for a rejection of traditional values and the selective adoption of the Western ideals of "Mr. Science" (賽先生) and "Mr. Democracy" (德先生) in order to strengthen the new nation.

Disillusioned with the West and seeking for an alternative political model leads some to look to the newly found Soviet Union. Two leading intellectuals of the May 4th movement, Li Dazhao (left) and Chen Duxiu(right), co-founded the Chinese Communist Party.

While heading the Peking University library, Chinese Communist Party co-founder Li Dazhao would influence a young student working there. His name was Mao Zedong.

The other leading intellectual of the May 4th Movement is Hu Shih, a classical liberal, who parted ways with the Communists. But the bourgeois soil upon which liberalism thrives is scarce in China, limiting their impact to the small number of educated urban elites.

The anti-traditionalism of the May 4th movement eventually reached its logical conclusion during the campaign to eradicate Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas in the Cultural Revolution starting in 1966 which aimed to destroy all aspects of traditional Chinese culture.

The 1989 Tiananmen Square students protest was the last echo of the May 4th movement, and of the century long Chinese revolution. Students demanded political change to make the nation strong and prosper. Afterwards pragmatism would replace idealism.

China has come full circle. New found confidence enables the people to embrace tradition again. In 2011, a Confucius statue even appeared in Tiananmen Square. But the controversy remained. It was removed after 100 days without explanation.

After the Cultural Revolution, China experience a brief honeymoon with the West in the 1980s. Chinese youth hungered to learn about the outside world. There was a lot of goodwill towards the U.S. This period lasted beyond the Tiananmen protest of 1989.

A big turning point in Chinese public opinion was the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade where three Chinese journalists were killed. No one in China believed the U.S. claim of an accidental bombing due to faulty maps.

Adding fuel to the fire was the collision of a U.S. spy plane near Hainan Island with a Chinese PLA J-8 fighter plane which caused the J8 to crash and an emergency landing of U.S. spy plane on Hainan Island. Previous pro-American sentiment of Chinese youth decidedly turned.

After the Arab Spring, many Chinese viewed the U.S. just as their elders in the May 4th movement did: paying lip service to freedom and democracy while ruthlessly pursuing naked self-interests. Many sympathized when the Geneva conference on Syria had no Syrians (except the waiter) because that was China’s lot 99 years ago.

May 4th is now the official Youth Day in China. A relief on the Monument to the People's Heroes in Tiananmen Square depicting the May 4th movement.

Thank you for reading this long thread.

May the 4th be with you!

Posted by b on May 5, 2018 at 17:39 UTC | Permalink

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Peter Au 98

This isnt hypocrisy, its downright crazy !

Clive Hamilton....

[I felt nervous about my own future, given the reach and ruthlessness of China’s security apparatus.’]

Dont give CIA/MI6 any idea,
They might bump him off and blame it on the CCP,

[It is common knowledge that the Chinese Communist Party is a secretive institution, which presides over a dictatorial regime at home, and adopts thuggish tactics to defend its interests abroad

five lies accusing China of 'thuggish tactics', priceless !

[Bob Hawke’s intake of Chinese refugees in 1989, in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre, was a mistake: these were mostly ‘economic migrants’]

Remember what Goebel said about the perfidious albions , ?
when they lie, they lie big time

[we must restructure our economy to avoid dependence on the PRC, riding out any economic hit that this entails, and prepare for eventualities in the case of war.]

be careful what you wish for honey !

[This will involve silencing dissent from a ‘fifth column’ of pro-China business élites and muddle-headed peaceniks, and quelling any civil strife that the CCP tries to instigate among Chinese locals.]

Are they trying to instigate another genocide on the Chinese ?

Thats how they did it in Indonesia 1965, framing the Chinese as 'fifth columns' of Beijing.
The ensuing bloodbath killed 3 million Indon peasants and ethnic Chinese.
Im sure they considered the price worth it,
replacing pro Beijing Sukarno with a Washington lackey Suharto .


Posted by: denk | May 8 2018 17:48 utc | 101

Completely aside from the rest of this comment:
1. I don't actually mind the article, I knew most of it and it's good to know about.
2. Anyone thinking of invading Russia starting from Murmansk (now or then) is a fool on a scale so large that it almost becomes admirable and in any case it constitutes a feat to concoct such an insane idea :D One might as well explore the antarctic by setting up camp in Sahara and promptly dying from overheating :)
2.b. The Soviets liberated part of Northern Norway from the Wehrmacht starting from Murmansk, it is an entirely self-limiting endeavor even in that direction. Everything changes if one includes going through Finland and Sweden. nukes and whatever, but in that case there's no longer any point in involving Murmansk or the current naval base stuff (and of course it's still stupid although merely on a common level) :D
3. I'm likely being too critical of the article.

I might not be getting the point of this one b. To me it invites ideological or party political trench-digging, smells a bit too 1968; a special kind of self-indulgence. I am probably betraying past experience of what usually follows whenever facts such as these are being mentioned and I don't consider mental self-flagellation on the part of long dead people to be of particular interest. I doubt any Chinese gives the historical facts of western idiocy as much importance as any "westerners" might.

Does anyone here blame current Mongolia and Mongols personally and/or collectively for the Black Plague or Genghis Khan? Didn't think you did and point made :)

I'm not saying it applies in this case but often things derail into a case where it doesn't matter if something is factually correct because it is transformed and abused into pointedly self-serving storytelling and myth-making devoid of perspective and focused on delivering someone's selling point whatever that might be. We/everyone needs less of that kind of thing, it invites abuse and manipulation.

Maybe that's too harsh of me to bring that up, there's no denying the facts and some of the facts aren't pleasant be it regarding China, India, or a host of other places.

At the same time the main thing that always surprises me is that any disregard for far east Asians or Chinese is so completely alien to me: I've almost never seen it myself except in the most friendly manner imaginable indicating the complete opposite: cultural and personal infatuation. Anecdotal for sure. If anything has the cultural tradition in Europe of being held up as wonderful and amazing in its (to us) exotic nature above any other examples then it is China, the only remotely comparative example is the ancient and relatively recent (maybe as far as the middle of the 20ieth century) Middle East.

This isn't a new thing. Maybe the US is or was different. And of course there isn't much of a contradiction: given enough people there's plenty of room for both of the conflicting views to be widespread.

Either way...

The Chinese are not stuck in the past as proven by their amazing achievements these last decades, nor does the Chinese seem particularly against anyone beyond on-topic disagreements and so on except of course that their government is well aware that there's no shortages of assholes anywhere. Including in China.

If anything I as a "westerner" (often a misnomer) would like to say that the Chinese in general are perhaps too friendly and should be a bit more guarded. The money-worshiping cut-throat "business" (fraud) attitude that most outsiders would perhaps only associate with the worst of Hong Kong is really good at attracting and uniting with all sorts of assholes from the west and elsewhere. The mainland Chinese aren't any worse at this type of nastiness and by the way I'm not talking about organized crime as such but predatory "capitalism". Simple stuff like how putting a European face or endorsement on something (or pretending to) doesn't mean it's automatically better or trustworthy. Maybe I'm over-reacting and it's all much more rare but (and this is an insignificant and perhaps/hopefully too old example) stuff like plastic surgery to look more European always made me sad.

Sure once in a while the blame game is played in China as well but for the most part the Chinese government seem to realize that it isn't particularly rewarding whether right or wrong. At any rate more so than in "the west". Blame games are for political manipulation and local consumption when nothing else is handy but in the long term blame games always weakens oneself and should be avoided if practical. I'm saying blame games have a significant opportunity cost; just look at what it has done to the US in particular and the "western world" in general, a complete waste of effort compared to any kind of decent work towards practical improvement and general betterment. I see the irony of blaming blame games :)

Concerning blame there's so much blame to go around everyone gets quite a large share no matter if they're maoist, nationalist, Taiwanese, warlords, party functionaries, collaborators with the Japanese, collaborators with anyone else, and so on. Or for that matter westerners.

I can't think of any societal or political disaster in China which didn't have plenty of Chinese assistance, up to and including the horrors of the Japanese special units.

Nor is there anything particularly Chinese about that; humans all over the world have always had too many readily prepared to sell out on their fellows, peers, or neighbors for some kind of advantage or survival, imagined or not.

Most Chinese know they don't shit gold and most know that no one else does either, there are enough awful tragedies in Chinese history long before any Europeans managed to sail far enough and enough Chinese historical awareness of it to bring a sensible sense of perspective and pragmatic attitudes. There is also no shortage of human tragedies in human history in general that are completely and utterly unconnected to most of the world to drive the point home.

None of this excuses anything and is not meant as an excuse for anyone. Perspective matters even though it doesn't absolve.

I apologize for nitpicking, it is probably misplaced.

Posted by: Sunny Runny Burger | May 8 2018 21:17 utc | 102

@102: Yes! Great comment. China is an old confident practical nation. 100 years of humiliation didn't destroy the previous 4000 years of self-esteem. There's not that dangerous Japanese/Israeli/U.S. insecurity.

Posted by: fairleft | May 8 2018 23:54 utc | 103

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