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...
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.More at the China Economic Review.
Paul French is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers´request form.
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