Chinese history

Versailles Treaty and the May 4th Movement

Chinese history

In an article from the China Now magazine (1989), Peter Richards reveals the origins and repercussions of an unfair deal for China in the aftermath of the first World War. This became the springboard for political unrest centred on the Shandong Settlement.

Foreign Powers in Shandong Province
Map of Shandong province showing the areas annexed by Germany and Britain prior to the Versailles Treaty

To many British people 'Shandong' (Shantung) is synonymous with a silken fabric associated with that province. But to many Chinese no doubt the word arouses feelings similar to those which 'Munich' provokes in this country.

Obviously there are marked differences between the Shandong settlement of 1919 and the Munich agreement with Hitler of 1938, but there are a sufficient number of common factors to justify comparison. Both settlements were concluded against the wishes of the countries most affected, China and Czechoslovakia respectively. Neither settlement proved permanent, nor were they things about which the majority of British people could feel proud.

The Munich agreement is within the living memory of many people and it still features in political debate. However, the Shandong settlement is twenty years older. As the issues are less well known it might be helpful to recall the main points.

Imperial rivalries

During the 19th century, Britain had acquired extensive trading areas and extraterritorial rights in China. But towards the end of the century other powers, especially Russia and Japan, became more ambitious.

In 1898 Germany acquired various concessions in Shandong province which included the port of Qingdao (Tsingtao) and railway rights into the province. Britain welcomed Germany's move as a counter measure against Russia, and at the same time extended its Chinese possessions by annexing the nearby port of Weihaiwei.

Not surprisingly the war of 1914 upset diplomatic manoeuvrings in the Far East. Russia was now an ally, and the German occupation of Shandong was a potential menace. Yet it was with misgivings that Britain witnessed Japan's almost immediate declaration of war upon Germany and its attack on Shandong, which fell to Japanese forces in November 1914.

Britain's misgivings regarding Japan's intentions in China were quickly justified, for in 1915 Japan imposed its notorious 21 Demands upon a weak Chinese government. These insisted on the transfer of former German rights in Shandong to Japan.

Peace conference

At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 the allied powers had a tangled skein to unravel concerning the Far East. The issues included:

With such conflict of interests prevailing it was clear that the weakest would go to the wall.

Naturally the British government discussed its objectives before the conference began. There was an idea to encourage Japan to be conciliatory over Shandong by itself making marginal concessions, for example, by handing back Weihaiwei which Britain had never developed. This was firmly rejected, and a British policy of 'what we have we hold' was adopted.

Considerable space would be required to give an account of China's case at the Peace Conference, but it is fair to say that the treatment of the Chinese delegates was shabby. More importantly, the settlement which was reached proved to be only a temporary solution but one with long-lasting harmful effects.

The Welsh wizard

At the conference the Chinese were quick to recognise a dubious practice of the British prime minister. The secretary to the Chinese delegation, Wunsz King, claimed that, 'Lloyd George was well known for his skill and audacity in participating in the discussion of a subject without knowing exactly what it was all about'.

Lloyd George was heavily involved in European problems but he did not let his lack of detailed knowledge of Shandong prevent him from expediting matters. With scant regard for long term effects, he persuaded the conference to agree to the transfer of former German rights to Japan, who had promised to restore them to China. Consequently articles 156-158 were included in the Treaty of Versailles.

The Chinese delegation was not invited to the inner Council of Three when the main Powers basically decided the issue. It was kept waiting several weeks before it was told officially what had been agreed. Displeased with its terms, the Chinese delegation surprised the conference by refusing to sign the Treaty of Versailles.

The May Fourth Movement

News of the Shandong settlement had leaked out and created a movement which gave impetus to Chinese nationalism. Beginning on 4 May 1919 people took to the streets in their thousands and hostility to Japan and Britain was expressed forcibly by students. Boycotts of Japanese and British goods became common.

It would be unwise to over-estimate the effects which the May Fourth Movement had upon China's internal development, its foreign relations, and the belated change of Britain's policy towards China in the mid-1920's. But there can be no doubt that it was a strong influence upon the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) and the forces contending for power within China.

The Shandong settlement also had a harmful effect on international affairs. Anglo-American relations went through a distinctly chilly stage between Versailles and the Washington Conference of 1921-22. At the same time Japan felt let down by its British ally's reservations on its claims. Nobody seemed pleased with Britain. Although the Washington Conference made a qualified return of Shandong to China, this only delayed Japan's desire for expansion which burst forth in brutal fashion in 1931 and 1937.

Whether or not an Anglo-American confrontation with Japan over Shandong at Paris would have prevented the tragic events of 1937-1941 is one of the big questions of history. But the 70th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles provides an occasion for reflection on this question and the opportunity which was lost for putting Anglo-Chinese relations on a new footing.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 128, Page 10, March 1989

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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