The paris peace conference

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Why and with what consequences did the Paris Peace Conference refuse to review the 'unequal treaties' in China?

The opportunity of the Chinese to participate in the Paris Peace Conference coincided with the 'Wilsonian moment' in the developing world. This 'moment' saw expectations raised to unrealistic heights on the part both of the Chinese delegates to the Conference and even more on the part of sections of the Chinese public. The dual hopes of the Chinese, for the return of the Shantung peninsula and for the wider revision of the 'unequal treaties' as represented in the document Questions for Readjustment, were destined to be dashed because they clashed with the aims of the great powers and, more importantly, were seen as an irrelevance when more pressing problems needed addressing in the limited time available. The consequences of this refusal, however, were profound and affected the development of Chinese nationalism, Chinese diplomatic practice, and the wider course of Chinese and East Asian international history. The first half of this analysis will focus on what I believe to be the three key reasons for the Conference's rejection of China's request and the second half upon what I consider to be the three most important consequences of this rejection.

Firstly, Chinese weaknesses seem a plausible candidate for explaining the rejection of China's proposal at Versailles. Macmillan argues that the Chinese government lacked suitable individuals to make up the delegation and were poorly briefed in advance.[1] In fact, the delegation was highly educated, well trained in Western legal norms and conventions.[2] There were, however, problems with the briefings given by the Chinese government to the delegation, which were far from thorough, and - reflecting the internally divided state of China at the time - divisions within the delegation between those chosen by the northern and those chosen by the southern governments in China.[3] Despite these disadvantages though, the delegation was seen as having worked effectively, lobbying other countries - especially the United States - and giving impressive rhetorical performances in arguing China's case (indeed, Koo's performance in arguing China's claim to the Shantung peninsula was personally congratulated separately by both Lloyd George and Clemenceau.)[4] Yet, in truth, these factors are of marginal importance. It seems likely, given the reaction of the powers to China's suggestions that no delegation no matter its composition or rhetorical eloquence could have made a difference to the great powers' decisions for China had too many other factors stacked up against it.

To begin with, China's position on Shantung clashed with one of the major victors of the war, Japan, and China's broader desire to see the unequal treaties revised was in opposition to the interests of the other victorious great powers in China: in these circumstances, it would always have been difficult for China to see its claims considered seriously.[5] Secondly, there was a view on the part of the great powers that China had paid an insufficient 'blood toll' during the Great War: it had sent approximately 96,000 labourers to the Western front, some 2,000 of whom had died, but no armed units.[6] Although there had been an offer to send troops on the part of the Chinese, the British, the only nation with the naval capacity to transport them, had dismissed the offer.[7] Commenting on the Chinese contribution at the end of the war the Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, commented that China's contribution during the First World War had involved neither 'the expenditure of a single shilling nor the loss of a single life'.[8] In comparison with Japan, which had engaged its navy on the allied side (even if its combat contributions had been limited) and was considered to have paid a sufficient blood toll, China's claims to peacetime spoils seemed weak. More important than this, however, was the way in which Chinese claims to Shangtung or any broader restoration of its sovereignty had been undermined through agreements made with the Japanese government (most importantly the Sino-Japanese Treaty of 1915 and the exchange of notes between the two Governments on September 24 1918) during the war, which quite clearly promised German rights there to Japan. Wilson was instinctively disinclined to accept the validity of these, heeding the Chinese argument that these agreements were void as they had been signed under duress, yet he knew as well as anyone else that these fatally undermined the position of China regarding Japan's claims.[9] Finally, even Wilson could not deny the validity of the wartime agreements between the other major powers: before the Conference even opened, Japan has secured an almost unassailable position relative to Shantung by securing agreements with Britain, in return for the deployment of the Japanese navy in the Mediterranean, as well and France, Italy, and Russia recognising Japan's claims in Shantung.[10] British politicians and others felt that these agreements could not simply be ignored and should indeed be honoured.[11] Wilson was compelled in the face of these arguments (as well as other more political considerations to be explained below) to accept the validity of these arguments, reminding the Chinese that the Great War had been fought 'for the purpose of showing that Treaties could not be violated'.[12] Chinese weaknesses at the Conference were undoubtedly important in undermining the general Chinese bargaining position, and do much to explain the specific inability of the Chinese to reverse the unequal treaties with regard to the Shantung peninsular. Yet, more is required to understand the generally dismissive attitude of the powers towards China's broader desire for treaty revision. The next section will examine Wilson's attitudes and priorities and the third section will examine the attitudes of the other powers and aim to contextualise the Conference in a way which helps us to understand the powers' rejection of Chinese aims.

Secondly, it is important to explore the huge divide between Chinese expectations of Wilson and what he was, in fact, capable of delivering for the Chinese. Wilson's aims and priorities regarding East Asia were vague. He had little knowledge or understanding of regional conditions and there are no records of detailed discussions on the China question on the part of the American delegation before the Conference took place.[13] Wilson and the American delegation also had no prior knowledge of the other major powers' agreements with Japan over the Shantung issue. Beyond this, Despite the great hoped pinned on Wilson by many in China, there is evidence that there was a major disjuncture between his view on 'self-determination' and the way people interpreted this view. According to Manela, Wilson's precise meaning regarding 'self-determination' was less to do with nationhood and nationality than it was to do with good and sound governance.[14] In any case, Wilson believed, as he told but did not explain to the Chinese delegation that, the fourteen points were 'probably more difficult to apply to the Far East'.[15] Additionally, what the euphoric expectations of Wilson did not appreciate was that he, like any other statesman at the Conference, was a politician who faced political pressures which, however lofty his rhetoric, could not be ignored in practice. With regard to the China question, two political considerations were of particular importance. The first of these, as Allerfeldt argues, related to race and immigration. Facing pressures from domestic constituencies which believed that the racial equality clause might lead to mass Japanese immigration to the American west coast, Wilson ruled on the need for unanimity on vote over the racial equality clause, allowing the British Empire delegation, the opposition of which was led by the Australian Prime Minister William Hughes, an effective veto over the legislation.[16] As House advised Wilson, '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.'[17] The over the racial equality clause represented a humiliation to the Japanese who expected a face-saving gesture over the China question as consolation and made clear the possibility that they would walk out of the Conference if left unsatisfied on this point too. Wilson felt that '[the Japanese] are not bluffers and they will go home unless we give them what they should not have'.[18] After Italy's decision to walk out in, this left open the possibility that the League of Nations would begin lacking two of the major powers and thus be ineffectual from the outset: as Wilson asked his press secretary, Baker, 'if Italy remains away and Japan goes home, what becomes of the League of Nations?'.[19] This, given the faith Wilson placed in the organisation for the settlement of future conflicts, he believed that a political capitulation to the Japanese position was justified in return for ensuring the credibility of the League.[20] In any case, Wilson believed that Japanese expansionism could itself be checked and controlled if it was a member of the League.[21]

Thirdly, by far the most important factor which aids our understanding of the Conference's rejection of China's request for revision of the unequal treaties is the context of the Conference itself. East Asia had not been the primary theatre of conflict during the conflict and the settlement of territorial issues related to the region paled in significance which faced the peacemakers in Europe, where the ramifications of four collapsed Empires had to be faced up to. A good illustration of this is perhaps the fact that the Shantung question was shelved by the powers between February and April in favour of more pressing matters.[22] To open up the issue of the unequal treaties would have significantly increased the already huge task faced by powers at Versailles. This possibility was made doubly unlikely given the view on the part of Britain and France that China's claims over the unequal treaties were irrelevant to the course of the Great War.[23] There were also significant time constraints faced by the statesmen of the great powers: all faced the mammoth tasks of post-war demobilisation and reconstruction and feared the potential for domestic political disturbances and, more specifically, the spectre and threat of Communism, especially in Germany. In fact, by the time the Chinese delegation submitted its Memorandum on Questions for Readjustment in April, the Peace Conference faced the prospect of the Germans arriving at the Conference in two week's time, by which time a huge number of highly controversial issues had to be settled; as Zhang concludes, within this context, 'it was natural that the Chinese entreaties attracted little attention'.[24]

We turn now to the consequences of the rejection of China's request to have the unequal treaties reviewed at the Paris Peace Conference. The first major consequence is the impact on the development of Chinese nationalism. Most immediately, it sparked the May Fourth movement in China, which witnessed the culmination and coming together of a number of longer term intellectual trends in Chinese society and was expressed in large-scale student protests, initially in Beijing and then around the country.[25] The movement saw a rejection of numerous forms of traditional Chinese literary and political culture, including classical written Chinese (the language, many believed, should now be written in the vernacular, thereby democratising political discourse) and, most iconoclastically, the rejection of Confucianism. Many new nationalists now believed that China's problems stemmed fundamentally not from the incorrect interpretation of this ancient values system but from the arcane nature of the value system itself. This development, in turn, laid the groundwork for the greater influence of radical and foreign ideologies. These trends came together as the Western powers rejected the demands on the part of Chinese nationalists for the recognition of China's sovereignty, national rights, and equality in the international system. As Xu argues, these events were important in the formation of Chinese national identity and the perceptions of Chinese nationalists towards the West.[26] The results of this were neither simple nor unidirectional, and Western thought and internationalism in particular continued to be popular with many in China, but it can be said with some certainty that the decision of the powers gave Marxist-Leninist ideas which had hitherto had little influence in China (even after the 1917 Russian Revolution) far greater intellectual traction as an alternative to Western, liberal thought, especially among young Chinese.[27] These events, for example, were seized upon by individuals such as the young Mao Zedong, who upon hearing of the results of the peace conference, wrote 'So much for national self-determination!'.[28]

These intellectual trends also had important implications for the way Chinese diplomacy would come to be conducted. There was a far greater assertiveness on the part of successive Chinese governments in their dealings with Western countries. The first example of this is the decision after much prevarication and under considerable public pressure from nationalists involved in the May Fourth Movement not to sign the treaty at Versailles as a sign of protest. Following this decision, China went on to sign its first 'equal treaty' with a Western power in negotiating its own, separate peace with Germany (which hoped to secure economic advantage from such a move). The treaty abolished German extraterritorial rights in China, recovered the German concessions in China and put Sino-German relations on a basis of equality.[29] This, in turn, was followed by the rejection of requests on the part of Persia and Bolivia for 'unequal' treaty provisions and privileges in China and the negotiation of 'equal' deals with these nations as well as with Czechoslovakia and Chilli.[30]

The third consequence was the growth of Soviet influence in China. We should avoid drawing overly simplistic conclusions about the 'inevitable' rise of Communism in China, as Elleman seems want to do:[31] after all, this would ignore the implications of the GMD's own actions in power, the Sino-Japanese War, the course of the Chinese Civil War and many other contingencies and complications. Yet, this is not to deny that the powers' rejection of Chinese demands was important. As Russian Civil War ended, the new regime was looking for to extend its influence and to expand its diplomatic reach: sensing an opportunity to do so in China, it renounced all unequal treaties including (for now) the Chinese Eastern Railway. This was a highly symbolically significant move given the direction Chinese nationalism was taking, as discussed above. A more definite link was established between the Soviet Union and Sun Zhong Shan, who - was 'now totally disillusioned with the western powers'[32] - following his rendezvous with an agent in Shanghai, who offered Russian financial support and expertise in return for Sun's allowing members of the CCP to join the Guomindang. Sun accepted the offer. The consequences of this were important and fall into two categories. Firstly, Russian aid transformed the GMD into a modern political party: it was given an effective Leninist cell structure, a more cogent set of political (and increasingly left-wing) beliefs, and - most significantly - the beginnings of a well trained and well-equipped military force, the National Revolutionary Army, which was to be independent of warlord influence. These developments ultimately made the 'northern expedition', following Sun's death, possible. This would see the end of the warlord era in China, greater confrontation with imperial powers (especially Britain, the most significant foreign presence on Chinese soil and an enemy of the USSR) and ultimately lead to greater diplomatic influence on the part of China through changing the powers attitudes toward China. Secondly, the 'first united front' gave the nascent Communist Party vital political breathing space as well as some access to Russian expertise, without which it arguably it could not have later become such a seminal actor in modern Chinese history.

The Chinese delegation to Versailles arrived with high hopes. Buoyed by expectations of what Wilsonianism could deliver for the world order emerging at the end of the Great War, they arrived with two main targets: the return of the Shantung peninsula to China and a broader reconsideration of the 'unequal treaties'. On neither account were the Chinese successful. It was naïve in the extreme to expect anything other than the outcome which emerged: their position was undermined not only by the weaknesses of China itself, but also the inability of Wilson to deliver what was hoped of him, and - most importantly - the priorities of the other great powers which both clashed with the Chinese request for a review of the treaties and, vitally, considered them an irrelevant distraction at a time when other considerations predominated and time was of the essence. The attitude of the Western powers had important ramifications for Chinese history and the broader international history of East Asia. By acting as an immediate trigger to the May Fourth movement, it saw the culmination of a number of more long-term intellectual trends which came together to shape a more clearly revisionist brand of Chinese nationalism, which, in turn, contributed to the development of a more assertive style of Chinese diplomacy and also laid the grounds for the expansion of Soviet influence in China. This last development was of huge significance in helping to reshape the Guomindang, increase the importance of the embryonic Chinese Communist Party, and alter the general path of China's domestic history.


Adas, M., 'Contested Hegemony: The Great War and the Afro-Asian Assault on the Civilizing Mission Ideology' Journal of World History, (2004)

Allerfeldt, K., Beyond the Huddled Masses: American Immigration and the Treaty of Versailles (London, 2006)

Elleman, B.A., Wilson and China: A Revised History of the Shandong Question (Armonk, 2002)

Kawamura, N., 'Wilsonian Idealism and Japanese Claims at the Paris Peace Conference', Pacific Historical Review, 1997.

Knock, T.J., To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (Princeton, 1992)

MacMillan, M., Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and its Attempt to End War (2003)

Manela, E., 'Imagining President Wilson in Asia: Dreams of East-West Harmony and the Revolt Against Empire in 1919' American Historical Review, 2006

Manela, E., The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (New York, 2007)

Mitter, R., A Bitter Revolution (2004)

Wang, D., China's Unequal Treaties: Narrating National History (Lanham, 2005)

Xu, G., 'The Great War and China's Military Expedition Plan', The Journal of Military History 72 (2008)

Zhang, Y., China in the International System, 1918-20 (London, 1991)

[1] MacMillan, M., Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and its Attempt to End War (2003), p. 331

[2] Zhang, Y., China in the International System, 1918-20 (London, 1991)

[3] MacMillan, M. Peacemakers, p. 332

[4] Zhang, China in the International System, p. 55

[5] ibid., p. 57

[6] Mitter, A Bitter Revolution, p. 5

[7] Xu, G., 'The Great War and China's Military Expedition Plan', The Journal of Military History 72 (2008)

[8] ibid., p. 106

[9] MacMillan, Peacemakers, p. 338

[10] Zhang, China in the International System, p. 58

[11] ibid., p. 107

[12] ibid., p. 70

[13] Zhang, China in the International System, p. 119

[14] Manela, E., 'Imagining President Wilson in Asia: Dreams of East-West Harmony and the Revolt Against Empire in 1919' American Historical Review, 2006

[15] Zhang, China in the International System, p. 47

[16] Allerfeldt, K., Beyond the Huddled Masses: American Immigration and the Treaty of Versailles (London, 2006), p. 137

[17] MacMillan, Peacemakers, p. 339

[18] Knock, T.J., To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (Princeton, 1992), p. 249

[19] MacMillan, Peacemakers, p. 347

[20] Knock, To End All Wars, p. 221

[21] Kawamura, N., 'Wilsonian Idealism and Japanese Claims at the Paris Peace Conference', Pacific Historical Review, 1997, p. 525

[22] Zhang, China in the International System, p. 65

[23] ibid., p. 61

[24] ibid., p. 65

[25] Mitter, A Bitter Revolution, p. 18

[26] Xu, 'The Great War and China's Military Expedition Plan', p. 140

[27] Manela, 'Imagining Woodrow Wilson in Asia', p. 1330

[28] ibid., p. 1349

[29] Zhang, China in the International System, p. 97

[30] ibid., p. 138-9

[31] Elleman, B.A., Wilson and China: A Revised History of the Shandong Question (Armonk, 2002)

[32] Mitter, A Bitter Revolution, p. 38