One reason the First World War outside Western Europe has been consigned to obscurity by modern popular history is that the world order of the day dictated posterity’s priorities. To clarify that deeply pompous preamble, most places outside the centres of global wealth and power in the early 20th century seemed relatively unimportant to contemporaries studying or writing about the War, the loudest and most numerous of whom came from the centres of global wealth and power. In other words, the West wrote the history and bequeathed its priorities of the day to future generations.
One reason I write this stuff is because a lot of those places that seemed relatively unimportant during the War – and in many cases for a long time afterwards – have become central to the way our world runs today. Africa, the Middle East, Japan, the USA, the outer reaches of Europe and the Caucasus, you name it, the First World War helped shape it and it really matters today. That brings me to the empire that was, in 1917, a strife-torn, crumbling, apparently decadent, politically feeble carcass ripe for dismemberment, and is now the world’s most formidable centre of wealth and power.
So how was the world war playing in China, and why did the Chinese government sever diplomatic relations with the Central Powers on 14 March 1917? With apologies for my fairly random selections from the Chinese-to-English spelling multiverse, here’s some background.
The Chinese Empire was in very bad shape when the War broke out, and had been for some time. Politically isolated and industrially backward, its population of around 420 million (in 1911) was ruled, at least in theory, by the Manchu dynasty during the late nineteenth century, but the imperial government’s power was under republican pressure in Beijing and, with individual warlords in control of the provinces, barely extended beyond the region immediately around the city.
The 1890s had seen the Empire lose control of Taiwan and Korea after military defeat by an expansionist Japanese Empire, and concede economic control to European empires across large swathes of the southern coastal zone. Outrage at European penetration triggered the 1900 Boxer Rebellion by nationalist elements in Beijing, but its main effect was to give European powers an excuse to increase their military presence in China. Meanwhile, in northeast, the Japanese were establishing economic and political control over the vastness of Manchuria, a process hastened after Japan effectively eliminated the competition with victory over Russia in the war of 1904–05.
This prolonged series of imperial disasters came home to roost in October 1911, when republican revolution erupted in Beijing. Led by Sun Yat-sen’s ‘Alliance Society’, it forced the child emperor’s abdication the following February, but within a few days Sun Yat-sen lost power to Yuan Shi-kai, who became president of the new republic and reorganised the Alliance Society as the Kuomintang Party. Yuan remained in office until his death in June 1916, but only ever controlled an enclave around Beijing while a rival Kuomintang government sat at Canton, a Japanese client regime ran Manchuria and the rest of the provinces were ruled by independent warlords.
The outbreak of war in Europe didn’t provide China with the economic boost felt by so many other neutral states, partly because rapid economic expansion was virtually impossible in a vast country with only some 13,000km of railways, and partly because almost all modern Chinese industry was in foreign hands. Cotton and opium remained the country’s principle exports throughout the period, and the War’s main effect was to distract European powers from restraining the ambitions of Japan, which wasted no time seizing the German enclave of Tsingtao in 1914 and forced major economic concessions from China under the threat of war in early 1915 (18 January, 1915: Statement of Intent).
The Chinese government did, on the other hand, experience the diplomatic pressure to join both sides that was common to most neutral states after August 1914. Yuan and his strongly pro-Allied prime minister, Tuan Chi-jui, favoured British over German advances because they promised an end to reparations owed since the Boxer Rebellion, but never came close to achieving a consensus among neutralist nationalists or warlords with better things to do. After Yuan’s death in June 1916, Tuan Chi-jui remained prime minister under his successor, Li Yuan-hung, and overrode opposition from both the president and the Kuomintang to pursue negotiations with the Allies.
Negotiations bore fruit in the diplomatic break with Germany and Austria-Hungary, voted into effect by Tuan’s cabinet on 14 March 1917 and followed by seizure of the half dozen German ships in Chinese ports. Having simply ignored opposition, Tuan was ready to go the whole way, but on the same day president Li and the Beijing parliament joined forces to block any declaration of war. Tuan reacted by moving his headquarters north of Beijing and building up military strength, while Li and parliament pursued their new and hitherto unlikely alliance by voting Tuan out of office in April.
At this point, Chinese politics melted down into a summer of warlord mayhem, with Tuan threatening to attack the capital, Li and the Kuomintang summoning warlord Chang Hsun to protect the city, and Chang instead seizing control as regent in the name of a restored emperor. The new emperor, Puyi, lasted a fortnight after his installation in the Forbidden City on 1 July, before Duan marched on Beijing in the name of the republic and Chang fled.
In theory, the pro-Allied party had won the day. In practice the process of persuading China into the War, albeit carried out with less ferocity and urgency than the bullying directed at more strategically useful neutrals, put a wrecking ball through the fragile edifice of Chinese central government. Republican politicians forced from Beijing by Chang’s short-lived coup fled to Canton, which became the centre of mounting political and military opposition to new president Feng Kuo-chang, the former vice-president and an ally of Tuan, who replaced Li on 18 July. China would go on to declare war against the Central Powers in August, a move that made little or no strategic difference to the wider conflict and barely impinged on the sprawling, violent internal disorder that consumed the vast majority of Chinese energies and resources for the duration, and for decades after the War.
I’m not for one moment suggesting that the Chinese Republic would have prospered if European empires had left the place alone during the First World War. Its constituency of squabbling nationalists and old-school warlords was a civil war waiting to happen and showing no signs of immediate resolution, while white imperialists can’t really be blamed for Japan’s altogether more disruptive behaviour. Then again, the casual (and in this case primarily British) diplomatic vandalism that helped turn Beijing into a war zone for a few months in 1917 had no real strategic justification, and was yet another case of the imperial fever that accompanied the new concept of ‘total war’. As understood in 1917, total war was an all-consuming fight to the finish that threatened the losers with extinction, providing European empires with all the justification they needed for ruthless pursuit of every alliance, sphere of influence or resource base, however trivial.
Just as they did in Greece, in Portugal, in the Middle East and pretty much everywhere else in the world, European diplomats and strategists brought only trouble to China during the First World War. Memoirs suggest many of them were aware of the damage they were causing but considered it necessary for the protection of their own homelands. They had no reason to believe that their homelands might one day be materially altered, even threatened, by changes in what were then geopolitically unimportant, often distant countries. On the other hand they, and the generation of historians that came after them, had every reason to suppose that the Chinese Empire was doomed to disintegration and of little significance to the futures of their homelands – but they were wrong, and we know that now, so maybe posterity should re-jig its priorities and pay some attention to the ways we messed with China.