236: China and the War


China tries to contribute to the Allied war effort, and finds it surprisingly difficult to do so.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode 35, the one in which we talk about China. China would officially join the war in 1917, but its interactions with the war began far before that date. At the Paris Peace Conference the British stateman Balfour would claim that the Chinese involvement in the war had involved neither “the expenditure of a single shilling nor the loss of a single life.” This was criminally incorrect, and Balfour knew it, but it was part of a concerted effort by the British delegration at the Conference to downplay the Chinese conributions to the war effort. Today, we will be looking at those contributions, and hopefully putting them in proper context. The Chinese had been obsessed with being allowed to join the table of nations around the world, something that had been repeatedly denied to them by the Western powers in the decades before the war. When the war started Chinese leaders hoped that it would be their chance to change that situation, and to make big changes to how other countries viewed China. This would be the impetus of two important events, the first was the creation of the Chinese Labor Corps, which would send tens of thousands of men to Western Europe. The second was China’s entry into the war in 1917, followed by attempts to send a military expedition. All that China would gain from these efforts was a betrayal at the Paris Peace Conference by countries that were technically their allies. The story of these events is on the docket for today, we will start with a very brief history of China before the war, and then we will discuss what led China to join the war. We will also be sure to give some times to the Chinese Labor Corps which would be the country’s most noticeable and concrete contribution to the war effort. Then we will discuss, very briefly, what happened at the Paris Peace Conference. China’s place at Versailles was important enough that it will have its own episodes in the mainline episodes and so I will be holding most discussion about that story for later.

In the decades before 1900 the relationship of China with the western countries was one of great imbalance. The Western countries, with most of Europe included on that list, all sought to take advantage of the Chinese. This came in a variety of forms, like European countries taking possession of various areas of China, or the British using the tea trade to introduce Opium into the country. The Opium War in 1839 was precipitated by a concerted effort by the East India Company to funnel as much opium as possible into China to make up for the trade imbalance that had been created by the tea trde. The problem for the company was that Europe was obsessed with tea, as they should be because tea is amazing, but the Chinese were not intially importing much from Europe. This created a crippling trade imbalance, with gold and silver flowing into China but not back out of the country. Opium was their solution, by getting as much of China as possible addicted to opium they had found something that they could funnel back into China to extract that gold and silver back out of the country and rebalance the trade. This would eventually lead to the Opium Wars, which I won’t go into much here, but if you want a really good overview of these events in China I highly recommend the China History Podcast by Laszlo Montgomery, he does a pretty deep dive into the Opium wars and that era of Chinese history.

While the history of China in the 1800s is important to understanding their actions in the 20th century, I think the real turning point where the story of Chinese involvement with World War 1 begins is in 1900. It was during this year that the Boxer Rebellion occurred in China. This rebellion was a massive uprising of peasants, most of them coming from famine stricken areas. They were rebelling not just against their government but also the involvement of foreigners in Chinese affairs. This was a very valid concern, and there was widespread concern among many Chinese people that foreign interests in China would eventually destroy the country. The Boxer took that fear and turned it into violence, culminating in the Siege of the foreign legations in Peking. This violent action then prompted an international response, and then the imposition of the Boxer indemnity afterwards. This indemnity was publically called a punishment against China for the rebellion, but in reality it was an organized effort by countries around the world to cripple the Chinese economy and keep it dependent on the West. The total cost would be about 67 million pounds, which was greater than the annual tax revenues of the Chinese government. It was to be paid over the course of 40 years, with 4% interest on the money. They had to pay out various amounts of money to 13 countries, and even in 1916 the amount was 304,000 British pounds every month. On top of these payments there were payments for various other loans that had been signed by various Chinese governments officials along the way. This list was lengthy but topped by a 25 million pound loan in 1913. These loans, crippling to the Chinese goverment due to the payments required, kept the Chinese dependent on other countries, and kept them desperate for money. This was very important for the Western Powers, and some eastern states as well like Russia and Japan, who wanted to continue to take advantage of the Chinese and their less than optimal situation.

During all of these struggles that led up to and then after the Boxer Rebelllion the Qing dynasty maintained power, something that it had beend oing for almost 300 years. However, in 1912 it all came crashing down. That process began in 1908 when the reigning Emperor and Empress died, leaving behind a 2 year old as the emperor. Child emperors, even with effective regency, are always a risky business, and in this case it would cause the end of the Qing. In October 1911 an uprising began in Wuchang, part of the important industrial territory of Wuhan. Events spiraled out of control until the Emperor, now just 5 years old, was forced to abdiate. At first Dr. Sun yat-sen was named as president, being the natural choice since he was the leader of the largest anti-imperial group. However, he would then abdicate in favor of General Yuan Shikai who would lead the republic until the war started. The foundation of a republic brought some political changes to China, including the move to allow 10 percent of the male population of China to vote, which was pretty high compared to any other country in Asia at this time. Even though the previous government had been overthrown all of its problems did not magically disappear. The country was still deeply in debt to foreign powers, there was still a laundry list of internal problems, and there was still very powerful regional armies which at times would completely ignore central authority. This regional army setup had been used by the emperor, and while it allowed for power to be projected around the country it also was a system that allowed for regional rebellions to happen. While the Republic would not be perfect it would be the one that would lead the country into World War 1.

When the war started, the Chinese were not concerned, and were in fact excited about the possibilities. They were quick to declare neutrality, something that could only happen because the new Chinese government had been officially recognized by the Europeans in 1913. Even with the framework of neutrality China hoped to be able to contribute to the allied war effort and therefore bring it to greater prominence on the world stage. The eventual outcome of these attempts would be the Chinese Labor Corps, but before that happened China would have to play the more traditional role of a neutral country. During these actions they were still heavily in favor of the allies, or at least they thought that they were, the Allies were sometimes less than thrilled with how this manifested, especially around how much the Chinese controlled, or didn’t control, German commercial activities. However, the British leaders would believe that the official neutrality of China was still beneficial to the British war effort, with Sir John Jordan saying in late 1914 that ‘China had entirely failed in her duties as a neutral … There are British, German and French vessels interned at some half a dozen or more ports and there are sixty-one German belligerents confined at Nanking. Of course there has been a good deal of laxity but we have benefitted by that far more than the enemy.’

While the Chinese were officially neutral when the war started, there were some attempts to join the war on the side of the Entente, but such efforts were always met with Japanese opposition. In this opposition the Japanese were trying to make sure that they were the only country in the region to join the winning side of the war. This would allow them to dictate the structure of the post war far east, especially since they were so close to the British. Japan, running on a high from their experiences in the war in 1914 and their relationship with the European countries presented the Twenty-One Demands to the Chinese in January 1915. The list of demands pretty much sought to make China a vassal state of Japan, with the Japanese hoping that the rest of the world would be too caught up in the events of the war to notice. In their book Betrayed Ally: China in the Great War Frances Wood and Christopher Arnander would describe the contents of these demands “The first section related to German concessions in Shandong province, now in Japanese hands, ‘The Chinese government engages to give full assent in all matters upon which the Japanese government may hereafter agree with the German government relating to the disposition of all rights, interests and concessions which, by virtue of treaties or otherwise, Germany now possessin relation to the province of Shandong.’ China was not to lease land anywhere in the whole of Shandong province to any other nation, to agree to open more cities in Shandong to trade and allow Japan to build a railway there. In section two, ‘since the Chinese government has always recognised the special position enjoyed by Japan in South Manchuria and eastern inner Mongolia’, she was to hand over control of the railways and all mining rights in the area and allow the Japanese free access to trade and the right to settle. Section three related to the Han-yeh-ping Coal and Iron Company, a major industrial resource in Wuhan. This was particularly attractive to resource-poor Japan which sought control as a ‘joint concern’, restricting any Chinese actions over the company and its significant associated mines, whilst section four forbade the Chinese to ‘cede or lease to a third power any harbour, bay or island along the coast of China’.” The Chinese were forced to sign the 21 demands, giving up essentially all of Manchuria to the Japanese and real power in Shandong. The key to all of this though, and what would really come back to bite the Chinese, was that the Japanese insisted that the agreement remain completely secret, even within the Chinese government.

Even without the Twenty-One demands becoming common knowledge in the country there were enough events that caused instability. One of these was the fact that in 1915 it became common knowledge that Yuan Shi-Kai planned to proclaim himself emperor during 1916. This set off a wave of fierce opposition both just from the concept of having another emperor but also because of how much money he planned to spend in crowning himself emperor. The budget for the transition and ceremony was planned at around 30 million yuan, this at a time when the Chinese government was already running an 88 million yuan deficit. The most important opposition came from some of those regional armies that I mentioned earlier. These were especially strong in the southwest of China, so areas like Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou where the armies began to take steps toward active rebelllion. The stiuation deteriorated so quickly that Skihai was forced to cancel his appointment as emperor, and he would end up dying just a few months later from kidney failure. His death did not end the general unrest around the country.

Even with mounting internal discontent, when the United States broke off relations with Germany in earlier 1917 they called on other neutral countries around the world to do the same, and the Chinese government decided to anser the call. China would be the first country to respond with strong support to the calls from the United States, which was based primarily around the German U-Boat campaigns, even though the campaign itself did not greatly effect China. It would take the Chinese about 6 days to determine their exact statement about their relations with Germany, during this time there would be many meetings with both government officials and civilian leaders. On February 9th the announcement was finally made that China would sever all ties with Germany. The Germans were given a possible out, by cancelling the unrestricted U-boat campaign, which they of course did not. Therefore on March 14, 1917 the action was complete, this was not a declaration of war, that would not come for another 5 months on August 14th, but it put China on the path to entering the war. And represented the step where the Chinese decided that they would enter the war eventually.

The obvious question that we need to answer at this moment is why the Chinese wanted to join the war, and what they hoped to gain from joining a conflict that was happening halfway around the world. This is an interesting question for all of the countries that joined the war who were highly unlikely to be directly involved with the fighting in Europe. From a historical perspective the good news is that we have a pretty direct answer to this question for China because they presented their requests, in writing, to the allies in March 1917. There were some economic requests like the postponement of the Boxer indemnity payments for 10 years, during which the interest would be paused, more freedom for the Chinese government to set customs duties and tariffs which the European countries had heavily controlled for decades, and greater control over the areas of foreign legations in Peking. Some of these were readily agreed to, like the cancellation of the Boxer payments that were goin to Germany and Austria, and this helped a bit but came nowhere close to what the Chinese wanted. There were then other items that the Chinese wanted to get out of the war, but there were serious problems with many of them, territorial rights in Shandong, more domestic autonomy, and an increase in international prestige. The biggest problems with the first two of these goals was that it would mean going against the wishes of japan, which was something that was simply not going to happen. Japan had made every effort before and during the war to make sure that it had the advantage in any discussion of Allied policy in the Far East. Unfortunately thwere was nothing that the Chinese could do to change this. This Japanese predominence was virtually guaranteed by the secret treaties signed by the Japanese and the allied countries throughout the war, which the Chiense did not know about, just like nobody else knew about the Twenty-One Demands.

While the possibilities for China to actually achieve its desires were limited, they did not know this at the time, and they continued to believe that the more they contributed to the war the better their reward would be. In war, no contribution of an ally is greater than the contribution of military troops, and so that is the goal upon which the Chinese set their sights. In early September the Chinese Prime Minister informed the French that China wanted to help the Allies military, and they were ready and willing to send hundreds of thousands of troops to Europe, all that they needed was the permission of the Allied countries and a bit of money from the United States. The French were excited by this prospect, with Foch being a key supporter. He had been impressed with the Chinese laborers that had been active in France since 1916, calling them “first-class workers who could be made into excellent soldiers, capable of exemplary bearing under modern artillery fire.” While the French were more than willing to have Chinese troops on the Western Front the other countries were less thrilled at the prospect. There would be constant discussions among the allies about what to do, but in China they continued to push forward with preparations. 40,000 soldiers were prepared for the trip, and a military mission was sent to France under the command of General Tang Zheli, who informed the French that those 40,000 troops could be on their way immediatley with a bit of money from America. The Chinese, with French backing, were in discussions with the United States to get a 25 million dollar loan to fund the troops, it should be noted that the Americans were passing out money to all of the Allies in absurdly large quantities so the 25 million was not a crazy sum, but it still would not happen. And the reasons would be rooted in the viewpoints of the Japanese and British.

The Japanese were secure in their position in late 1917, during the first several months of the year they had signed secret treaties with the British, French, and Russians, although I guess that last one would not turn out to mean much. In these treaties the Japanese had managed to get agreements from the other countries that they would support Japanese territorial ambitions in Shandong and the German Pacific Islands. With these guarantees in place Japan did not in any way oppose the Chinese joining with the Americans in declaring war during 1917. In fact, Japan hoped that in supporting the Chinese in their entry into the war that the Japanese could gain some favor from the Americans. However, when it came to Chinese military involvement in the war the Japanese were firmly against them. Such an expedition by China would call into question Japan’s contribution to the war, since it had not sent any soldiers to Europe.

The primary way that the Japanese opposed the Chinese military plans was thorugh the British, because the support of the British was essential if the troops were going to get to Europe. The French ambassador in Tokyo would admit that the Japanese would never support the plan, but maybe if the British did they would come around, saying that “I am afraid that Japan will not welcome it and it would be opportune if our demand was at least supported by England.” The support of the British would be a hard item to obtain. Officially the British would claim that they did not believe that the Chinese involvement on the Wester Front would be worthwhile an evaluation that was, as always, heavily couched in racism. For example one British official would state “The French are embarking on a policy of wasting Allied tonnage for which they will receive no military return whatever … No one, with the exception of our military attache´ in Peking has ever suggested that even the best Chinese troops would stand shellfire on the Western Front for five minutes … The French are becoming too fertile of ideas … in view of the fact that they are more or less dependent on us for tonnage, they are moving rather fast” There were many other reasons for the British resistance, relations with Japan, some legitimate shipping concerns, and then also the matter of British prestige being involved. To put it bluntly, to bring Chinese troops over to the Western front woudl be to admit both western weakness and to that the Chinese were worthy and able to fight on the same level as the Europeans. To British colonial policy in the region, built around the superiority of Europeans, this would be damaging. For all of these reasons, no Chinese military expedition was sent to Europe, not for lack of trying by the Chinese.

While they were deniced the right to make a military contribution in the last year of the war, the Chinese had made another contribution since the middle of 1915. This contribution came in the form of laborers. From 1915 to 1918 around 150,000 Chinese workers would be sent to Western Europe where they would work behind the front at the direction of the British and French. Somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 of these workers would die during this period. There would also be around 200,000 workers sent to Russia where their fate was far worse, being stranded by the revolutions. In all of these cases the Chinese workers would do good work, and make real sacrifices for the Allied war effort, sacrifices that would then be denied during the Paris Peace Conference.

You may be wondering how these workers got to Europe, after all China was a neutral control for most of the war, and for most of the time that these Chinese laborers were in Europe. Well, it was a process that began in June 1915. At that time China’s finance minister proposed that the Chinese would sent 300,000 military laborers to France. The original vision was to provide at least a third of these men with military weapons, but this part of the plan would be scrapped because it would have violated China’s neutrality. The concept of using Chinese laborers around the world was not completely crazy, because it was already happening with Chinese laborers being present in the British West Indies, Cuba, the United States, Canada, and Australia. These workers were often, somewhat derogatorily, called coolies, which draws from the Chinese word kuli which means hard labor. While the Chinese government was allowing the allies to recruit these workers it should be noted that they were not conscripted or enslaved or anything like that, they were paid for their work, and well by the standards of where they came from in China. however, they had little ability to get assistance from their government and were basically entirely at the mercy of the British and French, an arrangement that would prove problematic when the war ended.

Since the workers were paid, and not conscripted, they had to be recruited, and this was primarily done in the Shandong provive, although other areas were also used for recruitment. Most of the men brought into the Labor Corps were poor farmers that were hoping for a better living. There were some that possessed skills like carpentry or blacksmithing, but the vast majority would be unskilled. They would sign contracts either with the British or French which varied in details but not in the basics. For the French the contracts had a term of 5 years or until the war was over, with some statements about benefits, like getting all the same holidays as French workers with the addition of Chinese national day. The payw as not great by modern standards, but for the time it was pretty good. For example there is a story of a teacher who joined up, claiming that he wanted to see the world and that the pay was better than what he was getting as a teacher. After the recruits had signed their contracts they would be taken to training camps and medically examined and also inoculated against smallpox. They would then wait for shipping to become available, during which they would continue to drill, sometimes for weeks. Before they left China every man had a brass identity disk attached to his arm, a process completed by a blacksmith so that it could not be easily removed. This was done due to the fear that the workers would get to Europe and then attempt to desert. Once shipping arrived in China the route that they would take depended on whether they were contracted with the British or French. The French used a route that involved using the Suez Canal then the Mediterranean. This route was dangerous, with U-Boats patrolling the area in large numbers. This resulted in hundreds of deaths, with just one ship in February 1917 accounting for 752 dead Chinese when it was attacked by a U-Boat near Malta. The British used a safer route, taking the workers east to Canada, and then across the country by train, before then moving them by ship to Western Europe.

When the laborers were brought over to Europe the general idea was that they would only be given the most menial tasks, trench-digging, quarrying, railway construction, loading and unloading of cargo. And these would make up the majority of the work that was given to them during the war. This meant that for most of the war the various skills that were possessed by the workers were completely ignored and so men that possessed unique skills were given the same work as everyone else. This did begin to change near the ned of the war, and by the end most of the men with specialist skills would be combed out and given special tasks that took full advantage of these skills. All of these taks were critical to the Allied war effort, after all you cannot move millions of men and artillery rounds around without good railways, roads, and people on both end to load and unload the goods.

British Foreign Secretary Balfour would say that “The time has come to consider the very important political effect which the sojourn of some hundred thousand Chinese in France.. .is likely to have on British prestige in North China. By raising the standard of village living and the knowledge of a wider life.. .we shall be rendering a great benefit…[but] the most important complement is the enlisting of the educated portion of the Chinese personnel who will become preachers and exponents of British fairness and efficiency.” And overall the treatment of the workers was acceptable, I guess. The British instituted a policy of keeping the Chinese as separate as possible from the rest of the army due to concerns that they would experience a very large amount of racial discrimination from the other troops. Those in French employ had a different experience because instead of being kept in centralized units and camps they were distributed around the country to various areas to work in agriculture or in manufacturing. Once they had been placed in these areas they could generally move around the local town or village quite freely, but they were not allowed to travel anywhere by train. In general, in all of these cases, the laborers would experience a life of long, hard hours, food of varying quality, and for those working near the front a constant risk of death. Speaking of death, true statistics on the number of Chinese that died due to enemy action during the war will probably never be known. It is very likely that the number is higher than 3,000, probably below 10,000 but accurate records are not available. We do know that those that were wounded or took sick were well cared for, on the British side they had their own hospital which was led by Dr. Doughly Gray who had been a medical officer with the British Legation Peking before the war. Overall, I would say that the laborers were treated okay at best during their time in Europe, but it was not like life was great, or that they were treated especially well.

When the war ended in November 1918 something interesting happened, the Chinese were not sent home. The contract that the Chinese had signed haed specified that they would be employed for up to 6 months after the war ended, but it did not specify exactly what the end of the war meant. The armistice meant an end to the fighting, but it was not technically the end of the conflict, which would not happen until the Treaty of Versailles was signed. This left the Chinese in something of an awkward situation. The British and French wanted to keep them around as long as possible as a source of cheap labor, and there was certainly enough work to go around with reconstruction. There were also those within the Chinese Labor Corps that wanted to stay, generally those who had been elevated to leadership positions. On the other side the Chinese could see all of the armies around them demobilizing, and the fighting stopping, and of course wnated to go home. However, there would still be over 50,000 Chinese workers in Western Europe by the end of 1919. This was actually much lower than it had been in October 1919 because during the last two months of the year both the French and British had made a concerted effort to repatriate as many of the workers as possible. It would actually be years before all of the Chinese had left France, with workers still being employed well into the 20s to carve inscriptions on tombstones. Several thousand would end up staying in France, where they would seek to start new lives, generally having already married French wives.

As I mentioned earlier, the Chinese had joined the war with specific goals and at the Paris Peace Conference they hoped to achieve these goals by cashing in some chips that they had earned with the allies due to their contributions to the conflict. However, things would not go exactly as planned, and the deviations from the plan would begin with actions from the Chinese themselves. When it came time to send a Chinese delegation to Europe the question of who would be sent would not be easily determined. In 1917 the southern provinces of China had setup their own government under the leadership of Sun Yat-Sen. This meant that when it came time to send representatives to Paris there would be two delegations, one from each group of Chinese leaders. Sending two different, and competing delegations to the Conference did nothing to help the Chinese, it caused more confusion and caused the two delegations to waste time arguing with each other. There were some unifying features of their requests though, and most of these were based around the Fourteen Points, and President Wilson, in whome the Chinese placed a lost of faith.

The exact actions and discussions at Versailles will be covered in a later episode in pretty good detail, so here I will just say that things did not go well for the Chinese. The secret treaties that the European countries had made with Japan which included giving them control over Shandong and general autonomy in their actions in Asia. To make the situation worse, while the Chinese could not have known about the secret treaties between Japan and the other countries, the secret treaties between the Chinese government and the Japanese were also not widely known. The Japanese made sure the correct people knew about these treaties at the opportune moments. All of this resulted in the Chinese getting, essentially, nothing that they wanted from the Versailles treaty. The situation was so bad, and so disappointing, that the Chinese delegates refused to even sign the treaty.

When the news of the treaty reached China, and with it news that the Japanese would continue to occupy so much territory in mainland China, it sparked massive demonstrations on May 4th, 1919. This began at Peking university and it became known as the May Fourth Movement. The May Fourth Movement, and its role in bringing together those that wanted large changes in China would be instrumental in setting the course of China in the post-war world. It will also be a topic for its own episode next year, so I don’t dig in too much into post war China here. So in summary, China’s involvement with the war can be summed up in one word, disappointment. The war was supposed to be China’s coming out party on the main stage of international politics. The contribution of the country to the war was supposed to allow it to gain recognition and power from the European countries, but the country accomplished none of these goals, and instead the Versailles trety would just reinforce the support of Japan and its expansionist policies in China, policies that would come to a head in the 1930s. It would also be the spark that would eventually light the fire of the Civil War in the country. The end of the war also prove to be merely the beginning of domestic fighting that would continue, almost unabated, until the 1950s.