Written by Zhou Xizhuang Michael
Interpreting history is both an important and powerful process. It allows us to breathe life into dull, lifeless archives and records. With a stroke of a pen, historical dots are connected to create meanings. This is consequential. By interpreting history, historians, scholars or politicians wield power to shape people’s views on their forebears. Narratives are constructed, and complexions of the past are painted in ways that may seem familiar or peculiar to contemporaries. However, such interpretations are not without issues for they are not always linear. Instead, the process of historical understanding is fraught with twists and turns. One historical event that generates great interest and attention among generations but also creates continual debates and opposing views is the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The Paris Peace Conference was the meeting of the victorious Allied leaders following the end the First World War to negotiate on peace settlements for the defeated Central Powers as well as to redraft a new world system for international peace.
When understanding why the conference failed to usher in a new chapter of international relations and make lasting peace, historians, scholars and politicians are quick to point their fingers at the decisions made during the conference. There is little disagreement that those fateful decisions which culminated in the Treaty of Versailles were consequential to the upheavals and havoc that wrecked Europe in the immediate post-WWI years. But much of the academic discourse has focused itself on decisions that led to the demise and disintegration of old empires, and the redrawing of boundaries and unequal treatments of the vanquished Central Powers. In addition, the historical literature has acquired a predictable taste for associating the terms of German reparations and territorial concessions to socio-political upheavals prevalent in Europe during the inter-war years.
However, little attention has been accorded to the political and social events happening beyond the European borders. Decisions made during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 led to more than just socio-political or geographical transformations in Europe. Its consequences rippled far across the seas and reached the shores of many countries, of which most played little to no role in the conference’s decision-making process. For China, the conference marked a key turning point in its own revolutionary history. It lifted a new wave of political movements and revolutions that were responsible for the shake-up of the Chinese population, ideology, and foreign policy. Among these, the decision to transfer the rights of Shandong to Japan, also known as Shandong Decision, was monumental in its effects to the Chinese society- particularly the rise of Chinese communism. But despite its effects, the Shandong Decision and its relation to China gained little traction in the modern historical imagination. This essay intends to illuminate these much forgotten and little-known links and interactions between the conference and communist developments in China. Arguments will be directed under two approaches, namely how the Shandong Decision led to Chinese disillusionment over the West and triggered the May Fourth Movement. At the same time, this essay will recognize possible counter-vailing views on the perspectives brought forth and attempts to address the much discussed “Soviet Factor” and its role in Chinese communism.
The Big Disillusionment
The denial of Chinese territorial rights to Shandong in the Treaty of Versailles had accentuated a deep sense of betrayal and disappointment among Chinese people, notably the intellectuals. Corollary to this was the Chinese loss of faith in Western institutions and values. Prior to the conference, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson promised China the support of the American government on its territorial disputes with Japan. As such, buoyant by American promises and support, when Chinese diplomats arrived at Paris, widespread optimism and euphoria reigned in the minds of the Chinese population.
However, when the news of the Conference’s decision to put Shandong in Japan’s custody broke out in China, a profound sense of disillusionment kicked in and provided material for Soviet propaganda. With the Chinese elites and intellectuals left in disenchantment, Western ideologies began to lose its appeal and credibility in the eyes of the Chinese public. This set the stage for the penetration of Soviet propaganda into a more porous and vulnerable Chinese society. Soviet ideologies, notably its own brand of socialist revolution, gained ground quickly. This essay argues that it was utter disappointment over perceived Western betrayal and loss of confidence in the ability of Western institutions and ideas to bring about peace and justice that prompted the Chinese to reorient their interest eastwards and see the Soviet socialist model as a viable political alternative. This two-pronged process – first disillusionment with the West and second the acceptance of socialism and Marxist ideologies – subsequently converged into a political sensation that marked the beginning of China’s long [communist] revolution.” Thus, disappointment over the conference’s decision on Shandong had prepared the ground for ideological and political revolutions in China and increased Chinese demands for Soviet’s ideological and political exports. Unsurprisingly, when Soviet propaganda and ideologies reached China, they fell on fertile ground and grew rapidly.
Students and Workers – A Rising Force
The Shandong Decision triggered more than just intense emotions among the Chinese people and represented an ephemeral juncture where Chinese intellectuals and political leaders abandoned one ideology or set of ideas and principles for the other. What proved most significant about this fateful decision was that it became the “intellectual catalyst” that triggered off the May Fourth Movement in 1919.  Years of administrative ineptness and political failures of the Chinese republican government had convinced the Chinese people that a new political alternative with fresh ideas and systems was necessary to save China from its political poverty.  Thus, when the May Fourth Movement, triggered by Chinese indignation and anger over the Shandong Decision, broke out, it awakened this incipient political consciousness for political and social change. This section will elaborate on how the Movement fed momentum to communist developments in China and led to the rise of Soviet socialist ideas as a major political thought. This essay will also bring focus to the Movement’s ability to reach out and recruit support from the masses to establish a strong united front for the eventual socialist/communist revolution.
When the Shandong debacle caught the public eye, more than twenty-five thousand students and teachers joined hands in a nation-wide protest historically known as the May Fourth Movement. As Schurmann and Schell posit, the Movement became the “well-spring of Chinese Communism” and was characterized by its demand for political change and promotion of socialist ideas. Leaders of the Movement, such as Chen Duxiu (陈独秀) and Li Dazhao（李大钊）, were ardent proponents of Marxist ideologies and called for a socialist uprising in China. Both Chen and Li, including many other leaders of the Movement, became fond of Soviet ideologies due to disappointment over the Shandong Decision.
The movement struck a strong chord among students as well. Numerous student organizations and societies aimed at studying Marxist ideologies and socialism sprang to life during the movement. For example, in the fall of 1919, socialist study groups such as the Society for the Study of Socialism was established in the famous Peking University. Similarly, the Movement helped create the Socialist Youth league and gained sympathies from the Chinese Southern governments and warlords. Thus, prompted by the presumed betrayal at the conference and the loss of Shandong to Japan, the May Fourth Movement created the necessary momentum to shove Chinese intellectuals and leaders onto the socialist locomotive. Furthermore, it led them to hold the conviction that a socialist revolution was their remaining hope to save China from its foundering state.
However, the May Fourth Movement was not just about students and intellectuals. It brought together a divided society into one political piece. The Movement not only encouraged active participation from the “core” of the society, but it also unleashed the masses from the “periphery” to become a potent political force in Chinese politics. This essay argues that it was this inclusion of the masses into the Chinese political equation that acted as the decisive epoch during the Movement, which proved consequential for the course of Chinese history and developments thereafter. From here, the Movement was no longer limited to the Chinese intelligentsia. It had essentially “turned into a nationwide revolutionary movement with the participation of the working class.” With the proletariat class emerging as a “conscious independent political force” from the Movement, new energy and ideas were added to the political mix and became a powerful combination for socialist and communist leaders. With the emergence of a mass popular base, subsequent socialist revolutions were able to take hold in China. In view of the above, the Shandong Decision not only discounted the credibility of Western democracy and institutions in the eyes of the Chinese people, but it was also responsible for triggering intense political and intellectual ferment that culminated in the May Fourth Movement. With its success in furthering the socialist agenda and the creation of a strong proletariat class, the Movement was to become a major influence in Chinese politics and history up till 1949.
The Soviet Factor
Following the discussion on the importance of the “Shandong Decision factor”, this essay finds it important to address possible counter-arguments by proponents of the “Soviet factor”. While the Shandong Decision played a role in turning the Chinese away from the Western embrace, Elleman mentions that it was Soviet foreign policy designs and political aid that ultimately tilted the balance in the Soviet’s favor. For example, the Karakhan Declaration issued by the Soviet government in July 1919 denounced extra-territoriality and claimed that all unequal treaties signed with China “played [the] conspicuous role in enlisting Chinese sympathies and paving the road for Communism.” Additionally, this essay does acknowledge that despite the growing political and socialist sensation, the Chinese communist infrastructure remained rudimentary even after the May Fourth Movement. It was only after years of political and ideological training that a more vigorous Chinese communist organization emerged. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party was only established in 1921 after the arrival of Communist International (Comintern) officials such as Gregory Votinsky. Thus, it seems that Soviet assistance and its reorientation to China were important factors in determining the fate of Chinese communism.
However, notwithstanding the importance and relevance of Soviet help, this essay continues to lay its emphasis on the fact that it was the Shandong Decision and the loss of Chinese trust over the Western democratic model that first opened China’s political door to the entrance of Soviet socialist propaganda and ideas. It is also important to recognize that Soviet ideologies and its brand of revolutionary ideas and Marxism received little attention from Chinese intellectuals prior to the conference. For years, despite sporadic socialist intrigues among intellectuals and workers, socialism and communism remained well at the political and social periphery. In fact, it was the western model with its brand of democracy and liberalism that first caught the imagination of the Chinese people. Hou, in his book A Short History of Chinese Communism, reveals that leading Chinese intellectuals during that time saw the “Western democratic thought and institutions as a remedy for the socio-political ills of modern China.”
As such, this essay contends that had it not been for the Shandong Decision and the disillusionment and ignominy it generated among the Chinese people, it is difficult to see why and how China might have been receptive towards the Soviet socialist model to then take the revolutionary path. In fact, the new generation of Chinese intellectuals and political leaders preceding the movement was predominantly educated and trained in American and European institutions and well versed with western culture and ideologies. Additionally, Soviet assistance came only after the May Fourth Movement and by that time, the communist foundation was already established. In the absence of a nation-wide protest in China in June 1919, there is little incentive for the Soviet government to promptly send its resources and manpower over to China in July to only to oversee its communist development. Without the Shandong Decision and the Movement, there might not have been any window of opportunity for Soviet leaders, and the history of Chinese communist and even China itself could have walked down a different path.
This essay has argued that the Shandong Decision was pivotal in promoting Chinese communism by reshaping the country’s political and social landscape. Essentially, the decision provided the key impetus that led to the intellectual awakening of the Chinese people. It lifted the ideological floodgate and “set in motion the exorable march of events” that ultimately opened the communist chapter in China. Ultimately, the Shandong Decision led to the Chinese people becoming more conscious of their political path. The disappointment and indignation over the conference shattered Chinese dreams for hopes of Western support and democratic peace, and these feelings also created the intellectual environment from which socialism and communist tendencies flourished quickly. Furthermore, this essay has also tackled the limitation of this interpretation by looking at how the Soviet’s pivot towards China may be seen as a more significant factor to the forming of Chinese communism than the Shandong Decision. Nonetheless, this essay explains that it should be put into consideration that Soviet’s friendly gestures and assistance to Chinese sympathizers were largely motivated by a fundamental change to China’s socio-political situation because of the Shandong Decision. Without the movements and intense emotions the Shandong Decision triggered, there would be little openings for soviet propaganda to penetrate and minimal support and materials for the communist infrastructure to take shape in China.
For future research, this essay proposes more detailed and systematic study and assessment of China’s historical developments prior to the Paris Peace conference of 1919 to better grasp the nuances and complexities that reside in the rapid socio-political transformations of China before 1919. It is recommended that this future research be directed towards the study of Chinese developments beginning from the First Opium War (1839-1842) to the failures of the early Republican Government (1912-1916). Past humiliation at the hands of Western imperial powers and anger over domestic incompetence and woes can help us to sketch a clearer picture of the swirling political and intellectual undercurrents that were later to surface in 1919 and years beyond.
 Also known as the famous “Big Four” which comprised U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando.
 Joseph T. Chen, The may Fourth Movement in Shanghai: The Making of a Social Movement in Modern China, Vol. 9 (Leiden: Brill, 1971), 3.
 Robert E. Hannigan, The Great War and American Foreign Policy, 1914-24. 1st ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 227.
 Paul French, Betrayal in Paris: How the Treaty of Versailles Led to China’s Long Revolution. World War One 100th anniversary ed. (Melbourne, Victoria: Penguin Group Australia, 2014), 59.
 Paul French, Betrayal in Paris, 75.
 Tse -tsung Chou, The may Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China, Vol. 6 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 99.
 The Republic of China, or 中华民国 (Zhonghua Minguo) created in 1912 following the abdication of Qing Emperor Xuantong.
 Sheng Hu, A Concise History of the Communist Party of China (Seventy Years of the CPC) (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1994), 16.
 Herbert Franz Schurmann and Orville Schell, Republican China, 87.
 Fu-wu Hou, A Short History of Chinese Communism, Vol. S-166 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 15.
 Ibid., 15.
 Paul French, Betrayal in Paris, 59.
 Joseph T. Chen, The may Fourth Movement in Shanghai, 21.
 Sheng Hu, A Concise History of the Communist Party of China, 17.
 Tse -tsung Chou, The may Fourth Movement, 350.
 Paul French, Betrayal in Paris, 53.
 Bruce A. Elleman, Wilson and China: A Revised History of the Shandong Question (Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe, 2002), 139.
 Ibid., 142.
 Ibid., 142.
 Richard T. Phillips, China since 1911 (Basingstoke, Hants: Macmillan, 1996), 45.
 Fu-wu Hou, A Short History of Chinese Communism, 15.
 Wellington Gu, prominent Chinese diplomat and ambassador to the U.S. and part of the Chinese delegation at Paris Peace Conference in 1919 (received his Ph.D. in International Law and Diplomacy from Columbia University); Hu Shi, famous Chinese philosopher and diplomat and pioneer of the New Culture Movement (studied Philosophy at Columbia University); Cai Yuanpei, President of Peiking University and key engineer behind the New Culture and May Fourth Movements (studied Philosophy, Psychology, and Art History at Universität Leipzig of Germany).
 Wen-su. Chin, China at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Vol. no. 2 (Jamaica, N.Y: St. John’s University Press, 1961), 35.
Chen, Joseph T. The may Fourth Movement in Shanghai: The Making of a Social Movement in Modern China. Vol. 9, Leiden: Brill, 1971.
Chin, Wen-su. China at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Vol. no. 2. Jamaica, N.Y: St. John’s University Press, 1961,
Chou Tse -tsung. The may Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Vol. 6, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.
Elleman, Bruce A. Wilson and China: A Revised History of the Shandong Question. Armonk, N.Y: M.E. Sharpe, 2002.
French Paul. Betrayal in Paris: How the Treaty of Versailles Led to China’s Long Revolution. World War One 100th anniversary ed. Melbourne, Victoria: Penguin Group Australia, 2014.
Hannigan, Robert E. The Great War and American Foreign Policy, 1914-24. 1st ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.
Hou, Fu-wu. A Short History of Chinese Communism. Vol. S-166. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Hu, Sheng. A Concise History of the Communist Party of China (Seventy Years of the CPC). Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1994.
Phillips, Richard T. China since 1911. Basingstoke, Hants: Macmillan, 1996.
Schurmann, Herbert Franz and Orville Schell. Republican China: Nationalism, War and the Rise of Communism 1911-1949. Vol. 2, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.