How China Was Betrayed At Versailles: An Interview With Paul French

Betrayal in Paris, by Paul French

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of World War I, Penguin China has released a seven-book series on China-focused Great War history. It tabbed Paul French, author of the popular and award-winning Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China, to contribute Betrayal in Paris: How the Treaty of Versailles Led to China’s Long Revolution. The book “explores China’s betrayal by the West, the charismatic advocates it sent to the conference and the hugely significant May Fourth Movement that resulted from the treaty [of Versailles].” I sat down with the author (over Skype) to talk about the “betrayal,” Japan’s role in it, and how it might have been tipped by — of all things — America’s Jim Crow laws.

Let’s start off with a broad question. Your book is titled Betrayal in Paris; who was betrayed and by whom?

Well, if you look at the series that Penguin is doing on World War I, the series of e-books, the first one they published was by Jonathan Fenby on the siege of Qingdao. That’s an interesting story. Of course, Qingdao was a German colony — if you’ve been to Qingdao you’ve seen the German churches and the German architecture, and of course the Tsingtao Brewery –but the thing about Qingdao is that the Germans used it as a base. The Kaiser always wanted to have an empire like Britain and France, always wanted to put “its toe in warm water,” as they used to say. But they also had a few little odd colonies out in the Pacific islands, most of which are now independent countries or are American trustees like Samoa. And the Germans had a lot of those but they needed somewhere closer to Germany to put their fleet. The German fleet has to leave Qingdao and go to Europe to fight in the North Sea against the Royal Navy. So Qingdao was only defended by one division of German troops. The Japanese took advantage, went in, kicked the Germans out and took over Qingdao and most of the Shandong Peninsula for themselves. China was of course pissed off about this. But China was too weak to do anything about it militarily, and the government was too divided to stop them.

During the war they complained. They complained to people like the British. People always forget that it’s not until after World War II that America really counts. It’s not a great power until after World War II, and people sort of forget that. At that time Britain is definitely the biggest power in the world. They were not going to do anything about Japan because Japan was technically an ally. Like the Chinese, they didn’t fight [in WWI] but they did provide escort ships to the Royal Navy. And also, kicking the Germans out of China was actually a good thing because it was like a thumb in the eye of the Kaiser, and it meant that Britain didn’t have to worry about its bases in the Far East, because the Germans had been kicked out of the Far East. So the Royal Navy could concentrate all its ships in the North Sea, between Europe and Britain, and also in the Dardanelles, in the famous Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey. So the British didn’t want to do anything about it. The French were invaded, basically, so they weren’t going to do anything about it. And the Chinese went to Washington.

They thought that Washington was a place they should go. Remember, this is 1914, the Chinese Republic is only a few years old. And they appeal to the Americans and say, “Look, we’re a republic, you’re a republic; you should help us. We are a fledgling Republican system along the lines of yourself.”

Woodrow Wilson was very encouraging to the Chinese and said, “Look, you know we will sort this out, but it will have to wait until the end of the war. The war is going to consume everything and until the war in Europe is finished, we’re not going to be able to do anything.”

In 1917, German submarines start sinking ships in the Mediterranean and elsewhere and they sink a couple of American ships — which is one of the reasons Woodrow Wilson used to get America into the war in 1917. And what he said to the Chinese was, you should declare war on Germany as well. So the Chinese did everything that Woodrow Wilson asked. They also condemned the use of submarines in warfare — it’s hard to remember this now, but submarines were seen as a very sneaky way of fighting a war — it was almost illegal. Of course, then everyone else got submarines. But everyone [at the time] thought that it was cheating to sink a ship with a submarine rather than by a classic naval battle. So the Chinese said, “We oppose all submarine warfare,” and then the Chinese declared war on Germany. It didn’t send soldiers, but as you will know from one of the other books in the series, Mark O’ Neill’s book, they send 100,000 of what was called the Chinese Labor Corp, or the “Coolie Corp” — this is very little known, even in Europe. These are the guys who cleaned the battlefields, who helped in logistics and loading ships and stuff like that.

So China sent men, China declared war when they were told to by Washington and they opposed submarine warfare when they were told to. They had every reason to believe that at the end of the war, when the Paris Peace Treaty meeting took place, that Woodrow Wilson would argue their case against Japan. This is clearly sovereign territory that has been snatched. Shandong was a land grab. There was every reason for them to get it back. And Wilson was supposed to be the champion of the smaller, weaker nations. There were other groups that had arguments [for territory]. But China had a very, very good case. China had been a formal ally in the war. So when everyone sat down in Paris in 1919 to discuss what was going to be the peace treaty from the war, they had every reason to believe that Wilson would defend them.

They hoped that the British and the French, the other two big powers that were there, would support them as well, but you couldn’t be sure about that because they knew that the British and French were old-school Europeans and would only really do what was in the interest of their own empires. But there was no reason why the Americans shouldn’t have supported them, and ultimately the betrayal — which was by everyone of China, but most of all, and certainly the Chinese felt this, the betrayal was most keen from the United States.

You write that Japan originally took Shandong for “influence, empire and profit.” How had the Japanese been governing Shandong? And what did Shandong mean to the Chinese?

Fairly liberally, actually. They wanted it for trade, they wanted it for a base in China. They were looking at it from a 19th-century imperialist point of view. They were looking at how the Europeans had carved up Africa; they had looked at how the Europeans had carved up the treaty ports in China; the British in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaya; the Portuguese in Macau; the French in Vietnam (Indochina); they wanted their own empire. They felt that China was naturally theirs. Of course, in 1911 they had annexed Korea and kept Korea until the end of the Second World War. So they had already started empire-building.

But they were sneaky: while the rest of the world was concentrating on Europe, they tried to force greater concessions out of China, some of which they got, some of which they didn’t. But this loss of territory in Shandong was a very deep hurt to the Chinese government. It was a stability issue; if the government didn’t oppose Japan on Qingdao and Shandong, it looked weak, in the way that today if the Chinese government looked weak on Xinjiang or Tibet, it could be accused by its people of being weak overall; and they were worried about that. But this was something that they really wanted — add to that that it is one of the great heartlands of China; it is the birthplace of Confucius and Mencius, the great belief systems of China. In Paris everyone else had a lot of issues that they wanted to discuss; China really only wanted to talk about Shandong.

You praise Wellington Koo’s defense of Chinese sovereignty as “robust.” The response from many other delegations, the international diplomacy crowd in Paris, as well as the Chinese students there, was exuberant. From a debating standpoint, the Japanese were quite plainly defeated. With such a strong case then, and a well-argued one at that, how was it that Japan was eventually able to coerce Wilson into siding with them against China?

There are a number of ways they did it, but one was very clever. You see, Wilson didn’t really want territory like the Europeans — the French wanted Alsace and Lorraine; the Belgians wanted a little bit up by Luxembourg; the British just wanted to keep their empire intact (British foreign policy is quite simple: keep France and Germany apart and we win; divide and conquer).

But Wilson’s one great aim was not land, it was not territory, it was nothing like that. What he wanted was this great international organization: the League of Nations, which of course morphs into the United Nations. The League of Nations, from the First World War to the Second World War, really tried to act in the way that the United Nations does now, over territorial disputes and big multilateral issues. He really, really wanted the League of Nations and he wanted America to be a power in the League of Nations. Wilson felt that America had fought in the war; America was a rising power, New York had all the money, Chicago the manufacturing — this was America’s moment, this was America’s century, and it had to be launched from somewhere, and he felt that it should be done that way. Wilson was a democrat — he wasn’t like Teddy Roosevelt, who almost gave America an empire with the Philippines and Cuba. The Americans were never any good at running an empire, but they sort of had one for a while (not forgetting, of course, staging a coup in Hawaii).

What Wilson wanted was the League of Nations. The Japanese said, very cleverly, and knowing exactly what they were saying, “If we’re going to have a League of Nations, and adjudicate fairness around the world between groups of people — races, tribes, countries — no one should be allowed to be a member of the League of Nations if they have discriminatory policies in their own country. And by that the Japanese knew that the one thing that Wilson could not do was overturn segregation in the United States. There was of course also the Chinese Exclusion Act, and there were restrictions on the number of Japanese that could come into the country, but they knew that it was a fair argument that you could make with the Europeans: how could you adjudicate fairness when you have segregation between black and white in America? Wilson did not have the power to overturn segregation, certainly not in 1919. So Japan threatened to veto, with a lot of other countries as well, who were not supporting Japan but thought that this was a genuinely good idea, particularly emerging black nations. How could you adjudicate fairness when you won’t even let black people into the same theater as white people in America? So the Japanese knew that this would force Wilson to comply.

With America they said, “We will wreck your dream of a League of Nations if you don’t give in on Shandong.” I think it was a very hard thing for Wilson to do. He’s still the president who went away for the longest duration while he was president: six months in Paris. That’s a long time for a president to be away from Washington. Remember, Lloyd George could always just pop home back to London for the weekend, and Clemenceau was in his hometown anyway. But Wilson was really stuck there. And in the end he caved. With secret agreements with the Europeans who supported Japan, Wilson caved and China was betrayed.

So after this betrayal, news gets back to China. What happens on May 4th?

May 4th is a seminal date in China. Word got back that despite the fact that everyone could see — everyone could see! American academics could see it, journalists could see it — that China had a great case, it was an obvious win for China, but they were defeated by the Great Powers and America. Young Chinese students, intellectuals first of all, started to protest around Tiananmen. And they called for many things — one of their primary calls was for the return of Shandong — but they called for other things: for the government to start representing the people; they called for elections; they called for all sorts of things. The point being, not what they were calling for necessary, but that this was really the first time in China — even the 1911 Revolution had been done by a relatively small group of people — that there was was broad-based, participatory and democratic demonstrations.

Shops refused to stock Japanese goods and there was a boycott of anything Japanese. Workers came out on strike, proto-socialists, not-yet Communist movements, left-wing anarchist groups joined in as well; ordinary people. Things spread to other cities; there were boycotts in Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou) and elsewhere. And this is really when Chinese politics does one of these 180s and people say we want something more, “We’ve made a revolution, we’ve made a republic, now what do we do?” And one of those things is that what they want — a lot of the stuff that you’ll hear now — is, “We want China to be strong; we’re patriotic; we’re nationalistic; we’re not going to be bossed around by Japan; we’re not going to be told what to do by the Europeans, the Americans”; all of that goes on.

And really, if you look at the sort of people who a couple years later start becoming prominent left-wing activists in the trade union movement and the labor movement, and also of course in the formation of the Communist party in the French concession of Shanghai in 1922 and all of that, these people all really get their political education and launch their political careers around the May 4th Movement.

But the May 4th Movement is something bigger as well. It’s unlike actually what goes on in China now — which is rather sad — but it is a lot like what was going on in June of 1989; it was also about being a part of the world. A lot of the Chinese stuff now, to me, is about ultra-nationalism: “close the doors, we’re going to be number one.” It’s almost like American isolationism but with Chinese characteristics.

This was also a cultural movement. That period involved translating lots of writers; H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf. People had started to go abroad to study. [You saw] the growth of Chinese, technology, research and development. People started to embrace the ideas of psychiatry, sociology — things that are not traditionally seen as really worthy of study in China — things like that. That’s why I call it the “long revolution” in China, which is really on the May 4th Movement — really on 1911, but May 4th accelerates the process of 1911; it democratizes it; it massifies it (capacity-building, I guess we call it now). From that point China goes into the 1920s and of course the bloodbaths in Shanghai between left and right, the pull to the left of Guomindang, the continuing anti-Japanese activity around the annexation of Manchuria in 1932 and 1937, the Second World War. Right through to 1949 and the Communist victory. And you could argue that that process is still continuing. And you can’t deny it now. If you just look at Sino-Japanese relations right now, they’re still in the toilet. This stuff goes all the way back.

Let’s shift gears if we may, and talk about the making of the book. Why this topic?

Amazingly to me, just about every book on Versailles misses the China bit, or plays down that negotiation. If you go back to the newspapers at the time, it’s a massive story! It was one of the big fundamental questions to be sorted out at Versailles in Paris and now it’s kind of played down. It’s not really thought about because I think if you say to the average man or woman on the street — “Shandong, Qingdao” — well, people don’t have much idea about these places. It’s sort of been a bit forgotten, so I wanted to sort of recover it a little bit, and also to make it interesting. It’s a courtroom battle really.

You have two great debaters here, particularly Wellington Koo, the great Chinese diplomat, who was a champion debater at Columbia, very Americanized, very Anglophile. He had been Chinese ambassador to America, very young, was to become during the Second World War Chinese ambassador to Britain, was to be China’s first lead delegate at the League of Nations, and so on. He really was a great debater, and he fought this cause, and it was a passionate cause.

Baron Makino, who was lead negotiator for Japan, was a much more traditional, older character. But he was a great debater as well and a great player of go, Chinese chess. So he knew his strategy very well.

So these two come together in a clash. And of course, like any great courtroom drama, everyone is trying to make sure that the press reports it the way they want it to be reported. All the backchannel stuff is going on and everything; [I thought] you might be able to turn this into a decent sort of courtroom piece. I’m not saying it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or something, but it must have been a classic clash to see it. And they’re doing all this in front of a table at which is sitting Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, and Clemenceau; the Prime Minister of Britain, the President of France, and the President of the United States. This is a pretty serious judging panel that you’ve got in front of you.

It must have been a very tense atmosphere to have witnessed. Harold Nicolson, the great british diplomat, saw some of it and he said that it was a fantastic clash of debating techniques.

Brent Crane is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. Follow him on Twitter @bcamcrane, or shoot him an email at

    6 Responses to “How China Was Betrayed At Versailles: An Interview With Paul French”

    1. Claus Rasmussen

      Yes, a good read. However, I disagree with some of Mr French’s points.

      The author seems to imply that the British didn’t care much about Qingdao, but in reality the German fleet stationed there consisted of no less than 5 cruisers and was a formidable threat to British trade in the Pacific.

      The Germans only left the Pacific for the Atlantic a month after the Japanese captured their only base with help from the British. The fleet tried to get back to Europe but they were ambushed and sunk at the Falkland Islands.

      Some links: and

      The article also fails to mention that Qingdao was returned to China in 1922, so the effect of the betrayal was that the occupation of Qingdao that had lasted since 1891 was extended by just 4 years.


    2. Michael Turton

      I had the same response as the commenter above. Since Shandong was returned to China in 1922, after the Washington Naval Conference (Japan continued to dominate it economically) how much of a betrayal is this? Never mind that China had initially agreed to Japan’s terms before attempting to leverage the US to get Shandong back. Probably much left out of this conversation.


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