Sino-US Relations at a Crossroads: Shandong’s Importance at the Centenary of World War I

The epoch-making failure of the Versailles conference to address legitimate Chinese concerns and reconstitute Chinese sovereignty over Shandong unleashed social energies that continue to shape the Chinese worldview today. Yet it is exactly the historical lesson from the Shandong incident and the inalienable philosophical psyche of Shandong that can be a source of immense inspiration and stimulate creative action at a time of a dangerous Sino-US diplomatic quandary. 

Vasilis Trigkas
November 14, 2018

This year marks the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War on 11 November 1918. But did the war really end that November day? Philip Bobbitt, a professor of constitutional law at Columbia Law School, has been one of the first to daringly reframe the First World War  into the concept of a “long epochal war.” Bobbitt declared that the war did not end in 1918, but continued until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

Throughout the twentieth century, three ideologies fought an existential war. In this macro-historical narrative, the First World War was only the first battle in a strategic struggle between liberal parliamentarianism, fascism, and communism. Following fascism’s defeat in the Second World War, the struggle continued between parliamentarianism and communism. The long war ended with the triumph of Western liberal democracy. The “last man” of Francis Fukuyama stood in his liberal democratic posture on the debris of the Berlin wall. We all became “Kennedian Berliners” in its aftermath. 

Yet has the struggle really ended? Have we all become Berliners? The 2018 U.S. National Security Strategy suggests the answer is no. The main challenger is China. According to the report, not only has China failed to liberalize, but it has regressed further into repression and “threatens the foundations of the American way of life.” 

Ironically, the event that unleashed this vengeful return of history took place only a few months after the euphoric November 1918 armistice, at the Paris Peace Conference in June 1919 – history’s most catastrophic and fateful negotiations of a “Carthaginian peace.”

The Treaty of Versailles and Its Failures in Shandong 

“Never had a philosopher held such weapons wherewith to bind the princes of this world,” said John Maynard Keynes of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the Versailles conference’s tragic hero. For all his visionary idealism and his fourteen points, Wilson’s leadership at the conference proved pointless. Inexperienced and un-Machiavellian, Wilson was out-negotiated. He not only lost Germany due to the imposition of irrational economic conditions, but he also lost China.

In the months leading up to the Versailles conference, reformist Chinese republicans had arrived in Paris to negotiate in good faith. They had hoped to cash out their significant contribution fighting on the side of the Triple Entente (140,000 Chinese labor corps) were sent to France to support the allies) and achieve an equal sovereign status with Western powers. However, their hope proved futile. Western powers agreed to abrogate German concessions in Shandong, yet they allowed imperial Japan to replace the German jackboot with its own. News of losing Shandong thundered across China, and the Chinese patriots took to the street. The consequent May Fourth Movement unleashed social energies still at play today, setting the foundation for Mao Zedong and the eventual communist takeover of China.

It seems paradoxical that the best and the brightest of the day negotiating in Paris could not foresee the Chinese societal wrath and the severe strategic repercussions of letting Shandong slip into Japanese imperial control. Shandong is China’s most populous province as well as its civilizational fundament. Confucius and his faithful student Mencius were both born in Shandong. Jixia Academy, the first university in the history of the Orient, was established in Shandong and served as a model for future academies. For millennia, in Qufu – Confucius’ hometown in Shandong – Chinese emperors visited in person to pay tribute to the philosopher that sought to inspire good governance and good citizenship with his moral conduct and didactic parables. 

As the world is facing the perils of hegemonic transition, and the United States and China are marching full speed into a “Thucydides’ Trap,” the meaning of Shandong today becomes more pivotal. 

President Wilson had no intention to humiliate or betray China. On the contrary, he went to great lengths to support the Chinese view at Versailles, but his nominal goodwill failed the test of negotiations with the Europeans. Americans corrected the mistake at the 1922 Washington Naval Conference, but the 1919 “betrayal” had already turned Chinese society’s consciousness away from Western liberalism. 

The Chinese negotiators at Versailles were men representing progressive reformism. The most famous of them, Wellington Koowas a graduate of Columbia University. Impeccably versed in Western classics, Koo expressed fervent support for international law, freer trade, and cosmopolitanism. The Chinese diplomats at Versailles came in search of strategic partners to jointly forge a progressive worldview, but instead were humiliated by their former allies. 

John Dewey, Columbia’s peace-minded educator who was hailed as a second Confucius by his Chinese students, oversaw the events from Beijing. Commenting on the 4 May upheaval, Dewey asserted that “The last hope of China for an effective government passed away with the closing of the peace conference…certainly the Chinese pride has been grounded now. The principle of democratic equality was merely a cover for imperialistic machination.”

The West’s hypocrisy in Versailles empowered the more intransigent members of the Chinese intellectual class. Receptivity to western liberalism declined sharply and the attraction of radicalization peakedWhen Japan engaged in a full-scale invasion of Manchuria in the autumn of 1931, the republican forces were stretched too thin to fight both at home and on an external front. The Nationalists won the war; the Maoists the revolution, and China has since carried forward the firebrand of millenarian Marxism.

Shandong’s Import Today 

In early autumn of 2018 I visited Shandong, and it is clear the province now stands rich and modernized. Shandong’s major port in Qingdao is the first fully automated port in China, setting the pace for a revolution in maritime logistics, and serving as a model for ports along the maritime silk road. Meanwhile, the Qingdao waterfront, where the 2018 Shanghai Co-operation Summit took place, has been a paradigmatic case of reconfiguring post-Olympic infrastructure while taking local societal needs into consideration. Shandong’s porcelain industry in Zibo, the city where Sun Tzu’s The Art of Warwas drafted, has been revived both with high-tech design and exhibition hubs attracting China’s most renowned artists. One of China Railway Corporation’s most advanced R&D centers is also located in Shandong. 

But for all the attraction of modern technology, it is Shandong’s heritage that is relevant to our contemporary diplomatic predicament. Confucius started his journey in Shandong as a philosopher who looked to reconcile the divided and belligerent international system of warring states. For Confucius, differences among the warring states were artificial constructs. Virtue politics and moral realism could reconcile adversaries into a state of unity, as during the Zhou dynasty. Just rules and rituals, could ensure interstate stability. Confucius was a moral globalist. He did not strive for monetary return, but for harmony and humanistic reward. 

To be sure, as Qin Shi Huang violently unified China and buried Confucian philosophers alive in the3rd century BCE, Confucius’ vision failed in the short-term but succeeded in the long-term.Neo-Confucian revivals have since become pivotal for progress in East Asia. This is the meaning of Shandong we need today. The differences between Westphalian nations and ethnicities remain “artificial constructs.” For Confucius, all people of the warring states were Chinese; for President Kennedy, all were Berliners. For us today, all are “Eartheans.” This must be the import of Shandong.

But if this reads too idealistic, the Shandong episode is also a call for moral realism, or in Dewey’s words, “intelligent idealism.” Stateswomen must “use the acme of intelligence to develop non-violent methods of conflict resolution” so much so today that a war between advanced technological nations will be irreversibly suicidal and history’s sole tragic end.

The image accompanying this article is an illustration depicting the signing of armistice in a railroad car in the French forest on 11 November 1918.

Vasilis Trigkas is an Onassis Scholar and Research Fellow at Tsinghua University’s Belt and Road Strategy Institute. He is a member of the advisory board of the Tsinghua-Laskaridis Initiative for Civilizational Dialogue. His prior publications have been featured in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Financial Times Chinese Edition, South China Morning Post, the Diplomat, China US Focus, and MERICS Berlin.