China Had No Choice But Join the Great War in 1917
China, like the United States, maintained a state of neutrality from the moment the first bullet flew in World War I. Also like the United States, 1917 was the year they changed their minds.
When the Great War broke out, it was to be the war to end all wars. Of course, any armchair historian knows how that pitch actually landed. Still, it was such a popular event, it seemed every nation wanted a part.
Maybe not so much in the beginning, but for part of the war at least, China’s claims of neutrality were about as legit as the ones made by the U.S.
Where the States supplied munitions, China supplied labor long before they entered the war in an official context. By that stage of the game, China had no choice.
The Eastern Theater
At the onset of the war in 1914, in the East, Japan was all in, ready to fight. They’d been Britain’s ally for years, so they already had Britain’s back in support.
China was playing it cool, all while trying to negotiate a seat at the post-war table. The Chinese official stance was neutral, but Chinese President Yuan Shikai offered the British two bargaining chips: laborers and the capture of a German naval base in Eastern China.
The Germans had a 99-year lease in Tsingtao, a city on the east coast of China. It was Germany’s attempt to colonize the world. Yuan Shikai figured if China could wrestle back that land, even help carry some water for the British troops, then they would have the right to sit at the grown up table.
The Brits had no interest because they already had a plan to take it with their pals, the Japanese. Plus, Britain feared the empowerment of the Chinese.
That sort of negotiating could undermine British control of India, demonstrating to the people of India how the Chinese were able to push around the Brits.
Neither by a declaration of war nor support of any kind would China participate in the Great War for the first two years.
The Siege of Tsingtao
At the start of the war, neither side felt the trials of an endless trench war. The Brits hadn’t yet suffered the losses they would eventually feel.
They needed no help from the Chinese. They also never needed the Chinese to take the German base in Tsingtao.
In October of 1914, months after the war started, they gathered around 60,000 of their Japanese allies to attack the German base. Completely ignoring any rights of the Chinese, Britain and the Japanese crossed the sea, attacking the Germans from the land.
The Germans surrendered by November, ceding to the Japanese, who promptly demanded the Chinese grant them sovereignty over a large chunk of that corner of China. They submitted a list of demands called the 21 Demands to the Chinese.
That move would not only cause stress inside China’s political and social structures, the actual siege undermined the one good bargaining chip President Yuan Shikai had to do the Brits a favor.
Now they had nothing to play against the British, plus they’d lost a chunk of China for the time being.
The Western Theater
Had the war gone as swimmingly as the British assumed, they may never have needed the United States or China. As it turned out, the loss of life in the hundreds of thousands mandated they reconsider the Chinese offers.
Winston Churchill chided the leadership who had declined the help from the Chinese.
“I would not even shrink from the word Chinese for the purpose of carrying out the war,” said Churchill. “These are not times when people ought in the least to be afraid of prejudices.”
By August 24, 1916, the Chinese unofficially entered the war with 1,698 Chinese laborers, the Chinese Labor Corps. They still were not at war with anyone.
After that first break of the seal, the allies herded tens of thousands of Chinese by boat, train, and any means possible to front lines. If they survived the transport to front, shuttled like cattle, their chances as labor weren’t much better.
Those who would make it back home would take more than money with them. They would take home the horrors of war. Before that would happen, however, China would officially enter the war.
A Declaration of War
The United States declared war in April 1917. The Germans had killed one too many civilians by sinking ships in the Atlantic.
For the Chinese, the loss of civilian life was way beyond a few wayward travelers on luxury ships. That, however, was not the impetus to declare war.
Despite China’s every effort to gain some kind of upper hand in the conflict, they were still only laborers to the allies and not well-respected ones at that.
On August 14, 1917, China finally declared war against the Germans only so they could sit at the negotiations for peace. They had nothing to lose, but could recover their lost land in the east.
When it did finally end, China did not get back their Japanese occupied land in the east. It was a mess.
Because of this, China’s emissary to the peace talks refused to sign the treaty in Versailles. The discontent from the War only fueled the ramp up to communist China.
Japan finally returned control of the Shantung region in February 1922, but the damage was already done. The communist party rising in China lobbied that this would not have happened were they in control.