USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

China during and after WWI

The outbreak of WWI was both to China’s advantage and disadvantage. The advantage was that the European powers were now too occupied with events in Europe to pay much attention to China. Suddenly, from the Europeans' point of view, their large but relatively insignificant investments in China seemed paltry compared to the expenses and hardships of conducting war. Had Yuan Shikai been able to harmonize things domestically, it is possible he could have enabled China to emerge in 1918 in a much stronger position than it had occupied in 1914. This didn’t happen. Yuan’s leadership was not up for the task.

At the same time, WWI created a new problem for China in the international arena: the rising regional power of Japan. Japan had been growing progressively stronger and the war gave it space to consolidate its regional power in East Asia. In 1915, Japan took a huge step in this direction by issuing to China the so-called “Twenty-One Demands.” These demands were even more punitive and exploitative than European demands on China. The course was clearly set; Japan would not accept Chinese territorial sovereignty. 
The result of Yuan’s coup d’état and his bowing to the pressure of the Japanese provoked a severe crisis in confidence in Yuan’s reign as dictatorial president. Faced with this situation, Yuan decided to take the ultra-conservative approach and attempted to recreate some of the structures of Qing rule. He re-embraced Confucianism and went so far as to restore the emperor. But Yuan had badly misjudged the moment. Neither the people nor the military and regional leadership was in any mood for Qing restoration, even in a symbolic sense. Yuan’s hold over the military shattered as regional generals broke from him and aligned against him. Yuan’s death in 1916 propelled events even faster. Yuan’s successor had little chance of holding power now that military support, which had been Yuan’s guarantor, had fractured.

Conservative Qing loyalist General Zhang Xun took power in 1917 and, like Yuan, tried to restore the Qing boy emperor to power. Like Yuan, he failed to win sufficient military support to hold power for long and was soon forced to seek asylum. By the end of WWI, China was a state without any legitimate centralized ruler and without any central organizational structure to replace the Qing Dynasty. The state was in disarray. Regional warlords competed tenaciously for regional and trans-regional sovereignty and tax revenue. Chinese nationalists, who had hoped that the Western entente allies would reward China’s contributions to their side by bolstering China’s domestic sovereignty against foreign incursion and Japanese demands, were deeply disappointed when President Wilson (the architect of national self-determination) agreed with Lloyd George and others to transfer Germany’s China interests to Japan. Demonstrations rocked the city of Beijing as soon as this news was made public. The nationalist movement would commemorate the day of these protests, May 4, 1919, as an important moment in the birth of a renewed push for national self-determination and republican rule. It would be known as the May Fourth Movement.

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