China, the West and “The Shandong Syndrome” (I)

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Communist Confucius

This is the first of a series of four posts on Chinese modern history about the Shandong Problem. Both the Nanking Massacre and the Shandong Problem are two important historical events –the former explains Chinese censorship and economic backwardness; the later, the formation of the Chinese Communist Party.

Introduction: “The Shandong Problem”

Up to 2013 Qingdao (or Tsingtao), the biggest city in Shandong province, was reputed for having the most flood resistant sewage system in China. In Yunnan rats usually swim all across cities from outside their dark dwellings, whereas in Hunan young girls accidentally fall down inside them. Guangzhou’s oblong streets have no gutters, but some genius decided to put the sewer just in the middle of the road’s belly –the exact place with no water at all. Qingdao’s sewer system built during German occupation (1898-1914) has kept its citizens safe from Neptune’s wrath. Some time ago Chinese media started a new campaign on Qingdao’s sewer system, because it was not so patriotic to say that the best system in the country was actually built by the same imperialists we all despise day after day. So they started to report that, although the Germans did most of them, the most important parts of the sewerage were in fact built, yeah, you guessed it right, in 1949, the same very year the Chinese Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China. I guess they used up all their scatological technology and engineers, because they have never been able to do it again.

German occupation of Qingdao came to an end in 1914, but it was not effective until after the Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919. This was a time when Chinese people were –rightly– debating about the future of Shandong province, because Japan wanted to occupy it after Germany. For most Chinese citizens, that was also the time when the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the “Obama of the 20th century,” betrayed his promise to return Shandong to the Chinese.

Today we know, however, that most of this anti-American propaganda was false and there was no treason at all. Despite Wilson’s attempts to negotiate with the Japanese, Tokyo had presented its “Twenty-One Demans” on January 18, 1915, trying to take German-controlled territories as a payoff for their losses after their conflict with Germany during World War I. On March 30 the U.S. government, aware of the one-sided decisions Japan was trying to carry on, sent an official complain to Tokyo, but it was all for nothing: Japan negotiated in secret with Chinese politicians and warlords and their delegation in Paris ended up rejecting the Treaty. This was seen as an opportunity for the Bolsheviks in Russia, who wrote a pamphlet charging Western imperialists –America, England and France– with mistreatment of the Chinese people and asking the country to redeem itself through an anti-imperialist revolution. Russia had sown the seeds of Communism, and the plant was about to flourish very soon.

At the time of the 1919 crisis China was immersed in a period of fast changes and foreign influences under the leadership of a young man, Chen Duxiu –Dean of Humanities at Peking University, former terrorist, prostitute attacker, and the future founder of the Chinese Communist Party. Peking University hosted both John Dewey and Bertrand Russell after the Treaty, two renowned philosophers at the time, but none of them could provide Chen Duxiu and his acolytes with an “anti-imperialist philosophy.” As one biographer has explained, the failure of Wilson’s democracy and the hypocrisy of the West with the Treaty of Versailles led Chen Duxiu to the one and only possible solution for the philosophical crisis of China: Marxism, an anti-Western Western system of thought.

Ex post facto, the “Shandong Question” is one of the inflection points used to justify the “Red August” holocaust during the Cultural Revolution, as it has been pointed out by Bruce A. Elleman:

“The Chinese and Soviet portrayal of the Shandong question was as persuasive and widely accepted as it was wrong. Their ad hominem attacks on Western activities in China paved the way for China’s choice of the communist road to modernity, a road ultimately paved with the corpses of tens if not hundreds of millions of Chinese.”

It is at this point that we can also find a rather odd schizophrenia which I call the “Shandong Syndrome”: the May Fourth Movement, a youth revolutionary movement that was intrinsically anti-Confucian and yet, at the same time, wanted to recover Shandong because it was the native place of Confucius.

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