Lest we forget… a lesson from history…

140,000 patriotic Chinese volunteered to go to the Western Front in World War 1 to help the British and the French dig trenches and perform other manual work. This was because they thought that Western democracies would appreciate their sacrifices and reward China justly after the war for her contribution.

China had been the richest and most powerful nation on earth for many centuries. However, by the time of the later Qing Dynasty China had lost two Opium wars against the British, leading to a downhill slide into semi-colonialism for the country. This period saw China being carved up like a melon by western powers and suffering one hundred years of humiliation. Foreigners were not subject to Chinese laws. Japan, Russia, Britain, France and Germany forced China to agree to a series of treaties creating European concessions like Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Qingdao.

By 1912 China threw off the feudal dynastic yoke and declared itself a republic with the desire to modernise along western lines. However, with the threat of Warlordism and the continued colonial desires of the Western Powers (including Japan) the Chinese people suffered political chaos, economic weakness, and social misery. But this was also a period of excitement, hope, and high expectations- because China believed it could use the war to reshape the geopolitical balance of power and attain equality with European nations.

This dream was to be dashed as China was isolated at the Versailles conference and Shandong Province (a German concession) was awarded to the Japanese rather than be handed back. This deeply angered the Chinese, especially its student population and the country’s intellectuals. Feeling betrayed and questioning the equity of democracies, the May Fourth (intellectual and political) Movement was formed.

This Movement saw Chinese intellectuals questioning the wisdom of adopting western-style democracy in China. How can western democratic countries have engaged in such a destructive world war where so much was sacrificed, and for what purpose – was this the Will of the People? This questioning led directly to the rise of socialism and the Communist Movement in China. The consequence of this repulse towards democracies still holds significance for China and the world today.

Marching down Whitehall toward the Cenotaph on this Armistice Day Parade, representing the Chinese LibDems to pay my respect to the fallen and the Chinese Labour Corps, I remind myself of the importance of this coming general election on 12 December. Events have unintended consequences, and with Brexit and the rise of populist politicians in the UK and around the world we are again at a critical point in history. We need to choose between hate, ignorance and intolerance on the one hand and openness, optimism and inclusivity on the other. Liberal forces need to unite to prevent us repeating the great mistakes of the past. We are fighting for the soul not just of the UK but the whole world: Britain needs to be a beacon for democracy, justice, equity, openness and tolerance.

* Dr George Lee is the Liberal Democrat PPC for Westminster North and a member of Chinese Liberal Democrats.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • lloyd harris 12th Nov '19 - 12:55pm

    Thank you for shedding a light on yet another part of forgotten history

  • David Evans 12th Nov '19 - 5:57pm

    A timely reminder of how quickly politicians forget and sacrifice allies for a quick short term fix on the road to long term disaster.

    Thank you.

  • Doug Chisholm 13th Nov '19 - 8:13am

    My girlfriend is from Taiwan but we had no idea about the Chinese involvement in WW1. The tragic retrenchment of authoritarian Communism in China is the biggest threat to regional an world peace today. It is going to be a long march to democracy.

  • The WW1 Chinese Labour corps members were paid a shilling a day. They earned their money my grandfather told me. There is a memorial in France for those who didn’t make it back.

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