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OPINION

How Woodrow Wilson betrayed China and helped give rise to the Chinese Communist Party

Wilson’s abandonment of his own ideals spurred China to turn away from American democracy and toward Soviet communism.

A child holds a Chinese flag near the museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party during a media tour organized by the local government in Shanghai on June 22, 2021, ahead of the 100th anniversary of the party's founding on July 1.
A child holds a Chinese flag near the museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party during a media tour organized by the local government in Shanghai on June 22, 2021, ahead of the 100th anniversary of the party's founding on July 1.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

One hundred years ago, in July 1921, a band of conspirators met secretly in the Bower School for Girls on a quiet, tree-lined street in Shanghai. The school was closed for the summer months, and by meeting in the French Concession, beyond Chinese law, the conspirators hoped they could avoid arrest. They had come to convene the first Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the anniversary of which will soon be celebrated with fanfare throughout China.

But our story begins two years earlier, on May 4, 1919, the day when the news of what many Chinese perceived as Woodrow Wilson’s betrayal at the Paris Peace Conference reached China, causing widespread riots and demonstrations across the land. Wilson’s Fourteen Points, Four Principles, and Five Particulars of 1918 had electrified Chinese intellectuals. They saw Wilson as their great hope for throwing off the foreign imperialism that had divided China into concessions and treaty ports where Chinese writ did not run.

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But when Wilson agreed to let the Japanese keep the Shandong concession that they had captured from the Germans in World War I, seemingly betraying all his talk about self-determination and consent of the governed, China reacted with fury.

Why did Wilson do it? Why did he betray his ideals? Shandong was clearly Chinese, the birthplace of Confucius and Mencius. With Germany defeated, it clearly should have gone back to China, never mind the secret treaties that promised it to Japan. Most of Wilson’s own delegation was horrified. Some resigned. The best explanation is that Japan said it would refuse to join his League of Nations if it were denied Shandong, and a League of Nations was Wilson’s great hope of preserving peace and avoiding another world war. Japan was too important to his League, so he betrayed China and his ideals.

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The May Fourth Movement, that great self-examining of China and its place in the world, began on that day. But what passed forever on that day was what Harvard’s Erez Manela called the Wilsonian Moment — the moment in which Wilson’s idealism and American-style democracy might have prevailed. From that day forward, belief in Wilsonian ideals — and by extension, an American model of democracy — began to fade, as Chinese intellectuals began looking toward the Soviet Union for inspiration. For the Soviets had renounced all their concessions in China and came down hard against colonialism everywhere.

That first Congress of the Chinese Communist Party had an element of farce. There were 13 Chinese, some of whom had scant idea of what communism was all about, and two Europeans sent by Joseph Stalin, then a member of Russia’s newly formed Communist Party, to guide them. There were scarcely 60 party members in all of China at the time.

The conspirators had been meeting in a nearby house when a stranger walked in off the street. Fearing he might be a police spy, they moved the first Congress to a boat on a nearby lake where mahjong tiles were rattled to deceive passers-by into thinking the conspirators were playing mahjong instead of plotting China’s future.

The birth of the party was painful. The CCP had a near-death experience at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek in 1927 but escaped on the epic Long March to reform in the north of China, surviving the Japanese invasion, World War II, and the Chinese Civil War until finally taking power in 1949.

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Would that little band of conspirators meeting in Shanghai a century ago have grown into the great competitor and rival of the United States in the 21st century if Wilson had thrown his weight in China’s favor at the Paris Peace Conference following World War I? Impossible to say for sure, but Wilson’s decision certainly influenced the course of Chinese history.

Today, the pink and gray brick building where that first CCP conference met has become a shrine, with life-size statues of the conspirators, and a guard to ensure that the faithful do not take splinters from the true table where they met. Pilgrims come from all over China to see where it all began. The nearby Bower School today houses a museum shop, a joint venture with Disney, and there is a silhouette of Mickey Mouse in the window.

H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe and author of “Loaded With Dynamite: Unintended Consequences of Woodrow Wilson’s Idealism.”