Written by Alex Calvo.

It is sadly still not widely known that thousands of Chinese labourers were recruited to work on the Western Front, undertaking a wide range of tasks, among them unloading military supplies, handling munitions, building barracks and other facilities, digging trenches, constructing fortifications, agriculture, and forest management. Those hired by the UK joined the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC). An important initiative to ensure the Corps is not forgotten is The National Campaign for a Permanent Memorial to the Chinese Labour Corps of the First World War,to be launched this month. Recent years have seen other projects, such as a documentary series by China’s CCTV, introduced with a reminder that “An estimated 145,000 Chinese workers stood shoulder to shoulder with British and French soldiers during the conflict from 1914 to 1918. More than 20,000 of them were killed”.

At the international level, the outcome of the First World War was frustrating for China. Despite being on the winning side and a participant in the Versailles Peace negotiations, China found herself unable to secure any significant goal. Japan, a more powerful and cohesive state which had entered the war earlier, preempted Chinese moves and succeeded Germany in rights in China and a number of Pacific Ocean islands. The 62-strong delegation was hit by the revelation of Japan’s confidential agreements with France, Great Britain and Italy, on the one hand, and then Prime Minister Duan Qirui on the other. US President Wilson, originally sympathetic to China, agreed on 30 April 1919 with French PM Georges Clemenceau and British PM David Lloyd George to the transfer of all German rights in Shandong Province to Japan. This inflamed Chinese public opinion and prompted many protests. Enraged, Chinese students in Paris surrounded the hotel where the Chinese delegation was staying to prevent it from signing the Peace Treaty, a decision already taken by the government in Beijing, which sent a telegram to that effect. Mass demonstrations in Beijing on 4 May would give name to a movement which sought to renew China and raise her to the position of equal among other international powers. One of its immediate consequences was the emergence of a new standard for the written language, based on the modern Beijing dialect and which would replace classical Chinese.

Thus, China’s intervention in the First World War, while contributing to the Allied victory thanks to the efforts of thousands of workers, failed to secure for Beijing any significant geopolitical gains. Furthermore, by boosting Japan and weakening the British Empire and Francce it could perhaps even been argued that the war facilitated the later clash between the two Asian giants. In its wake, London put an end to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, sided with the United States, and started work on a new naval base in Singapore, designed to provide a measure of deterrence at an affordable cost.

The Great War, however, transformed the life of many Chinese, both members of the Labour Corps and students and intellectuals at home, and helped develop the conscience that the country needed to become stronger and renew itself in order to be treated as an equal in the international sphere. It was yet another reminder, following less than a generation after the First Sino-Japanese War, that unlike her smaller neighbour to the East, China had not yet been able to transform herself into a modern nation state and gain a measure of recognition as an equal by the leading Western powers of the time. The eagerness with which many illiterate members of the CLC attended classes, with an estimated two thirds achieving some measure of literacy, and their contact with a very different reality abroad (even if at war and subject to segregation rules), meant much higher expectations on their return.

The importance of commemorating the First World War and of highlighting their national contribution has not gone unnoticed in Beijing, New Delhi, or Tokyo. The fact that these three major Asian powers, competitors and often involved in border incidents on land or at sea (with a trend toward greater security and defence cooperation between India and Japan), fought on the same side in the Great War is a two-edged sword. It could have led to coordinated efforts and even have provided, in the case of China and Japan, a counterpart to other historical episodes acting as major obstacles to reconciliation. On the other, it could simply become yet another arena for competition, an area, like space and the Polar Regions, where the three countries try to outbid one another, neither frontally clashing nor truly cooperating. Although there is still time to see a measure of cooperation before 2018, the beginning of the centennial seems to confirm that competition, rather than cooperation, is likely to prevail. Furthermore, in the case of Beijing and Tokyo, it would not be surprising to see Chinese authorities respond to Japanese moves to highlight their contribution and use it to reinforce relations with countries like Australia. This could involve claiming that while China’s Labour Corps was a sincere move to help the democratic powers, coming from a nascent democracy which had just overthrown an old regime, Meiji Japan’s clearing of German positions in Asia and escort duties in the Mediterranean and other theatres was meant to pave the way for her subsequent territorial expansion. From a historical point of view, a measure of competition can be good if it provides additional momentum to efforts at remembrance. Not so much if this is taken to an extreme and the public becomes suspicious that history has just become a political football.

Alex Calvo is guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) and tweets @Alex__Calvo