By Pat Welsh, contributor

On July 28, 1914, World War I broke out in Europe, which spread to other continents soon thereafter.  During the following month Japan’s Prime Minister Ōkuma Shigenobu directed Foreign Minister Kato Taka-aki to throw Japan’s lot with Britain and France against the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary.  The motivation for this lay not so much with the idea of helping Britain and France as it was to head off any future objections that Britain might have toward advancing Japan’s future activities in China.  It was hoped that Britain would provide diplomatic interference for a Japanese seizure and permanent possession of all German mandates and leaseholds in the Pacific and in China.

Hard pressed as Britain was, she refused to give Japan a carte-blanche for these planned seizures.  In October 1914, Japan went ahead anyway.  Japanese Imperial Marines took over nominally German islands in the western Pacific.  At the same time, units of the Japanese army landed on the Shandong Peninsula, fanned out and mounted a campaign to take over the German-held port city of Qingdao.  In the process, they seized the entire Shandong Peninsula. 

In December 1914, China’s President Yuan Shikai diplomatically advised Tokyo that since its campaign in the Shandong Peninsula had been completed, Japanese troops should stop parading themselves across Chinese territory, and that the Japanese forces should be restricted to police activities in the former German leaseholds.  Japan’s reaction to this admonition from President Yuan was an expression of indignation from  Foreign Minister Kato.  This was followed up by a note delivered directly to President Yuan by Hioki Eki, Japanese  Minister to China, on January 18, 1915, for the purpose of “clarifying the situation.”  Suggestive of intimidation, the papers upon which these documents were submitted were watermarked with images of machine guns and dreadnoughts.

This note, which was accompanied by several reference documents, came to be known as The Twenty-One Demands.  These documents explained and clarified what was to be demanded of China.  The 21 demands have been broken down into five groups:
1.    Regarding Qingdao:  China was to accept whatever settlement Japan might make with Germany.  China must also let Japan build and operate a 200-mile long railroad inland from Qingdao to Jinan, thereby cutting the Shandong territory strategically into two halves.
2.    Regarding Manchuria:  China must extend the Japanese lease there another 99 years.  China also must give Japan veto power and first-option rights in all future economic development in that region.
3.    Regarding finance:  China must first come to Japan for all future loans.  China also must deliver as collateral for past loans supervisory control of Chinese industry.
4.    Regarding the European Powers:  China must cede no more harbors, islands or bays to “the barbarian powers.”
5.    As to China’s future:  China must employ Japanese advisors for all important political, financial and military development programs.  China also must purchase more than 50 percent of her army and naval supplies in Japan.  Furthermore, China must allow Japan to build and operate a network of railroads in Central China.

In effect, these demands, if met, had a serious potential of rendering China into little more than a puppet state of Japan. 

When Foreign Minister Kato presented these demands to President Yuan, he advised Yuan to keep them secret – especially the fifth set.  Showing some backbone, President Yuan promptly leaked them to America’s ambassador in Beijing.  The result was Kato’s being embarrassed by his receipt of diplomatic inquiries from all over the world.  Kato thereupon responded to the Western Powers with a summary of the first four groups of demands but a denial of the fifth group.  To China, Kato responded with the dispatch of 30,000 troop reinforcements for Japan’s continental garrisons. 

After President Yuan continued to resist these demands, Foreign Minister Kato advised him on May 7, 1915, that the fifth set could be delayed for future negotiations.  Additionally, Kato warned China that if China did not agree to the first four sets of demands in 48 hours, Japan would begin an invasion of China.  Under this threat, President Yuan gave in on May 9, but made it known to all that he had acted under duress.  There exists some speculation that Yuan Shikai may have used this threat of Japanese expansion to try and to obtain Japanese support for his (Yuan’s) own plans to establish his monarchical ambitions.  Yu Huiyuan in his “History of China’s Rebirth” [ Zhongguo Zaizaoshi] claimed that Yuan had said that he would comply with Japan’s 21 demands if Japan would support a monarchical system in China.  As these diplomatic discussions were held in secret, this speculation cannot be verified.  What did happen was that Japanese Premier Ōkuma later did give an interview that appeared to be a lure for Yuan’s cooperation with the demands.  In this interview, Ōkuma expressed support for Yuan’s ambitionsambitions, as such an event would create two closely aligned political systems.  

Even if Yuan’s supporters went along with Yuan’s decision, the Chinese population as a whole felt humiliated and their frustration showed itself in mini-movements and an angry press. Seeing from the Chinese press that Japan had only won a Pyrrhic victory in China, Japan’s Army Chief Yamagata used his political resources to force Foreign Minister Kato to resign in September 1915.  Yamagata had hoped for a strong Japanese-Chinese alliance against the West. With The Twenty-One Demands, Yamagata’s anti-Western dreams had evaporated. 

After President Yuan’s death in June 1916 and during the peace negotiations at Versailles in 1918-1919, Chinese negotiators, with the help of pressure upon Japan from the United States and Europe, were able to recover a substantial part of the ground that Yuan Shikai had temporarily conceded to Japan.  Nonetheless, the Japanese seizure of German interests in China remained despite Chinese objections.  The attempt to re-establish their pre-war colonial policies at the Paris Peace Conference resulted in a deep sense of despair in China, with nationalist feelings running higher than ever before.

Western support for Japan’s seizures of German territories in Shandong and Manchuria served as a primary motivation for the next great event of Chinese history – the May Fourth Incident, which will be  in next month, in the wider context of The May Fourth Movement.

(1)  Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy by David Bergamini, Wiiliam Morrow & Co. Inc 1971 as reprinted by Pocket Books, a division of Simon and Schuster in New York, 1972.  (2) The Political History of China, 1842-1928 by Li Qiannong, translated and edited by Deng Siyu and Jeremy Ingalls, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1956  (3)  The May Fourth Movement, Intellectual Revolution in Modern China by Chou Zezong, Stanford University Press,  Stanford, California, 1959.  Also included are the Twenty-One Demands themselves.

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