After months of torturous negotiations a compromise agreement was reached but it was an agreement that dissatisfied some and angered others. When the moment came to sign the agreement into law, some politicians refused while their supporters took to the streets, setting off a wave of geopolitical problems that lasted for decades.
Not London 2019 but Versailles 1919.
So how did Lu Zhengxiang, the leader of the Chinese delegation to the Paris peace conference, respond to the political turmoil of his time?
Returning to China, where the political protests against the Versailles peace treaty had evolved into a full scale cultural and political movement for change – the May Fourth Movement – he soldiered on as Foreign Secretary for a while before retiring from frontline domestic politics in 1920, citing “persistent hostility from abroad,” a “lack of support from the Government,” “an accumulation of blunders,” and “the absence of an exalted view and a persevering and co-ordinated campaign for renewing and reconstituting the forces of the nation”
He had domestic problems too – his wife was seriously ill – and so the couple moved to Switzerland where he became Chinese Ambassador. However, when his wife died shortly afterwards, he stepped back even further from the political maelstrom. He became a Benedictine monk in Belgium.
What chance of that among our current political leaders, I wonder?
Thus began years of “almost complete seclusion,” as Lu wrote in his book, Souvenirs et Pensées, translated into English as Ways of Confucius and of Christ. The key word in that phrase is “almost.” When the Japanese took control of Chinese territory in the 1930s, Lu Zhengxiang was spurred into action once more, publishing a booklet about the Manchurian crisis. Then, when the Nazis invaded Belgium, he was expelled from his monastery with the rest of the monks only to have the Gestapo break up a talk he was giving in Bruges. When the war ended he hoped to return to China to “bring to the Far East the monastic work of evangelisation” but death prevented him. It was 1949, the year Mao came to power in China.
Are there any lessons in all this for us today? If there are, I hesitate to draw them because the past never simply repeats itself. The Brexit debate is not the post-war debate and the Chinese situation then is not the British situation now.
However, we can do a lot worse than step back from the turmoil and take the long view, possibly with Lu Zhengxiang as our guide. The past may be a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley reminded us, but the present is beginning to look like one too. Considering the present in the light of the past might just help us find our bearings.