In a landmark visit, senior Chinese diplomat Li Zhaoxing is set to travel to France to attend a first world war memorial event, ending a century of oblivion about the fate of thousands of Chinese labourers sent to Europe during the conflict.
The former foreign minister and spokesman of the National People’s Congress is leading the nation’s first official delegation to attend a war memorial, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Tuesday.
The event is set to mark the anniversary of the war's outbreak one hundred years ago this month.
The first world war began on July 28, 1914, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, triggering a series of war declarations around the continent and ushering one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.
While China remained neutral in the war until 1917, Chinese government front companies and private recruiters hired hundreds of thousands of workers to work for Russia, Great Britain, France and the United States – in work sites in Europe and the Middle East – starting in 1915.
Thousands died and little remains known about those who went to work for Tsarist Russia and for Britain in the Middle East. Over the last years, however, the 140,000 Chinese workers who worked for France, Britain and the US on the Western front have been rediscovered by historians as well as the Chinese government.
For several years, Chinese resident diplomats have paid respects to the workers during the Tomb Sweeping Festival, the traditional Chinese festival to commemorate the dead, said Xu Guoqi, a history professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War.
“This year is the centenary of the [first world war] and it makes sense for the Chinese government to do something to accommodate the event,” he said.
François Godement, professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris, said China’s renewed interest in that war had was sparked by present-day objectives.
“This will resonate with the new accent put by the Chinese government on history as a tool of public diplomacy and propaganda, as it uses them against today’s Japan,” he said.
“The main historical lesson from some Chinese participation in the conflict would be about being hostage to the senselessness of militant nationalism,” Godement said.
Li will attend an event on July 14, which is the French national holiday marking the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. China and France also celebrated the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic ties in January this year.
Li is visiting France at the invitation of French President François Hollande in the capacity of a special envoy.