[Photo story] The establishment of the United Nations and its significance to China

The establishment of the United Nations was a major step towards forging a new world order after the chaos of World War II. For China, it was a chance to recover from the humiliation of the two Opium Wars, the First Sino-Japanese War and World War II, where it was forced to cede territory and submit to Western powers. Not only was China able to sign equal treaties to take back its land, it became a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and took its place on the world stage.
12 May 1945, San Francisco — During the meeting of the UN Conference on International Organization (UNCIO), delegates of four countries who would serve and sit on the UN Security Council look over a document: (from left) British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Robert Anthony Eden, US Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vycheslav M. Molotov and Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Soong Tzu-wen.
12 May 1945, San Francisco — During the meeting of the UN Conference on International Organization (UNCIO), delegates of four countries who would serve and sit on the UN Security Council look over a document: (from left) British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Robert Anthony Eden, US Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vycheslav M. Molotov and Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Soong Tzu-wen.

(All images courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.) 

World War II was a big opportunity for China to change its fate. Apart from armed conflicts on the battlefield, the new post-war world order was also shaped on the diplomatic "battlefield", and one of the key events was the establishment of the United Nations (UN).

On 7 July 1937, when the Marco Polo Bridge incident broke out, China was in fact already on track in its development — the economy, society, culture and education were all thriving, and it even had a decent army with modern equipment and training. However, China was still hampered by the humiliating unequal treaties it previously signed with various powers, and World War II was an opportunity for China to break free of these contraints.

In 1842, after the First Opium War, China ceded Hong Kong to Britain and was forced to allow the various powers to have consular jurisdiction. In 1860, after the Second Opium War, Britain and France held concessions in China’s major cities, even as China ceded large tracts of territory to Russia, which claimed to be a mediator. And in 1895, after losing the First Sino-Japanese War, China ceded Taiwan to Japan. China in the old days lost nearly every fight it was in, and became a target of bullying by the various powers.

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A photo of the Eight-Nation Alliance army entering Beijing in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, when China faced a crisis of being carved up.
boxer rebellion
In September 1900, the Qing court issued an imperial edict to blame the Boxers for instigating the killing of foreigners, and vowed to cooperate with the Eight-Power Allied Forces to quell the rebellion. Arrested Boxers were put in yokes before being executed. The government evaded responsibility for its earlier support for the Boxer Rebellion.

The worst humiliation was the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). After the Eight-Nation Alliance — Britain, the US, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the Austro-Hungarian Empire — occupied Beijing, they drew up spheres of influence throughout China. If it were not for the conflicts of interest and second-guessing among those countries, China might have been carved apart.

The Qing government signed the humiliating Boxer Protocol, where it had to pay heavy reparations and was forced to allow various countries to station troops in Beijing. Subsequently, it was common to see foreign armies carrying out troop movements and exercises in China’s capital and major cities. China totally lost its sovereignty and dignity.

boxer rebellion
After the Boxer Rebellion ended in 1915, according to the Boxer Protocol, the Beijing Legation Quarter was planned by a public agency in charge of managing embassies. Besides the city wall and moat to the south, brick walls over ten Chinese feet (3.3 metres) high were built to the east, north and west. Ditches were dug outside the walls, with “eight towers all around, each with metal gates”. This photo is a view of Chongwen Gate Tower as seen from within the east gate of East Jiaomin Lane (東交民巷), showing the Beijing Legation Quarter as a fortified area with the armies of various countries stationed there.
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Austro-Hungarian troops holding exercises in the Austro-Hungarian embassy, 1915. It was common to see troops of various countries conducting training and exercises in the Legation Quarter.
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Japanese troops holding exercises outside the Beijing city wall, 1935.
US barracks
The US military camp in Beijing city, 1915. It was located on the west side of the US embassy, originally with east and west barracks, both one-storey buildings linked by a corridor. To expand its troops in China, in 1918, the US built a new barracks on the site of the old west barracks, and made it a four-storey building.
US embassy
A Christmas celebration at the US embassy in Beijing, 1915. Two giant US flags are hung at the door, along with light decorations. This door still exists today, leading to a leisure facility built on the site of the embassy.
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A Western-style hotel called the Grand Hotel des Wagon-Lits on the east side of the Jade River (玉河) in Beijing. It was built by a Belgian sleeping-car service company in 1901. The two-storey brick building is in the traditional European style, classic and imposing. In 1905, the hotel was rebuilt with funds from Britain, France, the US, Germany, Japan and Russia, and named the Six Nations Hotel (六国饭店). It had four storeys above ground and one level below, with over 200 rooms, making it the most luxurious hotel in Beijing and one of the city’s tallest Western-style buildings at the time. The hotel was a gathering spot for envoys, officials and members of the upper class of various countries to stay, eat and entertain.
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In 1915, Beijing had a sizeable foreign community. The photo shows a family of foreigners heading to the West Zhengyang Gate train station.

In 1911, the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Qing dynasty and the government of the republic was established. The rebels’ objective was to oppose imperialism, take back lost territory and concessions, and restore national sovereignty. The powers sympathised with China’s revolution, but had no intention at all of giving up their privileges in China.

With Japan stepping up its occupation of China, there were conflicts of interest in China between Japan and the Western powers. China saw Japan as its main enemy and joined with the West against Japan, while asking the West to give up their privileges in China. Amid the ruthless bombings by Japanese aircraft in the early stages of Japan’s occupation of China, refugees from Shanghai flooded into the concessions to avoid the bombing.

nanjing massacre
The Nanjing Massacre, 1937. Japanese soldiers stab Chinese POWs with bayonets, and order new recruits to practice bayoneting the Chinese. This photo was taken by a Japanese army doctor and released only after the war. The horrific scene shocked the international community.

During the Nanjing Massacre, the International Red Cross set up the Nanjing Safety Zone, providing safe haven for many refugees in Nanjing. So, while China was fighting alone, the concessions provided the Chinese civilians with a special safety zone, because the Japanese troops generally did not enter the concessions, for fear of sparking any diplomatic row. However, when Japan declared war on Britain and the US and started to capture concessions in China, there was a fundamental change in the international political and military environment.

In December 1941, the Pacific War broke out, and on 1 January 1942, the anti-fascist “Big Four” — the US, China, Britain, the Soviet Union — signed the Declaration by United Nations in Washington, followed by 22 other countries. The document said that “complete victory over their enemies is essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice in their own lands as well as in other lands…” The declaration by this alliance and the subsequent planning was the beginning of the UN.

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In January 1940, at a flag presentation ceremony in Chongqing, the city presented to the Soviet air force volunteer team a pennant with the words “Protect Peace”. In the early stages of China’s war efforts, the Soviet Union sent many aviation volunteers to China, the only country to provide direct assistance.

In 1942, the Axis powers advanced quickly in the Eurasian theatre, while the Allies repeatedly retreated in defeat. Previously, France fell to the Nazi German troops within just two months, and Japan easily took over France’s colonies in East Asia, while the US also lost its colony of the Philippines. Britain lost colonies like Hong Kong, the Malayan peninsula, Singapore and Myanmar, while British India was also in danger of Japanese attack.

As for the British Isles on the other side of the world, it faced ceaseless bombardment from German aircraft, which threatened its very survival. However, even as China went through its toughest time in its war of resistance, it was also the best opportunity for it to recover its sovereignty.

China saw its chance and took it

In January 1943, China signed new equal treaties with Britain and the US, revoking the privileges the latter gained after violating China’s sovereignty, including stationing troops, concessions and commercial privileges. As France was then under the Nazis, the new treaty with France was not signed until 1946.

After the spring of 1943, the Allies turned the tide and gained the advantage, and at the end of the year, the Big Four held the Cairo Conference and the Tehran Conference, to plan the post-war situation. So, the Chinese people’s struggle for freedom was not just a fight against the occupation by Japan, but also against the fetters and humiliation thrown on the Chinese by a century of Western imperialism and colonialism.

treaty
In January 1943 in Washington, the ambassador of the Republic of China to the US Wei Tao-ming and US Secretary of State Cordell Hull signed the Sino-American Treaty for the Relinquishment of Extraterritorial Rights in China, revoking the Boxer Protocol and other unequal treaties forced on China.
treaty
On 11 January 1943 in Chongqing, Chinese Foreign Minister Soong Tzu-wen (right) and British representative Horace James Seymour signed the Sino-British Treaty for the Relinquishment of Extra-Territorial Rights in China.
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In February 1946, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Shi-jie (signee) and the French ambassador to China Jacques Meyrier signed the Sino-French Treaty for Relinquishment of Extra-territoriality and Related Rights in China. The French and Chinese retroactively signed the treaty after the Second World War as France was occupied by Germany during the war.
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A victory parade in Chongqing, 3 September 1945. The female soldiers in the US jeep leading the parade have caught the celebratory atmosphere among the Chinese.

In early 1945, World War II entered its final phases. On 25 April, the UN Conference on International Organization, or San Francisco Conference, was convened. During the meeting, 50 governments and non-government organisations drafted the UN Charter, which was signed on 25 June by the delegates in a solemn ceremony, formally establishing this international organisation that determined the new post-war world order.

The first UN general assembly saw 51 delegates, with the inclusion of Poland. It declared ideals and objectives such as peace, human rights and education, symbolising new hope for humankind. The victors of World War II — the US, the UK, the Soviet Union, China and France — became the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The Chinese delegation included two Chinese Communist Party members, and according to alphabetical order, China was the first country to sign the charter.

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On 1 May 1945, at the UN Conference on International Organization (UNCIO) for discussing the founding of the United Nations (UN) after the war began in San Francisco, China sent an 11-person delegation, led by Foreign Minister Soong Tzu-wen. The photograph shows Soong speaking on behalf of the Chinese government at the conference. In the back on the left side of the chairperson’s platform is Alger Hiss, secretary-general of the conference. On the right, US Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr is taking a drink of water.
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26 June 1945, San Francisco — Wu Yi-fang, principal of Ginling Women’s College and a member of the Chinese delegation, is signing the UN Charter, becoming the first female delegate to sign the UN document. Standing next to her is Alger Hiss, executive secretary of the conference. Standing at the back row (from left) is Wei Tao-min, ambassador of the Republic of China to the US ; Wang Chun-hui, president of the People’s Political Council; V.K. Wellington Koo, ambassador of the Republic of China to the UK; Hu Lin, editor-in-chief of the Ta Kung Pao; Dong Biwu, representative of the Chinese Communist Party; and Chang Chun-mai (Zhang Junmai), representative of the China Democratic Socialist Party.
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26 June 1945, San Francisco — At the UNCIO meeting, V.K. Wellington Koo, ambassador of the Republic of China (ROC) and chief delegate of the ROC delegation, is signing the UN Charter. Standing behind him (from left) are Alger Hiss, executive secretary of the conference; Hu Lin, editor-in-chief of the Ta Kung Pao; Dong Biwu, representative of the Chinese Communist Party, Chang Chun-mai (Zhang Junmai), representative of the China Democratic Socialist Party; and Li Huang, representative of the China Youth Party.
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26 June 1945, San Francisco — US Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr, chief delegate of the US delegation to the UNCIO meeting, is signing the UN Charter. Standing next to him is US President Harry S. Truman.
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26 June 1945, San Francisco — Andrei A Gromyko, Soviet ambassador to the US, is signing the UN Charter at the UNCIO conference.
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5 July 1945, San Francisco — At the UNCIO meeting, Earl Halifax, chief delegate and British ambassador to the US, is signing the UN Charter. Standing further left in the back row is Alger Hiss, executive secretary of this conference.
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4 July 1945, San Francisco — Joseph Paul-Boncour, former French prime minister and chief delegate of the provisional French state, is signing the UN Charter at the UNCIO meeting.
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24 August 1945, Chongqing — In his residence in Chongqing, President Chiang Kai-shek signs the ratification of the UN Charter, formally confirming the Republic of China to be a member of the United Nations and further to be a permanent member of the Security Council.

Eight years earlier, China had lost its territory and had its land occupied by various powers; now, it had not only taken back all its lost land (except for Hong Kong), but it was a permanent member of the UN Security Council, with significant international influence. In the history of the world, it is rare to see such a huge change. However, in terms of China’s history, it had restored the international status it had before 1842 and the First Opium War — it had taken a whole century to rise again after falling.

Also, even with the establishment of the UN, the tussling between the powers did not end, and countries continued to strengthen and weaken. After World War II, there was a historical trend for colonies to pursue independence. France resorted to military suppression and suffered humiliating losses in Indochina and North Africa, while Britain moved with the times and gradually pulled out of its various colonies. The global territories of the British Empire shrank significantly, and it only wanted to maintain its economic interests, giving up to the US its position as the world’s foremost power.

While France and Britain gradually lost their pre-war global influence, in terms of territory, population, military and overall national strength, and international influence, the US, China and Russia have remained the three heavyweight countries. This paradigm was largely decided by the time of World War II in the middle of the 20th century.

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A poster in conjunction with the Declaration of United Nations, 1942, with the words “United we are strong, united we will win”. The “Big Four” are represented by the cannons in the middle, as all the cannons take aim at the Axis powers.
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A poster in conjunction with the Declaration of United Nations, 1942, with the words “The United Nations fight for freedom”. At the bottom are Allied vessels and aircraft, with the flags of the first 26 countries that signed the declaration on the top.
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A poster in conjunction with the Declaration of United Nations, 1942, with the words “The United Nations fight for freedom”. On the left is Lady Liberty, the symbol of the American spirit; in the middle are the flags of the first 26 countries that signed the declaration. In the top row from left to right are the US, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and China.
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A poster in conjunction with the Declaration of United Nations, 1942, with the words “The United Nations fight for freedom”. The main image is Lady Liberty and the flags of the first 26 countries that signed the declaration. In the top row from left to right are the US, Britain and the Soviet Union, and the first from left in the second row is China.

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