Sincere friends of true communists of China - Eugene Chen family

Eugene Chen: revolutionary and iron-fist diplomat

Eugene Chen (陈友仁), considered by some as China’s “most important diplomat of the 1920s”, was born in Trinidad, then a British colony. His father, Chen Guangquan, known as Achan, was the first revolutionary in the family. Achan took part in the Taiping Rebellion (太平天国运动) against the Qing Dynasty and when the rebellion was crushed by the Manchus, fled the country on a British ship as a stoker which took him to Trinidad.

Eugene was the oldest of Achan's nine children. In 1899, he became the first Chinese lawyer in Trinidad as well as in the Caribbean region, perhaps also in the world. Raised as a Catholic, Eugene did not speak any Chinese. Through his work as a lawyer and property investor, he made a good living in Trinidad.

Eugene Chen. Photo: Courtesy of I-wan Chen

In 1911, when he was living in London, he learned about the revolution in China and decided to come back and serve the country which, despite having never been to, he still considered as his own. He came to Beijing straight from London and worked for the Beiyang Government, then headed by Yuan Shikai (袁世凯), as a legal advisor with the Transportation Ministry. According to I-wan, he submitted his passport to the British Embassy with the words "I am not a British anymore, I am a Chinese."

In 1913, Eugene quit his job with the government and worked as Chief Editor first with the Peking Daily News and then with the Peking Gazette (京报) which he founded. Patriotic and revolutionary, he did what was within his power to support the Chinese revolution, publishing and writing anti-imperialist articles which often contained caustic criticism of the government. These articles brought him to the attention of Sun Yat-sen (孙中山).

In 1915, when Liang Qichao (梁启超), a well-known Chinese scholar and reformist, wrote his famous article 异哉所谓国体问题者against Yuan Shikai’s attempt to revive the Chinese Monarchy, Peking Gazette was the only newspaper to agree to publish it, which was a very brave move. The article was then reprinted by other newspapers and became a big sensation at the time.

On May 18, 1917, he wrote an article titled “Selling China” in which he revealed the secret negotiation between the then premier of Republic of China, warlord Duan Qirui (段祺瑞) and the Japanese on the notorious Twenty-One Demands (二十一条), stirring up a big disturbance in China which landed him in jail. He could have easily avoided the imprisonment by declaring his British citizenship as suggested to him by his friends, but he chose not to do so.

After four months in prison, Eugene was released only to face the closing of his newspaper, another retaliatory act by the government to shut him up. He left Beijing and went south to join Sun Yat-sen. In Shanghai, he established another newspaper Shanghai Gazette (上海时报) as Sun advised, which carried out the same tradition of the Peking Gazette, denouncing the government for yielding to the Japanese imperialists.

In 1918, he joined Sun in Guangzhou, then called Canton, and became his close advisor. To support Sun's revolutionary work, he even persuaded his wife to return to Trinidad and sell all their property.

Eugene Chen. Photo: Courtesy of I-wan Chen

In 1919, he drafted the memorandum which was adopted by the Chinese delegation and submitted to the Versailles Peace Conference in France. While in Paris, he was approached by the Russians who gave him the original copies of the Lansing-Ishii Agreement, a secret agreement between the Americans and the Japanese to transfer the interest of the Germans in Shandong province (山东省) to the Japanese.

Eugene immediately sent one copy to Sun, who published it in China, which was believed to be one of the factors that triggered the history-changing May 4th Movement (五四运动). Another copy was sent to the Republican senator William Borah in the US, and was believed to have played a role in the success of the Republican Party in the coming presidential election.

The famous Three Policies of the Kuomingtang party, “Unite with Russia, Unite with the Communists and Help the Peasants and Workers” (联俄联共,扶助农工) that were issued in 1924 were the brain child of Sun Yat-sen and four KMT veterans, including Eugene Chen, who had become Sun’s close ally and developed a leftist stance of anti-imperialist nationalism and support for Sun's alliance with the Soviet Union. He also drafted Sun’s “Will to Soviet Union”, one of his three wills, the original copy of which was returned to China by the Russian government on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries in 2009.

The apex of Eugene’s diplomatic career came after he became the foreign minister of the Wuhan Government (武汉国民政府). He was mostly remembered for his contribution in recovering the sovereignty of the Hankow & Jiujiang British Concession (汉口、九江英租界) in 1927, which was quite a feat considering China’s weak position at the international stage at the time.

The succesful recovery, to a large extent, was achieved through a clever ruse by Chen. As a lawyer, Eugene knew well that according to the British law, when the property is completely abandoned, the Chinese government has the right to take it back. To that end, he advised to the British who came to him for help fearing for their safety, that they should retreat to their warships on the Yangtze River where they could be protected by the British Navy. So the British left, leaving only the Indian police at the concession who were then invited for drinks and lured away.

The British Government reacted by sending the Indian Fleet to the China Sea, which Eugene had known all along by collecting garbage from the British Consulate and piecing together cables that were sent to London. He knew that the ships would come at the low season which means they cannot came up the river. In the end, the British government was forced to concede and return the sovereignty of the concession back to the Chinese.

In this photo of the third meeting of the second Central Committee of the Kuomingtang on March 10, 1927, Eugene Chen (third from right in the front line) is sitting right in front of Mao Zedong (毛泽东, third from right in the second line). Photo: Courtesy of Chen I-wan

In 1927, Chiang Kai Shek (蒋介石) set up the nationalist government in Nanjing and failed to win the support of Eugene who was loyal to the leftist government in Wuhan. Later that year, he accompanied Song Qingling to Moscow and from there went to Europe. Throughout the rest of his life, he struggled to fight Chiang and his policies which resulted in his repeated exile in Europe during the 1930s.

After the outbreak of China’s war with Japan, Eugene returned to Hong Kong. In 1941, while waiting for a possible appointment as the Chinese representative in the League of Nations, he was captured by the Japanese and put under house arrest. Later he was taken to Shanghai where the Japanese worked hard on him trying to persuade him to take the position of foreign minister in Wang Jingwei’s (汪精卫) puppet government, but without success.

In 1944, Eugene suffered from a tooth illness. A few days after being treated by a Japanese doctor, he passed away. His remains were allegedly reburied in the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery (八宝山革命公墓) in Beijing after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Eugene Chen’s grave at Babaoshan. Photo: Courtesy of Chen I-wan

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