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Mao's China and the United States

Page history last edited by Bob Andrian 7 years, 2 months ago



Mao's China and the United States: 1949-70




The Chinese View of the World After 1949


When Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists triumphed over Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists in 1949, Chiang and the Guomindang had fled to the island of Taiwan about 100 miles east of Fujian province on the mainland. Mao and his fellow Party cadres declared the beginning of the People's Republic of China, which two years ago celebrated its 60th anniversary. (The Chinese Communist Party, rather ideologically bankrupt at this point in terms of its original doctrines, recently enjoyed its 90th birthday in 2011.)


In terms of foreign policy and world view, like Chinese rulers (emperors) before him, Mao and his inner circle had to confront two major questions: how to define China's relationship with the outside world, and what if anything to learn from foreigners. Finding the answers to these questions would be challenging not in the least in part because Mao's vision of China's future centered on continual class struggle, upheaval and revolution in a futile quest for an egalitarian society. As we shall see, cataclysmic episodes such as the Great Leap Forward (and subsequent famine) and the Cultural Revolution succeeded both in isolating China from participating as a nation-state in a stable, international geopolitical system and in poisoning relations with the United States. Mutual misperceptions and misunderstandings of each other's intent during the 20 year period under study this week postponed the arrival a U.S.-China rapprochement until 1970 when preparations for President Nixon's visit to China were underway.


Mao's view of the world in 1949 was rooted in the concept of "Zhongguoism". The greatness and uniqueness of the Chinese people throughout their long history was not lost on Mao. He extolled their achievements, resilience and defiance in the face of adversity, and their self-reliance. Though a number of nations had extended diplomatic recognition to the PRC (USSR and other Soviet satellites, Burma, India, Pakistan, Denmark, Israel, Finland, Sweden, Afghanistan among them), the United States had not. Great Britain had offered, but because they maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which held the Chinese seat on the U.N. Security Council, they were turned down. 


Though Mao was able to secure a military alliance with the Stalin and the Soviet Union, and though Mao warmed ideologically to Stalin's communism, the two men were circumspect and somewhat wary when it came to diplomatic relations. Stalin's monolithic understanding of communism with Russia at the center and every other communist state (including China) as a satellite on the periphery did not sit well with Mao. Nor did the idea of Soviet troops on the Mongolian and Xinjiang borders of China. And when Mao had to agree to Outer Mongolia as an independent state along with concessions in natural resources in both Manchuria and Xinjiang in return for the Sino-Soviet alliance, he felt especially peeved. This video follows Mao's visit to Russia and subsequent events in China in the 1950s:



Despite border disputes with India in the Tibetan Himalayan region, an immediate goal of the PRC was territorial consolidation and that meant bringing an autonomous Tibet back into China proper where it belonged. That also meant, of course, doing the same with the renegade province of Taiwan. The former objective would prove far easier than the latter, needless to say. In October, 1950, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) "liberated" Tibet from "imperialist oppression," even as Tibetans wondered, "Liberation from whom and what? Ours was a happy country with a solvent government." Without any British or United Nations intervention, the process of liberating Tibet went quickly. (Spence, 500) It would go even more rapidly and violently ten years later as the PRC put down Tibetan uprisings, destroyed innumerable monasteries and forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India. And in China proper, Christian missionaries were expelled from China in 1950, and Chinese Catholic bishops and archbishops were incarcerated in prisons and labor camps.


Beyond the world of Tibet and Taiwan, Mao's foreign policy was characterized, in Henry Kissinger's words by 


a special style that substituted ideological militancy and psychological perception for physical strength [China was exceedingly weak in terms of military technology, equipment, etc.]. It was composed of a Sinocentric view of the world, a touch of world revolution, and a diplomacy using the Chinese tradition of manipulating the barbarians, with great attention paid to meticulous planning and the psychological domination of the other side. (Kissinger, 100)


As the self-proclaimed leader of the Non-Aligned Movement of nations---many newly independent Third World nations in Asia and Africa saw "non-white" China as a potential ally---that professed neutrality in the Soviet-American Cold War, China attempted to play one barbarian country off the other through diplomacy. Between 1950 and 1970, Chinese relations with Soviet Union went from alliance to hostility; during the same period their relations with the United States took a somewhat opposite trajectory. Mao's goal was similar to that in the game of "wei qi," the prevention of strategic encirclement (even given the initial ideological affinity with Stalin and Russia). The goal did not focus on a "balance of power among nations" concept but instead on a calculation of a threat from forces perceived to be surrounding China. As we shall see shortly, those forces would come from the United States, and even though the U.S. possessed a nuclear threat, Mao was not in the least intimidated as this excerpt from a speech in 1955 reveals.


Today, the danger of a world war and the threats to China come mainly from the warmongers in the United States. They have occupied our Taiwan and the Taiwan Straits and are contemplating an atomic war. We have two principles: first, we don't want war; second, we will strike back resolutely if anyone invades us. This is what we teach the members of the Communist Party and the whole nation. The Chinese people are not to be cowed by U.S. atomic blackmail. Our country has a population of 600 million and an area of 9,600,000 square kilometres. The United States cannot annihilate the Chinese nation with its small stack of atom bombs. Even if the U.S. atom bombs were so powerful that, when dropped on China, they would make a hole right through the earth, or even blow it up, that would hardly mean anything to the universe as a whole, though it might be a major event for the solar system. ("The Chinese People Cannot Be Cowed by the Atomic Bomb," Selected Works of Mao Zedong)


Japan had occupied Korea since 1910, and after the Japanese surrender ending World War II, by agreement the U.S. and the USSR split the Korean peninsula in two at the 38th parallel. When free elections were not held in 1948, the Communists took control of the north. U.S. troops remained in the south but were withdrawn not long after. As noted above in the 1950 Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, Mao had secured (at a steep price) a desired military alliance with Stalin to ward off what China perceived were imminent U.S. attempts to help win back China for Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists.


In the United States, a government "White Paper" investigating how China had been "lost" to the Communists (as if it had been ours to lose) concluded that 


[t]he unfortunate but inescapable fact is that the ominous result of the civil war in China was beyond the control of the government of the United States. Nothing that this country did or could have done within the reasonable limits of capabilities could have changed that result. It was the product of internal Chinese forces, forces which this country tried to influence but could not. (Kissinger, 118-19)


The Truman Administration was quite prepared to have Taiwan go into Communist hands and have the PRC awarded the seat in the United Nation's Security Council. The U.S. defense perimeter essentially did not include anything west of Okinawa. Moreover, despite the ideological and military alliance between the USSR and the PRC, the Americans were far more concerned about Soviet Communist penetration into areas of China and the possibility of China's integrity being violated further by Russian imperialists. Ignoring conflicts in political ideology between the U.S. and the PRC, Secretary of State Dean Acheson outlined a new (and quite radical) foreign policy with China:


[Today] is a day in which the old relationships between east and west are gone, relationships which at their worst were exploitation, and which at their best were paternalism. That relationship is over, and the relationship of east and west must now be in the Far East one of mutual respect and mutual helpfulness. (Ibid, 120)


But Mao simply did not trust the Americans' intentions asserting that, "The United States is not reliable, she would give you a little something, but not much. How could imperialism give you a full meal? It won't. (Ibid, 122) As Kissinger observes, the Americans would not offer such an outlook to the PRC for another 20 years when President Nixon visited China.


The Korean War


Having received the green light from both Stalin and Mao, and thinking that the United States would not get involved militarily and that the war would be over in a couple of weeks, North Korea's leader Kim Il-sung invaded the south in 1950. The U.N'Security Council, absent the USSR, which was boycotting due to the failure of the Council to seat the PRC delegation in place of Taiwan, easily authorized a response indicating that the goal would be a reunified Korea (a goal supported by the U.S.) bordering China at the Yalu River. President Truman sent American troops to aid South Korea, and 15 other nations acted likewise.


In a crucial decision, Truman also linked the Korean War to China's Civil War (1945-49) and immediately sent the U.S. Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to "neutralize" any activity, a move which essentially precluded any possibility of a PLA invasion of Taiwan. For Mao, it was American imperialism in action once again:


The U.S. invasion in Asia can only arouse broad and determined resistance among the people of Asia. Truman said on January 5 that the United States would not intervene in Taiwan. Now he himself has proved he was simply lying. He has also torn up all international agreements guaranteeing that the United States would not interfere in China's internal affairs. (Ibid, 130)


To put it another way, Mao could have looked at the "wei qi" board and envisaged two U.S. "stones," one in Korea and one in the Taiwan Strait, starting to encircle China. In retrospect, it was apparent that while the U.S. had not expected the North Korean invasion, neither had China expected the immediate American reaction. Once the American and U.N. troops had crossed the 38th parallel in the fall of 1950, however, the Chinese sprung into action sending about several hundred thousand troops, equipped by Soviet aid (which the Chinese had to repay) to repel the American thrust northward. The entire country was energized by rallies condemning the "barbarous action of American imperialism and its hangers-on in invading Korea." (Spence, 504)



The Korean War, the first which witnessed jet fighter combat and the use of U.S. helicopters to move troops, was extraordinarily brutal and costly in terms of live lost or wounded. For the Americans this number was 160,000 and for the Chinese somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000. (Spence, 505) The following video clip represents the first in a series of episodes about the Korean War.





The Armistice of 1953 kept the border between North and South Korea at the 38th parallel. While ostensibly a military draw, China had managed to avoid having a hostile neighbor on its border. In addition Kissinger suggests there might have been something more for China:


The Korean War ... established the newly founded People's Republic of China as a military power and center of Asian revolution. It also built up military credibility that China, as an adversary worthy of fear and respect, would draw on through the next several decades. The memory of Chinese intervention in Korea would later restrain U.S. strategy significantly in Vietnam. Beijing succeeded in using the war and the accompanying "Resist America, Aid Korea" propaganda and purge campaign to accomplish two central aims of Mao's: to eliminate domestic opposition to Party rule, and to instill "revolutionary enthusiasm" and national pride in the population. ... Mao framed the war as a struggle to "defeat American arrogance"; battlefield accomplishments were treated as a form of spiritual rejuvenation after decades of Chinese weakness and abuse. China emerged from the war exhausted but redefined in both its own eyes and the world's. (Kissinger, 146-47)


In the PRC during and after the war, Americans were portrayed as evil; witch hunts abounded and missionaries were expelled. One aim that Mao was not going to accomplish was the reintegration of Taiwan into China's fold. In the United States, virulent anticommunism in the form of McCarthyism made it impossible to hold a positive view of China. Many China State Department experts were subjected to loyalty tests and expelled from office. Americans believed that China had simply been following Russian orders, and that communism was essentially monolithic in nature. Reports from the war indicating that American prisoners had been brainwashed by Chinese also contributed to negative stereotypes. More than ever, many lamented that China had been "lost." 


The Taiwan Strait Crises


With renewed vigor Mao proceeded for the rest of the decade to engage the United States in two conflicts in the Taiwan Strait, rattle India's cage over disputed territory, and challenge the Soviet Union ideologically and geopolitically after the death of Stalin in 1953. With regard to the vexing issue of Taiwan, both Mao and Chiang Kai-shek agreed that both the island and the mainland were indivisible parts of one China. The question was who in the end was going to rule that one China? The U.S. position was clear: legitimacy rested in Taipei not Beijing. Mao and the Communists believed that the Americans were determined to divide and control China, or to "win" it back. The United States formed alliances with Japan and South Korea, ratified a defense treaty with Taiwan, and established the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) for regional security purposes, all in the national interest.


Initial attempts by the Communists to take over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu in late 1949 had been repelled by Nationalist troops. Later in 1954 when China began shelling the islands (which are only a few miles off the coast of Fujian province and close to 100 miles from Taiwan), the U.S. opposed retaliation by Nationalist forces, and the defense treaty the U.S. and Taiwan had signed did not necessarily include that "bunch of rocks" as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles described them. Both the Chinese and Americans succeeded in forms of brinksmanship: Mao caused the Nationalists great angst with his combative approach; Eisenhower caused Mao to back down by threatening the use of nuclear weapons. Of course as aforementioned, Mao and the Chinese were not to be "cowed" by American nuclear dominance.




It would be a decade later that China exploded its own first nuclear device. The delay was in no small part caused by Khrushchev's re-negging on a pledge to provide the expertise and materiel to the Chinese. Khrushchev had begun to grow nervous about nuclear war and also about Mao's trigger-happy behavior. For his part, Mao despised the Soviet leader's commitment to "peaceful coexistence" during the Cold War. Mao much preferred a kind of "combative coexistence." As he exhorted his comrades, 


"We shouldn't be afraid of atomic bombs and missiles. No matter what kind of war breaks out--conventional or thermonuclear--we'll win. As for China, if the imperialists unleash war on us, we may lose more than three hundred million people. So what? War is war. The years will pass, and we'll get to work producing more babies than ever before." (Kissinger, 167) 


In addition, Mao's "Zhongguoism" ran counter to the Soviet monolithic view of communism. It was no surprise then when China refused to join the Warsaw Pact in 1955, the USSR response to the formation of NATO by the U.S. and its allies. 


Diplomatic relations between the United States and China remained dead in the water as long as the Seventh Fleet remained in the Taiwan Strait and as long as the PRC would not renounce using force to reintegrate Taiwan into the mainland. Four years later in 1958, the PRC once again brandished the sword, shelling Quemoy and Matsu and succeeding in drawing both the United States, which was prepared to defend Taiwan, and the Soviet Union into threatening nuclear war against each other. Mao, who claimed the bombings to be for "show", had managed to have the weakest of the three powers, China, exploit the strength of the two Cold War powers. As a consequence, the U.S. concluded that China was trying to remove it from the Pacific entirely. In addition Mao's brinksmanship all but finalized the Sino-Soviet split.


And yet, such bravado succeeded in isolating China even further from the international order. (It should be noted, however, that four years later China's war with India over disputed territories on the Tibetan border did not bring any international intervention. Even the U.S. assured Mao that it would not support a Taiwanese Nationalist attack on the PRC while the Sino-Indian conflict was taking place.) Nonetheless the Sino-Indian war made the Sino-Soviet split even more pronounced. The Soviets had refused to condemn India for their assistance to Tibetan fighters in 1959, assistance that may well have allowed the Dalai Lama to flee across the border into India. CCP anger remains palpable to this day. In addition the war would deter Third World nations from believing that China was really a progressive anticolonial Asian power. Indeed by the end of the 1960s, Chinese Third World influence in Africa, Indonesia, and even Cuba had essentially disappeared.


Domestic upheavals within the PRC augmented this sense of isolation. Mass execution of "class enemies," meaning fellow Chinese who "oppose proletarian dictatorship, [and] attack the foreign policies of the government," had begun soon after the Chinese Communist Party took control in 1949. As Odd Arne Westad observes,


Far from being more lenient than the Soviet Union in the treatment of domestic enemies, as some have believed, the PRC became a throwback to the height of Stalin's terror, with quotas set in each province for how many counterrevolutionarries should be found and shot. Mao stipulated that the target be 0.1 percent of the population, but in some provinces local Communist enthusiasm for killing far exceeded this figure.  ... A reasonable estimate is somewhere between four and five million deaths, with more than half of these being executions, for the 1949-1955 period. (Westad, Restless Empire, 322-23)




Mao's proclivity for continuous revolution brought about the 1958 Great Leap Forward and accompanying famine of immense scale, and the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. His ideological shift to the far left served to sever ties with the USSR and later would force North Vietnam to choose between Soviet or Chinese aid in the escalated war against the United States. Both Maoist upheavals made it difficult for the United States to think about having a more open policy towards China. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate in 1960 articulated that position:


A basic tenet of Communist China's foreign policy--to establish Chinese hegemony in the Far East--almost certainly will not change appreciably during the period of this estimate. The regime will continue to be violently anti-American and to strike at U.S. interests wherever and whenever it can do so without paying a disproportionate price. ... Its arrogant self-confidence, revolutionary fervor and distorted view of the world may lead Peiping to miscalculate risks. (Kissinger, 199) 


Western Europe and Japan remained similarly ideologically hostile towards China. Attempts to overthrow Communist regimes in Poland and Hungary in 1956 had brought CCP support for Soviet suppression of the revolts but at the same time had scared Mao and Party leaders. 


But it was the Party's rigid, disciplined, inward-looking (as opposed to Chiang Kai-shek's outward looking Guomindang) authoritarian approach to ruling under Mao's cult-like leadership that cemented China's self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. The CCP reading of history told them that foreign involvement was simply counterproductive. Chinese pride in what had been achieved in the early years of the PRC allowed them to come to despise foreign things and ideas. Foreign criticism served to help the Chinese realize that, 


Maoism was [indeed] Chinese, and that the Communist Party had succeeded in uniting the country and given the majority of its people a sense of purpose. After one hundred years of state weakness, China seemed finally to be building a state that would provide its people with a good standard of living and be respected in the outside world. ... As the Chinese learned more about the CCP's use of mass executions and labor camps, most simply hid the party's excesses from outsiders. They believed that these methods, though terrible, could be justified in the building of a new and modern China, which, eventually, would be able to meet the rest of the world on equal terms. (Westad, 327-332)



Sino-American Rapprochement??


As the 1960s began then, a Nixon visit of ten years later seemed a pipe dream. Mutual perceptions of the "Other's" intentions would suggest so. The Chinese believed that conflict with the United States was unavoidable, and the Americans sensed that China was out to dislodge it entirely from the western Pacific. In 1965, in explaining his rationale for escalating the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson stated, "Over this war---and all Asia---is another reality: the deepening shadow of Communist China. The rulers in Hanoi are urged on by Peking. ... The contest in Viet-Nam is part of a wider pattern of aggressive purposes." (Kissinger, 205)   And yet, perhaps the plethora of geopolitical challenges to Mao's China in the 60s caused Mao himself to rethink the hard-lined, no holds-barred approach to foreign policy. Henry Kissinger frames the situation effectively:


... potential perils to China were multiplying. Along its vast borders, China faced a potential enemy in the Soviet Union; a humiliated adversary in India; a massive American deployment and an escalating war in Vietnam; self-proclaimed governments-in-exile in Taipei and the Tibetan enclave of northern India; a historic opponent in Japan; and, across the Pacific, an America that viewed China as an implacable adversary. Only the rivalries between these countries had prevented a common challenge so far. But no prudent statesman could gamble forever that this self-restraint would last---especially as the Soviet Union seemed to be preparing to put an end to the mounting challenges from Beijing. (Kissinger, 201) 


One could add the following challenges for the Chinese:


  • In Laos, a right-wing coup, backed quietly by the United States, overthrew a Communist elected government.
  • Chinese occupation of Tibet resulted in the destruction of many monasteries prompting protests and rebellion and the killing of many Tibetans with the Dalai Lama seeking (and receiving) sanctuary in India. The CIA continued to train Tibetan rebels in Colorado. (These protests and rebellions most recently occurred in 2008 inviting swift repression as the Chinese continued to populate the Tibetan "autonomous" region with Han Chinese.)
  • Disputes over trade relations led to anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia.
  • The threat of war existed with bordering India; skirmishes broke out over territorial claims.
  • The ongoing Sino-Soviet split over the correct ideological path to communism was about to reach an irreparable level. Khrushchev supported Indian territorial claims, complained about Mao's belligerent attitudes towards the U.S. and refused to extend an offer of the atomic bomb to Mao.
  • U.S. military support for Taiwan (e.g. surface to surface missiles that could reach deep into China) created severe antagonism between the "two" Chinas (even if the PRC viewed Taiwan as part of the mainland). Thus China's leadership was being tested precisely at the same time there was a leadership crisis due to the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the ongoing famine.


Gradually, however, the Chinese were coming to the conclusion that the Soviet Union was the more dangerous threat. It after all had a million men on the Chinese border, and there were fears that the Russians might attack Chinese nuclear facilities. During the Cultural Revolution Chinese foreign policy, to the extent that its xenophobia allowed, consisted in the condemnation of the Soviet Union. Chinese terrorism against minorities along the Chinese periphery was also rampant. In addition, China also decided that Hanoi would fight its own war in Vietnam. At the same time the Americans began to calculate that Russia was also a more dangerous threat, and that the U.S. might even be needed to help defend China's integrity in case of a Russian attack (or at least maintain a policy of "biased neutrality."


Opportunities for rapprochement began to present themselves. In trying to end the unpopular Vietnam War through a policy of American withdrawal amidst another policy of Vietnamization, President Nixon could place those actions in a larger context of seeking peace with "one-fifth of the world's population" while geopolitically neutralizing the USSR. From a strategic standpoint, Mao could try to insure China's security and development and rectify past mistakes made during the Cultural Revolution. Security for Mao was all about the concept of "combative coexistence." Having been primarily combative since 1949, he was prepared to see the value of coexistence. It was time to "play the U.S. card," as Mao's foreign minister, Chen Yi, wrote in 1969:


"It is necessary for us to utilize the contradiction between the United States and the Soviet Union in a strategic sense, and pursue a breakthrough in Sino-American relations." (as quoted in Westad, Restless Empire, 362) 



When in April of 1971, a directive came from Mao to the Chinese ping-pong team competing at a tournament in Japan to invite the American team to China, such "ping-pong diplomacy" intimated that a direct invitation to President Nixon to visit Mao was not far away. Kissinger captures the moment beautifully as Premier Zhou Enlai addressed the ping-pong players:


"You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people," affirmed the Chinese Premier. "I am confident that the beginning of our friendship will certainly find support with the majority of our peoples." The athletes, stunned by the fact they were being propelled into high-level diplomacy, did not respond, causing Zhou Enlai to end with a sentence ... "Don't you think so? ---evoking a round of applause. (Kissinger, 232) 



Not long after, Mao extended an invitation to Nixon to visit. It would be Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai who would pave the way for a new chapter in Sino-American relations. 


Deng Xiaoping's China and the world

China and the United States

China in Revolution: Mao to Xi





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