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Another Look at the Great Leap Forward

January 17th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Founding of the New Republic
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, two events are so controversial that they almost cannot be discussed rationally or void of politics. One of them is the Great Leap Forward of 1958, and the other being the Cultural Revolution of 1966. A reference to history cannot be avoided for any event, more so an event as significant as GLF. The PRC was founded in 1949 October the 1st. What most people didn’t realize is, on that day, the Communist Party of China and its military arm, the People Liberation Army controlled less than 2/3 the territory of modern China. Areas such as Chongqing, Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Hainan, Xizang, Taiwan etc are still under the control of various Nationalist armies. In fact, Gansu and Xinjiang was only taken by the Communist in September. It would be June 1950 when all those regions except Hainan, Xizang and Taiwan were to be liberated.

However, an international event in a neighbouring country would put a stop to the unification of China under the CPC. On June 25th, 1950, the continual conflict between the Soviet installed and supported DPRK and the US installed and supported ROK broke out into an all out war. On June 27th the US sent its 7th Fleet (and later element of the US 13th Air Force) to Taiwan. To the PRC, the US has gotten directly involved in the Chinese Civil War on the Nationalist’s side. Before that, US support was limited to the supply, training and transport of Nationalist troops. The Chinese Civil War however, was never strictly a Chinese affair. This is not the first time foreign powers have a hand in Chinese politics. After its founding, the CPC was initially controlled by a faction supported by the Comitern, which in turn was controlled by Moscow. From 1934-35 the communist forces even came under the direction of a German communist named Otto Braun. The CPC only broke away from Moscow directive during the Long March when Mao Zedong took over the command of the Red Army in 1935. Contrary to most belief, Mao and many local Chinese leaders did not have cordial relationship with Stalin in Moscow or the Moscow faction (also called Wang Min faction by historians). Mao and his colleagues felt that Moscow’s intervention are mostly negative. From the direction of the many disastrous uprisings, to the support of the Nationalist, the CPC and Mao was nothing but an expendable pawn in the eye of Moscow. In 1948, Stalin even pressured the CPC to sign a peace agreement with Nationalist for fear that US forces would be dragged into the civil war.

The Soviet Union which was isolated and invaded by major colonial powers are wary of Japanese expansion in China. At this time, Japan was an allies of UK, France and USA. In order to check Japanese expansion in East Asia, the Soviet will support any party that can serve that purpose. Soviet support was essential in setting up the Chinese Military Academy (also known as Huangpu Military Academy which is now in Taiwan) in 1924. Jiang Jieshi was the first commandant of the academy. The Soviet wanted the CPC was to work side by side or rather inside the KMT, and built up a strong China as counter weight to Japan. Unfortunately, Jiang and most Nationalist leaders distrust the Soviet and dislike the communist ideology. In 1927, after killing and purging communist members from the KMT, Jiang showed his preference by enlisting German military advisors. However, after Japan launched an all out invasion of China in 1937, Jiang found that the Soviet Union is the only power that will support him. And again Soviet arms and advisors started pouring in to China again. During 1931-1940, Imperial Japan invasion of China wouldn’t be possible without western countries supply of oil, minerals, scrap metal etc. The reality in the 1930s is that western countries controlled nearly all those resources in the world!

Confrontation with US
In 1949 the newly founded republic faced a daunting task. The China they inherited was ravaged by the civil wars of the late Qing, western Imperial powers invasions, the various warlords, Japanese invasions and also the civil wars between the CPC and KMT. Pretty much all the government gold and silver reserve has been shipped to Taiwan. The average life expectancy was around 36 and only 15% of the population are literate. Due to serious corruption under the previous administration, the Chinese economy was suffering hyper inflation. Poverty and suffering of the common folks was a daily occurrence. On top of that the country side was controlled by bandits. The bandit gangs numbered from a few dozen men to well established groups numbering thousands. These bandits come into being before even before the end of the Qing dynasty. They were so effective that the Nationalist Government, the invading Japanese forces could not defeat them. To make matter worse, during their retreat the Nationalist started arming these bandits and giving them ranks in the military. They are active in launching sabotage in a large part China and the PLA didn’t defeat them until well into the 1950s.

In 1950 the PRC was still actively engage in civil war and was in no position to fight the number one economical and military power and its allies in Korea, but the CPC believed that to allow a hostile US stationing large military forces on Chinese territory (Taiwan) and next to the most industrialized area of China is simply unacceptable. There is an underlying fear that the US and allies could launch an attack anytime they want. So when the US led international force crossed the 38th parallel the PRC sent in the People’s Volunteers Army. To the PRC the move was purely defensive because they simply cannot afford a hostile force taking out a friendly neighbouring government, the DPRK. The PRC was willing to accept a unified Korea under the ROK provided they can alleviate the fear of the PRC by stationing ONLY Korean troops over the 38th parallel, but the US did not heed this warning.

Despite being the biggest backer of the DPRK, the USSR did not feel it was worth the risk of fighting the US and its allies directly in Korea. The USSR initially promised the PRC air cover but backed out at the last minute. Eventually the USSR decided to send air cover but did not officially admit it. The US and allies discovered Russian speaking pilots on the air waves but chose to keep the information classified until the war is over. Likewise the PRC also did not want to present itself as directly confronting the US and called its army volunteers in Korea.

Fighting a war against the US and its allies meant that the new Chinese republic was being embargoed by the richest and most advanced economies almost since its inception. The only positive aspect of the Korean War for China was that it secured PRC’s position as a force to be reckoned with, and the eventual support of the Soviet Union. In 1950, the USSR and the PRC signed a Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance (中苏友好同盟互助条约). The Chinese would send their best and brightest students to Soviet Union, (later Chinese leaders such as Jiang Zemin is one of those students). The USSR would also send many experts, paid for by PRC to China, to help build China’s industry. In 1953 the world would see China launching its first Five Year Plan modeled after Soviet one. During this period, the USSR pretty much transferred 9/10 of their technical knowhow to the new Chinese republic. However, the treaty is not one completely beneficial to China. The details of the treaty can be seen here.

In the first Five Year Plan China’s limited industries were mostly centralized and expanded. In the rural areas, plot of farms were given to individual family. So for the first time in history, all Chinese farmers have their own land (although technically all land are state owned). By 1958, agriculture production almost doubled from 1949 (108 million tons to 185 million tons), coal production quadrupled to 123 million tons, and steel production increased from 100,000 tons to 5.3 million tons. The first Five Year Plan was a roaring success, which boosted the standing of the CPC.

Confrontation with both Super Powers
As the number one military and economical power of the Communist bloc, the Soviet Union feel that it is the absolute leader of the group and consider itself having the final say in understanding of the communist ideology. Being the only communist country before WWII, the Soviet Union was sanctioned and embargoed by pretty much rest of the world too. The Soviet’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan allow it to break out of the isolation and set up a string of communist states in Eastern Europe and in Korea. The emergence of the communist Soviet Union as a new world power sent alarm to the traditional western colonial empires and was considered by them as the biggest threat. However, differences between different communist states started to appear in the 1950s.

The Uprising in East Germany in 1953, Poznań protests in Poland 1956, the Hungarian uprising in 1956 etc all are sign that Soviet or communist control is not an absolute thing. Nikita Khrushchev became the new first secretary of the Communist Party of Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Khrushchev also viewed China as a junior partner that should contribute to a “common communist cause”. The Soviet leadership feel that since China has benefitted greatly from Soviet aid, it is time China take a more active role. They suggested putting Chinese military under Soviet command like the Warsaw Pact model. However, in China’s view, the weapon supplied during the Korean War and subsequent Soviet help were all paid for. The CPC also wanted the latest technological advancement like nuclear weapon and missile technology which was refused by the Soviet. The final straw came when Khrushchev request to set up naval bases for its submarines fleet in China. The request was repeatedly refused by Chinese leadership. The Soviet respond was to threaten to cut off all technical support to China. The situation was worsened by the fact that trade from other Soviet controlled communist countries would also be severed. Nevertheless, the Chinese leadership was prepare to make the sacrifice to remain independent. In Soviet’s view the Chinese communist are ungrateful and irresponsible member. In China’s view, the Soviet Union is a dictatorial bully. The Sino-Soviet split is imminent by the late 1950s. From 1957 onward, no new project was started, and the Soviet Union officially cut off all aid in 1960. The PRC and the Soviet Union would continually engage in mutual criticism in what Chinese historian called Sino-Soviet Debate (中苏论战).

The 1950s was a turbulent period. The Korean War did not end with a peace treaty, only a cease fire was signed in 1953. In 1954, the US and the ROC signed a mutual defence pact and started supplying state of the art weapons to Taiwan free of charge. Thus it came as no surprised the Nationalist Armed Forces are among the first US allies to obtain the then highly secretive AIM-9 Sidewinder missile and later the Lockheed F-104 fighter (in great contrast to today where mostly 2nd rate weapon was sold at exorbitant price). On top of its own air force incursion, Taiwan also allowed US spy plane to make reconnaissance flight into mainland air space. Emboldened by US support, Jiang Jieshi trumped up his plan to retake the mainland. In the Middle East, the 1956 Israeli-Franco-British-Egyptian war broke out. In 1958, US Marines landed in Lebanon, the same year Britain sent troops to Jordan. Although Vietnam gained its independence from France, the US started its involvement in the south.

The Road to Great Leap
The PRC not only was being threatened by the US but now also faced the prospect of a confrontation with the communist bloc led by the Soviet Union. Of course, the PRC is not entirely isolated, it has the support of the largest Arab country, Egypt. It is also friendly with country like Indonesia, India, Romania and Albania etc. Nevertheless, none of these countries and the smaller third world countries that recognized the PRC can offer anything other than moral support to China. The PRC did not have representation at the UN until 1971. By refusing to compromise its national sovereignty with the US and Soviet bloc, the PRC was forced to chose the path of isolation again. However, Mao Zedong was still concerned by a US backed ROC invasion of China. So in 1958, he planned a bombardment of the island of Jinmen. By blockading the island, Mao was able to test how far US warships would go on running the blockage. Events showed that US warships stood idly by when PLA artillery engaged and sunk ROC transports. It is clear to Mao that if the US would not even get involved in a shooting war with the PRC over a small islands, they would never back a full scale invasion of the mainland. The artillery duel would end in a draw for both sides. Although tactically defeated in air battles, the PLA moved their fighter base into Fujian thus taking control of the sky above Jinmen and Mazu. This would eventually put an end to Nationalist and US air incursion.

It is under this historical backdrop that the CPC launched the 2nd Five Year Plan, which is to be famously known as GLF. The plan was to industrialize China, in Mao’s words to overtake Britain and catch up with the US. It first came into being in Sept 1956 during the Eight National Congress of the CPC. The general outline consists of:

1. Continue expansion of heavy industry in China.
2. Further the cause of socialism by transferring more property to collective ownership.
3. Encouraging the economic growth of China through industry, agriculture, handicrafts, transportation and commerce.
4. Cultivating cultural and scientific development of the Chinese people.
5. Strengthening national defence and improving living standards in China.

Due to the overwhelming success of the first Five Year Plan, very ambitious goal was set for both industrial and agricultural production. However, the devil is in the detail. The biggest difference compared to the previous Five Year Plan is a new strategy called the Three Red Flags which consists of the General Development of Socialism, Great Leap Forward and People’s Commune. In CPC’s view a country industrial capacity was measured by its steel production. The US being number one followed by the Soviet Union and UK. The goal was to overtake UK. It looks entirely feasible on paper as China has close to ten times the manpower of UK.

Ideology and Reality on the Ground
There is a limit to the number of factories that can be built due to resources constrain. In order to make up for the short fall, each county was to set up communal furnaces for smelting iron and steel. For agriculture, a new system was to be implemented. Instead of family tended farm, collective farm where whole village would be grouped as a single production entity would be introduced. On paper, a collective farm where resources would be centrally controlled would be more efficient and yield higher productivity. For example, all young men would be utilized to work the farm, the women would take care of old folks, children, live stocks, cloth production etc. To top it off, there would be a communal furnace for iron and steel production.

Unfortunately, things went very wrong before it even started. Imagine one day, the government tell you thirty days from today all your personal property and saving are to be put into a communal account where everybody would be given an equal share? In 1958, nine out of ten Chinese family are simple farming family with a plot of land, some grain saving, some chickens, in addition to that the richer ones might have a bunch of pigs too. What would they do when they knew they have to turn in all their possession the next month?

If you cannot imagine what would happen, I will clue you in. When news of the new communal policy was announced, most family simply have a series of feasts and ate most of their grain saving and domestic animals. So before the program started, China’s grain and livestock reserve already took a nose drive. The communal kitchen also started with communal farming. Other than being communally staffed, the communal kitchen provide unlimited food supply to its member. Basically, China is now in a stage of socialist heaven where everybody has a job and unlimited food.

The first sign of trouble appeared when village secretary discovered that agricultural production has actually fallen compare to previous month. The village secretary would report to the county secretary. The county secretary thought it must be a temporary setback or mistake because communal farming where everyone has food represent the pinnacle of communist development. They convinced each other that they should be able to make up the short fall the next month rather than dampen the zeal of revolution. When the neighbouring county report a higher than before figure, the local county was pressured into reporting the same gain or higher figure. In the end a highly inflated figure was reported to the province and likewise the province report them to the central government.

And to go in tune with national spirit of the time. Some unnecessary fine tuning was thought to be able to bring up production. On the agricultural side, sparrows were considered a menace because they ate grain. A national program was launched to eradicate them. The unforeseen circumstance was that the locusts and other pest that also feed on grain but was controlled in numbers by their natural predator, sparrow took a big toll of grain in some areas. In iron production, to maximize production, every iron wares even nail and bolts from doors were pulled out to be smelted. The iron produced by communal furnace was mostly worthless scrap but was also reported to the central government as iron production.

Elation swept the entire nation. However, there are realists who scrutinized the figures. Some of the agricultural production figures are so unrealistic that it would mean the rice or wheat field would be so thick with grain that someone could stand on them. When these sceptics raised the issue, they were not believed. The whole CPC was totally drunk on the infallibility of its own system. It only became an issue when news of food shortage started to be reported in late 1958. Then natural disaster struck, in March 1959, the entire Hunan region was under flood. That same year, spring harvest in south western China was lost through drought. The situation in many regions was worsened by the fact that due to the inflated claim a lot of grain was diverted to urban or other poorer regions.

Before being introduced to the whole country, collective farming by commune was actually tried out in small numbers in China. Deng Zihui, who is Deputy Premier and also Minister of Farm Work (中共中央农村工作部) was in charge of the experiment and had obtained bad results with collective farming. He reported his finding to Mao Zedong but was brushed aside by the notion that it failed because the people were not motivated. Mao argued that if the people are motivated and worked selflessly for the socialist cause it would be a resounding success. Deng also tried to raise the issues in subsequent meeting but was overwhelmed by other committee members who believe that collective farming would do even better, especially after the success of the first Five Year Plan.

An Early End to the Great Leap
So who is to blame for this disaster which Liu Shaoqi later classified as 70% human error and 30% natural disaster. The reasoning is that natural disasters always caused food shortages in China. However, the famine this time can easily be avoided if there are reserve. If Mao is a monster for causing so many starvation death, what would you call the US administration who purposely embargoed China when it was frantically trying to import grain to make up for the short fall? Below is an excerpt from Henry C K Liu’s writing:

In 1963, the Chinese press called the famine of 1961-62 the most severe since 1879. In 1961, a food-storage program obliged China to import 6.2 million tons of grain from Canada and Australia. In 1962, import decreased to 5.32 million tons. Between 1961 and 1965, China imported a total of 30 million tons of grain at a cost of US$2 billion (Robert Price, International Trade of Communist China Vol II, pp 600-601). More would have been imported except that US pressure on Canada and Australia to limit sales to China and US interference with shipping prevented China from importing more. Canada and Australia were both anxious to provide unlimited credit to China for grain purchase, but alas, US policy prevailed and millions starved in China.

It is obvious a shortage of food and low quality of the iron would be exposed in a few months top. As soon as that was discovered, Mao and the CPC immediately went into damage control mode. From Oct 1958 to Aug 1959 a total of five top level meeting was held. In these meetings Mao took full responsibility of the blame and do not seek re-election of the post of Chairman of the China (the position was also translated as President of China). Liu Shaoqi would be elected as the next President. Mao, however, would still be ranked number one in the politburo and hold on to the position of the Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The 2nd Five Year Plan was cut short and ended in 1960. Liu was to formulate a new domestic economical model. In 1961 a temporary model was introduced to cushion the damages inflicted by the GLF. The 3rd Five Year Plan would not be launched until 1966, the year another monumental event would make its presence felt.

  1. January 17th, 2013 at 17:52 | #1

    Thanks for writing this important article. We have been so bombarded with the “monster” narrative in the West on Mao and had no idea the U.S. in fact tried to block grain sales from Canada and Australia during the GLF-period famine. This is the first time I got to read about the global political climate at the time of the GLF period neatly tied together in this context. I can’t thank you enough for this analysis.

    When the CCP took power in 1949 with reform to redistribute wealth, I had relatives who escaped to Taiwan. For them, I can understand their pain and their feelings toward Mao. The fact that Mao lead China into a sovereign nation paved the way to freedom for today’s 1.3billion, is a fact that seals his place in modern history.

  2. January 18th, 2013 at 04:36 | #2

    An insightful article. Economic embargo per se is not unconscionable. But embargo of grains to cause starvation – that is. And of course, no one in the West writes about it these days. Truly sad…

    Not to trivialize anything here, but I really see GLF as an earnest attempt to advance China and fight poverty. Chinese should not be ashamed of it – or apologize for it. It’s like I learning to rollerblade. I fell. That’s not a crime. But unfortunately, I fell at an inopportune time, in heavy traffic. I asked for help, but when people tried to help me, a bully stepped in. I was run over and heavily injured. I was then subsequently ridiculed for trying to rollerblade.

    The Chinese road to independence has been hard, with many failures along the way. But they must be understood for what they are, not simply as “failures.” The failures exacted real cost, that’s for sure. But the strategic context underlying the failures was noble. China’s hard faught independence is the only thing that will give China a chance to regain the pinnacle of civilization. It is the only thing that allows the current Chinese rejuvenation. You cannot understand Chinese rejuvenation without understanding the spirit behind the GLF.

  3. January 18th, 2013 at 08:34 | #3

    I actually left out the Hundred Flowers movement and the anti-Rightist campaign of 1957-58. I initially want to write it but discovered that it would end up complicating the whole picture even more. The land reform of 1949-50 is good for everybody except for the top 10% land owners because they end up losing their inheritance and become a regular farmers like everyone else. And in China 10% is a big numbers. Most people didn’t realize that many CPC leaders like Mao and Deng belongs to this 10% too. When Mao father died he distributed all land to others. Deng’s family was even richer and even resisted the reform initially.

    From the results of the 1st Five Year Plan, the land reform and industrialization is a success. The problem is, how do you go from there? This limitation of the communist economic model is what eventually caused the fall of the communist bloc. Their economic model is simply less efficient than market economy. When everybody got paid the same, the incentive to work hard was gone. And let’s face reality here, people by nature like fancy house, fancy cars, fancy clothes, fancy gadgets etc. The communist system discourages that and want everybody to be like a monastic saint.


    The role of Mao and China today has been played by the various Kim and North Korea. The DPRK is another proud govn’t who refused to give up their sovereignty in any way. They were also embargoed by the west since its founding. The merit of the communist and market economy can be debated. However, it is almost proven that in an really poor society with extreme wealth distribution, a socialist model works better, initially. A good case study would be China, N.Korea and the Kerala state of India. In the case of the DPRK, their land reform also work out nicely, in fact after the Korean war the north has better standard of living from 1950s until early 1980s. It is only after the fall of Soviet Union and communist bloc that the DPRK was left isolated with no meaningful trading partners.

    So if we take a step back at the accusations put on Kim by the western narratives today, it is not unlike what is hurled on Mao and the CPC. Kim was said to be a crazed dictator hell bent on work domination by starving his own population. But to the DPRK, they were simply following PRC’s footsteps. Any companies that deal with them were sanctioned, to the extent that nobody dares trade with them. And when the weather doesn’t cooperate, their people starved.

    The PRC also developed nuclear weapon, satellite and ballistic missiles and that’s what they want to emulate. They feel that it is only then that the US will talk to them as an equal. Yes, the Korean wants to be treated as equal by both US and China.

  4. perspectivehere
    January 19th, 2013 at 02:43 | #4

    Ray, very interesting essay. I’m not so familiar with the GLF so this fills in a lot of detail. I’m sure there are controversial interpretations of everything that went on in that period.

    Googling ‘Canada Grain Sales to China 1961’ turned up some interesting links to newspaper articles from the time period. Reading them give a flavor what that time was like:

    Grain Sales to Red China, Editorial, Ottawa Citizen, Jan. 28, 1961

  5. January 19th, 2013 at 06:08 | #5

    Excellent post! I’ve read bits and pieces about that greatly misunderstood and distorted period before, but this is one of the most concise and accurate summaries. Mao’s commitment and courage in keeping China a sovereign nation was historic, and the near-impossible result miraculous. Perhaps it was meant to be, but Mao’s leadership, in spite of some of his poetic mistakes, is something that history cannot deny.

  6. Rhan
    January 19th, 2013 at 09:20 | #6

    Good read. However we must also ask what could be done to avoid such disaster, for instance a more balance of power among leaders, and a freer press may helps. CCP have done much of the former but not the latter.

  7. N.M.Cheung
    January 19th, 2013 at 13:44 | #7

    Very good article gives some backgroung on GLF. Recently there was a book by some guy attacking China for the starvation during GLF and was praised by western media. The mistake I think was the entering of Korea War. It was probably a decision maybe forced by circumstances and might even be a trap set by Soviet Union. Recently when I was in China I saw a program on CCTV 10 discussing military implication of Taoism, in which it discussed 2 great emperors, Han Wutai who in later life regreted and apologized to people for the raising of taxes for military campaigns against Huns which no leader ever have done admitting his errors, and Tang Taichun who stood down invaders from the west in front of the gate of his capital with his 6 generals, remonstrating them for violating treaty, yet agree to peace treaty again with them, which seen from today may sound like appeasement with gifts to the enemy. Yet within a few years they were absorbed into Tang empire. Mao faced the same decision as Tang Taichun and decided differently. Mao wrote on his famous poem, slighting those emperors, saying heroes on today imply himself as superior to those of history. History being connected to present, Xi recently made a speech that we shouldn’t forget the interlinking of history and forget the past.

  8. January 19th, 2013 at 18:48 | #8

    I think this is a pretty good summary of what happened in the GLF. However, here’s a few suggestions to make it better:

    My biggest suggestion is that your description of the historical background – for example, the history of the relationship between the CPC & CPSU, the KMT-CPC civil war, etc – could be significantly shortened (that is, limited to 2-3 sentences). I understand that you want to provide historical context, but later in the essay you did not tie these historical events back to the GLF, so the relevance of this context was not clear.

    In addition, I think any “relook” of the GLF would be incomplete without a reassessment of the death figures. There is a lot of comments suggesting that GLF death figures were wildly inflated. I think a more comprehensive analysis should include how death figures are currently calculated and propagated in the West, and the errors of the current statistical calculations.

    Finally, while it is correct that the US embargo contributed to the famine, it should be clearly pointed out that bad economic planning remains the primary factor causing the disaster, while the embargo – which is a consistent and unchanging policy until the Nixon admin – is simply a exacerbating factor.

  9. January 20th, 2013 at 00:14 | #9


    Perhaps you could do a series of these summaries? You’ve done a topical review with a “global perspective” which is often lacking in short historical commentaries. For example, the GLF was a bad thing because it was stupid. But putting everything in perspective: In a country just recently trying to find a way out of a millennia-deep feudal mentality, while trying to diffuse one calamity after another, with only a 15% literacy rate (and MUCH lower familiarity with modern scientific and industrial concepts), isolated, surrounded and threatened by powerful enemies, Mao’s unscientific and desperate gamble becomes very understandable. It was fortunate that China managed to turn around after this crippling mistake.

    Let’s say it was a bunch of peasants attempting their own straw-hut industrial revolution in order to remain independent, and it failed badly. But they persevered, and move on to try something else.


    Human societies have been wishing to avoid repeating the same mistakes, but none has truly succeeded. China has learnt to distribute power among top leaders as you pointed out, but I fail to see how a “freer press” could avoid future errors.

    An exact recurrence of the GLF is not a worry. It simply won’t happen again the same way. But societies do make wrong turns periodically, and journalists who are expert in solving all problems under the heavens in few-hundred-word editorials are far from being the most qualified in foreseeing and averting disasters, especially if they function in a populist and commercial environment. Their primary consideration in survival is popularity and profitability, and their board-rooms are open to taking over by total strangers.

    The USA is a good example. It has a supposedly free press, and the population is much more sophisticated than China’s in the 1950s, but they make the same baffling mistakes again and again, one of them being pointless wars of course (pointless to the majority of the American people anyway). I fail to see how the free press has even attempted to make a difference. In fact, one could even argue that the Free Press has made it harder for Americans to see the truth with an open mind.

  10. Rhan
    January 20th, 2013 at 04:55 | #10

    Guo Du,

    I disagree. Read the article i cite below.


    One reason GLF getting worst was because the leaders at the top do not possess correct information, they are like the emperor that live in the palace not knowing what happen at the ground. Zhou, Liu and Deng just keep their mouth shut, not sure if they were afraid to tell the truth because of fear, or they already anticipated that the error will force Mao to step down, of cource this is my conjecture, but don’t you think a relatively free flow of information helps to prevent all this unnecessary tragedies?

  11. January 20th, 2013 at 06:07 | #11


    Yes Rhan, I absolutely agree that a relatively free flow of info would be more beneficial to society than a highly restrictive one. But I tried to caution that what we customarily brand the “free press” has serious shortfalls and limitations. Assuming that it operates with integrity is quite dangerous. They are subject to money control as I suggested (and political ones as well, of course, everywhere), and are only as enlightened as the rest of society (or the world) even when conscientious.

    In short, I’m all for free and sensible information flow, but we should not equate that to the standard “free press” banner. China’s press normally does not fall under that banner; but Beijing often relies on the media (rather than provincial officials) to learn about issues in places that are out of its regular radar screen.

    To maintain a “free” (totally unrestricted?) and “responsible” mass media is an extremely difficult balancing act, especially when it is also a business, big business, AND entertainment. HK is a typical example. Being senselessly critical about everything and unashamedly biased, they would of course happen to be right once in a while, but their daily criticisms (some legitimate, some fabricated, some merely exaggerated, who knows) no longer serve a useful social purpose. HK’s “free press” is on average no more credible than the paper Kim Jong Un reads with his morning coffee.

  12. January 20th, 2013 at 08:54 | #12

    Well, all those books are written with the sole motive of attacking Mao and the CPC. The biggest problem I have with these books is they tend to amplify the tragedies during the starvation and using guess work to determine the death figures. The most pathetic attempt is they attributed all death to the famine. Come on, do you know how many people died of all causes in China each year today! None of them mentioned the cause. The biggest effect of the GLF to CPC leadership is that not a single famine happened after that.

    Mao is in a much worse position than Liu Che and Li Shimin because he is facing opponents who has superior economy, military, science and technology. By the time of Hanwu and Tang Taizong, their opponents are much smaller and weaker, it is almost a sure win. Granted Han paid tributes for around a hundred years and Tang paid 20 plus years.

  13. January 20th, 2013 at 08:54 | #13

    @Mister Unknown
    I agree. The biggest cause for the GLF is the Sino-Soviet split but it didn’t happen just in the 1950s, it started in the 1930s. I want to show the very complicated relationship between the CPC, KMT, Soviet Union and US. I also prefer not to make the conclusion and let the readers decide with the facts presented, again still not as thorough as I want.

    Domestic politics is also another big issue, just look at US, Russia, Japan etc, the local politics alone took up all the effort of all parties. If you add that to the mix, the GLF is bound to happen.

    The difference is in the intent. The CPC started the GLF for a good reason, the US embargo has only a sinister motive, much like what they have done to Cuba, DPRK, Iraq, Iran etc. Using starvation to force a regime change is simply evil.

  14. January 20th, 2013 at 09:07 | #14

    Liu, Zhou, Deng etc all thought the GLF will work out. The only senior leader other than Deng Zihui who is critical of it is Peng Dehuai. Unfortunately, they belonged to the minority. In democracy majority rules, and in the CPC there is no exception.

    I am not sure what you mean by “free flow of information”. It is the 1950s, the French and British were frantically fighting a bunch of colonial wars to keep their empires, millions were killed. The US was still in the dark age in term of human right “non-whites” folks are 2nd class citizens. Have you read any books on those subject?

  15. Rhan
    January 20th, 2013 at 19:13 | #15

    Ray, I read very little on those subjects as suggested by you, and I am not sure how French, British and US did is relevant to your post on GLF and famine.

    You said “So who is to blame for this disaster which Liu Shaoqi later classified as 70% human error and 30% natural disaster. The reasoning is that natural disasters always caused food shortages in China. However, the famine this time can easily be avoided if there are reserve.”

    I opine that there are other ways that could help to prevent famine such as no concentration of power onto one leader, and free press, of course there are more like literacy rate, health services, decent foreign policy etc etc. Anyway this is not my idea and you are welcomed to counter the thesis raised by Amartya Sen and even Mao. Mao said “If there is no democracy and ideas are not coming from the masses, it is impossible to establish a good line, good general and specific policies and methods… Without democracy you have no understanding of what is happening down below; the situation will be unclear; you will be unable to collect sufficient opinions from all sides; there can be no communication between top and bottom; top-level organs of leadership will depend on one-sided and incorrect material to decide issues, thus you will find it difficult to avoid being subjectivist; it will be impossible to achieve unity of understanding and unity of action, and impossible to achieve true centralism.”

    Zhou, Liu and Deng is at the front implementing the GLF, are you sure thay don’t know what was happening? Lushan Conference to correct the GLF mistake was turned into a rightist issue, who else dare to speak up? Even if they did, they are part of the collective that make decision and run the show, can they claim that they are not accountable?

    Zhou at least admitted his mistake but he didn’t revise the production quota, I think reason being that to do so would render the entire “Three Red Banners” invalid, and this would impair CCP legitimate rule, hence my reply to fovewillows as well, this is no more solely Mao problem and mistake.

  16. Rhan
    January 20th, 2013 at 22:36 | #16

    Guo Du, if given choice, i believe most of us commoners would opt for free press than a controlled one right? I personally dont believe in objective news reporting, I am from a country with strict control of press and we have many acts that deal with information and official secret (ask Ray), the recent development especially the internet allow more people to access to various news, and become more vocal on issue that could impact us and speak up our predicament, however the many so call alternative news is charaterised by what you call senselessly critical about everything and unashamedly biased, the solution to me as a reader is to appreciate the choice to read news from various sources, try to become objective along the process of digest information and draw my own conclusion, thus I think being literate is one requirement to ensure free press work.

    I believe the same happen in HK, the left read 大公、文匯, the right read 蘋果、信報, but there always some that position themselves at the middle like 明报 (not sure if remain same after the taken over by the Sarawak tycoon, perhaps now more close to CCP), we don’t/can’t depend on one newspaper or one source.

  17. January 20th, 2013 at 23:56 | #17


    We’ve had a long history discussing freedom of speech….

    There is no such thing as free speech, or free press. Freedom always depends on context – on the stability of society. When a society is fragile, when it is prone to attack, when speech easily lead to incitement that destabilizes, that speech will be restricted. Thus in Germany, neo-nazi parties and their speech are restricted. In France, wearing scarf and denying the holocaust is a crime. It’s not because people there are “less tolerant,” but because things can get out of control fast.

    When people claim China has no free speech, it’s almost always because they refuse to recognize Chinese vulnerabilities or interests. We’ve discussed that many, many times…

    Anyways, back to topic. I find it comical you make a grand assertion that GLF can be avoided by – or a big cause of GLF is – freedom of speech.

    Consider a recent episode that started with good intentions, that ended in disaster, that most people did not foresee, even denied, until it’s too late… I am talking about the U.S. housing crisis and the ensuing financial global financial crisis.

    Recently, the U.S. Fed release transcripts of several of its meetings in 2007. The transcripts show that despite the Fed’s staff of the most brilliant economic minds, with access to reams of detailed economic data, almost everyone missed the housing crisis and the financial crisis that’s about to come.

    And the one or two occasional doubters only could muster a nagging feeling but not articulate anything to get their colleagues to see the light.

    As this New Yorker article described:

    perhaps the most interesting thing about the transcripts is what they tell us about how policymakers thought before the full scale of the crisis became clear. Like the European politicians who blundered into war in 1914, most people at the Fed simply couldn’t conceive of the catastrophe that was to ensue. Lured into a false sense of security by more than two decades of economic prosperity, they suffered from what the economists Jack Guttentag and Richard Herring term “disaster myopia.”

    I advise people not to pass judgements based on political ideologies. It’s human nature to miss problems, especially when so many others think things are well – and especially if you have reasons to think your policies – well-intentioned policies – are working.

    The same article continued…

    What explains the disaster myopia that afflicted Bernanke, Geithner, and their colleagues, and that Fisher showed at least an inkling of overcoming? Clearly, history played a big role. From the stock-market crash of 1987 to L.T.C.M. to the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the Fed had been largely successful in preventing problems on Wall Street from spreading to the rest of the economy. Why not this time? In terms of behavioral economics, the Fed policymakers succumbed to the “representative heuristic”—the tendency to assume that the future will look like the past.

    Second, many of them were defrocked academics relying on a theoretical framework—modern macroeconomics—that paid little attention to institutional features, such as developments in the banking system. According to the theories that Bernanke helped develop during his days in academia, as long as the Fed carefully adjusted interest rates to keep inflation under control, and also kept an eye on the money supply, it couldn’t go too wrong. In terms of maintaining a healthy rate of economic growth, the things that mattered most were tangible inputs and outputs: the labor supply, unemployment, productivity growth, and inflation. The financial sector was merely a “veil”—except, in this case, the veil almost strangled its wearer.

    Finally, folks at the Fed may have been reluctant to recognize their own mistakes. For several years, they had kept interest rates artificially low to stimulate the economy. In terms of G.D.P. growth, the results had been pretty modest, but the impact on the housing market had been dramatic. Many parts of the country had experienced an unprecedented bubble. Tens of millions of homeowners were delighted. For a time, Bernanke and his colleagues were lionized.

    By the summer of 2007, the party was over, and the inevitable hangover was beginning. It is really any wonder that the Fed was disinclined to consider such an outcome?

    The concluding question is more rhetorical than anything else.

    With hindsight 20-20, one can always pass whatever righteous judgement one wants. But that’s useless. Those same people who are so smart to jump to quick 20-20 judgements will be equally blind in predicting, facing future disasters… We don’t learn anything…

    “Disaster myopia” is not just a Chinese thing – a thing of a “non-free” society, or a “backward” society. I wish we would all understand the contexts of historical events more fully, instead of being so quick to judge. (I had written similar in this comment last week)

  18. January 20th, 2013 at 23:57 | #18


    Yes, it’s a matter of balance (which is the hardest thing to achieve and maintain though). And the merit of any system ultimately depends on how discerning and enlightened we – the masses – are. The unfortunate thing is: The majority don’t seem to think much beyond screaming headlines. But the fortunate thing is: If they do, average intelligence would shoot way up, and making a living would be even tougher. At least that’s how I comfort my daughter who’s at an age when everything seems kind of dumb 🙂

    One thing though: I wouldn’t call the Apple Daily a “rightwing” newspaper. It’s a cheap tabloid, nothing more than that.

  19. perspectivehere
    January 21st, 2013 at 07:25 | #19

    Guo Du :
    One thing though: I wouldn’t call the Apple Daily a “rightwing” newspaper. It’s a cheap tabloid, nothing more than that.

    I’m not a big fan of the Apple Daily – I think its a cheap trashy colorful tabloid that copied the worst aspects of London tabloid Page 3 Girls / NY Post / Page 6 together with ads for escort and massage services (a lot of the paper is soft-core porn).

    But I think Jimmy Lai is a fascinating character and entrepreneur, and in many ways, a very positive figure for Hong Kong, Taiwan and Chinese media.

    His founding of Giordano in 1981 – modelled on GAP but cheaper and HK-grown – was a big identity marker for HK, making available fashionable and affordable casual clothes for young people in the 1980s.

    His later foray into Admart – online grocery and household goods shopping – came too early and became another dotcom bust in 2000 – but Lai did mount a valiant challenge to the ParkNShop-Wellcome duopoly in HK. If he had succeeded, he might have been able to help lower grocery prices in HK.

    But while googling about the GLF, I happened to find Lai’s profile in the FT from September 18, 2011, which detailed his personal, poignant connection to the GLF:

    From migrant to magnate
    By Rahul Jacob, Financial Times, Sept. 18, 2011

    “Jimmy Lai’s journey from impoverished migrant to media magnate is the stuff of legend in his native Hong Kong. Yet when asked whether his parents supported his decision as a 12-year-old to leave communist China in 1960, then in the grip of a famine brought on by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, for Hong Kong, Mr Lai is still moved by the memory of his mother fearing she would never see him again.

    “My mother said, ‘If you go to Hong Kong, it’s like going to the moon’. No parent would like their children to go where they can’t go [to see them]. But nothing is scary to a 12-year-old.”

    Carrying passengers’ luggage in Guangzhou railway station from the age of nine gave him a taste of the outside world and made him determined to emigrate. “I had access to people who travelled to Hong Kong. I knew the outside world was a beautiful world compared with China,” he says.

    Mr Lai, whose media company owns Apple Daily, the second most read newspaper in both Hong Kong and Taipei, as well as successful weekly publications, escaped the mainland in a trawler full of seasick refugees. He arrived in the summer and was deposited at the home of some relatives at about 4pm. By midnight, he was at work in a factory that made gloves.

    Within seven years, he had become the factory manager, having taught himself English by enlisting the help of an older friend who was a former English teacher and by buying a dictionary. His dedication was pragmatic: he had noticed that English speakers were better paid than those who spoke only Cantonese.


    ‘People from China who went through hardship realised that life is not about waking in the morning and waiting till the evening,’ he says. ‘Life is about solving problems. If every problem you solve is a step forward, one day you’ll be ahead of other people. A lot of people don’t get ahead because they evade problems. But if you confront problems, every solution is a knowledge game…..’ ”

    (The rest of the article details some of his new ventures and his libertarian philosophy as a follower of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman).


    Having read this story about Lai, I think I can understand the deep roots of his strong and vocal anti-communism. His leaving China during the GLF as a 12 year old boy no doubt has left a deep impression on him. He came from the back streets and factory workshops of 60’s and 70’s Hong Kong, his founding of his own successful branded retailing business reflects his hard work, dedication and talent, and even his trashy tabloid news reflects the popular tastes of the people he grew up and worked with. I have to say, one may not necessarily agree with some of his vocal political and editorial positions, but the guy seems to be consistently authentic, and very Chinese in his character and outlook.

    The GLF had far reaching effects in China and also on Hong Kong because of the wave of immigration economic and political refugees it fueled.

  20. N.M.Cheung
    January 21st, 2013 at 15:45 | #20

    When Xi made the speech that we are a product of history, very much influenced by the past, and do not forget past I think he was responding to those who thinks we can step right into the future and denigrating the blood and sweat of the past 60 years. The failure of GLF, whatever the responsibility of Mao and CCP, was part of the cost of learning. Deng who initiated the reform was a product of Chinese Commumist Party and when western and liberal critics contend that 18th CCP leadership were not reformers they completely misunderstood history and wrong. Mao’s place in history is secure although I do agree his body should never imitate Lenin and be cremated which I think will happen.

  21. Rhan
    January 21st, 2013 at 18:31 | #21

    Allen, yeah it’s been a while since Ai Weiwei case? Coincidently there is one episode happened recently that bears a resemblance to “hate speech”, here is the link :


    I never disagree with you that freedom is relative / in context, I think our arguments are on where is the balance, Malaysia is vulnerable to race and religion issue, and that is why we can’t endorse free (hate) speech that associate with this two sensitive item, however I would support free speech that report on wrongs of government, include corruption and event that might lead to famine. I know very little of China hence I don’t know what they are vulnerable to, perhaps you can educate me.

    With regard to the grand assertion you think is comical, I too hope I can come up with such theory, however I put it clearly in my reply to Ray this is not from me, I however to a certain extent agree with this assertion and I did mention literacy rate is one of requirement. I insert here in Chinese again just in case you miss it.


    Like I said, we can disagree with Amartya Sen but I hope the rebuttal should be limited on topic of famine.

    Btw, I am not passing judgment, my intention is to discuss and reflect what went wrong, and what can be done to address the mistake. And I believe China can now afford both food and free speech, or improve in free speech.

    NMCheung, I personally don’t think entering the Korea War a mistake, a Chinese & China that were labeled “the sickman of Asia” for a century is united and manage to press the greatest force in the world, the American troop to call for peace is an amazing achievement. I think that is one of reason why even during the difficult period of GLF, American intelligence and congress do not support Chiang proposal to invade mainland, partly also they were aware that the farmer knew that drought play a major role that cause the GLF disaster, and would stand firmly behind Mao and CCP. What the American can do is to persuade Australia from selling grain to China as mentioned by Ray, a damn despicable act.

  22. January 22nd, 2013 at 00:07 | #22


    Sorry, you did not respond to my response focusing disaster myopia, only regurgitated a previous link, ignoring my comment altogether(?).

    Besides, now I am not sure if your position is that democracy / freedom of speech (whatever that means) would have averted the GLF or that such a thing is needed to understand history such as the GLF.

    If the former, I think you have chosen to ignore my comment, and I will end here. However, this brings up a comical political episode we see in Taiwan often. A storm brews and causes some death, or a public transport system has an accident and causes some death, and everything is made a political issue. I guess it’s the nature of humans to blame political leaders for natural disasters – or even normal engineering disasters. Last time I visited Macchu Picchu, I learned that in ancient Incas civilization, people blame the King and his religious priests when there is a natural disaster – such as when there was a flood, or drought, or when there was an eclipse.

    I just don’t think it reasonable. Especially when you do it selectively (e.g. only on certain events, GLF).

    If the latter, well, perhaps, perhaps not. Freedom of speech has bred a lot of misunderstanding, trash talking, politically motivated smears, etc. Witness the last election cycle here in the U.S. You see what $6 billion buys in terms of trash t.v. and political ads.

    In general, in the wealthiest, most advanced, “freest” societies, you also witness how unconscious the people are of history, global injustice, etc….

    Problem with “freedom of speech” to elicit the truth is it doesn’t per se. That’s like saying unregulated markets will always be most efficient in general, which we know is B.S.

    With freedom to shed light also is the freedom to distort and mislead. So on the whole, freedom doesn’t bring sanity or sanitation. The yin and yang must be taken together…

    In any case, maybe the problem you and I have is that before we have even discussed the GLF, which is “controversial” enough, we seem to be discussing another topic “freedom of xxx” – all wrapped around GLF. I guess we have only ourselves to claim for the hopelessness of the situation…

  23. January 22nd, 2013 at 01:15 | #23


    I do think Jimmy Lai is fascinating — an entrepreneur with a fearsome spirit. But he exemplifies a problem of the age. In the past, it used to be “intellectuals” (of different calibre, of course) who ran newspapers. Now, it’s characters like Jimmy Lai, Merdoch, and, all devils forbid, Li Ka Shing’s son (his English name escaped me just now). Don’t know if Donald Trump owns any newspaper or TV station. If he does, my bet is he’d be very successful too.

    Herein lies the big social question: Should the mass media be “controlled” or dominated by entrepreneurs who knows how to entertain the masses with “news” and squeeze out journalists who are no match to them in business competition, doing whatever it may take, in the “free market”?

    The second issue is a little more personal and philosophical. Most Chinese in my parents’ generation have a refugee story to tell. My parents in particular had tonnes of them, going back to fighting in the opium war, participating in the revolution on both sides, suffering humiliating deaths during the Cultural Revolution, etc. My Mum herself actually fled to HK twice after 1949. But this is not the time for their stories. My point is: I feel extremely lucky that we are able to forget and move on, to judge today according to today’s circumstances. My father switched from being fiercely anti-Communist to nearly proud of the CPC before he died. His view on the CPC changed as it changed. People who are stained forever because of a bad phase long ago have my pity. Perhaps they should read a few Daoist or Buddhist books rather than Shakespeare or other sacred texts filled with blood-soaked revenge?

    Besides his self-cultivated agony in being “understandably vindictive”, his “revenge” is purely egotistical and destructive so it’s hard for me to sympathise. OK, he suffered under a certain set of circumstances in China. Everyone did back then. China has done a miraculous amount to change things since. But because of little Jimmy’s refusal to let go of some not-so-nice childhood memory (his story sounds pettily Mickey Mouse comparing with the ones I’ve heard), he’s attacking all the positive changes which have “corrected” the conditions that made him and others suffer. That sounds nearly obsessive and maniacal to me. A waste of an otherwise awesome spirit. Bad karma I suppose.

    Oh I just posted some photos of a very beautiful side of Hong Kong (www.guo-du.blogspot.com), followed by a little story about Lucky HK Birds 🙂

  24. Rhan
    January 22nd, 2013 at 19:47 | #24

    Allen, in fact I have not much to comment pertaining to disaster myopia, I thought it is pretty common to blame the government whenever disaster happen, and most government would choose to concede because they know you can’t expect rational and sensible reasoning when people is dying and suffering, however there are some politician that bluntly tell it is act of god and we know what would be the response.

    But GLF is not a common disaster, Liu Shaoqi said it is 70% human error, I guess Deng agree and told his American friend 16 million people died, and the number further inflated to 30 million later. Is that not apparent that CCP and their leader already pass judgment? Perhaps for the sake to saize power, or to reform China or any other reason that is beyond our knowledge, but fact remain that human error was one of the cause. But of course we also know thare were embargo from the most humane and caring country of the world, a worst drought of modern history, threat from Seato and 7th fleet in Taiwan Strait, China not yet a UN member and couldn’t get much help, KMT agents continue to sabotage and many more, but we cant deny that GLF implementation was disastrous.

    Now back to topic of contention, I don’t think democracy and free speech/press is a Western thing or belongs to the West, the reason I cite Mao speech is because China and Chinese deserve the same, I never read anything from CCP and communist that reject democracy and free speech/press, they merely disagree to allow others to impose a version of democracy and free speech/press that not suit the Chinese society. And my argument is simple and straight forward, most data and information communicated to leaders from cadre during the GLF period is incorrect and thus wrong decision is made, don’t you think if there are free speech/press to counter check, it might helps?

    From our discussion in the past and now, I don’t think we would agree with each other on freedom of speech subject, perhaps the reason is I don’t have it and that is why I want it, and vice versa.

  25. Rhan
    January 22nd, 2013 at 22:23 | #25

    Allen, I don’t know if I am getting old or what, your #22 seems a bit different from the one I read yerterday, if you never do any amendment, then I suspect something is wrong with my memory 🙂

    Just to add on and to clarify on freedom of whatever, I agree with Guo Du entirely it is hard to achieve a balance and I don’t believe in absolute free speech/press. GLF started in 1958, Anti Rightist movement happened in 1957, I believe this is one main reason most cadre / party member / intellectual not willing to tell the truth because of the concern being label as rightist, and this worsened the situation, whether democracy and free whatever could prevent famine, after reread your comment, I think you have a point.

  26. January 22nd, 2013 at 22:33 | #26

    Ray, great post that provides the historical contexts and background. A couple of quick points: a. the founding of PRC was on October 1, 1949. b. it will be more readable if you have a few section heads and make the important points in bold.

    Rhan, if you have a chance you can ask Sen’s take on the 1943 Bengal Famine w.r.t. his freedom and famine hypothesis. (He has some very unconventional views on that famine.) The war was not fought in India per se. Granted shipping food to India from Australia and North America would be difficult, given the depleted stock of merchant ships due to the war attrition, and the outright danger in shipping during the world war. In a way, it was similar to China circa 1958 to 1961. China was practically embargoed by the West and simultaneously moving away from the Soviet Union (Ray has covered in nicely). Actually if you get down to it, there were even more similarities between the two, such as the incompetent bureaucrats who for a long while thought foods were aplenty. What sticks out is that India was then reasonably free in its press.

    For better or worse, Mao was what China got then. The miserable years proceeded the founding of the PRC gave you a war-torn nation with a very low literate rate, hence very incompetent bureaucrats, and a tyrannical and woefully under-educated leader in Mao… You can play the what-if scenarios, and in one Chiang had won the civil war, would he have been a leader fostering better press freedom? Highly doubtful. Would the famine have happened? Hard to say. Maybe the famine wouldn’t happen, but there might have been a disastrous war with the Soviet Union.

    Look at it this way: after the dust settled in WW2, Chinese Civil War, and the Korea War, the leaders were all tyrants in both Chinas and both Koreas, who all suppressed press freedom.

    Deng certainly learned his lessons from Mao. From Mao to Deng, to Jiang, Hu and now Xi, an unbiased view should be things are looking up. Where will it end up at? I don’t know, but nowadays I am actually more fearful of a future in which the type of Jimmy Lai’s yellow journalism has the supreme reign and buffoons like Ai Weiwei are cover page materials, than a future in which China rolls back to Mao’s era.

    BTW, Deng’s number (16 mn) is also a demographic projection number based on the population data released in 1983. A couple of major problems: the quality of the data was very poor, and the baseline death rate (1.08%) is unrealistically low for a developing nation. This can be a very long discussion.

  27. January 23rd, 2013 at 01:05 | #27


    Allen, I don’t know if I am getting old or what, your #22 seems a bit different from the one I read yerterday, if you never do any amendment, then I suspect something is wrong with my memory

    I did edit, but within 1/2 hour after I wrote the original comment (being an editor here, I have the “privilege” to edit much later, too, but I typically reserve that only for editing for spelling (my comments and other comments) – and only rarely). Sorry about that…


    But GLF is not a common disaster, Liu Shaoqi said it is 70% human error, I guess Deng agree and told his American friend 16 million people died, and the number further inflated to 30 million later. Is that not apparent that CCP and their leader already pass judgment? Perhaps for the sake to saize power, or to reform China or any other reason that is beyond our knowledge, but fact remain that human error was one of the cause.

    GLF is definitely an important episode in Chinese history (world history), and should be a cause for pause. My problem with the way things are usually framed is in an accusatory tone on the Chinese leadership. As this article has made clear (in my opinion), there had been many causes: weather, bad policies, but most importantly, the geopolitical weakness China found itself. That embargo by the West in my view was the most immediate cause.

    Regardless, I still stand by my assertion the numbers are suspect. The Chinese gov’t never said they were not. They simply used it.

    As for why? Yes, your guess is close to mine, too. It was political. It was a good base to launch “reforms.”

    Now back to topic of contention, I don’t think democracy and free speech/press is a Western thing or belongs to the West, the reason I cite Mao speech is because China and Chinese deserve the same, I never read anything from CCP and communist that reject democracy and free speech/press, they merely disagree to allow others to impose a version of democracy and free speech/press that not suit the Chinese society. And my argument is simple and straight forward, most data and information communicated to leaders from cadre during the GLF period is incorrect and thus wrong decision is made, don’t you think if there are free speech/press to counter check, it might helps?

    The problem with “freedom” in general is that because it requires so much “balancing” – as you yourself admit, it is a hollow concept. When people argue “freedom,” it is usually on the specific version of “balancing,” but coaxed in overly generic rhetoric of “freedom” as if their version of “Freedom” is a “right.”

    Going to leaders using bad data, would freedom of speech help? I don’t think so. That’s why I brought up the issue of “disaster myopia” – using a current disaster that is on the mind and familiar to every global citizen today – the financial crisis of 2008. This disaster took place in the U.S. and spread from the U.S. – arguably the “freest” country in the world – at least in terms of “speech.” Yet people – with all the best data, best minds, – still stumbled. Not just stumbled – the freest people on earth was completely blindsided.

    We humans have stumbled into disasters time after time throughout history. To think that somehow we have escaped it – because of a political system called “freedom” – I think that is absurd.

    I think trying to understand the GLF in terms of human history, of the constant weaknesses in human faculty (yes, hindsight is 20/20, and being critical of the past – in an unfair way – does not help advance things forward any bit), of the consequences of geopolitics (it has real consequences folks) – rather in some vague general pronouncement of “freedom” – is the much more productive way to go…

    With all that said, I am sure in history, you will find that sometimes people do die because of intentional neglect at the top (see e.g., this article on famines in Africa).

    Still I would go careful anytime people point to leader at the topic for anything. It’s a classic post WWII thing to do. Just as the Germans absolve themselves of guilt of the Holocaust by pointing to bad leaders, people want to point to a few bad men at the top, especially when doing so can also be so politically beneficial (in the above linked article, Economist blamed local gov’ts for refusing Western aid; maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not. Given historical European meddling in African affairs in guise humanitarian aid, I would be careful to jump to any conclusions).

    For me there are no “good people,” nor “bad people” per se – at least vis a vis leader and population. Rulers – at least those who want to last – will always try to act “good” – if nothing else to prolong their power. When they fail, the next group of leaders will always try to demonize them – to make themselves look better. Western press will always try to make the West look good, too, as if the West is the savior for the world. It’s a natural thing to do. But we must learn to sort through such propaganda.

  28. January 23rd, 2013 at 09:45 | #28

    jxie and Rhan
    Thanks for the correction. Ok, I will see what I can do but I will respond to some of the comments first. I agree with you on your point about Sen’s quote which was used by Rhan almost religiously. In my earlier comment to Rhan, I meant to remind him that it is the 1950s. The France, British, US government technically have “free press” (whatever that is). They are still involved in colonial wars that try to keep the locals subjugated to them. I remember watching a movie about the 1950s war in Algeria. In a scene a local said to a French soldier “The heroes of the French revolution wouldn’t be very proud of what you do here.”

    jxie, I think when you used word like tyrannical to describe Mao that would be too harsh. Rhan also described Mao as emperor living in a palace. Let’s be a bit fair to him, Mao rarely made decision unilaterally. In fact, he always act in regarding to the majority mode in the CPC. If we study history, Mao disagreed with changing the name of the country from ROC to PRC, he was out voted. As for involvement in Korea, Mao took two weeks trying to convince the extended CPC leadership to send troops. And I believed he also spent that amount of time trying to convince himself as his secretary and bodyguards recalled that he practically can’t sleep for that duration.

    Mao’s son died in the Korean War, he believed it is not fair he can sent others sons to war but not his. Peng initially refused to take his son to Korea. After the famine was discovered in 1958, Mao didn’t eat meat or fish for three years. He also have wife, brothers, cousins etc that was killed. To top it off, his first son also gone missing during the Long March. I think the pain and suffering that he gone through is not what a regular person can understand.

    There is a reason I purposely put a bit of sarcasm into my writing in regards to people having absolute blind faith in any system or belief. Mao and most CPC leadership actually genuinely believed that communal farming and kitchen is the solution to the problem that has plagued China for millenniums. The solution to the famous Chinese quote “To the people to eat is heaven”. In a sense the tragedy of the GLF can also be attributed to selfish human nature. The reduction of stock just before collective farming were to start, and the fact that the communal kitchen is what we call “all you can eat”. If we try the same system anywhere I would it is almost certain to fail. There are actually successful case of communal economy but that very rare and another subject all together.

    jxie is also correct to worry that Jimmy Lai’s yellow journalism and Ai Weiwei fake activism represent the future of press freedom. The Cultural Revolution should be a good case study of freedom of speech. During that movement, anybody can write a big poster including lies and slander on anybody. What happened is simply mob justice, class warfare disguised as political activism. The situation was worsened by the fact that there is a power struggle going on in China.

    One major characteristic of the new China of 1949 is the emphasis of equality. Unfortunately, that also laid the foundation of many mass political movement that went out of control. Today, I can clearly see the anti right movement as the attack by a “lesser” class on the establishment. The victims of that movement are intellectuals, academics and leaders in high places, most with upper class background. Well, when the new republic was founded, the CPC realized they need lots of bureaucrats and technocrats to run the various department. MOST of these people are previously not party members and have served under the Nationalist government and even Japanese occupation. A lot of the loyal and old time party members were sidelined or become juniors in the new government. The reason is they are barely literate and have no technical knowledge. So when the anti-right movement started in 1957, those sidelined before used this opportunity to come back into position of power.

  29. January 23rd, 2013 at 10:16 | #29

    I think the only way for democracy to work is when everybody take responsible for himself. If we keep on having this user mentality we will always be playing victims. GLF is clearly a movement that everyone is responsible from the ground up to the highest level. The only positive way is to learn the lesson and to move ahead. All those writings that try very hard to assign blames are simply Cultural Revolution style articles. I am not surprised it is alive and well not just in HK, Taiwan and pretty much throughout the world. It is not a Chinese thing but rather a weakness in human nature. All those sinister and negative writings simply remind me of CR or the various justification for pogroms, lynching or genocides that have occurred time and again in history.

    The French revolution has been described as monumental event in history but does everyone actually realized how bloody it is? Literally tens of thousands of heads rolled under the guillotines. It is supposed to be a movement to end monarchy/feudalism and bring power to the common folk, but France ended as an empire with an emperor to boot. Rhan also asked how we can prevent these kind of tragedy early on. I can only say that change is better if done gradually.

  30. Rhan
    January 23rd, 2013 at 20:44 | #30

    Ray, thanks, but I don’t see how you could in a more specific manner refute Sen’s theory, and thus my continue invoke of the same point. Jxie at least try to cite the Bengal famine, which happened in 1943 before India become an independence country that uphold democracy, and Sen if have chance could just easily tell us off that there were at least 12 famine and 33 million Indian died between 1876 and 1908 under the British authotitarian rule, and 4 million died in the Bengal famine that are rarely of the focused talk in the West. Thus his thesis that there is no (less) famine in India after 1947 under democracy rule sounds factual enough up to now.

    Wil discuss more about Mao later.

  31. January 24th, 2013 at 00:15 | #31

    jxie :
    and a tyrannical and woefully under-educated leader in Mao…

    and @all
    When focusing on just one mistake for dissection, we should not lose sight of the big picture. May I try a mundane analogy from the corporate world? Long ago, a HQ finance bureaucrat criticised us for a money-losing project. He cited a number of “poor practices” that had led to the deficit. I agreed, but humbly asked him what we should do with the other 95% profitable projects which followed the same practices.

    To regard Mao a mere “woefully under-educated tyrant” is grossly simplifying the enormous undertaking of the revolution, in a country of China’s size and complexity at the time. The CCP under Mao (and without modern communication means) won the support of the masses; and Mao secured the loyalty of revolutionary giants like Deng and Zhou and many others not because he screamed the loudest, or had declared himself a dictator. Like any monumental leader in history, he took many chances that were “unthinkable” to others. I can imagine (and Ray gave examples) how convincing he had to be, especially in the earlier days, persuading his comrades to take one “impossible” risk after another. Without the wholehearted support of most, he wouldn’t have been much of a tyrant even if he knew Kung Fu would he? Otherwise, I might declare myself one as well.

    A revolution has very little room for “competent bureaucrats”. They come in much later. I suppose Mao’s “power” and loyal base consolidated when his “gambles” and instincts were proven correct, against all odds, MOST (but not all) of the time. As briefed in this post, China was desperate. Mao saw one thing correctly: the need to industrialise. But the revolutionaries had no clue how, not yet. Steel output was the thing Mao identified, so he made yet another desperate gamble: The Great Leap Forward. It must have sounded less threatening than the Great March at the time. It flopped backward instead, but miraculously, they survived.

    On famine: I’m not familiar with the famine data of Bengal but I can say that China has greatly reduced famine deaths without a Western style democracy, and with a bigger population.

    Looking at the overall picture, China has grown tremendously in population (way too much, unfortunately, in my personal view) since 1949, and hundreds of millions have been elevated above the “starvation line” and become literate. In this mind-boggling progress, a few million, let’s just say 16 million, had died due to one of the mistakes made. Are we going to sink our teeth into the 16M deaths (not meant to be insensitive to the individuals who suffered) and neglect the hundreds of millions who no longer starve? I think the CCP’s unofficial assessment of Mao is 70:30 in terms of contribution and errors. I’d think that is a fair enough estimate.

    What if the KMT had won? History is no place for “what ifs” but I’d offer a wild guess in one area. China would have a privately-owned Central Bank with the Chiang and Song families (and other mysterious parties) as shareholders. The Chinese Democratic Congress has no right to audit its books or shareholding structure. These eminent families would control the “free market” and the “free press” behind a boisterous democracy acceptable to people who promote “universal values.”

  32. January 24th, 2013 at 06:54 | #32

    Most of US media today is controlled by 6 large corporations. In India, from 1980s to present, easily 4 million people died yearly of starvation or hunger related desease, 1/4 of those victimes are children.

    How many reporting do you hear about that in the free media. The worldwide figures for stravation victimes yearly tops 40 millions. If 200 Airbus 380 crashes every day with no survivors, it would be headlines news. But this is not.

    India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Mexico etc accounts for half those figures but no free press ever bother to report this fact. So Sen’s theory is simply too academics.

  33. January 24th, 2013 at 12:54 | #33

    On Mao being a tyrant. Had Mao died before 1966, I probably wouldn’t have called him a tyrant. This will sidetrack the whole thread, so I will not get in more on it.

    On democracy-freedom/famine:

    1. Immediately after the WW2, a large part of the world was only marginally above subsistent living. Any subpar harvest means large quantity of food import. Case in point, in 1966 India imported 17% of the rice/wheat it consumed. India was able to stay away from GLF-like famine, at least from a macro or story-telling standpoint, not because of the merit of its form of government, but rather the form of the government being approved by the US-led West. In other words, if it had been embargoed by the West and didn’t have other food-exporting allies to fall back to, it would’ve suffered famines, quite possibly worse than China’s.

    Then it came the green revolution that benefited both India and China. Agricultural yields have gone up drastically since the late 60s and on in the developing world. India and China became net exporters of food. Famines became a distant memory, death rate gradually has gone down, and life expectancy has gone up — though China has scored better than India in all fronts.

    2. In mid-80s, there was an officially sanctioned study on how many people died abnormally in the GLF between 1958 and 1961. Its base was the population data released in 1983, and the conclusion was some 15 mn deaths. It assumed the 1957 death rate 1.08% was the normal death rate, and anything above it was considered abnormal.

    However, the problem was that 1.08% death rate was unrealistically low. In 1960, the death rate in West Germany was 1.20%. At West Germany’s death rate for China, in 4 years it would mean 3.2 mn abnormal deaths (or 3.2 mn “murdered by Mao”). In 1960, the death rate in India was 2.35%. At India’s death rate for China, in 4 years it would mean 36 mn abnormal deaths. This gets back to the point #1 that a large part of the world being barely above subsistent living.

    Moreover, other than in those 4 years China’s death rates were comparable to India’s, China had led India by a mile in the several decades after 1949. Case in point, in 1967 the death rate in India was 1.91%, and in China it was 0.843%. If we assume China’s number is the baseline, and anything above that is abnormal deaths. To project these back to the 1957 Chinese population, it would mean 7.1 mn Indians “murdered” in 1967 (per Mao’s “murder” ratio). By whom/what you may ask? Well, by the whole logic so far, it’s got to be murdered by democracy and freedom of press, and it was ongoing for decades.

  34. perspectivehere
    January 25th, 2013 at 09:59 | #34

    Shu Guang Zhang is professor and vice rector for Academic Affairs at the Macau University of Science and Technology (MUST). Prior to this position, he was tenured professor at University of Maryland at College Park. He received his PhD from Ohio State University.

    Professor Zhang is the author of Deterrence and Strategic Culture: Chinese-American Confrontations, 1949-58 (Cornell University Press, 1992); Mao’s Military Romanticism: China and the Korean War, 1950-53 (Kansas, 1994); and Economic Cold War: America’s Embargo against China and The Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1949-1963 (Wilson Center-Stanford, 2001).

    Professor Zhang’s works are based on research in US and Chinese archives, many of which had not been accessible to Western scholars in the past. By looking at both US and Chinese sources, he is able to trace how actions and reactions in the US and the West influenced China’s leadership, and vice versa.

    From his pioneering research, Professor Zhang is able to draw strong and very tantalizing causal connections between the Cold War Trade Embargo against China and Mao’s inception of the Great Leap Forward.

    He lays this thesis out plainly in the excerpt below, which comes from an essay he wrote in a collection called Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945-1963, edited by Odd Arne Westad (1998):

    “When asked to comment on the effects of the Western trade embargo during an interview with two Brazilian journalists on September 2, 1958, the CCP chairman replied that it “has not hurt us a bit but has been of great benefit to us.” One obvious benefit, Mao explained, was that it helped the Chinese people to do away with “blind faith in foreigners.” Getting rid of this “blind faith” was “a matter of immense importance,” Mao asserted. “[A]ll countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America should carry out this task.” China would definitely continue to “eradicate this kind of superstition.” Mao also admonished against “blind faith in foreigners” at the fifteenth meeting of the Supreme State Conference on September 5 and 8.

    Addressing the question of what effect the Western economic embargo had on China, he insisted that the embargo “has greatly benefited us, and we don’t feel any detrimental effects of the embargo. On the contrary, the embargo has been of enormous benefit to our basic necessities of life including food, clothing, shelter, and transportation [yi shi zhu xing] as well as our [economic] construction (iron and steel production).”

    In his view, the embargo had compelled the Chinese people to “rely on themselves” and to wage the Great Leap Forward.

    “It is absolutely great that [the embargo] has helped [us] to get rid of the dependent mentality and do away with blind faith [in foreigners].” The longer the embargo lasted, Mao asserted, the more iron and steel China would produce and the stronger China would become, thus ultimately smashing the embargo.


    The key sentence in this passage is: “In his view, the embargo had compelled the Chinese people to “rely on themselves” and to wage the Great Leap Forward.”

    In other words, Professor Zhang argues that Mao believed that the embargo provided impetus to the Great Leap Forward.

    Is it possible to say, had there been no embargo, there would not have been the GLF? Well, one can speculate endlessly about counterfactuals but not prove anything, so I don’t think we can jump to this conclusion just yet, without considering more factual evidence. This subject deserves more attention.

  35. perspectivehere
    January 25th, 2013 at 10:56 | #35

    This review by Professor Tao Peng of Professor Zhang’s Economic Cold War: America’s Embargo Against China and the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1949-1963 states the claim more directly:

    “On the other hand, Zhang contends that the “indirect” influence of the embargo (p. 268) was far-reaching. To meet the challenge of the U.S. sanctions, Zhang argues, Beijing was forced to centralize its political system and economy, emulating the Soviet model. He also avers that the embargo contributed to China’s radical political and economic campaigns, which plunged the country into disasters. He makes a convincing case that the Great Leap Forward movement was partly inspired by the embargo. The sanctions, he writes, fostered Chinese leaders’ determination to “exceed” the British and “overtake” the Americans within a decade and to smash “blind faith” in foreign powers by drastically increasing the output of heavy industry (p. 218).”

    From the book’s blurb at Stanford University Press:

    “This study, based on recently declassified documents in the United States, Great Britain, China, and Russia, is unusual in that it looks at both sides of “the China embargo.” It concludes that economic sanctions provide, in certain circumstances, an attractive alternative to military intervention (especially in the nuclear age) or to doing nothing. The author argues that while the immediate effects may be meager or nil, the indirect and long-term effects may be considerable; in the case he reexamines, the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Anti-Rightist campaign were in part prompted by the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies.”

  36. January 25th, 2013 at 19:59 | #36


    Interesting. I can understand and fully agree with Mao’s view on the embargo. I don’t think he was bluffing or being defiant. With the prevalent slavish mentality towards the colonial powers, the embargo was a necessary and fortuitous event in the consolidation of new China’s spirit and determination.

  37. perspectivehere
    January 27th, 2013 at 11:17 | #37

    @Guo Du

    I’m not so sure. I looks to me like a practical response to a difficult situation and a desire not to show weakness. China had continually asked for lifting of the embargo and sought any trading partners it could in order to get around the embargo’s restrictions. In order to buy foreign steel for development it needed hard currency, but could not earn hard currency if its export markets were closed to it. What else could China do but to try to make iron and steel on its own (in some cases using traditional methods, as this study by Donald Wagner indicates) if they could not buy it from abroad?

    (Some people seem to believe that Mao sought deliberate isolation from the West, but that does not seem to have been the case. Actually, China sought diplomatic recognition and economic linkages, but these were rejected by most Western countries during the Cold War. Interestingly, Britain established diplomatic and economic relations very early on – 1950 – and throughout the cold war, and this was partly due to the British desire to keep Hong Kong viable. See Hong Kong, The Critical Phase 1945-1949.)

    For example, see this interesting recent article about Argentina’s embargo of the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), and the reactions of the locals to their circumstances:

    Argentine Embargo threatens to starve Falkland Islanders- Cameron must act now

    “Selfish and aggressive Argentine embargoes on goods to the Falklands are making life a misery and a nightmare for the Falkland Islanders.

    Huge concerns were voiced earlier today by Dr Alasdair Pinkerton on the Russian World Service radio channel the ‘Voice of Russia’.


    In a post-interview statement, Dr. Pinkerton stated that life has become unbearably expensive and difficult in the Island.

    This is a direct result of Argentina’s actions in ‘Co-ordinating embargoes on UK and Falkland Islands shipping, undermining supply routes, and threatening the air link with Chile’.


    He emphasised that there was an effective food-shortage caused by Argentina’s base and churlish acts stating that “Eggs are rationed to one per person. Islanders have responded by growing their own vegetables in ever greater numbers.”

    Dr. Pinkerton explained that there are desperate measures being undertaken in order to deal with food security on the Islands:

    ‘The Falkland Islands Development Corporation (FIDC) are desperately directing investment into building for the Falkland Islands some form of future food security. It is hoped the Islands can become self-sufficient in the production of fruits, vegetables, salad and eggs, limiting the effectiveness of any future blockades.’ It is unclear whether this is likely to succeed.

    He also emphasised that Argentina’s actions were not doing anything to change the Falkland’s Islanders desire to be a part of Britain:

    “If Argentina are looking to win friends and influence people within the Falkland Islands, they seem to be going about it the wrong way. The embargoes stiffen the resolve of Islanders to be British.”

    I find it interesting that the similar themes emerge from the Falkland Islanders as China under Mao: (1) defiance of the foreign embargo, (2) seeking self-sufficiency even if it seems impossible; (apparently the Falkland Islands are very rocky with poor soil, and not easy to grow any foodstuffs, but yet, they are attempting to do something that would appear quite “irrational” in ordinary circumstances, and (3) strengthened resolve to remain true to themselves.

    From the BBC:

    “The 2,500 people who live here are among the most isolated in the world and are getting more so.

    The editor of the local newspaper, whimsically called Penguin News, wrote in her editorial this week about being asked again and again by visiting journalists to express the islanders’ excitement about the presence here of Prince William, on a six-week tour of duty as a helicopter pilot.

    She described instead a call she had received from a friend who was bubbling over with joy not because of Prince William – and all that his stay here symbolised about the all-important bond between these islands and Britain – but because she managed to grow a pepper and a cucumber.

    Like eggs, fresh vegetables are increasingly hard to come by. The islands – acre for acre – aren’t much smaller than Wales, but the land is rocky and unyielding.

    You can drive for mile after mile across peaty moorlands of black and pale yellow. There are no trees, for wind comes in at you with such a force from the cold Atlantic that nothing stands a chance. I visited a sheep farm – 19,000 acres to sustain 2,500 sheep.

    In other words, each individual sheep needs seven acres of land to get through the year. That’s how ungiving this land is. And yet the Falkland Islanders make it work.

    But you can’t get eggs and you can’t get vegetables. South America once traded happily with the islanders, supplying all their needs. But Buenos Aires has been working hard to cut the islands off.

    Recently, Argentina persuaded other South American countries to turn Falklands-flagged vessels away from their ports. Ships rounding Cape Horn heading for the Falklands are routinely stopped, searched and delayed, so much so that merchant vessels have largely given up trying.

    Fresh vegetables are increasingly hard to come by

    But they are an unflappable lot, the Falkland Islanders. They keep calm and carry on.”

  38. January 27th, 2013 at 19:19 | #38


    Yes you’re right. Mao (and the rest) would have overwhelmingly preferred a more normal and less hostile international environment. Perhaps I should clarify my speculation of their mentality: Being tenacious revolutionaries, they (Mao in particular) never failed to see the “bright side” of the most desperate situation, and a way out of it, always, however risky or unorthodox. Plan A would be great, too good to be true. Plan B would be painful but, hey, it carries other benefits. The enemies think we don’t have the guts for Plan C?Ha, let them just watch. Etc. I suppose only such characters would have any chance of succeeding in bringing about a revolution against all odds?

  39. January 28th, 2013 at 19:22 | #39

    @Guo Du
    China has fought the US directly in Korea and is in direct confrontation with the US since then. And now, the Soviet Union and its allies (mostly Soviet satellite states) threatened to cut off relationship (diplomatically, trade and aid etc) with China. Basically, Chinese leadership are faced with confronting the US while becoming a satellite of the Soviet or confronting the No.1 and No.2 super power simultaneously. The Chinese leadership chose the latter and they realized that in order to faced off both the USA and USSR, China need to industrialized quickly.

  40. January 28th, 2013 at 19:45 | #40

    I must say you are a very good researcher, I might need your help in the future. You are right, it is a myth that Mao sought isolation for China. The CPC actually has a very positive view of the US. Mao is a well read individual and he read about the story of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln etc. Unlike today’s history books, the writings at that time portrayed those men as total saints. Mao and the CPC leadership are great admirer of the US since the 1920s and the relationship only go bad after WWII. Chinese students have both gone to the US and USSR in the 1920s and 1930s. It is no secret that, the US is considered to be the better development model.

    I have already detailed the problems Mao and the CPC leadership had with Moscow. The first official contact between the US and CPC only happened during WWII. Read up on Dixie Mission. The CPC also got a lot of positive publicity from men like Edgar Snow etc. Unfortunately, the US government cannot see through the communist label of the CPC. So after WWII they cut off contact with the CPC and backed KMT directly. The US not only supplied arms but transported Nationalist troops into North eastern China. As you can see it is the US that break off the relationship unilaterally. Mao and the CPC simply have no choice but to turn to Moscow, and to their horror, Stalin also backed Jiang! What happened after that is history.

    The US and PRC actually negotiated secretly in the 1950s in Geneva where both have embassies. However, the PRC baseline for officially talk is for the US to recognize only one China, so the talks came to nothing. PRC would hold the same position until the US relented and both side established official relationship in 1979.

  41. perspectivehere
    January 31st, 2013 at 11:34 | #41


    “The CPC actually has a very positive view of the US. Mao is a well read individual and he read about the story of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln etc. …Mao and the CPC leadership are great admirer of the US since the 1920s and the relationship only go bad after WWII.”


    Yes, this is true. One of the surprising things I am discovering in my reading recently is the esteem, respect and genuine liking Mao had for Americans and the United States.

    This essay, The Most Respected Enemy: Mao Zedong’s Perception of the United States, by He Di (The China Quarterly, No. 137 (Mar., 1994), pp. 144-158)is a particularly surprising discovery for me. Some excerpts:

    “Mao’s feelings toward the United States at this historic moment [meeting Nixon] could well have gone back to his youthful fascination with, and admiration of, the United States, beginning with George Washington. Xiao San, Mao’s friend from his younger days, vividly recalled how Mao sat up all night reading Great Heroes of the World, translated and compiled from American books, which discusses Wellington, Washington, Lincoln, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Gladstone and Napoleon. But it was Washington who gripped Mao’s imagination:

    ‘We need great people like these. We ought to study them and find out how we can
    make China rich and strong, and so avoid becoming like Annam, Korea, and India
    … China is very weak; she will grow strong, rich, and independent only after many
    years; but the important thing is that we must learn these things. And it is not
    impossible. After six years of hard fighting, Washington defeated the British,
    and began to build up America.’

    Throughout his life, in speeches to his inner circle and in talks with foreign guests, irrespective of whether the United States was currently an enemy or a friend, Mao frequently mentioned Washington’s name in positive fashion. Mao’s image of America’s relationship with China also raised hope in his early years of close collaboration, if not formal alliance. In 1916 he wrote to his friend:

    ‘The time would be in ten years. The place
    would be in the Pacific. It has been talked
    about for a long time that the U.S. and Japan
    will go to war. In ten years, China and America
    will join the just cause. We attack the Japanese
    army, the U.S. attacks the Japanese navy. Then
    Japan would be defeated in no time. The two
    republics of the east and west would be friendly
    and close. This would be a contribution to economic
    development. It would benefit future generations.’


    Newly declassified archives and documents, personal interviews and recently published memoirs reveal how Mao’s articulated perceptions of the United States were shaped, how they changed, and their influence on Chinese foreign policy as well as on Sino-U.S. relations. They also suggest the degree to which misperception may have affected this relationship. More fundamentally, the new data help to understand how Mao’s knowledge structure, theoretical framework and belief system were shaped by his personal experience, his psychology and China’s heritage of relations with foreign powers in the hundred years prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic.

    From the time of his famous encounter with Edgar Snow in 1936 until the end of the Second World War, Mao was absorbed with the possibility of enlisting the United States as a de facto partner in China’s struggle against Japan and the CCP’s struggle against its Nationalist rivals. Knowing little of the inner workings of the American government, Mao was unable to gauge accurately the real prospects for co-operation between Washington and the Chinese Communists. He was left embittered by his failure to realize his hopes for wartime co-operation. This was compounded by the failure of the Marshall mission in which Mao and his associates had initially invested considerable hope.

    After the end of the Second World War, Mao welcomed the initial mediation of General George C. Marshall, seeing it as pressuring Chiang Kai-shek to slow down the march towards civil war and thus providing an opportunity to the CCP to achieve power and legitimacy. However the American move to support Chiang and oppose the CCP angered Mao, changing his view. As he said later: “We made mistakes in our work during the previous period … It was the first time for us to deal with the U.S. imperialists. We didn’t have much experience. As a result we were taken in. With this experience we won’t be cheated again.”

    This predisposed Mao to anticipate various American threats as he launched a full-scale CCP counter-offensive. He saw the first major danger as a U.S.-backed third force within the revolutionary group. Secondly, although he felt large-scale American military intervention was unlikely, contingency planning had to consider the possibility of American troops occupying coastal cities, thus engaging CCP forces in direct combat. Thirdly, Mao perceived American political, economic and cultural influence among urban citizens, especially intellectuals, together with American and Kuomintang spies and saboteurs.”


    It’s always tempting to speculate what might have been if (1) the CCP and KMT could have reached a settlement with US support or (2) the US would have decided to support the CCP instead of the KMT.

    China’s subsequent development would not have gone through the trials that it did. There might not have been a PRC, but rather an ROC led by both the CCP and KMT. There might have been no Korean war (at least, not involving China on the Soviet side), no trade embargo, no “cold war” in China and no GLF.

  42. perspectivehere
    February 1st, 2013 at 09:32 | #42

    fivewillows :
    Please help: Seeking info on Mao’s Lushan Conference decision not to reduce Great Leap quotas:
    ANYWAY, I’m writing here because Mao’s refusal to lower production quotas after the blow-up with Peng Dehaui at the Lushan Conference during the Great Leap does seem “monstrous”–and so out of character–to me.
    I’m wondering if anybody has sources drilling deeper into what prompted Mao to reverse his own earlier intention to lower production quotas and avert famine. If so, please include at least title and author of source.


    Have you seen this essay by Prof. Qiang Zhai at the Auburn University at Montgomery?

    In this piece, “1959: Preventing Peaceful Evolution”, Prof. Qiang Zhai introduces an excerpt of Bo Yibo’s memoirs which relates the roots of Mao’s strongly adverse reaction to John Foster Dulles’ speeches on “peaceful evolution”, seeing them as signs of American plots to infiltrate and instigate subversive change and “revisionism” in China’s revolution. He gives insights into the thinking of Mao (and Bo Yibo) towards the international pressure from the imperialist / capitalist countries towards the communist revolution.

    “Bo Yibo 薄一波

    Bo Yibo (1908-2007)

    According to the general law of socialist revolution, only through the leadership of a proletarian political party directed by Marxism, reliance on the working class and other laboring masses, and waging of an armed struggle in this or that form can a revolution obtain state power. International hostile forces to the newly born people’s government would always attempt to strangle it in the cradle through armed aggression, intervention, and economic blockade. After the victory of the October Revolution, the Soviet Union experienced an armed intervention by fourteen countries. In the wake of World War II, imperialism launched a protracted ‘Cold War’ and economic containment of socialist countries. Immediately after the triumph of the revolution in China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, U.S. imperialists invaded Korea, blockaded the Taiwan Strait, and implemented an all-out embargo against China. All of this shows that it will take a sharp struggle with external hostile forces through an armed conflict or other forms of contest before a newly born socialist country can consolidate its power.

    History suggests that although the armed aggression, intervention, and economic blockade launched by Western imperialists against socialist countries can create enormous problems for socialist countries, they have great difficulty in realizing their goal of overthrowing socialist states. Therefore, imperialist countries are inclined to adopt a ‘soft’ method in addition to employing ‘hard’ policies. In January 1953, U.S. Secretary of States Dulles emphasized the strategy of ‘peaceful evolution’. He pointed out that ‘the enslaved people’ of socialist countries should be ‘liberated’, and become ‘free people’, and that ‘liberation can be achieved through means other than war’, and ‘the means ought to be and can be peaceful’. He displayed satisfaction with the ‘liberalization-demanding forces’ which had emerged in some socialist countries and placed his hope on the third and fourth generations within socialist countries, contending that if the leader of a socialist regime ‘continues wanting to have children and these children will produce their children, then the leader’s offspring will obtain freedom.’ He also claimed that ‘Chinese communism is in fatal danger’, and ‘represents a fading phenomena’, and that the obligation of the United States and its allies was ‘to make every effort to facilitate the disappearance of that phenomena’, and ‘to bring about freedom in all of China by all peaceful means.’

    Chairman Mao paid full attention to these statements by Dulles and watched carefully the changes in strategies and tactics used by imperialists against socialist countries. That was the time when the War to Aid Korea and Resist America had just achieved victory, when the United States was continuing its blockade of the Taiwan Straits and its embargo, and when our domestic situation was stable, ‘the First Five-Year Plan’ was fully under way, economic construction was developing rapidly, and everywhere was the picture of prosperity and vitality. At that moment, Chairman Mao did not immediately bring up the issue of preventing a ‘peaceful evolution’. The reason for his later raising the question has to do with developments in international and domestic situations.

    In 1956, at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, Khrushchev attacked Stalin, causing an anti-Communist and anti-Socialist wave in the world and triggering incidents in Poland and Hungary. In 1957, a tiny minority of bourgeois Rightists seized the opportunity of Party reform to attack the Party. In 1958, Khrushchev proposed to create a long-wave radio station and a joint fleet with China in order to control China militarily; he also openly opposed our Party’s ‘Three Red Flags’ and objected to our just action of ‘shelling Jinmen’. (Chairman Mao once said that whether we bombarded Jinmen or suspended our bombardment, our main purpose was to support the Taiwan people and the Taiwan regime to keep Taiwan [from being] invaded and annexed by foreign countries.—Bo’s note). The above events alerted Chairman Mao.

    In the meantime, the United States actively practiced its strategy of promoting a ‘peaceful evolution’ of socialist countries. In 1957, the Eisenhower administration introduced the ‘strategy of peaceful conquest’, aiming to facilitate ‘changes inside the Soviet world’, through a ‘peaceful evolution’. On October 24, 1958, in an interview with a BBC correspondent, Dulles asserted that communism ‘will gradually give way to a system that pays more attention to the welfare of the state and people’, and that at the moment, ‘Russian and Chinese Communists are not working for the welfare of their people’, and ‘this kind of communism will change’.

    Considering the situation in both the Soviet Union and at home, Chairman Mao took very seriously Dulles’s remarks. In a speech to the directors of the cooperation regions on November 30, 1958, Chairman Mao noted that Dulles was a man of schemes and that he controlled the helm in the United States. Dulles was very thoughtful. One had to read his speeches word by word with the help of an English dictionary. Dulles was really taking the helm. Provincial Party Committees should assign special cadres to read Cankao ziliao 参考资料. Chairman Mao has always insisted that Party leaders at all levels, especially high-ranking cadres, should closely follow international events and the development of social contradictions on the world scene in order to be well informed and prepared for sudden incidents. It is very necessary for Mao to make that demand. Chairman Mao read Cankao ziliao every day. For us leading cadres, we should consider not only the whole picture of domestic politics but also the whole situation of international politics. Thus we can keep clear-headed, deal with any challenges confidently, and ‘sit tight in the fishing boat despite the rising winds and waves.’ This is a very important political lesson and a leadership style.

    In 1959, Sino-Soviet relations were even more strained and Sino-Soviet differences even greater. In January, the Soviet Union officially notified China that it would scrap unilaterally the agreement to help China build nuclear industry and produce nuclear bombs. In September when the Sino-Indian Border Incident occurred, the Soviet Union announced neutrality, but in actuality it supported India. It openly criticized China after the incident. At the Soviet-American Camp David Talks during the same month, Khrushchev sought to improve relations with the United States on the one hand and vehemently attacked China’s domestic and foreign policies on the other.[8] All these events convinced Chairman Mao that the Soviet leadership had degenerated and that Khrushchev had betrayed Marxism and the proletarian revolutionary cause and had turned revisionist. At the Lushan Conference held during July-August that year, when Peng Dehuai criticized the ‘Three Red Flags,’ Chairman Mao erroneously believed that this reflected the combined attack on the Party by internal and external enemies. Facing such a complex situation, Chairman Mao felt deeply the danger of a ‘peaceful evolution.’ Accordingly, he unequivocally raised the issue at the end of that year.

    In November 1959, Chairman Mao convened a small-scale meeting in Hangzhou attended by Premier Zhou [Enlai], Peng Zhen, Wang Jiaxiang, Hu Qiaomu, among others, to discuss and examine the international situation at the time. Before the opening of the meeting, Chairman Mao asked his secretary, Lin Ke 林克, to find Dulles’s speeches concerning ‘peaceful evolution’ for him to read. Comrade Lin Ke selected three such speeches: Dulles’s address titled ‘Policy for the Far East’ delivered before the California Chamber of Commerce on December 4, 1958, Dulles’s testimony made before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on January 28, 1959, and Dulles’s speech titled ‘The Role of Law in Peace’ made before the New York State Bar Association on January 31, 1959. Chairman Mao had read these three speeches before. After rereading them, he told Comrade Lin Ke of his opinions about them and asked him to write commentaries based on his views and insert them at the beginning of each of Dulles’s statements. After Comrade Lin Ke had completed the commentaries, Mao instructed him to distribute Dulles’s speeches, along with the commentaries, to the members attending the meeting.

    The three speeches by Dulles all contained the theme of promoting a ‘peaceful evolution’ inside socialist countries. The three commentaries based on Chairman Mao’s talks highlighted the key points in Dulles’s remarks and warned of the danger of the American ‘peaceful evolution’ strategy. The first commentary pointed out: ‘The United States not only has no intention to give up its policy of force, but also wants, as an addition to its policy of force, to pursue a ‘peaceful conquest strategy’ of infiltration and subversion in order to avoid the prospect of its ‘being surrounded’. The U.S. desires to achieve the ambition of preserving itself (capitalism) and gradually defeating the enemy (socialism).’ After noting the main theme of Dulles’s testimony, the second commentary contended: Dulles’s words ‘demonstrate that U.S. imperialists are attempting to restore capitalism in the Soviet Union by the method of corrupting it so as to realize their aggressive goal, which they have failed to achieve through war.’ The third commentary first took note of Dulles’s insistence on ‘the substitution of justice and law for force’ and his contention that the abandonment of force did not mean the ‘maintenance of the status quo’, but meant a peaceful ‘change’. Then it went on to argue that ‘Dulles’s words showed that because of the growing strength of the socialist force throughout the world and because of the increasing isolation and difficulties of the international imperialist force, the United States does not dare to start a world war at the moment. Therefore, the United States has adopted a more deceptive tactic to pursue its aggression and expansion. While advocating peace, the United States is at the same time speeding up the implementation of its plots of infiltration, corruption, and subversion in order to reverse the decline of imperialism and to fulfill its objective of aggression.’

    At the meeting on November 12, Chairman Mao further analyzed and elaborated on Dulles’s speeches and the commentaries. He said:

    Comrade Lin Ke has prepared for me three documents—three speeches by Dulles during 1958-1959. All three documents have to do with Dulles’s talks about encouraging a ‘peaceful evolution’ inside socialist countries. For example, at his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on January 28 Dulles remarked that basically the U.S. hoped to encourage changes within the Soviet world. By the Soviet world, Dulles did not mean just the Soviet Union. He was referring to the whole socialist camp. He was hoping to see changes in our camp so that the Soviet world would no longer be a threat to freedom on the globe and would mind its own business instead of thinking about realizing the goal and ambition of communizing the world….
    In commenting on Dulles’s statement of January 31, 1959, Chairman Mao asserted:

    Dulles said that justice and law should replace violence and that war should be abandoned, and law and justice should be emphasized. Dulles also argued that the abandonment of force under the circumstances did not mean the ‘maintenance of the status quo’, but meant a peaceful ‘change’. (laughter) Change whom peacefully? Dulles wants to change countries like ours. He wants to subvert and change us to follow his ideas…. Therefore, the United States is attempting to carry out its aggression and expansion with a much more deceptive tactic…. In other words, it wants to keep its order and change our system. It wants to corrupt us by a peaceful evolution.

    Chairman Mao believed that Khrushchev’s speeches reflected the ‘peaceful evolution’ advocated by Dulles and that our principle should be:

    Under the existing complex international conditions, our policy is to resist the pressures head-on—pressures from two directions, Khrushchev and Eisenhower. We will resist for five to ten years. Toward the United States, we should do our best to expose it with facts and we should do so persuasively. We will not criticize Khrushchev, nor will we attack him through implication. We will only expose the American deception and lay bare the nature of the so-called ‘peace’ by the United States.

    This is the first time that Chairman Mao clearly raised and insightfully elaborated on the issue of preventing a ‘peaceful evolution’. From that time on, he would pay more and more attention to the matter. In a series of meetings that followed, he would repeatedly alert the whole party on the issue and gradually unfold the struggle against the so-called revisionism both at home and abroad.”

  43. perspectivehere
    February 1st, 2013 at 09:41 | #43

    John Foster Dulles was a harsh cold warrior towards China, a strong proponent of no recognition, no UN seat and no trade with the PRC.

    President Eisenhower believed that perhaps it was time to relax the embargo and seek to normalize relations with China, but Dulles’ hardline views won the day.

    This short video bio gives a flavor of his vast influence on American cold war policy, fueling the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union.


    Given Dulles’ insistence on maintaining the embargo and harsh treatment towards the PRC, his words on “peaceful evolution” of the communist system was contradictory and appears to have engendered paranoia about America’s true intentions (which frankly was ambivalent and vacillating between mere containment to hardline aggression).

    Even today among historians, there is disagreement over whether Dulles’ policies were productive or counter-productive.

    See this excerpt from Simei Qing’s From Allies to Enemies: Visions of Modernity, Identity, And U.S-China Diplomacy, 1945-1960:

    “This discussion highlights the competing American assumptions about the PRC’s foreign-policy intentions, assumptions that formed the basis for all American China policy debates in Washington throughout the 1950s. Congresswoman Bolton’s question was, in fact, raised again by Alexander Grantham, the British governor of Hong Kong, one month later. In his letter to the State Department in April 1955, Grantham suggested an in-depth debate about the assumptions underlying the entire Western strategy toward the PRC, specifically, about Beijing’s intention in the Sino-Soviet alliance. The current China embargo was, he emphasized, based on the suppostion that the PRC’s motivation in the alliance was to serve the Soviet ambition of world domination. But there could be another possibility, he argued. The CCP might perceive a grave threat from the West and the United States and intend to use this alliance to defend China’s national security. Should the latter hypothesis be true, he warned, the current Western strategy of embargo could be “utterly counterproductive.”

    In the U.S. China policy debate, there were competing policy assumptions about the PRC’s domestic conditions and foreign-policy intentions. President Eisenhower held views similar to Grantham’s. In 1956, a new China policy proposal, which the president supported, urged relaxing the Western embargo and the U.S. embargo against the PRC in particular. At the last minute, however, the State Department, under Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, overturned the new China policy proposal, kept the total embargo, and further installed the strategy of peripheral military containment toward the PRC in South Vietnam.”

    In my view, Dulles’ policies were in the short term terribly counterproductive, driving Mao’s China, with its focus on national security of the young nation, towards increasingly extreme measures with horrible consequences for the Chinese economy and people. I wonder whether people will ever consider Dulles policies as monstrous?

  44. perspectivehere
    February 2nd, 2013 at 02:39 | #44

    In this article, AMERICAN BUSINESS AND THE CHINA TRADE EMBARGO IN THE 1950s by Professor Kailai Huang, we get insight on how the embargo was perceived and acted upon by American businesses in the 1950’s.


    “The Chinese Communist revolution and the Korean War turned U.S.-China commercial relations into a political issue inseparable from the question of diplomatic recognition. The American business community supported the U.S. policy of trade embargo. After some American allies relaxed the China trade control system in 1957, many business people asked for a reexamination of the embargo policy. Their effort failed to achieve concrete change, for they could not overcome the strong opposition from the unsympathetic government officials and China lobby. The little economic inducement presented by the China market also discouraged American business from vigorously pursuing the issue.”

    “When the Chinese Communist army began to march southward to the Yangtze valley early in 1949, the U.S. government promulgated a China export control list categorizing all strategic goods into I-A items (goods of direct military utility), and I-B items (multipurpose capital goods). Licenses were required to export these goods. Non strategic goods could still be exported to China without government authorization. Licenses for I-A items were always denied and for I-B items were granted only after confirming that such goods would be used for civilian purposes.

    On November 22, 1949, the U.S. and other Western allies formed the Coordinating Committee (Cocom)
    to coordinate strategic control of trade with the Soviet bloc and to agree upon an embargo list.

    From early 1950, the U.S. tried to incorporate trade control for China into the framework of Cocom by expanding the embargo list to China.

    On June 29, 1950, immediately after the outbreak of the Korean War, the State Department required oil companies Caltex and Stanvac to stop their shipment to China of petroleum products, till then considered as non-strategic goods.

    On July 20, the Department of Commerce revoked all export license applications for I-B items destined for mainland China, thus effecting an embargo on all exports, except for non-strategic goods.

    The remaining crack in the open door quickly closed after Chinese troops entered the Korean War. On December 3, 1950, the Department of Commerce announced revocation of the general license for export to China. The measure meant “that all persons and firms wishing to export any commodities to mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao must submit application for export licenses”, and such licenses proved, practically, unavailable.

    On December 16, the U.S. government froze Chinese assets in the United States and prohibited all imports from trade dealings with China. In the same month, China seized American assets in China as retaliation. By the end of 1950, the China trade, both import and export, had virtually stopped.”

  45. February 2nd, 2013 at 08:08 | #45

    It is very tempting to speculate and talk of “what if”. The reality is much harsher, history is full of a big certainty and smaller uncertainties. The final outcome of historical event is usually certain, the smaller uncertainties affect the lives of individuals and smaller events.

    There is no way the US or any western European country will work with the CCP. At that time Christianity is still a major part of western values. To top it off capitalism and market economy is the only accepted ideology. Socialism and welfare as we know it today didn’t really take root until a few decades later. Despite favourable report from the Dixie Mission there is no way CCP can compete with KMT for US support. The fact that CPC took over two decades to be even remotely accepted by the Chinese majority showed how a new radical ideology take times to be implemented.

    The same thing would repeat itself in Vietnam where the Vietminh was passed over for a completely corrupt regime. The initiative to accommodate and co-operation lies almost completely on the hand of the much stronger party, in this case the US. They made a wrong judgement call causing the lives of millions in China, Korea, Vietnam and all over the world fighting the Cold War.

  46. February 2nd, 2013 at 08:51 | #46

    John Foster Dulles and the likes are simply a product of their generation. Their approach to politics is almost religious. As such the Godless Communist must be destroyed lest they take over the world. This is the prevalent view of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant group who is in charge of the US government. The USSR is the most evil empire the world has ever seen, remember the domino theory? The belief is all communist states are controlled by the Soviet Union.

    In the 1950s, the PRC and the US actually secretly negotiated for official talks but the PRC condition is for the US to stop support of the ROC. Unfortunately, can any US Congress accept Red China over Free China? This is where misinformation of the press and public perception destroyed any chance of realistic rapprochement. On one side is the Godless evil Communist, and on the other the freedom loving democratic Nationalist. Few accurate assessment of the reality on the ground was published. If the village election and popular support of the PRC or Vietminh is fairly compared to the fascist republican regime of the other side, would public opinion be changed?

    The Vietnam war of the 1960s also mean there is little hope for mutual recognition. However, it is also the Vietnam war that made the US realized fighting both the USSR and PRC simultaneously is almost an unsustainable option. The 1969 border conflict between the PRC and USSR gave clear signal that not all communist states see eye to eye. The US administration have a good handle to begin of official talk with PRC. As they now have a good idea to sell to the American public, things proceed quickly, cumulating in the Kissinger visit. The idea is simple, use communist China to fight the Soviet Union. This served both the strategic interest of both PRC and US. As we can see, it is strategic interest that ultimately shaped any state to state relationship.

  47. perspectivehere
    February 2nd, 2013 at 08:54 | #47


    Guardian journalist John Gittings wrote this essay published in 2006: ” If Mao had met Roosevelt: An alternative view of US-China relations”

    Here is a brief excerpt:

    “In early 1945, as the war with Japan neared its end — and as efforts began to avoid an ensuing civil war within China — Mao Zedong asked to fly to Washington for secret talks with President Roosevelt, and spoke in glowing terms of future relations with the US. It was a quite remarkable request from the leader of Asia’s largest communist party which owed allegiance, formally at any rate, to the Soviet Union: Stalin would surely have been furious if such a visit had occurred. In the event nothing came of the proposal and for a quarter of a century even the fact it had been made was ignored. No one was interested in asking whether relations between a communist China and the US could have taken a better course than the mutual hostility of the 1950s and 1960s — until they did actually improve in the 1970s. More recently, a new academic consensus has concluded that these early overtures (and others made by the Chinese communists which followed later) could never have changed the course of events. I believe this is too easy a conclusion and that the course of US-China relations might quite possibly have had less tragic consequences “if Mao had met Roosevelt”. We can also draw an interesting — and perhaps disturbing –lesson from the shifts in scholarly opinion towards this affair.

    Mao’s proposal was transmitted from Yan’an (Yenan), the communist capital in north-west China, by the head of the US wartime mission stationed there (the so-called “Dixie Mission”) on January 9, 1945.

    [The] Yenan Government wants to dispatch to America an unofficial rpt unofficial group to interpret and explain to American civilians and officials interested the present situation and problems of China. Next is [a] strictly off the record suggestion by the same [ government]. Mao [Zedong] and Chou [Zhou Enlai] will be immediately available either singly or together for [an] exploratory conference at Washington should President Roosevelt express [the] desire to receive them at [the] White House as leaders of a primary Chinese [political] party. They expressly desire that it be unknown rpt not known that they are willing to go to Washington in case Roosevelt[‘s] invitation [is] not now forthcoming. This [is] to protect their political [situation] vis-a-vis Chiang [Kai-shek] [1].

    There were in fact two proposals being made from Yan’an. First, that an “unofficial” group would be sent to the US to explain the position of the Chinese Communist Party: this would evidently have operated in public. Second that Mao and Zhou would have travelled in person, and perhaps in secret. It would have been no ordinary journey (especially for Mao who had at that stage had never travelled in a plane!).They would have flown from Yan’an to Chongqing (Chungking), and then trans-shipped to one of the famous Pan American China Clippers, embarking on the hazardous Cannonball Route, over The Hump of the Himalayas to India, probably on through Karachi, Abadan, Cairo, Tripoli and Casablanca, down on to Bathurst or Accra, across the Pacific to Brazil, up to Trinidad and on to Miami before the last leg to Washington. It would have taken at least five or six days.

    Once in the White House, what would Mao have wanted to discuss? He had already set out his agenda for a future relationship with the US in a number of interviews with members of the Dixie Mission, particularly not exclusively with the Foreign Service officer John (or Jack) Service. First, Mao wanted the US to treat the Communist Party (CCP) as an equal partner with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) including the distribution of arms, and to put pressure on Chiang to cooperate with the CCP to avoid civil war. As he explained to Service:

    With Chiang you can be friendly on your own terms. He must give in to constant, strong and unified pressure…. There is no longer any need or any reason to cultivate, baby or placate Chiang. The US can tell Chiang what he should do – in the interest of the war.

    Second, Mao would downplay his party’s relationship with the Soviet Union:

    The Russians… will have their hands full with their own job of rebuilding [ after the war}. We do not expect Russian help…. Russia only wants a friendly and democratic China. Cooperation between America and the Chinese communist Party will be beneficial and satisfactory to all concerned.

    Third, Mao would hold out a tempting prospect of a future relationship which at last provided a real Open Door (the unvarying goal of US policy in China) for the capital and goods of America.

    China must industrialise. This can be done – in China – only by free enterprise and with the aid of foreign capital. Chinese and American interests are correlated and similar. They fit together, economically and politically. We can and must work together…

    We will be interested in the most rapid possible development of the country on constructive and productive lines.

    Finally, Mao would stress the need for dialogue and understanding:

    America does not need to fear that we will not be cooperative. We must cooperate and we must have American help. That is why it is so important to us Communists to know what you Americans are thinking and planning. We cannot risk crossing you — cannot risk any conflict with you. [2]

    Mao’s proposal was held up in Chongqing by President Roosevelt’s special ambassador General Hurley. who saw it as an attempt by the Communists to bypass him (which it was) and as a plot against him by the foreign service officers in the Dixie Mission (which it was not). Eventually the request was forwarded to FDR by Hurley, but only on “the fifth page of a six-page letter” in which he cited it as part of the alleged conspiracy. [3]

    Hurley also regarded as part of this plot various proposals, made by officers under the US military commander in China General Wedemeyer (with whom he had testy relations) for military cooperation on the ground with the Chinese communists. These included a plan, conveyed to Yan’an by an officer of the Office of Strategic Services, to place US special Operations men with communist units behind Japanese lines for acts of sabotage. (The strategic context for this was the expectation that US ground forces would soon land on the Chinese mainland as a prelude to the invasion of Japan: in the end the war effort was focussed instead on approaching Japan via the Philippines, and the China theatre declined in importance.)

    Did FDR have any knowledge of the offer from Mao and Zhou? Two months later, in March 1945 during the conversation with Edgar Snow (author of Red Star Over China) Roosevelt indicated that a US landing on the North China coast would take place and that he had no objection to cooperating with the communist guerrillas. “I’ve been working with two governments there [in China]. I intend to go on doing so until we can get them together.” The President had just received a memorandum, drafted by most of the Foreign Service officers in Chongqing, arguing the need to supply the Communists on political as well as military grounds; Otherwise, it said, the Communists might seek Soviet assistance and “chaos in China will be inevitable” Roosevelt’s statement to Snow is suggestive — and Mao would have been delighted to hear that the US president had referred to his regime as a “government” — but Roosevelt was almost certainly referring in much more general terms to his hopes of bringing the Communists and Nationalists together. [4]

    American war priorities changed, Hurley ensured the downgrading of the Dixie Mission, and President Roosevelt died. Brief and elusive as this episode was, we can hardly fail to be intrigued by it. Snow speculated that Roosevelt’s death may have “closed the chapter on our chance to find out how the Chinese communists would behave towards us — and towards Russia — if treated as our ally in the common war against Japan.” And Carolle Carter, author of a recent study on the Dixie Mission, suggests that “The journey by Mao and Chou to Washington would probably have placed additional distance between Yenan and Moscow while making the Communists appear less like an insurgent group than like an equal player in the joint war effort” [5].”


    Intriguing possibilities….

  48. February 3rd, 2013 at 10:17 | #48

    I think our posts crossed a bit. I have studied about a direct CPC and US relationship but realized it can never happened due to the reasons stated earlier. Let say Mao and Zhou managed to meet Roosevelt, what would be the condition of the latter for official relationship. Due to your research we are now clear of CPC’s position. The US definitely want to protect its own interest and its position would be different.

    The CPC built its mass support on land reform. It also gained credential by successfully interdicting the invading Japanese army and puppet troops. This is how the communist army grow from 3 divisions in 1937 to around 80 divisions in 1945! Would the US require the CPC to give up land reform? What about religion issue? Mr and Mrs Jiang do have the advantage that they are Christian and support capitalism.

    Another thing most casual observers don’t realized is the Nationalist is severely factionalized. Jiang is simply the first among equal, he might control the central government with the Song brother and sisters, he still lacked the authority to run an effective administration. Within the central faction his power is balanced by the Chen and Kong family. Outside, it is the various regional based military factions that have allegiance only to their home provinces. Out of the 4 million or so Nationalist troops in 1945, he can only command around half a million soldiers, albeit his army is the most well trained and armed. The US has also invested too much in Jiang to let him go. Although the US actually wanted a negotiated combined Chinese government there is no way that can ever happened. So the Chinese civil war is bound to happen.

    I think I should be more clear in the point I want to make. Jiang biggest failure is not his inability to defeat the CPC, it is his inability to win over the other factions within the KMT.

  49. perspectivehere
    February 4th, 2013 at 10:12 | #49


    John Service was a visionary and tragic figure from the WW2 and Cold War period with China. Service was an “old China hand.” His parents were both missionaries in China, and he was born in Chengdu in 1909. Service was in the US State Department and recognized in the early 1940’s that Jiang and the KMT would lose. Service advocated to the US government that it reach out to establish relations with the Chinese communists at Yanan, and this led to the Dixie Mission. After failing to convince the US government to support the CCP, and after the KMT retreated to exile on Taiwan, Service was accused of being a communist by McCarthy, arrested, fired from his job, acquited, and then lived out the rest of his life in obscurity, shunned by employers who were afraid of being associated with a “communist” (which he was not). He later achieved some vindication when Nixon went to China.

    He died in 1999. A book about his life came out a couple of years ago: Honorable Survivor: Mao’s China, McCarthy’s America and the Persecution of John S. Service, By Lynne Joiner. I have not read it but read a couple of reviews. This review by Suzanne Pepper is pretty good:

    “John Stewart Service was one of several diplomats caught up in the currents of mid-20th century U.S. domestic and foreign policy as Washington’s strategic objectives shifted rapidly from fighting fascist aggression to halting communism’s advance. In “Honorable Survivor,” Lynne Joiner has tapped previously unavailable information from FBI files and State Department records to tell the story of his life in a sympathetic but carefully researched account that ranges from Mao Zedong’s north China redoubt to the marble precincts of the U.S. Supreme Court.

    As the leading U.S. Foreign Service political reporter in China between 1943 and 1945, Service quickly became a political lightning rod when he took it upon himself to advocate an unconventional direction for post-World War II China policy. In return, he was declared disloyal to his country, his career was ruined, and today 10 years after his death some still cry treason at the mention of his name. Joiner thus tells a cautionary tale about youthful self-confidence and indiscretion, compounded by the bitter enmity between conservatives and liberals that reached fever pitch during America’s long-running struggle to fix blame for the “loss” of China.

    The son of YMCA missionary parents, Service was born and raised in China but finished his education as did many other missionary offspring at Oberlin College. He graduated in 1931 and joined the Foreign Service two years later, beginning his career on the lowermost rung of the ladder as a clerk in the smallest of America’s 16 consular China offices. His apprenticeship passed quickly amid the gathering storm clouds of strife-torn 1930s China. After the consular women and children were evacuated from Japanese-occupied Shanghai in late 1940, Service embarked upon the adventure that would lead to his arrest by the FBI five years later, cutting short a promising career and prompting his long quest for vindication.

    With Service assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Chungking, wartime capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) government, his command of the Chinese language, widespread contacts and reporting skills soon made him an indispensable member of the staff. Service was the first Foreign Service political officer to report from China after America entered the Pacific War in December 1941, and his views were eagerly sought by the Washington intelligence community when he returned for consultations a year later. Among other things, he suggested sending American observers to the north China headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party to learn more about U.S. ally Chiang Kai-shek’s nemesis, Mao Zedong, and the rural-based movement he led.

    Many journalists and others were making the same wartime journey north from Chungking to Yenan and would reach similar conclusions about the Communists’ growing strength relative to the Nationalist government’s decline. But Service’s internal reports went further: He argued that a renewal of civil war was probably inevitable and that U.S. military supplies sent to Chiang Kai-shek would probably be used against his Communist adversary rather than the Japanese. Service’s first such report, in January 1943, launched a debate that would continue for years about whom to support and how and why. It pitted the powers that be in Washington against Foreign Service officers and observers in the field, among whom Service was probably the most knowledgeable and certainly the most prolific. He was also eager to circulate his message as widely as possible, both inside and outside official channels, a practice not uncommon at that time. On returning to Chungking, he was transferred to work as a political adviser at U.S. military headquarters under the command of Gen. Joseph Stilwell. In mid-1944, Service had the satisfaction of seeing one of his ideas bear fruit when a U.S. Army observer group, known as the Dixie Mission, was finally sent to Yenan. Attached to the team as its only civilian member, Service spent three months getting to know the Communist leaders, who promised all possible cooperation with American battle plans for the final defeat of Japan. Service’s effort culminated in February 1945 with a policy recommendation he drafted that was signed by all the embassy’s political officers. They agreed that civil war in China was imminent and that Mao would probably win. In order to keep postwar options open for future U.S.-China relations, they urged that Washington adopt a policy similar to that being followed in Yugoslavia, where aid went to all sides, both Communist and otherwise, in the final push to defeat Nazi Germany.

    The recommendation was summarily rejected and all its signatories were recalled by order of Ambassador Patrick Hurley. He himself would resign only a short time later, damning them for what he regarded as their pro-Communist sympathies. By then, Service had already been arrested for lending some of his Yenan reports to Phillip Jaffe, editor of the leftist magazine Amerasia, who was under surveillance on suspicion of stealing government documents.

    In the multiple investigations that followed his arrest, Service was repeatedly exonerated between 1945 and 1951. Nevertheless, he was dismissed by the presidential Loyalty Review Board for suspected disloyalty based on his unauthorized disclosure of nonpublic documents. Intent on clearing his name, he pursued the case all the way to the Supreme Court, winning a unanimous judgment clearing him of all charges in 1957. Still his adversaries would not let go, and they in turn pursued the case until President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to Beijing, which marked the end of an era, at least as far as official efforts to discredit Service were concerned.”


    “In fact, the most fascinating aspects of this story are not about the Service case but about its place in the evolution of American politics and the striking similarities it highlights between past and present. Having spent most of his life in China, Service foresaw China’s political future more clearly than the impact that future would have back home. There the “loss” of China to communism reinforced conservative/liberal divisions that, far from ending with the Cold War, have since become even more firmly entrenched.

    Those may have been the days before party realignment, but the anti-Communist drive was not a bipartisan enterprise. Republicans spearheaded the crusade and accused Democrats of being soft on communism. Today they are accused of being soft on terrorism. Joiner refers to Richard Nixon’s senatorial election campaign in California when he accused President Truman of treating alleged Communist infiltration like an “ordinary political scandal.” Today the accusation is about treating terrorists like ordinary criminals. The FBI’s unauthorized break-ins and bugging were justified in the name of national security. And zealous conservative politicians stoked popular fears without troubling to define the Communist or socialist labels that proclaimed guilt by association and innuendo. In all of these respects, the Service case illustrates not just some overwrought episode from our past but patterns of political behavior that have been reproduced across several political generations to define our present as well.”


    It seems whereas China had an “anti-rightists” campaign, in the US we had an “anti-leftists” campaign which destroyed many careers and lives of people who were knowledgeable about China and could have been useful in building a better US-China relations.

  50. perspectivehere
    February 4th, 2013 at 10:30 | #50

    This is a very interesting interview with John Service. It comes from the National Security Archive at George Washington University. The following excerpt gives a great deal of insight on how this perceptive former foreign service officer saw the US relationship to the Chinese civil war, and how the US choice of lukewarm support for Chiang Kai-shek precluded the possibility of any reasonable, positive relationship with the CCP.


    INT: Right, OK then. Now could I ask you, what do you think the long-term effects on the State Department were of the purge of the China specialists? The immediate effects of it. What were the immediate effects of the the purge of the China experts, the China specialists? How did it affect the State Department? You said it paralysed…

    JS: Well, yes. It was a blow to the State Department, the State Department morale. A lot of people in the State Department were angry and worried about what it might portend for the future. But the, in policy-wise, the Cold War had distorted the whole formation and direction of foreign policy. We had a fixation on the Cold War and anti-Communism and in the Far East, it meant that we could take no initiative or action in any way that could be interpreted by the most meticcritic on the Republican side as favouring the Communists. So everybody that was nominated for a position in the State Department had to… before nomination, had to state publicly that he wouldnever take any action that would lead to recognition or even dealing with Communist China. The State Department’s hand were tied simply by paralysis over a fear of anything else that might lead to another catastrophe, political catastrophe, like the loss of China.

    INT: Was there…

    JS: (interrupts) It was considered a very bold action many years later, when two Foreign Service officers wrote a piece called ‘Two China Policy’, thinking that maybe we should deal with two Chinas, but that was a very, very bold action.

    INT: Right. And can you tell me what you think, well summarise what you think the effect of that purge in ’51-’52 was on the policy in relation to Vietnam, as it later became clear?

    JS: Well, the effects are… How shall I put it? The principal change in foreign policy had been that the State Department was much less important. Our whole foreign policy had been militarised and it was the Pentagon and the CIA that were the primary voices in foreign policy in the Far East. So it didn’t really matter too much what the State Department said. But certainly the State Department people that remained in the State Department were not going to put their necks out and say it won’t work. I think, generally speaking, that they were dubious about the success of taking over the French position in Vietnam and becoming the successors of the French and even trying to help sort of our stooges when in Indo-China. But their views were not really listened to. They weren’t counted. So the State Department, the government, was certainly hampered, but it was hampered largely I think by the reduction in the role of the State Department.

    INT: Right, OK. Can we stop there.

    JS: (Starts mid-sentence) … public vilification in the press publications, most people believed or the public believed that American lack of support for Chiang Kai-shek. But to go back… I mean, go back to the whole question of policy. After the war ended, civil war threatened to break out in China. The Communists had built up positions in the north behind the Japanese lines, the Guomindang armies were also in the south and General Marshall was sent to China to try to save the situation. There were four policies, you might say, that were open to the US. One was to promote compromise, which is what Marshall intended to do and the stick that he held in his hand was to withhold military support for Chiang Kai-shek if he refused to sort of go into some sort of coalition government, some sort of a compromise, which might only be temporary, but still it would stop the civil war in coming. The other thing was to pull out completely. We couldn’t possibly pull out, because the Cold War was already started and it would look like retreating in the face of Communism and so on and, course, Britain and most of a lot of other countries just did become completely neutral, but that had to be discarded because of the Cold War. A third policy was to try to promote what’s called the third forces in China. They were little small political groups that tried to get a foothold, but that was hopeless ‘cos they had no mass following and they had no guns and guns were important in a civil war situation. And the other thing to do was to go in all out and we couldn’t possibly really go in and support Chiang, ‘cos he would have needed an immense an amount of supplies and furthermore, it’s very doubtful – and most people concluded – that it would be impossible for Chiang to win, unless we sent in the armies. But a) the American public would not think of re-mobilising at this point – this was in ’49. We had to next year anyway for Korea, but not very enthusiastically. But we were not going to be able to send in huge armies and pour a lot of money in. And the second thing was that our real focus was Western Europe. Western Europe we thought was threatened, a martial plan was being devised, we were saving Western Europe and we couldn’t possibly divert our forces from there to send ’em into China to save China. So, the Cold War forced us to the policy of sending a little bit of arms – we had to send over the arms as a sop to the Republicans, so they would support the martial plan and the Truman doctrine. How could you fight Communism in Europe and not fight Communism in China? So, politically a compromise is reached and the administration agreed to a modified support for China. But the result was the worst of both possible words. There was not enough to help in China, not enough to save Chiang Kai-shek, but it was too much for the Chinese Communists to be willing to accept, because we had helped Chiang that much, cost many more lives, so we permanently – not permanently – for a long time completely abolished any hope of friendly, reasonable relations with China. And this is a the effect of the Cold War on China policy. But we were blamed for, as I say, for having brought about the fall of China.

    INT: And so you were made a scapegoat?

    JS: I would say we were scapegoats, yes.

    INT: Because people felt that they couldn’t understand why China had been lost?

    JS: That’s right. The general people, the general assumption was that if we had sent them more arms, they would have won. But that was not a full understanding of the situation.

  51. perspectivehere
    February 6th, 2013 at 07:55 | #51

    The wikipedia page for John S Service contains an extraordinary historical document.

    It is a letter report dated July 28, 1944, entitled “First Informal Impressions of the North Shensi Communist Base”, written by Service during the early days of the “Dixie Mission”. The letter has four pages, linked here by Wikipedia:

    Page 1
    Page 2
    Page 3
    Page 4

    The letter reports on the atmosphere in the Yenan camp. It is well-worth reading for the vivid picture it gives of what the Chinese Communist leadership group was like at Yenan.


    Report No. 1
    U.S. Army Observer Section, APO 879, July 28, 1944
    Subject: First Informal Impressions of the North Shensi Communist Base:
    To: Commanding General, Fwd. Ech., USAF-CBI, APO 879

    Although I have been in Yenan only 6 days, it seems advisable, in view of the availability of mail facilities and their future uncertainty, to try to record a few general first impressions of the Communist Border Region.

    In spite of the shortness of the time we have been here, I have had opportunities to meet and talk to a number of Chinese friends, to meet three foreigners who have been resident in the Communist area for some time, and to meet most of the important Communist leaders. In addition, I have had the chance to draw on the experience, impressions, and notebooks of several foreign correspondents who have spent more than 6 weeks in Yenan, during which time they have been give every sort of facility to interview personages and collect information.

    My own experience is that one enters an area like this, concerning which one has heard so many entirely good but second-hand reports, with a conscious determination not to be swept off one’s feet. The feeling is that things cannot possibly be as good as they have been pictured, and that there must be a “catch” somewhere.

    It is interesting, therefore, that my first impressions—and those of the rest of our Observer Group —have been extremely favorable. The same is true of the foreign correspondents, at least two of them (Votaw and Forman) could not, by any stretching of the term, have been called “pro-Communist” before their arrival. The spell of the Chinese Communists still seems to work.

    All of our party have had the same feeling – that we have come into a different country and are meeting a different people. There is undeniably a change in the spirit and atmosphere. As one officer, born and brought up in China, put it: “I find myself continually trying to find out just how Chinese these people are.”

    This difference in atmosphere is evident in many ways.

    There is an absence of show and formality, both in speech and action. Relations of the officials and people toward us, and of the Chinese among themselves, are open, direct and friendly. MAO Tse-tung and other leaders are universally spoken of with respect (amounting in the case of Mao to a sort of veneration) but these men are approachable and subservience toward them is completely lacking. They mingle freely in groups.

    Bodyguards, gendarmes and clap-trap of Chungking official-dom are also completely lacking. To the casual eye there are no police in Yenan. And very few soldiers are seen.

    There are also no beggars, nor signs of desperate poverty.

    Clothing and living are very simple. Almost everyone except the peasants wear the same plain Chungshan type uniform in native cotton cloth. We have seen no signs of ostentation in dress, living, or entertaining.

    Women not only wear practically the same clothes (trousers, sandals or cloth shoes, and often a Russian type smock), they act and are treated as friendly equals. Their openness and complete lack of self-consciousness is at first almost disconcerting. This does not mean familiarity: the spooning couples seen in parks or quiet streets in Chungking would seem as out of place as long gowns, high heels or lip-stick.

    There are a great number of young people, both men and women. This is natural with the universities and various Party training schools. But there is generally an air of maturity and seriousness about these students.

    They have little time, one learns, for loitering and they have most of them earned their higher training by hard work, generally for the Party. Those who are here are here because they want to be, and they expect work and a very simple life.

    These students from all over China, many from the forward bases in the guerrilla zones, and the fact that one meets Government and military officials from all over North China, gives the feeling that this is sort of nerve center of important happenings. Students continually talk of going back to the villages or the front to carry on their work.

    Morale is very high. The war seems close and real. There is no defeatism, but rather confidence. There is no war-weariness.

    One gets a feeling that everyone has a job. The program to make every person a producer has a real meaning. Those who do not grow crops, work at something like spinning. Each morning we see our co-ed neighbors at the university at their spinning wheels outside their caves.

    At the same time there is time for a great deal of talk and discussion. There are continual meetings.
    This leisure is notable in the case of the Party leaders. One learns that they stay completely out of the Government and hold no routine tasks of this time consuming character.

    People do not talk of going “back to Shanghai” as soon as the war is over. People have made themselves at home here.

    Toward the rest of China, the attitude is one of interest in the conditions there but a sort of detached sympathy because they know that conditions there are so much worse than here.

    There is everywhere an emphasis on democracy and intimate relations with the common people. This is show in their cultural work which is taken very seriously. Drama and music have taken over the native folk forms of the country people of this area. Social dancing includes dancing of the local folk dance.

    People are serious and tend to have a sense of a mission. But recreation is encouraged. One form of this, just mentioned, is social dancing. At the dinner given for us after our arrival, all the most important leaders joined in the dancing in the most natural and democratic manner.

    There is a surprising political consciousness. No matter who one questions—barger or farmer or room attendant—he can give a good description of the Communist program for carrying on the war. We notice that most of the coolies waiting on us read the newspaper.

    There is no tension in the local situation—no guards when one enters the city, no garrisoned blockhouses on the hills (as were so apparent in Lanchow in 1843). One hears nothing of banditry or disturbances in the country.

    We saw a group of men marching down the road with no armed escort in sight. We were told they were new recruits.

    There is no criticism of Party leaders and no political talk.

    At the same time there is no feeling of restraint or suppression. Foreigners notice is particularly after they have traveled in Kuomintang North China. We are not burdened with people trying to question us under the guise of making friends. Our interpreters are available when we want them. No one bothers to lock their rooms. We walk freely where we wish. The correspondents have had no censorship.

    The leaders make excellent personal impressions. The military men look and act like capable military men. Mao has more warmth and magnetism than would be expected from the generally poor pictures of him.

    The general feeling is of calm self-confidence—self-respect. General YEH laughed about the weapons of the Communist armies. “But”, he said, “I won’t apologize. It was all we had, and we fought with them.” Things happen pretty well in a business-like way.

    To the skeptical, the general atmosphere in Yenan can be compared to that of a rather small, sectarian college—or a religious summer conference. There is a bit of the smugness, self-righteousness, and conscious fellowship.

    I had a little bit of this feeling during the first few days. Later I found myself agreeing with one of the correspondents, a man who has been long in China, when he said: “We have come to the mountains of North Shensi, to find the most modern place in China.”

    I think now that further study and observation will confirm that what is seen at Yenan is a well integrated movement, with a political and economic program, which it is successfully carrying out under competent leaders.

    And that while the Kuomintang has lost its early revolutionary character and with that loss disintegrated, the Communist Party, because of the struggle it has had to continue, has kept its revolutionary character, but has grown to a healthy and moderate maturity.

    One cannot help coming to feel that this movement is strong and successful, and that it has such drive behind it and has tied itself so closely to the people that it will not easily be killed.

    John S. Service

    My favorite sentence: “We have come to the mountains of North Shensi, to find the most modern place in China.”

    Today we seem to read only negative portrayals of the CCP leadership. In today’s retellings, the portrayals inevitably seem to imply that , if the CCP leadership managed to attract followers, it was because they were successful in using communist propaganda to somehow trick naive people into following them.

    Yet, one really needs to question whether it is possible for the CCP men and women at the time, facing the conditions of war (both civil and invasive) that they did, to triumph as they did, if they didn’t have the strategic vision, tactical skill, perseverence, endurance, hard work, luck, and the charisma to inspire their followers.

    What is remarkable about this portrait is the widespread sense of purpose, self-confidence and easy-going self-respect that the revolutionary leaders at Yenan seemed to exude, in contrast to the corrupt, dictatorial style of the KMT.

    These are not portraits that one would have seen picking up Time Magazine or the New York Times in 1944, or the 1950s or 60s. It might have been possible to read about them in “left-wing” publications, but these were largely suppressed during the days of McCarthy.

    In fact, this letter was hidden in government archives and not revealed to the public until only recently. How would disclosure of the Dixie Mission to the public have changed the course of history in the 1950s, 60s and 70s?

    Would the American public and its political leaders sought to ease its cold-war attacks on China? Would this have allowed China to develop its economy at a more normal pace in the 1950s? Would China have not needed to resort to the Great Leap Forward if it were able to develop in a friendlier international environment?

    Some people believe the US would have avoided the horrors of the Korean War and the Vietnam War if relations with China had not gotten so bad in the 50s and 60s.

    The sufferings of the 1950s and 60s all seem to have been so unnecessary in retrospect.

  52. February 6th, 2013 at 14:39 | #52

    Thanks for doing so much research on this subject. It is true that skewed or purposely omitted reports undermined US public opinion of the PRC. However, because of the Korean War, it is almost impossible to present the PRC in any good light. The chance was already lost when US withdrew the Dixie Mission and fully supported the KMT. To this very day we see the same tactics being used by mainstream press when reporting the PRC.

    Anyway, the following is a list of air conflicts that occurred after WWII, it is not comprehensive but if you take a look at it, you can see that the 1950s is very eventful for China. Most air combat of this period involved the PRC, ROC and the US. The PLAAF is the first user of guided surface to air missile to shoot down an aircraft, while the ROCAF was the first to use air to air missile in combat. One can also vaguely see some of the ground action the ROC took against the PRC. The very little know Nationalist army operating in Burma against mainland China. For example:

    “15 February 1961 A Republic of China Air Force PB4Y (423) was shot down by Burmese fighter aircraft, near the Thai-Burmese border, killing the crew of five. Two other crewmembers were taken prisoner. This aircraft was carrying supplies for Chinese Kuomintang forces fighting in northern Burma.”

    And also US involvement in the Chinese Civil War:

    29 December 1947 A US Marine Corps plane crashed in China and the four man crew was captured by Communist forces. They were released in July 1948.

    19 October 1948 A US Navy plane crashed near Tsingtao China. Two crew members are held prisoner by the Communists for 19 months.

    23 November 1952 A US Navy PB4Y-2S Privateer, of VP-28, was attacked, but not damaged, by a Chinese MiG-15 Fagot off of Shanghai People’s Republic of China.

    29 November 1952 A Civil Air Transport C-47 flying from Seoul South Korea, on a mission to pick up agent Li Chun-ying, was shot down in Jilin province, People’s Republic of China. CAT pilots Robert Snoddy and Norman Schwartz were killed. CIA agents Richard Fectau and John Downey were captured and held in China until December 12, 1971 and March 12, 1973, respectively. In July 2002, the Chinese government allowed a US government team to search for Snoddy and Schwartz’s bodies. This expedition brought back sufficient airplane remains to prompt a more in-depth archaeological dig in July 2004.

    12 January 1953 A US Air Force B-29 Superfortress on a leaflet-dropping mission over Manchuria was shot down by a swarm of 12 enemy fighters. The plane was assigned to the 581st Air Resupply and Communications Wing and carried a crew of 14. After the attack, B-29 aircraft commander, John K. Arnold, ordered the crew to bail out. Unfortunately, three men died during the attack, but the other 11 parachuted to the ground, were captured and taken to China for interrogation and imprisonment. These men were not released until 1956.

    18 January 1953 A US Navy P2V-5 Neptune (BuNo 127744) of VP-22, based at Atsugi Japan, was damaged by Chinese anti-aircraft fire near Swatow People’s Republic of China, but was able to ditch in the Formosa Strait. Eleven of thirteen crewmen were rescued by a US Coast Guard PBM-5 Mariner, under fire from Chinese shore batteries on Nan Ao Tao island. Attempting to takeoff in 8-12 foot swells, the PBM crashed. Ten survivors out of nineteen total (including five from the P2V-5) were rescued by the destroyer USS Halsey Powell (DD 686). During the search effort a PBM-5 Mariner from VP-40 received fire from a small-caliber machine gun and the destroyer USS Gregory (DD 802) received fire from Chinese shore batteries. Dwight C. Angell, Ronald A. Beahm, Paul A. Morley, William F. McClure, Lloyd Smith and Clifford Byars were the P2V-5 crewmen reported lost.

    6 March 1953 People’s Republic of China PLAAF pilot Yaxiong He claimed to have shot down a US Navy F4U Corsair at Qianlidao in Qingdao.

    23 April 1953 A US Navy P4M-1Q Mercator (BuNo 124369) piloted by Dick Renner and Mel Davidow, was attacked by two MiG-15 Fagots while flying off the Chinese coast near Shanghai. The MiGs made a several firing runs and the crew of the Mercator returned fire. The Mercator was not hit, and as far as the crew of the Mercator could tell, their return fire did not damage the MiGs. William Haskins, the radioman on this Mercator, was later killed in the downing of another Mercator on August 22 1956.

  53. perspectivehere
    February 8th, 2013 at 08:53 | #53


    Thanks, the “silent warrior” link is very interesting. I never knew any of these incidents existed. I don’t think many Americans, or any one else, had any idea of these aerial battles, since these were not reported much or even disclosed at the time. It reminds me of the scenes from the Tom Cruise movie “Top Gun” were Cruise gets into a dogfight with some MIGs but the battle remained confidential and unpublicized.

    In the 80s I met a middle-aged Phys Ed teacher in Taiwan who said he had trained to be parachuted into the Mainland when he was a young man (probably in the 50s) to carry out espionage, but then the mission was called off so he never went. I guess there was a lot of this kind of activity.

    When I read about Mao in the 50’s, it always seemed to me that Mao’s attacks on the rightists were unwarranted, over-the-top and extreme, they appear to be a signs of paranoia. But then, after reading about the extensiveness of the military activities by the KMT directed against the Mainland, I wonder if it was not unreasonable for Mao to behave in paranoid ways towards those people whom he suspected of being revisionists and counter-revolutionaries.

    Suffice it to say, those were terrible times and no one in their right mind should want to see a new cold war.

  54. perspectivehere
    February 8th, 2013 at 09:50 | #54

    I found the discussion on Japan-China economic relations during the Cold War very informative in this articleChina and Japan: Economic Partnership to Political Ends, by Katherine G. Burns

    The paragraphs about the Cold War are excerpted below. Note how Japan for the most part was a reluctant participant in the Cold War restrictions on trade. Note particularly the extreme, cynical and hardline position taken by John Foster Dulles.


    [Note 29: Unless otherwise noted, this section is based on Dong Dong Zhang, China’s Relations with Japan in an Era of Economic Liberalization (New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc., Commack, 1998), 57–61 and Chae-Jin Lee, China and Japan: New Economic Diplomacy (Stanford University: Hoover Institute Press, 1984), 1–17.]

    Japan’s devastating war on China left an indelible mark on Sino–Japanese relations. Furthermore, the division of the post-war world into competing superpower blocks locked the two countries into opposing camps. In Asia, the symbol of that struggle was the US–Japan Security Treaty which came into force on 28 April 1952, and bound Japan tightly to the dictates of American foreign policy. For over twenty years, both China and Japan champed at the Cold War bit. Seeking some form of reconciliation within the Cold War framework, they turned in effect to an earlier strategy of shoring up unofficial relations in an effort to build trust and establish a formal relationship. The primary instrument of that endeavor was economic. It would be over two decades before that effort bore fruit.

    The special relationship which America established with its vanquished Asian foe was intended to bring about “demilitarization and democratization” in Japan. It was also intended to forestall any potential future cooperation between Japan and mainland China—an arrangement that US policy-makers felt would threaten US interests in Asia. [Note 30: John Dower elaborates on this point: “Westerners worried…that Japan’s Oriental identity would, in the end, prove decisive and lead to some kind of accommodation between the Japanese and the Chinese Communists.” John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 310.]

    Hoping to drive home the American wedge between Japan and China, John Foster Dulles suggested in 1951 that: “the United States and England should make every effort to assure Japan’s allegiance by exploiting the Japanese feeling of superiority toward other Asians.” [Note 31: John Foster Dulles as cited by John W. Dower, War Without Mercy, 311.]

    The outbreak of hostilities on the Korean peninsula drew Japan further away from China, as Japan served as a vital rear area for American military activities in Korea. The role was clearly an uncomfortable one for Japan, and one which Japanese leaders tried to scale down. Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru, for instance, rejected Dulles’ initial proposal for a full-scale rearmament of Japan. With the signing of the Security Treaty, Japan fell into line. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida came under immediate and agreements. [Note 32: Bilateral trade was restricted to private level contacts, although the structure of the Chinese foreign trade mechanism meant some Chinese government involvement.]

    Initial trade figures were minuscule due to the virtual collapse of the Japanese economy and the civil war in China. In 1950, upon the founding of the PRC, total bilateral trade stood at a mere US$4.7 million, consisting primarily of Chinese bean, coal, iron, and salt exports to Japan, and Japanese exports of steel, engines and pumps to China. Four privately negotiated trade agreements, however, dramatically increased the level of bilateral commercial relations—the first in June 1952, which established a barter-based trade, and three others in October 1953, September 1955, and March 1958. By 1953, total bilateral trade had increased to US$34 million. Trade increased further to US$60 million by 1954, US$109 million by 1955, and US$151 million by 1956. Increased trade interaction was accompanied by exchanges of industrial exhibits, economic delegations, and private agreements on fisheries and cultural programs.

    Already in the 1950s, both Japan and China strove to move these agreements into the realm of an official relationship, but their efforts ran afoul of the Cold War order. The 1953 and 1955 agreements, for example, called for an exchange of resident trade missions, and also for the provision of diplomatic privileges to trade representatives, but diplomatic exchange did not take place. Prime Minister Hatoyama Ichiro “felt constrained … by the Eisenhower administration’s rigid anti-Beijing attitude as exemplified by the US–Taiwan security treaty (1954) and the congressional resolution on Formosa (1955).” [Note 33: Lee, China and Japan: New Economic Diplomacy, 3.]

    As a result, the Japanese government refused to allow the establishment of a Chinese resident trade mission in Tokyo. Matters took a turn for the worse in 1957, with the inauguration of Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke—the former director of the General Affairs Board of Manchukuo and Minister of Commerce and Industry in Tojo Hideki’s wartime cabinet. Beijing took particular exception to Kishi’s vocal anti-Beijing stance and visit to Taiwan, and Chinese premier Zhou Enlai cooperated with the Japan Socialist Party in denouncing Kishi’s position. Despite the official anti-PRC stance, Kishi’s administration supported the provisions of the fourth private agreement, which called for the establishment of Chinese resident trade missions and granting semi-diplomatic status to trade personnel. However, mounting pressure from Washington and Taipei forced the Kishi administration to back down, and although a trade agreement was eventually signed, it did not include these key provisions. Angered by this outcome, China seized on a flag incident in May 1958—two Japanese youths ripped down a Chinese flag at a stamp show in a Nagasaki department store—and suspended all economic and cultural relations with Japan. [Note 34: For more on the Nagasaki flag incident see R. K. Jain, China and Japan 1949–1980 (Oxford: Martin Robertson, 1981), 36.] Bilateral trade in 1959 experienced a dramatic 78.5 percent drop and political relations fell to a post-war low.

    In little more than a year, however, China and Japan resumed the policy of unofficial economic relations. Several important events precipitated this development. In Japan, a new Prime Minister, Ikeda Hayato, softened Kishi’s Cold War rhetoric and elevated international economic interaction to a national priority. In China, the failure of Mao’s Great Leap Forward caused severe food shortages, forcing China to re-evaluate its policy of self-reliance. At the same time, China’s relationship with its Soviet advisors deteriorated dramatically, leading to the Sino–Soviet split in 1960. With the cessation of Soviet aid, China desperately needed to import complete industrial plants, as well as machinery, steel, and chemical fertilizers. The downturn in Soviet relations strengthened the hand of moderate Chinese leaders Zhou Enlai, Chen Yun, and Deng Xiaoping, and opened the way to renewed relations with Japan. In August of 1960, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai introduced the concept of “friendship trade,” a system by which Sino–Japanese trade relations would be limited to particular Japanese companies that the Chinese designated as “friendly.” The number of “friendly companies” grew quickly from a mere eleven in 1960 to 190 by 1962.

    By September of 1962, the inability of “friendly companies” to meet China’s growing import needs led to the initiation of a new form of trading relations: “memorandum trade” was Zhou Enlai’s brain-child. In September 1962, Zhou invited senior Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) statesman, Matsumura Kenzo, to Beijing, and together they devised a trading system explicitly geared towards the eventual normalization of economic and diplomatic relations. Memorandum trade covered the period from 1963 to 1967, and projected an annual trade turnover of US$100 million. Powerful LDP members sponsored the plan, elevating the system to semi-official status. Political relations improved accordingly. The PRC established its resident trade mission in Tokyo, and Japan’s Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank) extended financial support for the China trade. Within a year, however, combined pressure from Washington and Taipei forced the Japanese government to discontinue Ex-Im Bank financing. Japanese private banks quickly took the initiative, extending long-term credit to China for plant construction. In this way, bilateral trade continued to grow, reaching a total of US$621 million in 1965.

    In the mid-1960s, however, several events worked against the continued improvement of the relationship. Japan’s new Prime Minister, Sato Eisaku, (elected in November 1964) took a strong anti-China stance, undertaking state visits to Taiwan and the United States, which inflamed Chinese fears of reviving Japanese militarism. In China itself, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution came into full swing, and domestic political movements overshadowed any interest in foreign relations. With the onslaught of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Sino–Japanese trade deteriorated rapidly. As Lee describes: “Japanese trade negotiators were required to praise the Cultural Revolution, to study the little red book of Chairman Mao’s quotations, and to listen to prolonged political lectures delivered by their Chinese counterparts.”[Note 35: Lee, China and Japan: New Economic Diplomacy, 7.]

    Not until the fever of the Cultural Revolution abated, could the course towards normalization of Sino–Japanese relations resume.



    The more I read about this period and China’s international economic relations, the more I become convinced that it is not possible to fully comprehend the rationale for the domestic economic and political policies undertaken by China without referencing China’s international trade relationships. For it seems to me that China was desperately trying to acquire the materials and resources needed to grow its economy and meet the needs of its growing population, but having to do so while facing a hostile, unforgiving and dangerous international environment.

    This raises an interesting question of “cause-and-effect” in international relations: During the Cold War, was China hostile and dangerous towards the international community because it was hostile and dangerous towards China? Or was it the other way around, that the international community was merely reacting to neutralize and contain a hostile and dangerous China?

    No doubt most readers to this forum will argue the former, but I prefer to take a more skeptical and agnostic approach, and look at the historical facts (and each sides’ perceptions of the facts, in which they did not have the benefit of hindsight).

    So far from my readings to this point, I’m finding John Foster Dulles to be a “villain” in that his forceful measures to tighten the screws on China by enforcing the trade embargo and pressuring US allies to do the same created the difficult conditions in China that led to the “mad” economic policies.

    The quote about Dulles from the article above is chilling: “Hoping to drive home the American wedge between Japan and China, John Foster Dulles suggested in 1951 that: ‘the United States and England should make every effort to assure Japan’s allegiance by exploiting the Japanese feeling of superiority toward other Asians.’ How Machiavellian. It is somewhat shocking to find out that Dulles was a prominent leader of the Presbyterian Church and active in the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

    People like John Service and others who tried to establish normal relations between the US and the CCP were political scapegoats and victims. Normal Japan-China relations were stunted by the Cold War.

  55. February 9th, 2013 at 08:33 | #55

    Well, most Americans like to say Mao is very belligerent towards the US and calling it an imperialist power but they never know why. The US military has been supporting Jiang even before the founding of the PRC. The incidents recorded here are just the tip of the iceberg because only those that resulted in skirmishes are ever shown. If you could count the mission that were not intercepted it would be many times more. You would have to dig into the archives of USAF, USN and ROCAF to get a better picture.

    The ROC was actually the aggressive party during the 1950s launching many air and ground operation against the mainland. By contrast Mao only launched two major military operations, the seizure of Ichiangshan Island in 1955 and bombardment of Jinmen in 1958 (both done in conjunction with a political message). The air battles over Jinmen might be a tactical defeat for the PRC but it took over the air control over Jinmen, Mazu and more importantly Fujian. Before that, aircraft from Taiwan come as go as they please through Fujian.

    The PLAAF was forced to station the bulk of its air defence units in Beijing, Shanghai and other major industrial areas. Fujian and Guangdong is relatively undefended from air intrusion. You can also see that Taiwan air intrusion is all over the mainland but is greatly reduced in the 1960s after the mainland built up its air defence. Nevertheless the US only stopped the intrusion after official diplomatic relationship was set up with the PRC in 1979. Jiang always dreamed of retaking the mainland hence the continue military operations.

    The US also trained insurgents to destabilize Tibet. The books are mostly written from a US perspective but it is good to read the comment section to have a glimpse of alternate view too:






    The CPC should be understandably defensive under such condition. However, my study indicates the biggest cause of the various mass political movement in mainland China was mainly home grown. Class struggle as one of the major reason with external force the catalyst.

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