Posted by: williamjsykes | May 19, 2009

Zhou Enlai as Premier of the People’s Republic of China and Transformation of Western Perception of Mainland China, 1949-1972. Part II

Zhou Enlai as Premier of the People’s Republic of China and

Transformation of Western Perception of Mainland China, 1949-1972.


Part II: From Mountains of Yen’an to Korean War.

Few years after the failure of Jiangxi Soviet Republic, the remnants of Chinese Communists reestablished their base in Yen’ an in northwestern China. A retreat from southern China to Yen’an was a grueling task, from which majority of Communist troops died from combat, malaise, or both. Thus, it was a period where Zhou Enlai, formerly more of an outsider in CCP’s power circle, rose to prominence with Mao being both his overlord and enforcer. The two’s trusting if turbulent relationship, along with Zhou’s reputed skill as a diplomat and a world statesman, was to greatly transform the course of modern world history. Zhou’s early years in Yen’an was thus marked by calls for a staunch support of Mao’s ideological lines, thereby consolidating Mao’s dominance within the party. The increasingly self-assertive nature of Chinese Communist Party alarmed the increasingly paternalistic Soviet Union, who in turn renewed collaboration with China’s Nationalist cause, a pattern that was cemented after Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1932.

Meanwhile, As Chiang emphasized eradication of all Communists from Chinese soil while largely overlooking the incompetent nature of his warlord subordinates, a new threat to the Kuomintang regime and China altogether started to loom as Japan started encroaching into modern China shortly after beginning of the invasion in Shanghai. Thus a context was made where Zhou, known for both his loyalty for Mao’s Communist Party and ability to carry out a smooth compromise, could truly shine, as China’s dire state at that moment obliged various -even warring- factions within China to come together and combat the common enemy. Facing an event that could have threatened the existence of a hard-won modern Chinese state, the country’s intelligentsia started calling for a coalition between warring factions within China to face the common enemy, a demand that Zhou generally echoed in his public appearances.[1]

Taking advantage of a rather inevitable[2] disagreements amongst those who sustained the Kuomintang regime, Zhou started garnering a greater amount of public support through calling for a united front against Japanese invasion before any KMT officials, while agreeing to at least temporarily discard Communist banner in favor of Sun Yat-Sen’s Three People’s Principles.[3] Zhou’s such conciliatory gestures starkly contrasted with Chiang’s insistence on total Communist surrender and disarmament before any collaboration could take place. Communists, still fresh from memories of 1927 Shanghai, refused such demand. The formation of a united front against the ongoing Japanese incursion thus took place only after Chiang himself was put in a grave physical danger by his own disaffected subordinates in 1936.[4] Zhou played a defining role in this crisis by persuading Zhang Hsueh-liang, son of the deceased Zhang Zuolin and the de facto leader of warlords in Manchurian area, to launch a putsch against Chiang to secure a temporary alliance with Chinese Communist Party.[5] In the process, Zhou conceded the coalition’s leadership to Chiang, whose stature as a leader of the Chinese republican cause was yet to be challenged. Throughout the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) that commenced shortly afterwards, however, Zhou and CCP were able to discredit Chiang and garner a greater amount of support for themselves through portraying themselves as authentic vanguards for a new China, which was bolstered by the party’s advocacy for a united front against Japanese from the very beginning of Japanese invasion.

The era of the second KMT-CCP collaboration to counter Japanese threat proved to be breakthrough years for the Communist cause, with Zhou Enlai, now formal representative of Chinese Communist Party, playing a crucial role in establishing both relatively constructive relationship with the still dominant Nationalist regime while garnering support in rural regions that was largely disaffected by Chiang’s incompetence by this point. Ji Chaozhu, a senior Beijing diplomat, later noted that there was an alarming degree of skepticism over China under Nationalist regime up to a degree where “a small act of decency” shown by Communist troops was often enough to assure rural support in that region.[6] This was also a period where Zhou’s stature as an influential statesman of China became known in global scale, with American journalist Edgar Snow, the author of Red Star over China, serving as the one of the most influential figures in such process. A nonaligned[7] investigative journalist who wrote this historically significant book after spending almost a year with Chinese Red Army in 1936. Prior to Snow’s publication, Chinese Communist Party was treated with relative obscurity in the Western world due to lack of reliable resource from a journalist who actually dared to venture such an uncharted territory. Hence, a TIME Magazine article from January 10, 1938 attests that virtually all Western accounts on China’s Communist movement prior to Snow’s Red Star was “wild and fabricated.”[8] A correspondent to prominent Western newspapers and by no means a Communist, Snow informed the Western world about the persistence of CCP in Yen’an,[9] a claim that was bolstered following the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Second KMT-CCP Collaboration that took place shortly thereafter.

After Japanese surrender in August 1945, Chiang was misleadingly -albeit briefly- hailed by mainstream Western media as the sole savior of Chinese nation from Japanese imperialism. Such attitude, however, soon evaporated as China after Japanese withdrawal began suffering from an incredible degree of disorder inflicted by both KMT’s incapacity to govern and continuing civil war. Behind remaining Western sympathy towards Chaing’s regime was the Generalissimo’s wife Soong May-ling (generally known as “Madame Chiang“ in the West), a Triad-affiliated matriarch of Chinese Republic who wielded an enormous degree of influence in the Western world through her command of English language and personal charm. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had this to say about this colorful figure: “She (Madame Chiang) can talk beautifully about democracy. But she does not know how to live democracy.”[10] A pattern of speaking beautifully about a new Chinese state and in fact preserving warlord-oriented status quo was largely reprised throughout Nationalist leadership besides Madam Chiang, up to a degree where a TIME Magazine article written during the onset of the Civil War wrote that “His (Chiang’s) name is mud in all classes—they feel toward him as Americans felt toward Herbert Hoover in 1933.”[11]

In the early days of the second Chinese Civil War, however, one could project that the Nationalist regime, however its shortcomings, would be able to subdue Communist resistance within a relatively short period of time, as Chiang and his cronies still controlled an army that was more than twice the size of Mao’s guerillas and was armed with superior –often American-made– weaponry. Chiang’s advantages, however, quickly eroded as the Generalissimo’s loose coalition of warlords failed to either mend their corrupt way of governing or even to act as a unified force. Zhou and other politicians in CCP, at the meantime, was able to gain upper hands in countryside surrounding KMT’s urban bases, thereby exacerbating low morale already suffered by a considerable portion of Nationalist troops. Indeed, by 1949, the remaining struggle between Chinese Communist Party and Chiang’s Nationalist regime was characterized by the Communists’ smooth advance that was met by massive rout (often without a shot being fired)[12] by Nationalist troops, many of whom had little if any incentive to fight back from the very beginning. In October 1949, Mao, Zhou, and the Communists were able to capture Beijing with only sporadic resistance, after which Mao famously declared that “Chinese people have stood up” against long period of foreign and domestic oppression.[13]

Thus the men who were leaders of a ragtag horde of peasant-militia paving their way to caves of Yen’an twenty years ago took the helm as rulers of the most populous nation in the world. Nonetheless, with this colossal event in human history came a hail of daring challenges that were yet to be charted by the victorious Chinese Communist Party. One major bottleneck in achieving the ideal of a new, strong China was an utter lack of international recognition. There were largely two causes behind such a difficulty; one being American -if not western- perception of all Communism and Communist state as a dire threat to Washington’s interests and perhaps the Western Civilization as a whole, as vividly seen in U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ 1959 speech in front of New York Bar Association when he warned the danger of “the creed of international Communism” that attempted to create a Marxist-dominated new world order at all costs.[14] As latter events would tell, it overlooked a possibility where members of such a treacherous creed could actually quarrel between themselves rather than conspiring for a Communist world order. For better or worse, the United States in 1949 tended to generally tended to concur with Dulles over how to deal with any Communist state, an approach that quickly strained relationship between Beijing and Washington. Indeed, Beijing’s entry to United Nations as a legitimate governing body of China was blocked by the United States and many of its allies for decades to come.

Another challenge faced by the new residents of the Forbidden City in terms of obtaining a greater degree of international recognition for People’s Republic of China was China’s perceived incapability to defend itself from foreign invasions, an understandable presumption given the populous nation’s performance in its series of recent wars. The first crisis over Beijing’s largely unrecognized territorial integrity over Chinese subcontinent came in Korean War, when North Korean troops under Kim Il-Sung, despite their smashing victory in initial stage of the war, began a massive rout to Yalu River following the beginning of American involvement in the conflict. Not only was this an issue that affected the world’s perception of China, but it was an urgent question that Beijing’s Communist governance, which came to power under the banner of creating a new China, needed to address. As Premier of the newborn republic, Zhou at first attempted to resolve Korean crisis by diplomatic means through warning Douglas MacArthur, commander-in-chief of American-led United Nations forces, that China will intervene in case the Western alliance advances to Yalu River area, which would put Beijing’s national sovereignty into jeopardy.

Indeed, it could be concluded that Chinese intervention in Korean War was something of a reluctant usage of last resort, as Zhou and his colleagues in Beijing Politburo at the time were busy enough to consolidate its control within the Chinese subcontinent. Once MacArthur[15] made a fateful decision to launch a counterattack to wipe out Communist realm from Korean peninsula, Zhou played a crucial role in convincing the yet ambivalent members of Chinese Communist Party to react against a perceived aggression by Western powers towards a new Chinese state. One major bottleneck to legitimize China’s intervention to the conflict was its status as a largely unrecognized polity, whereas any military act under the banner of People’s Republic of China could have provoked a full-scale war against United Nations troops. This would have put the yet infantile Communist state in its greatest peril, whereas Zhou was obliged to devise a plan that satisfied both need for involvement and neutralization of such political liability. The end product of such circumstances was an informal intervention under the guise of “people’s volunteers,” which enabled China to enter the conflict under the name of international communism, not the People’s Republic itself.

China’s entry to Korean conflict achieved what was then unthinkable by the Westerm world at the time, namely repulsion of Western offensive by China with virtually no foreign assistance. Zhou’s former colleague Ji Chaozhu later noted that as a youth endeavoring to construct new Chinese state at the time, this success gave both the country’s political elite and general populace a strong sense of empowerment as citizens of an independent nation, not colonial subjects.[16] Beijing’s demonstration of capability to defend itself and its interests was naturally followed by improved foreign relations. By 1950s, decolonization captured a compelling momentum in modern history, with France’s utter defeat in Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 attesting to Western powers’ incapacity to stop this inevitable trend. In the process, a number of newly independent nations, most notably the ones in Eastern and Southeastern Asia, started regarding China as something of a role model in its success in achieving independence and asserting its national sovereignty thereafter. Nevertheless, ideological hotheads in Beijing provided a potential obstacle in building constructive relations with these nations, as not all of these newborn states embraced communism as an ideology to create their polity, let alone Mao’s brand of peasant-based revolution.

It was here where Zhou, using his strong credentials within Chinese Communist Party and skills as a conciliatory diplomat, secured China’s role as something of a de facto leading figure in the emerging “Third World” movement at least for that moment. This rewarded Beijing with recognition as legitimate government of the Chinese subcontinent amongst those nations, an achievement that was only the first step of Zhou’s eventual goal: ascension of People’s Republic of China as a major player in global politics. A notable obstacle to that end was the existence of Nationalist government in Taipei, which retained status as de jure government of China through Washington’s refusal to recognize Beijing’s communist regime. Behind Washington’s reluctance to conciliate with government of an actual Chinese nation were two factors. One was a sense of animosity between both camps that was propelled by memories of Korean conflict. The other was dominant political belief in the United States at the time, which asserted that all forms of communism were somehow detrimental to American interests. Perhaps the most unflattering display of such sentiment was shown during Geneva Convention of 1954, when John Foster Dulles, the United States Secretary of State at the time, refused to shake hands with Zhou and Chinese delegation much to the dismay of the Premier and his colleagues.[17] Dulles’ act could be what an American patrician -which at the time was largely restricted on White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant- who believed that his country was beacon of all civility and morals,[18] an attitude that would be contrasted by the more pragmatic Nixon and Kissinger in latter years.

This anecdote clearly shows the mutual tension that existed between Washington and the yet to be recognized leaders of Forbidden City. What was on a stark contrast with this incident was Zhou’s encounter with British Socialist, The Rt. Hon.[19] Harold Wilson, which was marked by cordial talks about improving relations between each man’s nation.[20] Beijing resumed its formal relations with Great Britain shortly thereafter, thus beginning to establish ties with much of the Western World, which in turn pressured Washington to improve relations with what it still described as “Red China.“ Indeed, Beijing’s foreign relations, under Zhou’s leadership, steadily improved following the communist regime’s inception in 1949. The wave of decolonization, as mentioned earlier, worked largely at Beijing’s favor, as these newly-independent nations had little reason to be hostile to China, which also just emerged from the grim period of Western colonialism.


[1] Lee, 126-128.

[2] Given the nature of KMT regime as a loose coalition of genuine -if leaning somewhat rightward- republicans, anti-communists a la Chiang Kai-Shek, and warlords whose regional hegemony was often equally threatened by the Japanese invasion as well as Communist movement. One ironic aspect of such pattern was that in 1927, the leader of left-leaning opposition within KMT was Wang Jingwei, who by this point became head of Japan’s collaborationist government in Nanjing.

[3] Lee, 128.

[4] Hsu, 129-130.

[5] Hsu, 130-132.

[6] Ji, 36.

[7] Edgar Snow never was affiliated with Communist-inspired organizations. (Not every member of American Communist Party was worth purging or had treacherous minds, a la Woody Guthrie – imagine our children singing Irwing Berlin’s God Bless America in their kindergarten show – perhaps they actually do that beneath Mason-Dixon line, for which I couldn’t care less.

[8] TIME Magazine Jan. 10, 1938. Chinese Reds

[9] Ibid.

[10] New York Times October 25, 2003. Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a Power in Husband’s China and Abroad, Dies at 105.

[11] TIME Magazine Dec. 06, 1948

[12] Barmouin 125-128.

[13] Ji, 68.

[14] Dulles, 7-8 (See Bibliography).

[15] United States at the time struggled with implementing the notion of civilian control of military, a pattern that would be clearly shown as late as Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), when Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay insisted on launching a full-scale air attack on Cuba, an idea that could have provoked a full-scale nuclear war and thus was rejected by John F. Kennedy.

[16] Ji, 68-71.

[17] Ji, 127-128.

[18] Larson, 139-145.

[19] “The Rt. Hon.” refers to the “Right Honourable” in British political scene; indeed, there were a good amount of Socialists in the Western World at the time, though their objection to Soviet brand of Socialism proved stern.

[20] TIME Jun. 14, 1954. Trade with China


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: