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 III

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

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


Part III: Anxious Decades: Zhou Enlai and China’s Diplomatic Path in 1950s and 1960s.

Beijing’s -and albeit Zhou’s- string of success in improving foreign relations and recognition as a legitimate state governing the Chinese subcontinent was soon checkered by a series of events that occurred in late 1950s and early 1960s. One major setback was worsening relationship with the Soviet Union, which began surfacing after Khrushchev’s rise to power in Kremlin that saw the beginning of Moscow’s self-criticism of its Stalinist past. While Mao’s brand of Communist revolution and state hardly resembled a model offered by Marx or Stalin, Khrushchev’s liberalization of Communist control over general populace indicated rise of non-ideological pragmatism in Kremlin, whereas Mao believed in creation of a new Chinese society under an ideology. Himself a staunch Communist, Zhou in Quotations from Chou En-Lai remarked that “The Soviet Union of today is the China of tomorrow.”[1] Kai-Yu Hsu, the author of Chou En-Lai: China’s Gray Eminence, suggests that Zhou and other Beijing leaders’ eventual disillusionment over the Soviet Union was partially because of Moscow’s incapacity to fulfill its promises and its intent to reduce China into a Soviet-controlled satrapy as it successfully did in Hungary.[2] Sino-Soviet relations began further deteriorating during the mayhem of Great Leap Forward, an ideologically-driven debacle that was by no means endorsed by the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, relations with some of other politically important neighbors also soured, perhaps the most important of which being an ongoing border dispute with India that later sparked Sino-Indian War of 1962.

From Beijing’s standpoint, a conflict with India was something to be avoided, as strained relationship with India could have inflicted a considerable amount of damage in its attempt to garner a greater amount of political recognition throughout the world. Itself formerly a British colony, India[3] was amongst the first nations to grant the new China an official recognition. Throughout the 1950s, Zhou in fact even attempted to abandon Chinese claim in disputed territories in his attempt to preserve cordial relationship with India. As People’s Republic consolidated its control over mainland China, however, situation changed as Beijing now vowed to recover Tibet from British control. During Chinese invasion of Tibet, Chinese troops advanced southward facing Indian border, while India, otherwise not hostile to Chinese interests, welcomed the fleeing Dalai Lama, a move that Zhou and Chinese leadership found detrimental to China’s territorial integrity in the area. Until the beginning of 1960s, it seemed that the two parties would be able to resolve this concern in a bloodless manner, as vividly described in Zhou’s letter to India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru where the Chinese Premier claimed that Beijing has no intention to escalate the status quo into a warfare. A territorial concerns in the area, Zhou wrote, would be resolve under “an attitude of mutual sympathy, mutual understanding and fairness and reasonableness,”[4] a claim that later events would prove null and void. At the meantime, however, Chinese advance in its Southwestern border was steadily in progress, with one declassified CIA document showing that Beijing by that point had clear intention to consolidate its territorial claims in Tibet area.[5] At the same time, there was a profound mutual misunderstanding between two camps, as it is also documented that by welcoming the Dalai Lama, Beijing mistakenly believed that India was now vowed to gobble up Tibet under its helm. That, however convincing it is, was one of the main rationale behind China’s aggression in the conflict.[6]

Zhou’s conducts during the Sino-Indian conflict, if looked upon in detail, shreds Zhou’s image as an old-fashioned Chinese gentleman with Confucian background, as the Premier’s verbal appeasement of Nehru and implementation of a rather aggressive foreign policy in an attempt to assert the strength of a new, modernized Chinese state shows the picture of a calculating statesman that could be seen -from Nehru‘s perspective- as a cold-blooded thug with a Dr. Jekyll‘s face. Meanwhile, in his Letters to the Leaders of Asian and African Countries of the Sino-Indian Boundary Question, Zhou shamelessly proclaimed that “owing to the causes from the Indian side, there has been a dark side to the Sino-Indian relations from the very beginning.”[7]  In a dazzling contrast with how Zhou himself described what was taking place at the time, a declassified CIA document summed it up well when it said “The Chinese diplomatic effort was a five year masterpiece of guile, executed — and probably planned in large part by Chou en Lai.”[8] Throughout the war period, Beijing was able to seize de facto control of a strategically-important area of Aksai Chin, thereby considerably strengthening its control of historically non-Chinese regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. The war itself ended when the United States,  viewing China’s action as an aggression inspired by Communist ideology of new world order,[9] threatened to enter the conflict on India’s side. Nonetheless, The historical importance of Sino-Indian War of 1962 far transcended a mere border dispute between two of the most influential nations that just emerged from a long period of colonialism, as it marked a practical demise of the so-called nonaligned movement that in turn provided each state to engage in Realpolitik to promote its interests in the global arena. The conflict, perhaps ironically, drastically improved Beijing’s relations with Pakistan, an alliance that would later prove to be an invaluable asset to the People’s Republic given Pakistan’s role in Sino-American rapprochement that took place about a decade thereafter.

With border dispute no longer surfacing as a major issue, Sino-Indian relations somewhat recovered, although Zhou’s aggressive policies did plant a profound distrust between the two camps. Furthermore, Zhou’s decision to launch a quasi-war with India also contributed, as China’s display of its capability to assert its agenda made Western experts to speculate that it is even less likely now for the KMT regime in Formosa to reclaim the Chinese subcontinent. It was under such context where France, then under a virtually unitary rule by Charles de Gaulle, finally decided to rebuke its earlier ties with Chiang’s regime in 1964 in favor of the actual occupants of the Forbidden City. This, among other effects, shifted Western perception of People’s Republic of China form an obscure, confrontational regime into a legitimate government of the Chinese realm. To fully achieve that end, however, there was still one remarkable obstacle to remove: American refusal to accept the Beijing regime as legitimate rulers of China, where in turn China’s entry towards the United Nations was at stake.

Besides occasional meeting between representatives from Beijing and Washington, relationship between Beijing and Washington throughout the 1950s and 1960s was characterized by a series of displays of mutual distrust and hostility. There in fact was, however, an encounter between the Chinese leadership and an American dissident more than a decade before the Sino-American rapprochement of 1972. The man who was on the center of this event was W.E.B. Du Bois, an African-American sociologist who envisioned a post-colonial world steered by a grand solidarity of the formerly oppressed non-white populace. A prominent American radical of his days, Du Bois, according to the May 1972 edition of Black World/Negro Digest Magazine, visited China in 1959 defying the warning from State Department that attempted to put the endeavor to a halt. In this article, author Vincent Harding -despite what happened to Jawaharlal Nehru who had similar faith in China and its leaders- naively evaluated China as a beacon of civility and development for third-world nations in Africa, citing such concerns as the reason why Du Bois visited mainland China as “our (African-Americans’)” President.[10] Throughout this article, it seems apparent that Du Bois had a rather naïve if not misleading picture of what was exactly taking place in China, as he commends the disastrous Great Leap Forward in a very elaborate fashion. Within what was going on in China during his visit, he wrote “the Chinese sit high above these fears with laugh and joy. The will not be rich in old age, but they will[11] eat. They will not enjoy sickness but given care. They fear neither food nor epidemic.”[12]

At the meantime, the Chinese evaluation of the merit -let alone usefulness- of Du Bois for their own cause -to emerge as a fully legitimate state of the Chinese subcontinent- was considerably less gracious. In his book The Man on Mao’s Right, for instance, Beijing’s senior diplomat Ji Chaozhu did not even bother to write this chain of events. In other words, it seems safe to presume that Du Bois’ visit, while holding its own historical significance, was by no means taken seriously by Chinese officials at the time. Du Bois’ account could also be contested for its factual accuracy, as China at the time of Du Bois’ visit in fact was confronting some of the most difficult years of the People’s Republic inflicted by the Great Leap Forward debacle. While China’s economy considerably grew throughout the 1950s,[13] such progress was put to a halt by the time of Du Bois’ visit. During the same timescale, the relations -if there was any- between the leaders of Beijing and Washington remained sour, as clearly shown in John F. Kennedy’s denunciation of Chinese aggression during the Sino-Indian War of 1962.

A thaw in a long strained relationship between Beijing and Washington came about through a series of tectonic shifts in international relations that occurred throughout the 1960s. One major pattern was undoubtedly the People’s Republic’s success in assuring a greater amount of recognition from the Western world, whereas by the end of the 1960s, the countries that did not establish formal relationship with Beijing were largely limited upon Washington and its anti-Communist allies in Eastern Asia. The United States, while describing the Beijing regime as “Red China”[14] in its official press, became increasingly alarmed[15] about the recent developments in China’s diplomatic relations. Another colossal event that occurred during the turbulent decade of 1960s was change in Sino-Soviet relations that rapidly deteriorated throughout the decade. It is often suggested that it was Kremlin’s attempt to mold Beijing into its brand of a Communist state, a task that the Soviet Union achieved in Eastern Europe through a hardly consented fashion that propelled the schism between the two Communist colossi. Indeed, while Khrushchev is often known as a liberal-minded reformer, he also dealt with dissent –both domestic and abroad– with an iron fist, with Hungarian Revolution of 1956 being perhaps the most vivid example.

Ironic it is, therefore, to note that it was Mao’s hard-line Communist ideology that often put the People‘s Republic at odds with the Soviet Union -which Zhou fully supported at the time, thus once again acting contrary to his general image as merely a silky, old-fashioned bureaucrat- that accelerated a split between Moscow and Beijing, which in turn paved the way for the United States to pursue a major shift in its China policy. At the same time, however, China’s foreign policy during these times was not necessarily characterized by a foolhardy attempt to implement its ideology throughout its neighbors. One noteworthy evidence of such trait is offered in the course of Sino-Indian War, where Zhou consolidated China’s control over disputed territories even at the peril of Beijing’s relations with India. Chairman Mao, meanwhile, stood by as something of a spokesman for China’s stated goals as a nation, with many of these statements actually contradicting what Beijing was doing at the time.

During the onset of Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, Mao denounced the Soviet Union for backing down to capitalist threats, while his country was avidly befriending Western nations in pursuit of recognition from what Chinese Communist Party tended to describe as “imperialists.” In retaliation, Khrushchev openly supported the non-Communist India in Sino-Indian War, after which what John Foster Dulles described as “the creed of international Communism” was in fact put into splinter. On the center of such ambivalent trend in the history of Beijing’s foreign policy was an unlikely duo of Mao and Zhou, with the Chairman, with his iconic stature as the most celebrated revolutionary in his days, formulating China’s public image as a staunchly Communist state, while the Premier serving his country’s interests by repelling influence from the Soviet Union through his hardly ideological, yet surprisingly bold moves in international power politics.

A vast array of evidences offered for a schism between Kremlin and the Forbidden City could leave an inquirer rather puzzled, as a thaw in relations between China and the United States did not take place for almost a decade to come. There are nonetheless a number of reasons to explain such an apparent discrepancy. One factor was the continuing presence of ideologically-driven hotheads in both Beijing and the Capitol Hill. While there was a fair degree of suggestions within the United States to normalize its relations with mainland China by late 1960s, condemnation of all forms of Communism regardless of American interests remained vogue for much of the decade. This pattern, for better or worse, was largely reprised in Communist China, with Mao’s cronies in the Forbidden City denouncing all “imperialist” aggression amid the quagmire of Cultural Revolution. The United States at the time also had little incentive to reconsider its foreign policy, as there was no major setback in American policy of hard-headed containment by that point, only to be checkered by its prolonged involvement in Vietnam, which was yet to occur. Furthermore, Sino-Soviet split, which provided a compelling reason for Beijing and Washington to cease mutual hostility, was not in its full throttle until 1969, when a quasi-war erupted between the two Communist titans’ borders.

The timeline of Sino-Soviet split brings another interesting dimension into an analysis of both Zhou Enlai and Chinese foreign relations from 1949 to 1972, as it occurred in 1969, years after the resignation of Khrushchev and the rise of Leonid Brezhnev. An escalation of conflict between Kremlin and the Forbidden City when Moscow Politburo was actually becoming more ideologically rigid, I observe, discredits a commonly held notion that Sino-Soviet Split occurred merely because of Mao’s pursuit of radical peasant revolution that his Russian colleagues tended to disfavor. Indeed, China’s domestic and foreign policy throughout the 1960s was characterized by an utter discrepancy between the two, with Zhou perhaps most vividly demonstrating such trend by staunchly supporting Cultural Revolution at home while loudly denouncing Brezhnev’s Politburo in its decision to crush reformist government in Czechoslovakia led by Alexander Dubcek, remarking “This is the most barefaced and typical specimen of fascist power politics by the Soviet scabs,”[16] something neither the Western world nor even the rebellious Josip Broz Tito dared to say. Still, the United States was rather reluctant to recover its relations with the People’s Republic, with liberals expressing concerns over China’s governance that often proved more oppressive than the Soviet Union and the conservatives still preaching its constituency about the evil nature of all Communist polities. At the meantime, American involvement in Vietnam slowly yet steadily began taking its toll, with strategic victory seeming nearly unachievable while Washington’s stature across the globe started deteriorating as much of the world -including the West, none of which agreed to support the United States in its endeavor- voiced its opposition to what it viewed as a continuum of a 19th Century-style imperialism.

The decrease of American influence throughout the world and the consolidation of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe put Washington in a serious pinch: By 1968, NATO Supreme Commander Lyman L. Lemnitzer noted that after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the West is now in danger of being outflanked by the Communist Bloc both militarily and politically,[17] with the United States, the backbone of the Western alliance, not able to improve such a dismal situation due to its ongoing commitment in Vietnam. Such context, I observe, provided Washington a greater amount of incentive to engage its counterpart in Kremlin through diplomatic means, with Moscow’s schism with Beijing providing a tremendous opportunity for the United States to balance the global geopolitical chessboard in its favor. However, the endeavor for an improved relationship between Beijing and Washington was not a task that every politician in either country were able to sustain, as it needed to be carried out while either appeasing or silencing domestic opposition stemming from ideological or moral concerns. Henceforth, it was the election of Richard Nixon, a man of strong anti-Communist credentials, and his pursuit of improvement of relations with China that virtually neutralized the United States’ domestic opposition for a thaw in Sino-American diplomacy.


[1] Zhou, Quotations, 100-101.

[2] Hsu, 192-194.

[3] and Pakistan – Pakistan will be heavily featured while portraying the events of 1971.

[4] Maxwell Part (I, i), see bibliography.

[5] India Times  Jun.27,  2007.

[6] TIME Dec 14. 1959 The Shade of the Big Banyan.

[7] Zhou, Letters, 6-7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Taipei Times Aug. 27, 2005The article suggests that JFK viewed the affair as “a blatant Chinese aggression against India”; thus bolstering the notion of all Communist states operating under a monolithic agenda, which, as later events would tell, was in fact an oxymoron. Such a notion, however, would remain prevalent over American political landscape until Richard Nixon, utilizing his credentials as a staunch anti-Communist, almost single-handedly reversed such strand.

[10] Harding, Vincent Du Bois in China: 1959. Black World/Negro Digest May 1972, 14-15.

[11] Many didn’t, perhaps unbeknownst to Dr. Du Bois.

[12] Ibid. 46-47.

[13] Zhou, A Great Decade, 5-11.

[14] TIME Nov. 09, 1962 Double Standard, to take one example.

[15] Herring 764-767.

[16] TIME Aug. 30, 1968. The Reaction: Dismay and Disgust.

[17] TIME Oct. 25, 1968. Preparing for the Unpredictable.


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