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China vs. the US: The Roots of a Love-Hate Relationship (Part 1)

(The Friends of the Columbia University Libraries sponsored a December 7, 2011 lecture by Seymour Topping, Emeritus Professor of International Journalism, on "China Faces the United States From Mao in Yenan to Korea, Vietnam, and Challenges today." Professor Topping discussed how the root experiences of the Chinese leadership, which he observed in Yenan, Mao's remote headquarters in the 1940s, influences their current behavior, policies, and intentions.)

                                                                                                                                       Next

By Seymour Topping

As we look to the future—to our security in a turbulent world—there is no higher foreign policy priority than determining how the United States will relate to the People’s Republic of China given its rising economic and military power. Will it be a dangerous rivalry or a mutually beneficial partnership as President Obama has proposed. As of now, there are no certainties. There are paradoxes and misconceptions which cloud the future.

View the fact that China in the steady build-up of its armed forces has implanted anti-ship missile launching sites along its coast capable of demolishing United States naval vessels, should they be deployed in resisting any attempt by the Mainland to take over Taiwan by force. Consider also that the expanding China armory includes anti-satellite weapons and long range missiles capable of striking American Pacific bases. According to a Pentagon assessment, these developments add up to the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world.

In the South China Sea, confronted by an expanding and more active Chinese Navy, American allies, such as the Philippines, Thailand and South Korea, as well as neutral Vietnam, look to the United States as counterweight. Beijing has become more assertive in its traditional claims to ownership of the Parcel and the Spratley Islands.

Taking account, the Pentagon in its current budget projections is asking Congress—despite domestic pressure for budget cuts in military expenditures—to increase allocations for strengthening American forces in the Western Pacific. President Obama announced last month the plan to deploy 2,500 Marines to a new base in Australia. And Secretary of State Clinton standing on the deck an American warship in Manila Bay reaffirmed the military ties between the United States and the Philippines.

Yet—contrast those tensions with Beijing’s blessing of the presence of more than 125,000 of its brightest youngsters for study at American educational institutions including, of course, Columbia. Or consider that China is the chief foreign creditor of the United States holding more than a trillion dollars in Treasury debt and still buying even more Treasuries. Or look at the crowds of Chinese buying cokes and hamburgers at McDonald’s in Beijing? Or shopping for a wardrobe in store like Macy’s, I challenge you to find very much in the way of clothing that does not bear: Made in China labels.

These paradoxes and contradictions in the engagement of China with the United States which I have just cited are the outcome of a long standing historic love-hate relationship. One must go to the roots of that relationship to better understand the present day behavior, policies and intentions of the Chinese leadership.

In reporting during half a century on China’s engagements with the United States I found the relationship consistently ambiguous and confrontational. On the ground I witnessed three wars: First, the United States as a supporter of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists as they battled the Maoists in the Civil War. Then, the conflict on the Korean Peninsula, which took more than 54,000 American lives, a far great number of  Chinese lives, including that of Mao Zedong’s son killed in an American napalm strike. And then the proxy war in Vietnam during which Mao provided Ho Chi Minh with strategic direction, combat advisors, and armed and trained Communist troops in a South China sanctuary. Hanoi’s victory usually is attributed to Ho’s nationalist appeal and the tactics of his brilliant General Giap. Yes, perhaps. But what I witnessed during the French and American Indochina wars persuaded me: If Mao had not provided his large scale military aid to Ho’s forces, the United States might have prevailed in the Vietnam war.  

The love-hate relationship of Maoist China with the United States had its beginnings in Yenan, Mao Zedong’s remote headquarters in the 1940s in Western China. In November 1946 I went to Yenan, working as a correspondent of the International News Service. The remote valley town was then blockaded by Chiang Kai-shek’s troops in the ongoing civil war. My visit was made possible by Huang Hua, a senior Communist official, with whom I had become very friendly in Peking, now Beijing. Huang Hua would later become foreign minister of the People’s Republic and a major player in relations with the United States. When Huang Hua made the arrangement for my trip we did not anticipate that I would be in Yenan at an historic turn in the relations between China and the United States. 

I flew to Yenan, on a U.S. Air Force plane of Executive Headquarters, the joint office set up by General Marshall, President Truman’s envoy, who had been sent to mediate in the civil war.  I was met by members of the Dixie Mission, composed of American military officers and diplomats. The Mission had been created by President Roosevelt despite objections by Chiang Kai-shek to coordinate operations against the Japanese. This American air link to Peking gave the Maoists their first secure opening to the outside world. Previously, reaching the Maoist headquarters required a dangerous overland journey through Japanese or Chiang Kai-shek’s blockading forces.

In Yenan, while billeted in one of the valley’s myriad loess caves, I interviewed members of the Central Committee. Most notably Liu Shaoqui, General Secretary of the Communist Party, its leading ideologue and second in power to Mao Zedong. Mao was said to be ill and did not attend any of events to which I was invited, including the valley’s weekly dance, at which he usually enjoyed prancing to American tunes played by a string orchestra. He had retreated into isolation, possibly experiencing one of his bouts of depression.

I was invited by Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, to the valley opera house for a performance of peasant dances. Once a glamorous bejeweled Shanghai movie actress, Jiang Jing now wore no make-up and like the others was dressed in a cotton tunic, baggy trousers and a black cap. Seated behind her, I observed her chatting with Liu Shaoqi. This was a time of comradeship and shared philosophy between Liu and Mao. Both held, as Liu Shaoqi later told me that China must pass through a stage of New Democracy. Attainment of a Communist society was something for the distant future.

To make an historical point, let me dwell a bit on the that scene of Liu Shaoqi and Jiang Ching chatting at the Opera given what transpired thereafter. In 1966, Mao was set aside as Party Chairman by the Central Committee. It was a rebuke for his policy blunders such as the “Great Leap Forward” resulting in famine that cost the lives of millions of peasants. His detractors were led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, then the party secretary. In counter-attack, Jiang Qing and three Shanghai radicals—the clique later dubbed the Gang of Four-soon after launched the Cultural Revolution. As you know, it plunged China into convulsive upheaval that set back China’s development for a decade. Liu Shaoqi would die under house arrest denied the medical treatment he desperately needed. Deng Xiaoping would be exiled to a distant province.

After Mao’s death in 1976, Jiang Qing was overthrown, tried for her Cultural Revolution excesses and sentenced to death. She hanged herself in the bathroom of a hospital prison. In covering the Cultural Revolution, so dubbed by Jiang Qing, I found it was not in any sense a people’s revolution nor was it cultural born of traditional roots. Cloaked by the propaganda of both factions, it was a power struggle between Jiang Qing and her Gang of Four, parading the pliant, sickly Mao as figurehead, versus Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping who were backed largely by the apparatus of the Communist Party. Restored to power, becoming China’s Paramount Leader, one of Deng Xiaoping’s first acts was to rehabilitate the memory of Liu Shaoqi. The misnomer Cultural Revolution, which it was not, remains in common usage today. 

*****

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(To read the rest of Seymour Topping's speech go to page 2, 3, 4, 5)

Seymour Topping is the former managing editor of the New York Times. He is the author of On the Front Lines of the Cold War, An American Correspondents Journal from The Chinese Civil War to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam and the Chairman of the World Policy Journal editorial board. 

[Photo courtesy of Ming Xia]

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