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China vs. the US: the Turning Point (Part 2)

(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.)

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By Seymour Topping

In Yenan, Mao reached out to the United States for cooperation. In January 1945 he sent a secret message to Washington through the Dixie Mission proposing that he and Zhou Enlai, his foreign policy deputy, visit Washington for talks with President Roosevelt. His aim was to gain understanding of his goals in the civil war and to develop economic cooperation with the United States. Mao was still waiting impatiently while I was in Yenan for a reply. It never came. Patrick Hurley, the American Ambassador in Chongqing, a supporter of Chiang Kai-shek, blocked transmittal of the message. Subsequent to Roosevelt’s death, Mao continued his efforts for an understanding with the United States. He made known his eagerness to cooperate with the Truman Administration. To demonstrate his willingness to compromise he offered—if he attained power—to hold his Communist goals in abeyance. He said that China must a have a long period of peace during which there could be controlled capitalism and socialist democracy. Mao never received a reply from Truman to his overture.  

The historic turning point in the Maoist relationship with the United States came while I was in Yenan. I was at a dinner with members of the politburo when told that Zhou Enlai had just been recalled from talks in Chongqing with Chiang Kai-shek and General Marshall, who was acting as mediator, on formation of a coalition government. The Communists abandoned the talks forthwith upon learning that the Truman Administration had concluded an additional agreement for sale of surplus war supplies to the Nationalists at a fraction of procurement price. In the bitterest terms, I was told by General Zhu De, the military commander-in-chief, that this was final proof that the United States was committed to unilateral support of Chiang Kai-shek. This event was the breaking point in relations with the United States, which would not begin to be mended until the visit of President Nixon to China in 1972.

During my conversations in Yenan with Party leaders, certain attitudes and principles were underlined which still guide China’s in its development and stance in the world. Given the physical problems of China with its enormous population, it was stressed, there must be a unique approach to development. Philosophically, little was to be borrowed from the practice of Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union beyond Lenin’s insistence on the absolute sovereignty of the Communist Party—total control of the society to insure the stability needed for attainment of development goals. Political opposition was not to be tolerated.

This was the foundation upon which Deng Xiaoping introduced his economic reforms in the nineteen seventies. His reforms produced a free market economy within the framework of state capitalism in which banks and the corporations in key industries were government-owned—as they are today. He spurred the rise of China as a world economic power. His reforms served to lift millions of Chinese from poverty, although 128 million peasants are still officially listed as poor. But Deng was also the imitator of Lenin in not tolerating any opposition to the authority of the Communist Party. When students agitating for democratic political reforms held forth in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he sent in tanks and troops to crush the demonstrations. The massacre which ensued in which hundreds of students and their supporters were killed still haunts China today. Over recent years hundreds of citizen protest demonstrations on a variety of issues have been put down harshly by security forces to assure so-called stability.

As in Yenan, use of the term Communist in China today is more as a label than a description of the governing system. The Party describes the existing system as Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. But there is no defined model for socialism as such and the Chinese characteristics evolve as required to cope with internal and international conditions and ambitions. There are sponsored think tanks which make recommendations to the Chinese leadership for possible adaptations. At the Eighteenth Party Congress which will be convened next year, there will not only be a change in leadership but also the periodic rethinking of strategy for future economic and social development. Given this evolutionary approach, it is difficult to predict what Chinese society will be like in the next decades.

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(To read the rest of Seymour Topping's speech go to page 1, 3, 4, 5)

Seymour Topping is the former managing editor of the New York Times, 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 Today is a good day]

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