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China vs. the US: From Mao's Victory to Nixon's Handshake (Part 4)

(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

As I was leaving Yenan in December 1946, the leadership was girding for a long struggle. They felt betrayed by the United States and the Soviet Union. In keeping with the secret agreement at Yalta, Stalin had concluded a treaty of alliance with Chiang Kai-shek in return for special rights in Manchuria and Mongolia. Bolstered by United States military aid, which included advisors, weaponry and an unopposed air force, Chiang Kai-shek seemed assured of victory in the civil war. On March 29 his troops descended on Yenan. Mao fled into the Shensi mountains where he readied a counter-offensive. I was on the battlefield when his forces carried out one of the most extraordinary military reversals in history.  

In January 1949, I crossed the Nationalist lines, north of Nanking, Chiang Kai-shek’s capital. Then with the Associated Press I wished to become the first foreign correspondent to join the advancing Communist troops and obtain an interview with Mao. The Communists were by then somewhat better armed with weapons taken from abandoned Japanese arms depots in Manchuria and American arms seized from defeated Nationalist armies. In No-Man’s land between the lines, I was taken captive by Communist guerrillas and taken to a headquarters at the battlefield where 130,000 of Chiang’s troops were encircled by 300,000 Communist troops. I was there under guard in a peasant hut when the battle ended. It was the conclusive engagement in the historic Battle of Huai-Hai. In the fighting across the Central China plain, Chiang Kai-shek in 65 days had lost more than a half million of his troops. The way was opened for the PLA to converge on Nanking and take control of the Mainland. I was put on a horse and returned under escort to Nationalist lines where I filed my story. As for my interview with Mao: Mao was no longer speaking to Americans.

General David Barr, Chiang Kai-shek’s chief American military adviser, told me later that the overall Nationalist defeat was due to  Chiang’s incompetence as a strategist and the corruption of his generals. Chiang did not take Barr’s advice. But certainly, there was another factor: Maoist indoctrination of the Communist soldiers which I overheard. Promises given to the soldiers of land which would be seized from exploiting landlords. Freedom in the villages from taxation by corrupt Kuomintang officials.  

I next encountered troops of People’s Liberation Army as they entered Northwest Gate of Nanking in the early morning April 14, 1949. After securing Chiang Kai-shek’s capital, the Army then wheeled to the southern ports for the invasion of Taiwan. I am certain that PLA would have taken the island if President Truman had not interposed the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait in reaction to Kim Il-sung invasion of South Korea in June 1950. The island people had been hostile to Chiang Kai-shek’s control since 1947 when Nationalist troops massacred thousands of Taiwanese who were demonstrating against exploitation by Kuomintang officials. Since Truman’s intervention, the status of Taiwan has been the chief issue marring Beijing-Washington relations.  

I worked in Communist occupied Nanking for seven months. And there met Deng Xiaoping for the first time. He had been a political commissar in the Battle of the Huai-Hai. He now ruled Nanking as party secretary with General Liu Bocheng as mayor. In taking control, they told city residents:  “Members of the Communist Party announce unreservedly that we fight for Communism, that we plan eventually to materialize a Communist Society. However, being believers in materialism, we realize that the revolution in its present stage belongs to New Democracy. Under these conditions we should make friends with over 90 percent of the people and we oppose the reactionaries who represent less than ten percent. We will concentrate on the development of production by promoting private as well as public enterprise, giving equal attention to capital and labor.”

This was a harbinger of the policies Deng would put into effect when he became paramount leader of China. In recalling that period, I cannot fail to register also my enduring sorrow: After I left Nanking for Hong Kong in November 1949, in April 1951, my Chinese assistant in the AP Bureau, J.C. Jao, a graduate like myself of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, was arrested and executed during Mao’s giant Counter-Revolutionary purge.

For the Chinese, the present-day stand-off with the United States in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait may be reminiscent of the Cold War. Mao Zedong was obsessed in the sixties and seventies with what he called the hostile encirclement of China by the Soviet Union in alliance with India and by the United States with its bases in South Korea, Indochina, and Japan. In the Vietnam war, Mao in his encirclement obsession threw his support to North Vietnam, not primarily for ideological reasons but to safeguard China’s southern border by eliminating American bases in Indochina. In a demonstration of China’s preoccupation with the material rather than the ideological, four years after the end of the Indochina war China fought a bloody war with Communist Vietnam in a territorial dispute over border demarcation and the Paracel Islands.

Similarly, in the Korean War, Mao intervened not because of any close ideological alliance with Kim Il-Sung but essentially to retain North Korea as a buffer state for China’s security. He attempted twice to avoid a collision with American troops. In September 1950, as General MacArthur’s forces were thrusting up the Korean Peninsula toward the Manchurian border, Zhou Enlai warned that Chinese troops would intervene if American troops crossed the 38th parallel. The warning was transmitted through the Indian Ambassador, Sadar Pannikar. I had come to know Pannikar extremely well in Nanking as a skilled trustworthy diplomat. But Truman dismissed the warning message as a bluff asserting that Pannikar was playing the Chinese game. Truman’s failure to heed the warning then led to one of the greatest military disasters in American history.

When MacArthur sent the American First Cavalry Division of the Eighth Army across the parallel, Chinese troops intervened and threw back forward elements of the First Cavalry. The Chinese then, not exploiting this advantage, broke off their attack apparently to give McArthur an opportunity to withdraw. When MacArthur resumed his advance toward the Manchurian border, the Chinese launched a general offensive in overwhelming strength and pushed MacArthur’s United Nations troops back in costly full retreat to South Korea.

Mao’s handshake with President Nixon in 1972 also had more to do with his interest in China’s security than eagerness for trade and friendship with the United States. Following border clashes with the Soviet Union in Manchuria along the Sungari River, China was fearful of a Soviet nuclear attack. In 1971, Audrey and I were shown bunkers and emergency stores to sustain China if the Russians attacked. At a private meeting in the Great Hall of the People, Premier Zhou Enlai told Audrey and her father, Canadian Ambassador Chester Ronning, a close friend of the premier, that the Chinese people were prepared to go underground in five minutes in the event of a Russian nuclear strike, The Shanghai pact with the United States to some extent restored China’s power balance with the Soviet Union. There was also a power motive on the part of the United States. Nixon used the new relationship with China as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with Moscow on arms control.

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(To read the rest of Seymour Topping's speech go to pages 1, 2, 3, 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 Wessel]

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