The Chairman as Hegemon
When, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China, his words suggested not merely wounded national pride but a thirst for revenge:
In the view of Chairman Mao, a cabal of Western and Western-oriented countries—Russia, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan and America—had treacherously combined to attack the old Chinese empire, loosening China’s grip on hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory and a dozen tributary states in the process.
Mao reserved special rancor for the United States, fulminating in a bitterly sarcastic speech called “‘Friendship’ or Aggression” in late 1949:
Mao now controlled all of China proper. But it wasn’t enough. Even as a young man he had dreamed of controlling a global empire, musing in a poem: “I ask the boundless earth, who after all will be your master?”
Once in power, he launched a program to industrialize and (secretly) to militarize China. Spending of the military and its arms industries took up three-fifths of the budget, a ratio that even his chief arms supplier, Joseph Stalin, criticized as “very unbalanced.” Nuclear-tipped ICBMs were a particular priority. The end game was Chinese hegemony or, as he bluntly told his inner circle in 1956, “We must control the earth.”
The disastrous Great Leap Forward—in which the peasants were dragooned into large, state-controlled communes--must be understood as an outgrowth of Mao’s lust for ever-expanding power. The Chairman wanted steel not just “to overtake Great Britain in steel production in three years,” as the standard histories relate, but to build a blue water navy for conquest. “Now the Pacific Ocean is not peaceful,” he told his leading generals and admirals on June 28, 1958. “It can only be peaceful when we take it over.” Lin Biao, Mao’s closest ally in the military, then interjected: “We must build big ships, and be prepared to land in [i.e., invade] Japan, the Philippines, and San Francisco.” [Italics added]. Mao continued: “How many years before we can build such ships? In 1962, when we have XX-XX tons of steel [figures concealed in original]…”
Calling together his provincial chiefs later in 1958, Mao was even more expansive: “In the future we will set up the Earth Control Committee, and make a uniform plan for the Earth.” Observe Chang and Halliday: “Mao dominated China. He intended to dominate the world.”
The fact is that Mao was in a hurry to industrialize, build a first-class war machine, and become the Hegemon. Yet, virtually the only thing he had to sell to the Soviet Union in exchange for arms was food. Setting up large, centrally controlled people’s communes allowed him to more efficiently extract food and work out of the peasantry. Loudspeakers were set up to urge the peasants to work longer and harder, and women were forced into the fields to work alongside the men for the first time. Most of the grain they produced was turned over by the Communist cadres in charge to local “state collection stations.” For there it was shipped to the cities—and to the Soviet Union.
As the Great Leap Forward picked up speed, senior officials kept increasing the quotas of grain to be delivered to the state collection stations. In response, commune-level cadres worked the peasants longer and longer hours on shorter and shorter rations. Mao, who saw people only as means to his ends, was unmoved by reports that millions of peasants were starving to death. Instead, this ruthless megalomaniac calmly declared that, to further his global ambitions, “half of China may well have to die.”
The people’s communes were arguably the greatest instrument of state exploitation ever devised. They proved so efficient at squeezing the peasantry that tens of millions of villagers starved to death from 1960-62 as a result. Mao’s efforts to build up his arsenal cost an estimated 42.5 million lives.
News of the famine was suppressed by the regime, and what were innocuously called “food shortages” were blamed on bad weather. American leftists and academics once again proved to be Mao’s willing collaborators, swallowing and regurgitating his lies. Edgar Snow came back from his 1960 trip to write that “One of the few things I can say with certainty is that mass starvation such as China knew almost annually under former regimes no longer occurs.” Professor Fairbank’s introductory history of modern China, The United States and China, dismisses the worst famine in human history in a sentence: “Malnutrition was widespread and some starvation occurred.”
The Imperial Project
Mao believed that China’s greatness, Communism’s universalism, and his own destiny as a “Great Hero,” demanded empire-building. Lost territories must be recaptured, straying vassals must be recovered, and one-time tributary states must once again be forced to follow Beijing’s lead. Military action--engaging the Japanese invaders, defeating the Nationalists, and capturing the cities—had delivered China into his hands. Now military action would restore the empire. For these reasons Mao intervened in Korea in the early years of his rule, invaded Tibet, bombarded Quemoy, continued to bluster over Taiwan, attacked India over Tibetan border questions, confronted the Soviet Union, and gave massive amounts of military aid to Vietnam.
Maps were drawn up showing China’s borders extending far to the north, south and west of the area that the PLA actually controlled. Any territory that had been touched by China, however briefly, was regarded as rightfully Beijing’s. Fr. Seamus O’Reilly, a Columban missionary who was one of the last foreign Catholic priests to leave China in 1953, recalls seeing, in the office of the local Communist officials who interrogated him, a map of the PRC that included all of Southeast Asia—Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, and Singapore--within China’s borders.
But such maps were marked for internal distribution only. For Mao, although willing to go to war to restore China’s imperium piecemeal, was uncharacteristically coy about his overall imperial aims. Even as his troops were engaged in Korea or Tibet, he continually sought to reassure the world, in the policy equivalent of a Freudian slip, “We will never seek hegemony.” Once he had vanquished his enemies, Mao may have been open about his dictatorial aims at home, but along his borders he still faced an array of powerful forces. The United States occupied Japan and South Korea, and had bases in the Philippines and Thailand. The British were in Hong Kong and Malaysia. Even his erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, was occupying large swaths of Chinese territory in Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.
“When hemmed in, resort to stratagems,” advised Sun-tzu. The diplomatic establishment of the PRC, headed by the charming and crafty Premier Zhou Enlai, developed not just one stratagem, but three. The first was for China to play the role of a loyal member of the Soviet-dominated Communist bloc. The second was taking an anticolonial posture as a member—indeed the leading member—of the Third World, a posture used to great effect with India, for example. The third stratagem, which proved increasingly useful as time went on, was posing as a responsible member of the post-Westphalian international system, a respecter of international agreements and international borders, merely one nation-state among many.
As befits a well-designed stratagem, each of these postures seemed to reflect a certain truth about the PRC. Mao’s adopted ideology demanded that lip service, at least, be paid to international Communist unity, but the relationship of China’s “revolutionary, statesman, theoretician and scientist” with Stalin was complicated from the beginning. Mao was grateful for Stalin’s aid, but suspicious that the Soviet leader was trying to keep China disunited and weak, and more often than not rejected his advice. In 1936 he ousted the “28 Bolsheviks” that Stalin’s Comintern had foisted upon the CCP, thus reducing Moscow’s influence over his guerilla movement. In 1945 he rejected out of hand Stalin’s staggering suggestion that he disband his army and join Chiang Kai-shek’s government, advice which he later ridiculed.
The USSR’s late entry into the war against Japan had allowed Soviet troops to occupy parts of Inner Mongolia, Manchuria and Xinjiang. Mao could do little about this insult to China’s sovereignty until the CCP had emerged victorious in the civil war, when he journeyed to the Soviet Union for two months of hard negotiations with Stalin. The terms of the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, which Mao and Stalin signed on February 12, 1950, gave Moscow a degree of economic and political leverage within China all too reminiscent of the old colonial days. Mao had told Edgar Snow in the late 1930s that Mongolia would “automatically” be part of the new China. Now he was forced to concede the existence of a separate “People’s Republic of Mongolia.”
By 1958 Mao was publicly expressing unhappiness over the way these negotiations had gone: “In 1950 I argued with Stalin in Moscow for two months. On the questions of the Treaty of Mutual Assistance, the Chinese Eastern Railway, the joint-stock companies and the border we adopted two attitudes: one was to argue when the other side made proposals we did not agree with, and the other was to accept their proposal if they absolutely insisted. This was out of consideration for the interests of socialism.”
Despite his unhappiness at Russian “colonialism,” Mao had accomplished his principal goals, which were the removal of all Soviet forces from Chinese soil, the return of the China Eastern Railway and Dalian (Port Arthur), and the avoidance of any additional territorial concessions. Mao’s determination to recover China’s lost grandeur did not include kowtowing to one of the imperialistic powers that had humiliated it, even if it happened to be a member of the same ideological camp. For the Chinese, Soviet ascendance meant domination by a people that, rightly or wrongly, they regarded as culturally inferior. “The hungry land,” as they called Russia, was not going to devour any additional Chinese territory.
On January 12, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech at the National Press Club, the main thrust of which was that China, left alone by the West, would soon break with the Soviet Union. The Soviet “absorption” of Outer and Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Manchuria, he vigorously asserted, was “the most important fact in the relations of any foreign power with Asia.” America must avoid conflict with China so as not to “deflect from the Russians to ourself the righteous anger and the wrath and the hatred of the Chinese people which must develop.”
Ironically, Acheson's speech is not remembered for its prescience on the issue of a Sino-Soviet split, but for its contribution to the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean peninsula. Having been assured that Stalin had not targeted South Korea for aggression, Acheson famously failed to include it within the U.S. defense perimeter in Asia as he defined it. North Korean Communist dictator Kim Il Sung soon thereafter won Stalin’s agreement to a limited offensive and, on June 25 of that same year, the entire North Korean army poured across the border and fell upon the almost defenseless south.
This was Mao’s first opportunity to reassert China’s traditional prerogatives over one-time vassal states. With the world’s attention fixed on the Korean peninsula, he sent elements of the People’s Liberation Army to take control of Tibet. The Dalai Lama was forced to sign an agreement on October 21, 1950, acknowledging Chinese sovereignty. Tibet became a protectorate of China, although it would continue, for a time, to control its own domestic affairs.
On the Korean peninsula the war had quickly turned against Kim Il Sung. By late November 1950, American forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur were approaching the Yalu River, which separates Korea from China. With his half-kingdom fast disappearing, Kim appealed to China for succor—exactly what tributary states were expected to do when threatened by outside powers.
Mao responded promptly with a grand imperial gesture, throwing a huge “volunteer” army into the fray. He was not reacting to a threat but seizing an opportunity, in this case to reestablish Chinese suzerainty over a once and future tributary state. Recklessly inviting casualties, the Chinese army advanced by overwhelming the beleaguered Americans in wave after wave of attacks, eventually forcing them to retreat south of the 38th parallel. After intense fighting, the front was consolidated near the 38th parallel in October, and Kim Il Sung’s half-kingdom was restored.
Mao later summed up the Korean War in a 1958 speech to his generals as “a big war in which we defeated America and obtained valuable experience.” With Korea regarded strictly as a military contest, Mao’s comment may seem mere conceit. After all, the PLA lost at least a quarter of a million men (as opposed to some 34,000 American casualties), gained no territory over the original North-South partition, and settled for a negotiated armistice. Viewed as a bid to recover a tributary state, however, Mao’s intervention was an impressive first step. He fought the United States to a standstill, establishing China as a military power to be reckoned with. He impressed the Soviets, who had been unwilling to commit ground forces into the fray. Even more importantly, he had brought at least the northern half of the Korean peninsula back into its traditional relationship of dependency on China. The first step toward the restoration of Chinese hegemony over Asia had been taken.
The Sino-Soviet Split
Although Mao was never comfortable with the Soviet domination of the Sino-Soviet relationship, he was for many years careful to avoid open criticism. But Khrushchev’s “secret speech” discrediting Stalin, delivered to the CPSU Twentieth Congress in February 1956, marked a turning point. Whatever compunctions Mao may have felt about privately criticizing the Soviet leadership vanished.
Talking to the Politburo in 1956, Mao warned, “We must not blindly follow the Soviet Union. . . . Every fart has some kind of smell, and we cannot say that all Soviet farts smell sweet.” He was irritated that his countrymen worshipped all things Soviet. He complained at one point that he “couldn’t have eggs or chicken soup for three years because an article appeared in the Soviet Union which said that one shouldn’t eat them. . . . It didn’t matter whether the article was current or not, the Chinese listened all the same and respectfully obeyed.” He mocked Chinese artists who, when painting pictures of him and the diminutive Stalin, “always made me a little bit shorter, thus blindly knuckling under to the moral pressure exerted by the Soviet Union at that time.” He remained conciliatory in public, however, largely because he was hoping to get his hands on Soviet nuclear weapons.
Mao’s eagerness to acquire nuclear weapons, so as to confirm him as the leader of a great power, knew no bounds. Although he had earlier rejected, as an affront to Chinese sovereignty, a Soviet offer to set up its own nuclear bases on Chinese soil, he managed to convince Stalin’s successor to aid China’s nuclear weapons program in return for massive shipments of foodstuffs to the Soviet Union. A nuclear technology transfer agreement to this end was signed in 1957. Under this agreement, Khrushchev later recalled, the Chinese received “almost everything they asked for. We kept no secrets from them. Our nuclear experts co-operated with their engineers and designers who were busy building a bomb.”
The Soviets were about to hand over a prototype bomb when Mao’s saber rattling over Taiwan spooked them. As Mao prepared to invade Quemoy (Jinmen) and Matsu (Mazu) in September 1958, Khrushchev advised caution. Mao was deeply offended, in part because he no longer respected Soviet military advice. So it was that when Khrushchev pointedly reminded him that America possessed nuclear weapons, Mao airily dismissed the possibility of mass casualties. “So what if we lose 300 million people,” the Great Helmsman told a stunned Khrushchev. “Our women will make it up in a generation.”
Not surprisingly, in June 1959, Khrushchev unilaterally abrogated the agreement that was to have provided China with an atomic weapon. Mao was furious. In September of that year he angrily denounced Soviet meddling in Chinese affairs, telling members of the Military Affairs Commission, “It is absolutely impermissible to go behind the back of our fatherland to collude with a foreign country.” The Soviets were “revisionists,” China was soon telling the world, and a greater threat than American “imperialism.” In going his own way, Mao was now less a part of an international revolutionary movement than the reawakening Hegemon slowly exerting control over ever wider territory.
With the onset of the Cultural Revolution, the war of words escalated, and armed clashes broke out at several points along the 4,000-mile border with the Soviet Union. Mao dispatched additional troops to the border and on March 2, 1969, on the Chairman’s orders, a battalion-sized PLA force ambushed Soviet patrols on the Wusuli River. The Soviets promptly retaliated, and during the next two years there were repeated skirmishes at many points along the frontier.
The Ninth Party Congress, held April 1–24 that same year, took an openly hegemonic tone. The only published speech was that of Lin Biao, then Chairman Mao’s heir apparent, who repeated Mao’s formula that a third world war would promote revolution and dig the graves of both revisionism and imperialism. “We must be ready for a conventional war and also for an atomic war,” Lin said. “Both the Soviet Union and the United States are paper tigers.” The present border between the Soviet Union and China could be made the basis of negotiation, he avowed, but Moscow would first have to admit that the historical border treaties were “unequal treaties.”
Instead, the Soviets threatened nuclear attacks on the Chinese heartland, and deployed forty-four heavily armed mobile assault divisions along the border. The crises gradually passed and no territory changed hands, but the message was clear: The existing border was ultimately dependent on Soviet strength, not Mao’s acquiescence.
After PLA troops entered Tibet in 1950, the government of the Dalai Lama was gradually isolated. Those members of the international community who questioned Chinese actions were haughtily informed that the Tibetan question was a purely internal affair. The Himalayan plateau had been an integral part of China for centuries, Beijing’s story went, having been brought under China’s sway as early as the seventh century, when the Tang Emperor Li Shimin sent his daughter Princess Wencheng as a bride to the great Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo. The princess then bestowed culture on the uncouth Tibetans, bringing them and their land forever into the debt and the orbit of China’s superior civilization.
In fact, the emperor sent his favorite daughter, famed for her beauty and talents, as a peace offering to Songsten Gampo because he had a healthy respect for the military prowess of his Himalayan neighbors, not because he intended to civilize them. Had the Tibetan king been seeking a closer association with Chinese culture, the tribute would have flowed the other way.
Chairman Mao, having promised to respect Tibet’s autonomy, instead gradually suffocated its political and religious institutions during the 1950s. Half the land of traditional Tibet was carved up and handed over to other provinces where Chinese were in the majority. The process of Sinicization was accelerated during the chaotic days of the Great Leap Forward, when Mao’s cadres carried class warfare into the Land of the Snows, sacking monasteries and killing monks. When the Tibetans rose in protest in 1959, Beijing, claiming that the Tibetan local government had “instigated a rebellion,” used brute force to consolidate total control.
On March 25, 1959, after heavy fighting, Chinese Communist troops occupied Lhasa. The Dalai Lama fled the capital. Beijing announced that its army had “swiftly put down the rebellion in Lhasa and was mopping up the rebels in some other places in Tibet.” The Tibetan government under the Dalai Lama was formally dissolved, replaced by a puppet regime headed by the 21-year-old Panchen Lama. For the first time since the thirteenth century, the Tibetans did not control their own country.
To justify their intervention, the Chinese Communists invented a mythological Tibet where the masses were enslaved by a slothful priestly class. The propaganda machine churned out horror stories of a dark and brutal theocracy of bonded labor, vast monastic fiefs, indolent monks and immoral abbots. As late as 1998 the Chinese Communist Party, in the person of Party Secretary Jiang Zemin, was still patting itself on the back for ending monkish “slavery” in Tibet.
In order to bring the partly nomadic Tibetan population under control—and generate more grain to build arms—Mao had Tibetans herded into communes, a new form of serfdom far worse than anything in Tibet’s past. As in China proper, the commune system proved to be an economic and ecological disaster of the first magnitude. Chinese agricultural officials ordered the Tibetans to raise wheat rather than the barley they preferred, and the resulting crop failures on the high Himalayan plain with its short growing season left them malnourished.
Meanwhile, the monasteries and nunneries were emptied and the resident monks and nuns put to work in the communes. The 70,000-character Petition of the Panchen Lama, written in 1962, states that 97 percent of Tibet’s two thousand monasteries were destroyed following the 1959 uprising, presumably by the People’s Liberation Army. A few years later, the Cultural Revolution completed this destructive work. All of China suffered from the depredations of Chairman Mao’s Red Guards, but Tibet, outside the Chinese cultural sphere, was a special target. Thanks to Beijing’s propaganda, these young zealots saw Tibet as the very embodiment of a corrupt and exploitative feudal tradition, and they set about with picks, shovels and even their bare hands destroying every religious edifice and artifact they could find. By the time their rampage ended, Tibet’s few remaining stupas and lamaseries were in ruins.
War with India
Nehru insisted on recognizing China’s “rights” in Tibet despite the pleas of the Tibetans, along with many Indians, that he weigh in against this new form of Chinese hegemony. His appeasement of the “New China” came back to haunt him in 1959 when Mao, having disposed of the Dalai Lama and his followers, began building military roads right up to the existing Indian-Tibetan border, and then, in early September, ordered troops to cross over into India.
Mao’s aggression took Nehru completely by surprise, which is perhaps less a consequence of his naiveté than of Zhou Enlai’s sophisticated sales pitch about the two countries being fellow victims of the Western imperial powers. The Chinese premier had first visited him in New Delhi in April 1954, stopping over on his way back to China from the signing the Geneva peace accord on Indochina. Zhou played the second international stratagem to the hilt, portraying the PRC as a country with impeccable anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist credentials, a country that was a natural member of the Third World club. Nehru agreed.
To be sure, Nehru had been favorably disposed toward Mao’s China from the beginning. India had been the first “capitalist” country to recognize China (in April 1950), the leading non-Communist proponent for admitting the PRC into the United Nations, and the principal intermediary between Beijing and Washington during the Korean War.
The result of Zhou’s 1954 visit was a joint communiqué based on China’s “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.” Nehru breathlessly announced that relations between India and China would henceforth be governed by “mutual respect for territorial sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-intervention in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.” These high-sounding principles were reaffirmed at the April 1955 Conference of Asian Countries in New Delhi, and again at the Conference of Asian and African Countries in Bandung, Indonesia. By now, Nehru had assumed the role of Zhou’s patron, eager to advance Zhou’s cause by smoothing over China’s past support for destabilizing guerilla movements throughout the region. For his part, Zhou spoke of the “Bandung Spirit,” a new policy of peacefully wooing nonaligned nations in the region according to the Five Principles. Mesmerized by the Five Principles and the Bandung Spirit, Nehru could not bring himself to see that Mao was intent on making himself the master of Asia.
The Indian delegation at the U.N. was arguing passionately on behalf of Communist China’s admission to the General Assembly on the very day that the Chairman sent Chinese forces pouring across the border into India. As Nehru pondered Mao’s perfidy, PLA troops continued their march southward, seizing two important mountain passes that guard approaches to Sikkim and India.
Nehru allowed two years of border skirmishes before responding to the pleas of his generals for leave to stop the slow-moving Chinese steamroller. Then the ill-planned Indian attack proved a disaster, and the Chinese advance picked up speed. As tens of thousands of square miles of disputed territory passed into Chinese control, Nehru panicked and requested help from the Soviet Union and America. Moscow blasted the Chinese advance, and the Seventh Fleet steamed up the Bay of Bengal. Mao, having gotten the territory he wanted, offered a cease-fire. An overwrought Nehru, who had begun to have nightmares about Chinese troops on the Ganges, was only too glad to accept.
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