Biographies & Memoirs


Taking Over

IN THE MIDSUMMER OF 1945, no one in China guessed that the war with Japan was just about to end. Because security in Chongqing was so poor, and the Communists were politically suspect, the Chinese were not told about the American development of the atomic bomb. Besides which, even the Americans could not predict the precise effect of the atomic bombs they were to drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the sixth and ninth of August, nor how soon after that the Japanese emperor would order his armies to lay down their arms, as he did on the fourteenth. Nationalists and Communists had contingency plans, of course: the Nationalists planned for a slow military advance to the east coast around Canton, spearheaded by their best American-trained divisions, to be followed by a drive north up to Shanghai and Nanjing (roughly parallel to the military advances of 1926 and 1927 in the first United Front); the Communists planned to deepen the extent of their sprawling base areas in the north, speed up land redistribution and mass mobilization, strengthen the Party organizations in the northern provinces of Shandong and Hebei, and endeavor to set up effective underground organizations in the major cities. Again, neither side could guess that Manchuria—where both Nationalists and Communists had weak or nonexistent military and political presences—would turn out to be the key to ultimate victory. When the Soviet Russian armies invaded Manchukuo on August 8, it was in response to promises they had made to Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta that they would enter the China theater war three months after Germany’s surrender—which had happened on May 8, 1945. But neither Yan‘an nor Chongqing had been informed of the Yalta agreements, again for reasons of long-term strategic security.

It was a chance of geography as much as anything else that helped the Communists at this stage. From their Yan‘an base, their Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei border region, and their strong guerrilla units based in Shandong province, they could move troops into Manchuria far faster than the Nationalists could, and Mao decided to take the gamble and attempt to occupy the huge region, so rich in mineral and forestry resources, though sparsely inhabited compared with the heartland of China proper. And as soon as the Communists learned of the Japanese surrender, they began to do so. They were aided considerably by the Soviet armed forces, who allowed the Chinese to take over the gigantic Japanese stockpiles of arms and ammunition in the key railroad city of Kalgan, just south of the Great Wall in Chahar. In several Inner Mongolian cities the Soviet troops first subdued and disarmed the Japanese, and then retreated, allowing the Chinese to come in unopposed. In some areas the Russians gave Japanese arms and vehicles directly to the Chinese, and in at least one case, the Russians and Chinese fought side by side to seize a key border city. Russian logistical help was equally great, with as many as 100,000 Chinese Communist troops and 50,000 political workers being ferried into southern Manchuria from Shandong and northern Jiangsu provinces, and these forces were able to seize and hold several major cities.

From figures released later in Moscow it is possible to calculate the arms the Russians made available to the Communists at this time, and they totaled around 740,000 rifles, 18,000 machine guns, 800 aircraft, and 4,000 artillery pieces. This was roughly the same as the entire total that the Nationalist armies were able to seize from the Japanese inside China proper. The Soviet help took place, also, in the face of a massive air- and sea-lift of Nationalist troops to the north by the United States, which was anxious to prevent a Communist resurgence. Two divisions of U.S. Marines, totaling 53,000 men in all, were deployed on the north China coast by the end of September 1945, and in addition Japanese troops were left armed and in position at many points to prevent Communist takeovers.

Mao showed considerable personal courage, and a certain willingness to negotiate, by agreeing to accompany the American ambassador, Patrick Hurley, on a trip to Chongqing in late August, where he stayed until October. This must have been Mao’s first sight of Chiang Kai-shek since 1926 in Canton, on the eve of the northern expedition. The two men agreed to form a unified national army, though the date was left unspecified, and Mao agreed to pull any remaining Communist forces back from south China. The two sides also moved to reconvene the joint deliberative body known as the “Political Consultative Conference,” so as to discuss China’s long-range future.

But there was little substantive effort to halt the escalating hostilities, and in a special report issued in December 1945, Mao outlined a general strategy for the occupation of all of Manchuria except the south during the year 1946, though he noted it would be a “hard and bitter struggle.” He thought rural base areas should be established across Manchuria, though away from major cities and communications routes, to stop possible Guomindang attacks. Mass ideological work would take place as a fundamental part of increasing the Party’s basic military strength. Land reform should be moderate initially, to develop a wide basis of support—limited to “struggles to settle accounts with traitors,” and to some campaigns “for rent-reduction and wage increases.” The Communists must at all costs bring “tangible material benefits to the people in the northeast,” who otherwise might “be taken in for a time by deceitful Guomindang propaganda, and may even turn against our party.” But Mao was firm about keeping options open in the rest of China. When General George Marshall came to China to speed negotiations, on President Truman’s orders, and when the Political Consultative Conference did in fact meet that same year, Mao warned his comrades not to let their hatred of the Guomindang push them to reject all chance of peaceful settlement: that would be “narrow closed-doorism.”

Fighting became fierce in Manchuria after the Marshall peace talks broke down, and the Communists lost several areas they had controlled in the southern part of the region; but they held on firmly in the north and successfully carried out their program of setting up isolated base areas with mass support, pursuing moderate land reform, and strengthening their military units. In north China, however, land reform in the areas the Communists controlled became increasingly violent, with mass killings of landlords, total seizures of their land and property, and redistribution of land on an egalitarian basis to all peasants and their family members. This “extremism” was widely debated by the Party leaders, but not effectively checked. At the same time, any incidents that could be used among the Chinese as a whole to strengthen the negative perceptions of the Guomindang and their American helpers were skillfully followed up by the pro-Communist propaganda organs. The murder of one of China’s most celebrated poets, Wen Yiduo, a great writer and scholar, was one such example. During the war, Wen had lived in Kunming, at the associated university, and had been a vocal critic of Chiang Kai-shek. His assassination was nationally attributed to Guomindang secret agents, for Wen had just given a passionate speech on behalf of a friend of his—also murdered for political reasons—when he himself was gunned down. And in Beijing, the rape by two American servicemen of a Chinese student returning from a nighttime movie, and clumsy government attempts to cover up the incident, were exploited in newspapers and at huge student rallies, to underline the Communist cause. The raped woman was presented as representative of a victimized China, helpless in the arms of aggressive capitalist and imperialist forces.

Despite their difficulties in Manchuria, the Nationalist armies were able to surround and eventually capture Yan‘an in March 1947. This was a major symbolic victory, but no more than that, for most of the Communist forces, and all their major leaders still in the region, withdrew in good time and moved to new bases farther to the north. At this point, Mao was with Jiang Qing and their daughter, Li Na, and spent some of the time with his oldest son by Yang Kaihui, Mao Anying, now aged twenty-four, who had returned from the Soviet Union in 1946 and joined his father in Yan’an. Anying was courting a young woman he met in Yan‘an whose father had been killed by warlords, as Anying’s mother had been. They married in 1949. Mao’s second son, Anqing, returned home, too, but to Harbin, where he arrived in 1947. He Zizhen also returned in 1947, with her daughter, Li Min; she did not see Mao at this time, and later made her own way to Shanghai.

It was from his northern retreat in Shaanxi, in September 1947, that Mao issued what came to be seen as one of his most important pronouncements on military strategy. He wrote in the context of the struggle in China as it was being waged at that time, with the idea of tracing essential military principles. He had already decided, within a week of Hiroshima, that the atomic bomb was not the crucial factor in ending the war with Japan that some people held it to be, and in August 1946 he told an American journalist that he considered the atomic bomb a “paper tiger,” looking more terrible than in fact it was. In his September 1947 statement, Mao announced that the Communist armies were now ready to launch a “nationwide counteroffensive,” to seize the initiative away from the Guomindang by moving from the “interior lines” of warfare to the “exterior lines.” Each time they smashed their way into a former Guomindang area, the Communists would set up bases there, from which in turn they would launch new campaigns. Despite the need for such base areas, destroying the enemy and capturing their weapons always took precedence over “holding and seizing a place.” Mao’s maxims were simple but by this time were the fruit of long experience: “Be sure to fight no battle unprepared, fight no battle you are not sure of winning,” and fight relentlessly, giving the enemy no time to recoup. Use at once all the arms and at least 80 to 90 percent of all captured troops (though not their officers); take supplies from the Guomindang-dominated areas, not from older Communist base areas; carry out land reform in both old and newly liberated areas.

The strategy was astonishingly successful. By the following year Communist troops had totally routed the Guomindang armies in Manchuria and were ready to move south. As Guomindang military morale collapsed, accompanied by civilian revulsion with the financial chaos caused by rampant inflation, and the continued harsh repression of all dissent, the Communists consolidated their gains and advanced with incredible rapidity, entering Beijing in January 1949, Nanjing in April, Shanghai in May, and Changsha in August. With Canton encircled, though not yet captured, on October 1, 1949, Mao and the senior leaders of the Communist Party then in the region of Beijing climbed to a reviewing stand on the Great Tiananmen gate, at the south of the Forbidden City; there, in front of a small bank of microphones, as a few planes of the Chinese air force circled overhead, Mao announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China.

Within weeks, Mao was planning a visit to the Soviet Union so that he could confer in person with the man who in so many ways had been his inspiration but also almost his nemesis, Joseph Stalin. When Mao set off for Moscow in December 1949, the Communists had won, but China was in a catastrophic state. Many areas of the country had endured close to forty years of almost incessant fighting or military occupation of one kind or another—local warlords, Communist guerrillas, Guomindang suppression forces, Japanese occupying armies—and had no effective administrative structures. The economy was in a shambles, there was no stable or unified currency, inflation was out of control, and communications networks were in disarray, with rail tracks destroyed and rivers and harbors clogged with sunken ships. Millions of people had been displaced by the wars, and the Communists’ own armies were bloated by hundreds of thousands of Nationalist soldiers who had been admitted to their ranks with virtually no scrutiny. Schools and universities had decaying buildings, few books, and many ineffective teachers whose only qualification had been political loyalty to the Guomindang. The hunt for Japanese collaborators had soured personal relations, and the carpetbagging nature of the Guomindang reoccupation of the formerly Japanese-occupied cities had been accompanied by corruption, looting, reprisals, and theft of assets.

On the borders, the situation was little better. To the far west, in Xinjiang, the Muslim population had fought for many years to gain autonomy from China, and the local warlord had shifted erratically between overreliance on the Soviet Union and uneasy alliance with the Guomindang. Mao Zedong’s last surviving sibling, his younger brother Mao Zemin, had been executed there as part of these political machinations, in 1943. Mongolia had become an independent republic, but was totally dominated by the Soviet Union. Tibet had also achieved considerable levels of autonomy in the 1930s and 1940s—in his own youthful writings Mao had regularly called for autonomy and self-rule for Mongols, Tibetans, and Muslims—and the Chinese now had to decide whether to launch an invasion or allow Tibetan independence to grow, under the young and ambitious new Dalai Lama. The French were re-strengthening their colonial empire in Southeast Asia, and though both they and the British had been forced to give up their concession areas in Shanghai during 1943, the British had reasserted their control over Hong Kong in 1945—with Guomindang acquiescence—and once more ruled it as a colony. Taiwan had been chosen by Chiang Kai-shek as the temporary base for his administration and his armies, pending his planned return to the mainland. It was strongly defended, and it would take a massive air- and seaborne assault to bring it into the Communist camp.

From the Russian transcripts of the personal talks between Mao and Stalin, preserved in Moscow, we are able to see-free of any possible Chinese re-editing—how the two world leaders of the Communists related to each other. Stalin must have been an intensely formidable figure to Mao—he was a founding father of the Soviet Revolution, a former close associate of Lenin‘s, the builder of the autocratic central power and police apparatus of the Soviet Union, the guide and inspiration to his people in the terrible years of the German invasion, and the architect of postwar Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe. His voluminous historical and analytical works were required reading for all Communists and fellow travelers—Mao, among countless other Chinese, had studied them in Yan’an, and tried to come to grips with many of their arguments in an attempt to gauge their relevance to China. To Stalin, Mao was an unknown entity, tenacious but self-educated and undisciplined, a pursuer of political lines that often ran in direct opposition to stated Soviet policies. But Mao had won against great odds, and that certainly commanded respect, as did the fact that he was now in control of the world’s second-largest—and most populous—Communist state.

Their first meeting was on December 16, 1949. After opening pleasantries, Mao observed to Stalin that what China needed was “three to five years of peace,” so as to “bring the economy back to pre-war levels, and stabilize the country in general.” Given this priority for China, Mao ventured to ask the Soviet leader what he thought of the chances for the preservation of peace internationally. Stalin’s reply was bland and elliptical: China wanted peace, Japan was not ready for another war, the United States was “afraid” of further war, as were the Europeans. Thus no one would fight the Chinese, unless the North Korean Kim Il Sung decided to invade China.

On the question of the Sino-Soviet treaty of 1945, which Stalin had signed with Chiang Kai-shek, both Mao and Stalin reached tacit agreement: the treaty would be allowed to stand for now, so as not to give any grounds to the British and Americans for modifying any of their own agreements with the Soviet Union. But the Russians would withdraw their troops from Port Arthur when the Chinese wished, and also yield up control of the trans-Manchurian railways. On other practical matters, Mao requested Soviet credits of 300 million U.S. dollars, as well as help developing domestic air transport routes and developing a navy, to all of which Stalin agreed. But when Mao asked for Soviet help in conquering Taiwan—specifically, “volunteer pilots or secret military detachments”—Stalin stalled, offering “headquarters staff and instructors” instead, and suggesting that Mao send his own propaganda forces to Taiwan to foment an insurrection. On the question of Hong Kong, Stalin ingeniously and deviously suggested that Mao encourage conflicts between Guangdong province and the British colony, and then step forward as “mediator” to resolve them, thus presumably increasing his international status as a statesman. Foreign business enterprises in China and foreign-run schools, both men agreed, should be carefully monitored. China should speed up its extraction of rare minerals—Stalin specifically mentioned tungsten and molybdenum—and build oil pipelines. Mao again reiterated that he needed to know the long-range prospects for peace if he was to undertake such projects, since it was on the chances for peace that hinged such key decisions as whether to concentrate on developing China’s coastal industry, or to move the industrial development to sites inland.

The final part of their talk hinged on Maoist ideology, and suggests that Stalin was fully aware of the claims to be a theoretical leader that Mao had been steadily developing since 1937. Stalin broached the subject abruptly by asking for a list of Mao’s works that Mao felt should be translated into Russian. Mao, apparently unprepared for the question, stalled. “I am currently reviewing my works which were published in various local publishing houses,” he countered, for they “contain a mass of errors and misrepresentations. I plan to complete this review by spring of 1950.” Mao wanted Soviet help, he continued, not only with the Russian translation, but also “in editing the Chinese original.” Now it was Stalin’s turn to be surprised: “You need your works edited?” “Yes,” Mao replied. “It can be arranged,” responded Stalin, “if indeed there is such a need.”

At this December 1949 meeting, Mao was the only Chinese present except for his own interpreter, so he had only his wits to rely on. At the subsequent meeting with Stalin on January 22, 1950—the only other one Mao ever had—a small but high-powered Chinese delegation was with Mao, which included Zhou Enlai and Chen Boda, Mao’s ideological assistant from Yan‘an. Along with a stream of polemical and historical works, Chen had just published a book on Stalin’s contributions to the Chinese Revolution. Clearly his presence in Moscow was partly to reassure Mao about ideological matters if the going got difficult, but also perhaps to temper Mao’s exuberance and make sure that he did not go out on any limbs that might later upset his powerful colleagues back in China. In the presence of such a delegation, the discussion remained at a technical level, about details of aid, its nature, and the interest to be paid. The most frank exchange was over Tibet. Mao asked Stalin directly to continue the loan of a Soviet air regiment to China, which had already helped move more than 10,000 troops inside China; the regiment was needed, said Mao, to help transport provisions to the Chinese troops “currently preparing for an attack on Tibet.” “It’s good that you are preparing to attack. The Tibetans need to be subdued,” was Stalin’s reply, though he added that he would have to talk the matter over with his military experts.

While various negotiators stayed in Moscow to iron out the details of the “Sino-Soviet treaty of friendship,” Mao returned home to oversee the reconstruction of the country. In his blunt way, Stalin had told Mao directly that the Soviets assumed “the Chinese economy was practically in ruins.” Mao had not disagreed. In 1950, the Communist leaders confronted the immense task of planning a politically stable and economically viable regime. Among the tactics used were the crash-training of students and young Party members in the principles of land reform, and their dispatch across China to implement and oversee a program of land redistribution; the establishment of a countrywide government structure, subdivided by regions, each of which would be supervised by a combine of Party ideologues, civil bureaucrats, and military personnel; the development of a new group of ministries in Beijing, with their staffs, to oversee national defense and industrial development; the state supervision and reconstruction of the school and college system, along with a state-controlled system of newspapers, journals, and radio broadcasts to induce ideological consistency and obedience; a program of railroad repair and expansion; the initial planning for state ownership of the larger industrial plants, and the concomitant negotiations with their domestic or foreign owners; and the disarming of the civilian population and the hunting down of alleged “counterrevolutionaries.”

On other moral fronts the Party leadership moved with comparable energy: brothels were forced to register, prior to their phased closures, and the prostitutes were sent to special training schools for “reeducation”; drug addicts were also ordered to register with the state authorities and to undergo phased rehabilitation programs under state and family supervision, while opium poppy-growing was checked and distributors of drugs were imprisoned or executed. In terms of the preservation of the old China, Mao made one fateful decision. In late 1948, on the eve of the attack on Beijing, Communist artillery commanders had asked for—and obtained—lists of national treasures in the city, so that, if possible, they would not be destroyed by artillery fire. This seemed a good omen to preservationists and art historians, one of whom presented to the Communist leadership a master plan to create the world’s most beautiful system of parks, to run along the tops of the immense and beautiful systems of old walls that encircled the city of Beijing. These parks would be combined with the designation of old Beijing as an industry-free zone, the construction of a new industrial quarter farther out in the countryside, and the building of an entirely new administrative city to house the personnel of the swiftly growing Communist bureaucracy. Mao vetoed the plan, suggesting with a sweep of his arms across the old city that he would rather see it lined from end to end with smokestacks as a symbol of China’s economic rejuvenation. So, over the following years, with the single exception of the Forbidden City palace itself, Beijing’s entire system of magnificent walls and gates was destroyed to create ring roads for the city; industry grew rapidly within the city itself; and the area south of the Forbidden City—which remained, as it had been under the Republic, a museum for the people—was leveled to make a colossal square in which a million people could assemble for political rallies, and which was bordered by the huge block-like assembly halls and bureaus of the new government.

Mao, along with the other senior Communist Party leaders, moved into the old walled complex of buildings adjacent to the southwest corner of the Forbidden City, nestled around the ornamental South Lake and bordering on the North Lake park where he had courted Yang Kaihui thirty years before. In this sheltered and closely guarded area, known as Zhongnanhai, he and Jiang Qing made their home, establishing the first general semblance of a conventional family life that Mao had known since perhaps 1923. Here he had a chance to swim once again—a covered pool was soon built, so he could pursue his favorite form of exercise—and to read with his two daughters, Li Min and Li Na, who were enrolled at a nearby school. His elder son, Anying, was married and working in a Beijing machinery plant, though he and his wife had not yet had children. The younger son, Anqing, who had never been fully well since his dark days in Shanghai, was sometimes hospitalized for treatment, and had not yet married. Once a week, in the evening, there was dancing, to the nostalgic sounds of old Western fox-trots and waltzes, along with occasional film shows. Mao got his books together in one place and read widely.

With so many things of such importance to be done, it is almost inconceivable to imagine that Mao wanted the Korean War. He had specifically asked Stalin about the chances for long-range peace at their December 1949 meetings, and at the January meeting he urged Stalin to always have “consultation regarding international concerns” with China. In retrospect, we can see that Stalin lied to Mao, for Stalin was already secretly discussing the plans for an invasion of the South with North Korea’s leader, Kim Il Sung. And yet, we know that by March 1950 Mao was alerted to the possibility of a North Korean attack on the South, and that he told the North Korean ambassador in Beijing that he encouraged such an attack, and that the Chinese might even intervene to help North Korea. Mao’s estimate of the military situation was colored by his own experiences of people’s war, and the effectiveness of his lightly trained and equipped guerrilla peasant forces against the Japanese. Mao, who had already declared the atomic bomb a paper tiger, had at first told the Koreans that he was sure the Americans would not intervene. When they did so, in late June, right after the North Korean attack, Mao shared with many of the Communist commanders a sense that the Americans were not politically motivated and were too tightly bound by their military codes and regulations, so that “their tactics are dull and mechanical.” Americans were also “afraid of dying” and were over-reliant on firepower. By contrast, Chinese troops were tactically flexible and politically conscious, needed little equipment, “and are good at close combat, night battles, mountainous assaults, and bayonet charges.”

Although contingency plans were made to send in large numbers of Chinese troops under the guise of volunteers, all through the summer and fall the Chinese troops did not enter Korea. Mao was locked in an intense debate with his senior colleagues and military commanders over which was the best course to follow. His colleagues wanted guarantees of Soviet air support and supplies of Soviet vehicles, weapons, and ammunition; some of them also pointed out that the war would wipe out China’s economic reconstruction, and the Chinese people would grow disaffected. They also pointed to the gross disparities in industrial potential. The previous year China had produced 610,000 tons of iron and steel; the United States produced 87.7 million tons in the same period. Lin Biao, the victorious coordinating commander of the Manchurian campaigns two years before, pointed out that the narrow Korean peninsula was particularly bad ground for the Chinese to choose, since they had neither air- nor seapower. Mao’s argument that China had to intervene, to secure its own borders as well as to save its neighboring Communist ally, reinforced by his own optimism concerning the Chinese soldiers’ potential, finally triumphed over his advisers’ misgivings. After further delays—this time by Stalin, who agreed to use Soviet planes only to protect China’s coastal defenses, not in Korean combat, and who hesitated over the amount of supplies to be made available—the Chinese “volunteers” finally began to enter Korea on the night of October 19, under the command of the veteran Communist general Peng Dehuai, maintaining total radio silence, using no lights on their vehicles, and with advance units dressed in the uniforms of North Korean troops.

An early casualty of the war was Mao’s recently married oldest son, Mao Anying, age twenty-eight. Unlike most of the Chinese combat troops, he was indeed a “volunteer,” whose service in Korea Mao had agreed to. Anying had requested an infantry command position, but fearing for the young man’s safety, General Peng Dehaui assigned him to headquarters, as staff officer and Russian interpreter. Mao Anying’s position was hit by a U.S./U.N. incendiary bomb during an attack on November 24, 1950, and he was killed. At first no one dared to tell his father, and his body was buried in North Korea like any other Chinese casualty. When Mao was finally told of his son’s death by Peng Dehuai in person, he agreed to let the body remain in Korean soil, as an example of duty to the Chinese people. His two recorded public pronouncements on his loss were brief: “In war there must be sacrifice. Without sacrifice there will be no victory. There are no parents in the world who do not treasure their children.” And again, “We understand the hows and whys of these things. There are so many common folk whose children have shed their blood and were sacrificed for the sake of the revolution.”

For the whole early part of the war, while the fighting was heaviest, Mao followed the campaigns with meticulous attention, intervening countless times with his own orders or tactical suggestions. But at the same time, with his acute sense of effective propaganda, he saw the advantages of the war as a political rallying cry inside China itself. Aware for so many years of the intense emotional and political fervor that could be generated among workers, students, or peasants by skillfully orchestrated campaigns, Mao and the Chinese propaganda organs spread the word through massive “Aid Korea, Resist America” campaigns. The Chinese people were called upon to sacrifice more, to impose greater vigilance on themselves and their communities, to pledge themselves in deeper loyalty to the Communist Party. As the Korean War entered a protracted stalemate period that lasted until 1953, the domestic campaigns were extended to include all-out hunts for domestic counterrevolutionaries and foreign spies, and they began to target capitalists or corrupt bureaucrats. Mao himself, as instigator and manipulator of the war on Korean soil, slowly began to assume the same total roles in his supervision of the Chinese people. Though such campaigns were focused on individuals, they also had an abstracted quality, a certain tokenism and quota-meeting aspect that promised harmony for the majority if the correct percentage of victims could be found. In such an aura of fear, it was hard to keep one’s sense of moral balance. Mao was still surrounded by powerful, intelligent, and experienced revolutionary colleagues, but it was becoming ever harder for them to cut through the protective coating with which he was encasing his inner, visionary worlds.

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