Paradoxically (and for too long incomprehensibly, given Indonesia’s problems), American support for Sukarno had reflected the belief that strong, prosperous national states were the best bulwarks against communism. The history of eastern and south-eastern Asia in the last forty years can indeed be read so as to offer support for that principle, but it had always to be applied specifically in difficult and complex contexts. In any case, by i960, the dominant strategic fact east of Singapore was the re-creation of Chinese power. South Korea and Japan had successfully resisted communism, but they too benefited from the Chinese Revolution; it gave them leverage against the West. Just as East Asians had always held off Europeans more successfully than the Indian Ocean countries, they showed after 1947 an ability to buttress their independence in both communist and non-communist forms, and not to succumb to direct Chinese manipulation. Some have linked this to the deep and many-faceted conservatism of societies that had for centuries drawn on Chinese example. In their disciplined, complex social networks, capacity for constructive social effort, disregard for the individual, respect for authority and hierarchy, and deep selfawareness as members of civilizations and cultures proudly distinct from the West, the East Asians drew on more than the triumph of the Chinese Revolution; indeed, that revolution is only comprehensible against a background dominated by something itself immensely varied in its expressions and far from adequately summed up by the cant phrase ‘Asian values’.

With the Chinese Revolution’s victory and installation in power in 1949, nonetheless, Peking was once more the capital of a formally reunited China. Some thought this showed that her leaders might again be more aware of pressure from the land frontiers in the north than of the threat from the sea that had faced her for more than a century. However this may be, the Soviet Union was the first state to recognize the new People’s Republic (whose capital was soon officially termed Beijing), closely followed by the United Kingdom, India and Burma. Given Cold War preoccupations elsewhere and the circumstances of the nationalist collapse, the new China in fact faced no conceivable threat from the outside. Her rulers could concentrate on the long overdue and immensely difficult task of modernization; the nationalists, cooped up in Taiwan, could be disregarded even if for the moment they were under American protection and irremovable. When a major threat appeared, as the United Nations forces approached the Yalu river frontier of Manchuria in 1950, the Chinese reaction was strong and immediate: they sent a large army to Korea. But the main preoccupation of China’s new rulers was the internal state of the country. Poverty was universal. Disease and malnutrition were widespread. Material and physical construction and reconstruction were overdue, population pressure on land was as serious as ever, and the moral and ideological void presented by the collapse of the ancien regime over the preceding century had to be filled.

The peasants were the starting point. Here 1949 is not a very significant date. Since the 1920s land reform had been carried out largely by the peasants themselves in areas the communists dominated. By 1956 China’s farms were collectivized in a social transformation of the villages that was said to give control of the new units to their inhabitants, but actually handed them over to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The overthrow of local village leaders and landlords was often brutal; they must have made up a large number of the 800,000 Chinese later reported by Mao to have been ‘liquidated’ in the first five years of the People’s Republic. Meanwhile, industrialization was also pressed forward, with Soviet help, the only source from which China could draw. The model chosen, too, was the Soviet one: a Five-Year Plan was announced and launched in 1953 and opened a brief period during which Stalinist ideas dominated Chinese economic management.

The new China was soon a major international influence. Yet her real independence was long masked by the superficial unity of the communist bloc and its continued exclusion from UNO at the insistence of the United States. A Sino-Soviet treaty in 1950 was interpreted - especially in the United States - as further evidence that China was entering the Cold War. Certainly, the regime was communist and talked revolution and anti-colonialism, and its choices were bound to be confined by the parameters of the Cold War. Yet in a longer perspective more traditional concerns now seem evident in Chinese communist policy from the start. At a very early point, there was visible a primary concern to re-establish Chinese power within the area it had always tended to fill up in past centuries.

The security of Manchuria is by itself enough to explain Chinese military intervention in Korea, but that peninsula had also long been an area of dispute between imperial China and Japan. A Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1951 was another incursion into an area that had for centuries been under Chinese suzerainty. But from the start the most vociferous demand made for regaining control of the Chinese periphery was for the eviction of the KMT (Kuo-Min Ta-Hui) government from Taiwan, seized in 1895 by the Japanese and only briefly restored in 1945 to control by the mainland. By 1955, the United States government was so deeply committed to the support of the KMT regime there that the president announced that the United States would protect not merely the island itself but also the smaller islands near the Chinese coast thought essential to its defence. About this issue and against a psychological background provided by a sense of inexplicable rebuff from a China long patronized by American philanthropy and missionary effort, the views of Americans on Chinese affairs tended to crystallize for over a decade so obsessively that the KMT tail seemed at times to wag the American dog. Conversely, during the 1950s, both India and the USSR supported Beijing over Taiwan, insisting that the matter was one of Chinese internal affairs; it cost them nothing to do so. Sensation was therefore all the greater when China was known to be in armed struggle with both countries.

The quarrel with India grew out of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. When the Chinese further tightened their grasp on that country in 1959, Indian policy still seemed basically sympathetic to China. An attempt by Tibetan exiles to set up a government on Indian soil was stifled. But territorial disputes had already begun and had led to clashes. The Chinese announced that they did not recognize a border with India along lines drawn by a British-Tibetan negotiator in 1914 and never formally accepted by any Chinese government. Forty odd years’ usage was hardly significant in China’s millennial historical memory. As a result, there was much heavier fighting in the autumn of 1962 when Nehru demanded a Chinese withdrawal from the disputed zone. The Indians did badly, though fighting ceased at the end of the year on the initiative of the Chinese.

Almost at once, early in 1963, a startled world suddenly heard the Soviet Union bitterly denounced by the Chinese communists, who alleged it had helped India, and had, in a hostile gesture, cut off economic and military aid to China three years earlier. The second charge suggested complex origins to this quarrel, and by no means went to the root of the matter. There were Chinese communists (Mao among them) who remembered all too well what had happened when Chinese interests had been subordinated to the international interest of communism, as interpreted by Moscow, in the 1920s. Since that time there had always been a tension in the leadership of the Chinese party between Soviet and native forces. Mao himself represented the latter. Unfortunately, such subtleties were difficult to disentangle because Chinese resentment of Soviet policy had to be presented to the rest of the world in Marxist jargon. Since the new Soviet leadership was engaged at the time in dismantling the Stalin myth, this almost accidentally led the Chinese to sound more Stalinist than Stalin in their public pronouncements, even when they were pursuing non-Stalinist policies.

In 1963, non-Chinese observers should also have recalled an even more remote past. Long before the foundation of the CCP, the Chinese Revolution had been a movement of national regeneration. One of its primary aims had been the recovery from the foreigners of China’s control over her own destiny. Among these foreigners, the Russians were pre-eminent. Their record of encroachment upon the Chinese sphere went back to Peter the Great and had continued all through the Tsarist to the Soviet era. A protectorate over Tannu Tuva had been established in 1914 by the Tsars, but the area was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944. In 1945 Soviet armies had entered Manchuria and north China and thus reconstituted the Tsarist Far East of 1900; they remained in Sinkiang until 1949, and in Port Arthur until 1955. In Mongolia they left behind a satellite Mongolian People’s Republic set up in the 1920s. With something like 4000 miles of shared frontier (if Mongolia is included), the potential for friction along its huge length was immense. The Soviet authorities complained of 5000 Chinese border violations in i960. An area about one-fifth of the size of Canada was formally in dispute, and by 1969 (a year in which there was much fighting and scores were killed) the Chinese were talking of a ‘fascist’ dictatorship in Moscow and ostentatiously making preparation for war. The Sino-Soviet quarrel that came in the end to entangle the whole communist world was inflamed by Russian tactlessness, too. Soviet leaders seem to have been as careless as any western imperialists of the feelings of Asian allies: One Soviet leader once revealingly remarked that, when touring in China, he and other Russians ‘used to laugh at their primitive forms of organization’. The withdrawal of Soviet economic and technical help in 1960 had been a grave affront and one all the more wounding because of the moment at which it came, when China faced the first major domestic crisis of the new regime, in what were officially described as ‘natural disasters’ caused by flooding.

Mao Tse-tung’s personal experience must have counted for much in making this crisis. Although his main intellectual formation had been Marxist and although he found its categories helpful in explaining his country’s predicament, he appears always to have diluted them with pragmatism. Mao was a ruthless power-seeker; his judgement of political possibilities appears to have faltered only in the years of success, when megalomania, vanity and eventually age took their toll. Even as a young man, he had advocated a Sinicized Marxism, rejecting Soviet dogma that had cost the CCP dear. The basis of Mao’s world view seems to have been a vision of society and politics as an arena of contending forces in which human willpower and brute force could be deployed to bring about morally desirable and creative change - defined, of course, by an allknowing leader. His relations with his party had not always been untroubled, but his policy towards the peasantry provided a way ahead for it after disaster had overtaken urban communism. After a temporary setback in the early 1930s he was from about 1935 virtually supreme within the party. Rural influences predominated. A new way also seemed to be open for Mao to sway international events; the notion of a protracted revolutionary war, waged from the countryside and carried into the towns, looked promising in other parts of the world where orthodox Marxist belief that industrial development was needed to create a revolutionary proletariat did not look persuasive.

After benefiting from the violent expropriations and the release of energy that marked the early 1950s, rural China had in fact been subjected in 1955 to a new upheaval. Hundreds of millions of country-dwellers were reorganized into ‘communes’, whose aim was the collectivization of agriculture. Private property was swallowed in them, new goals were set centrally for production and new agricultural methods were imposed. Some of the new methods did positive damage (campaigns for the extermination of birds that fed on crops, for example, released population explosions of insect predators, which the birds had kept in check), others merely stimulated inefficiency. The cadres that ran the communes became more and more concerned with window-dressing to show that targets had been achieved than with food production. The outcome was disastrous; production fell catastrophically. When in 1958, a new surge of endeavour, the ‘Great Leap Forward’, was proclaimed and an intensification of pressure on the communes followed, matters further worsened. By i960, large areas were experiencing famine or near-famine conditions. The facts were suppressed; they were not known even to many of the ruling elite. Meanwhile, some estimates now say, as many as forty million Chinese may have died in a few years. Mao stubbornly refused to acknowledge the failure of the Great Leap Forward, with which he was closely and personally identified, and a hunt for scapegoats commenced within the party. In 1961, senior officials began, nonetheless, to gather irrefutable evidence of what had occurred. Mao’s standing suffered as his rivals slowly put the economy back on the road to modernization without letting the true facts emerge.

In 1964, a striking symbol of one kind of success was the explosion of a Chinese nuclear weapon. Thus China acquired the expensive admission card to a very exclusive club. The ultimate basis of her international influence, nonetheless, was bound to be her huge population. Even after the setbacks of the famine, it continued to rise. Five hundred and ninety million has been thought a reasonable estimate for 1950; twenty-five years later, it was 835 million. Although China’s share of world population may have been higher at certain points in the past - perhaps she contained nearly 40 per cent of mankind on the eve of the Taiping rebellion - she was in the 1960s stronger than ever before. Her leaders talked as if they were unmoved even by the possibility of nuclear war; the Chinese would survive in greater numbers than the peoples of other countries. There were signs that the presence of such a demographic mass on the border of her most thinly populated regions alarmed the USSR.

Some of those in the outside world who felt positively unfriendly to the communist regime were heartened by such information, as they had been in the early 1960s about the true state of affairs (Chiang K’ai-shek is said to have wished to have launched an invasion from Taiwan but to have been restrained by the Americans), but the damage was for the most part successfully concealed by censorship and propaganda. Soon, too, Mao began again to seek to regain his ascendancy. He was obsessed with the wish to justify the Great Leap Forward and to punish those whom he saw as having thwarted it, and thus to have betrayed him. One weapon he deployed against them was the uneasiness of many communists over events in the USSR since Stalin’s death. A loosening of the iron grip of dictatorship there, modest though it was, seemed to have opened the door to corruption and compromise in bureaucracy and party alike. The fear that something similar might happen if discipline were relaxed in China helped Mao to promote the ‘Cultural Revolution’, which tore asunder country and party between 1966 and 1969. Millions were killed, imprisoned, deprived of their jobs or purged. The cult of Mao and his personal prestige were revitalized and reasserted; senior party members, bureaucrats and intellectuals were harried; universities were closed and physical labour was demanded of all citizens in order to change traditional attitudes. The young were the main instruments of persecution. The country was turned upside down by ‘Red Guards’, who terrorized their seniors in every walk of life. Opportunists struggled to join them before themselves being destroyed by the young. At last even Mao himself began to show signs that he thought things had gone too far. New party cadres were installed and a congress confirmed his leadership, but he had again failed. The army in the end restored order, often at the cost, this time, of the students.

Yet the Red Guards’ enthusiasm had been real, and the ostentatious moral preoccupations that surfaced in this still in some ways mysterious episode remain striking. Mao’s motives in launching it were no doubt mixed. Besides seeking vengeance on those who had brought about the abandonment of the Great Leap Forward, he appears really to have felt a danger that the Revolution might congeal and lose the moral elan that had carried it so far. In seeking to protect it, old ideas had to go. Society, government and economy were enmeshed and integrated with one another in China as nowhere else. The traditional prestige of intellectuals and scholars still embodied the old order, just as the examination system had done as the century began. The ‘demotion’ and demonization of intellectuals was urged as a necessary consequence of making a new China. Similarly, attacks on family authority were not merely attempts by a suspicious regime to encourage informers and disloyalty, but attempts to modernize the most conservative of all Chinese institutions. The emancipation of women and propaganda to discourage early marriage had dimensions going beyond ‘progressive’ feminist ideas or population control; they were an assault on the past such as no other revolution had ever made, for in China the past meant a role for women far inferior to anything to be found in pre-revolutionary America, France or even Russia. The attacks on party leaders, which accused them of flirtation with Confucian ideas, were much more than jibes; they could not have been paralleled in the West, where for centuries there was no past so solidly entrenched to reject. In that light, the Cultural Revolution, too, could be regarded as an exercise in modernization politics.

Yet rejection of the past is only half the story. More than two thousand years of a continuity stretching back to the Ch’in and perhaps further also shaped the Chinese Revolution. One clue is the role of authority in it. For all its cost and cruelty, that revolution was a heroic endeavour, matched in scale only by such gigantic upheavals as the spread of Islam, or Europe’s assault on the world in early modern times. Yet it was different from those upheavals because it was at least in intention centrally controlled and directed. It is a paradox of the Chinese Revolution that it has rested on popular fervour, but is unimaginable without conscious direction from a state inheriting all the mysterious prestige of the traditional bearers of the Mandate of Heaven. Chinese tradition respects authority and gives it a moral endorsement that has long been hard to find in the West. No more than any other great state could China shake off its history, and as a result communist government sometimes had a paradoxically conservative appearance. No great nation had for so long driven home to its peoples the lessons that the individual matters less than the collective whole, that authority could rightfully command the services of millions at any cost to themselves in order to carry out great works for the good of the state, that authority is unquestionable so long as it is exercised for the common good. The notion of opposition is distasteful to the Chinese because it suggests social disruption; that implies the rejection of the kind of revolution involved in the adoption of western individualism, though not of Chinese individualism or collective radicalism.


The regime over which Mao presided benefited from the Chinese past as well as destroying it, because his role was easily comprehensible within its idea of authority. He was presented as a ruler-sage, as much a teacher as a politician in a country that has always respected teachers; western commentators were amused by the status given to his thoughts by the omnipresence of the Little Red Book (but forgot the Bibliolatry of many European Protestants). Mao was spokesman of a moral doctrine which was presented as the core of society, just as Confucianism had been. There was also something traditional in Mao’s artistic interests; he was admired by the people as a poet and his poems won the respect of qualified judges. In China, power has always been sanctioned by the notion that the ruler did good things for his people and sustained accepted values. Mao’s actions could be read in such a way.

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