Korean War from the Chinese Perspective - Cold War DOCUMENTARY

Korean War from the Chinese Perspective - Cold War DOCUMENTARY

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As we’ve talked about in the past, the Korean  War was actively fought from 1950 until 1953,   when an armistice ended the immediate fighting  but did not bring an official end to hostilities   between North and South Korea. The war has become  somewhat forgotten in the Western world today,   lost between the focus on the Second  World War and the American War in Vietnam.   While it is largely obscured by these  other conflicts, struggling to make an   impact in American popular memory, outside  perhaps of one of my favourite shows, MASH,   the same cannot be said about the war's legacy  in China. I’m your host David, and this week,   we are going to examine Chinese perspectives  on the Korean War. This is…The Cold War.

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feedback from your social media profiles  directly to your website! If you've been thinking   about creating a website for your personal  brand, resume, business, or just for fun--go   to squarespace.com/thecoldwar to start your  free trial and get 10% off your first purchase! So, while the war is often forgotten in the  West, this is not the case in the People’s   Republic of China, where the war continues to  serve as evidence of the effective leadership of   the PRC by the Chinese Communist Party, the CCP,  in the face of foreign aggression. For the CCP,   the Korean War has always performed an important  domestic function, uniting the Chinese people and   buttressing popular support for party rule. But,  popular narratives of the Korean War in China tend  

not to linger on things like Chairman Mao Zedong’s  ambivalence towards the conflict or when it began,   nor do they overly stress any sense of the  war as an example of socialist solidarity.   The focus is instead on China’s success in  standing up to the West, a final victorious   epilogue in the infamous “century of humiliation”:  the CCP’s term for the period Western domination   of China following the Chinese defeat  in the first Opium War of 1839-1842,   lasting until the Communist Revolution of 1949. Now keep in mind that domestic approaches   to the war also fit into a broader  postwar Chinese narrative of state-led   mass political movements. The most well-known of  these outside of China are the Great Leap Forward   which we have already covered on this  channel and the Cultural Revolution,   a mass movement called for, and ostensibly led  by, Chairman Mao himself to hunt down and root out   capitalist-roader saboteurs within the party. We  will be doing at least one episode on the Cultural  

Revolution and the years of volatile politics,  persecution, and infighting that came with it.   So, mass movements were really a staple of  the “Maoist Period” between 1949 and 1976,   in line with Mao’s vision of ongoing  revolution and widespread political   participation. In the immediate wake  of a successful communist revolution   and the need to solidify control of the country,  the Korean War provided the perfect backdrop   for a series of mass political movements aimed at  solidifying CCP political control of the country   and generating an expectation of widespread  enthusiasm for ongoing socialist revolution.  Keep in mind that the CCP already controlled a  complex and sophisticated propaganda machine by   the time the PRC was declared on 1 October 1949.  Party officials ran a unified propaganda system   that employed multiple approaches to promoting  the communist message, be it in written missives,   delivered orally at public events, or through  more visually arresting formats including the   theater and the propaganda posters particularly  famous during the Maoist era. These posters were  

everywhere in China in the decades following the  revolution and they dominated public spaces, full   of vivid color and often featured dramatic and  heroic figures as well as more relatable people,   like farmers or nurses but elevated to heroic  status. For Chinese, the Korean War at home   fit neatly into the Party’s wider propaganda  campaigns. It also played an important role in   accelerating and framing a series of political  campaigns that came to define the early 1950s.  OK. The 1949 revolution that brought the CCP to  power in Beijing marked an important moment in   the early years of the Cold War. The “loss” of  China, as it was described by many Americans,  

would prove an important motif in McCarthyism,  which itself featured heavily in American   narratives of the stakes in Asia and the  foreign policy needs of Domino Theory.   The world map now appeared to many Americans  to feature an ominously large splash of red   stretching from the eastern part of Europe all  the way to the Chinese coast. But while Mao’s   victory in 1949 was comprehensive, it wasn’t  complete. As the PRC was formally proclaimed,   Chiang Kai-shek’s forces were completing their  retreat to the island of Taiwan. Consolidating   Chinese territory was at the forefront of  Mao and his fellow communist leaders’ minds;   within months the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)  had turned to Tibet, completing its annexation   by May of 1951 and making similar progress in  the recovery of Taiwan was seen as a priority.  But first, Mao needed to go to  Moscow to meet with Josef Stalin.  

The visit was something of a tribute; despite  many Western assumptions to the contrary,   the CCP had not been a mere tool of the USSR,  nor had the Chinese communists benefitted from   unconditional support from their Soviet comrades.  Stalin had, if anything, been ambivalent about a   Chinese socialist revolution. Since 1945 he had  tacitly joined with the Americans in seeking to   brook a compromise that guaranteed the existing  balance of power between Mao’s communists and   Chiang’s nationalists. He had ensured Mao’s access  to Manchuria and other territories in the north   following the Japanese retreat, but only after  securing the most valuable material for the USSR.   And prior to the war itself, Mao had been unable  to consistently count on Stalin for support.  

Mao owed his own political rise to a  successful outmaneuvering of Soviet advisors,   and the long, hard years following the Long March  of 1934-1935 had left Mao more or less on his own.  The divergence of Stalin and Mao’s priorities  was not a unique situation in the post-war   communist world however. Kim Il Sung in  North Korea, had plans for advancement south,   past the 38th Parallel with the nominal support  of Moscow. Mao had his own priorities though,   chasing the Chinese Nationalists across Southern  China. This had left Liu Shaoqi, one of Mao’s most  

important lieutenants to negotiate directly  with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.   Stalin seemed willing to make many  concessions, and in particular   was clear that the Soviets were open to revising  or perhaps even rewriting entirely the Sino-Soviet   Treaty, once a communist regime was in place. Regarding foreign policy, however, Stalin proved   to be just as careful and as willing to prioritize  his own security concerns as he had ever been.   He was clear with Liu Shaoqi, directly telling him  that Soviet naval and air forces would under no   circumstances assist in a communist invasion of  Taiwan. Even as communist forces moved across  

the Yangzi river in the summer of 1949, marking a  crucial moment in the waning months of the civil   war, Stalin urged caution at potential American  military involvement. Reclaiming Taiwan was,   after all, a priority for Mao and his fellow  communists but certainly not for Stalin.  With Taiwan being so important, propaganda posters  stressed the need for national reconstruction   and the “recovery” of the island, considered the  final step in Chinese unification. Meanwhile,   Chiang’s government in Taiwan was cultivating an  even closer relationship with the United States,   even though President Truman and his Secretary  of State Dean Acheson were not enthusiastic about   Chiang’s plans to “liberate” the mainland by means  of a military invasion. Their support of Taiwan,   however, frustrated the CCP and fed their  own fears of continued Western interference   in Chinese affairs and of a potential encircling  of China by foreign powers . Naturally, these   fears concentrated on the United States. As you  can tell a lot of things were coming to a head. 

The 1949 revolution was unmistakably a communist  revolution and a major military, political and   ideological success for Chinese communism.  But it had also been an agrarian revolution,   fueled by the need to fix the horrendous  injustices in the Chinese countryside. It was also   an anti-imperialist revolution, a final righting  of the wrongs brought upon the Chinese people   by foreign imperialists. All of this was a major  component in the CCP’s political legitimacy. 

Then the Korean War happened. The initial  outbreak of war on the peninsula was met with a   somewhat muted response from the CCP in its public  propaganda efforts, being lumped in with the   ongoing campaign to recover Taiwan. But there was  a clear and emerging theme: the United States was   the enemy. And this wasn’t simple xenophobia. Mao  took his position very seriously as the leader of   a communist movement in the most populous country  in the world. His party had a long and complicated  

relationship with the United States. He and his  fellow communists had watched American films on   social evenings in the Yan’an years, and had been  open to negotiation with the Americans during   World War II, including assisting downed American  airmen. Now, he had responsibilities. The world   was divided into two camps and the capitalist  imperialists were bringing a war to his doorstep.  This position obviously ignored the reality  that Kim Il Sung was the initiator of the   war. But the idea of an American client state  in the south being little more than a fig leaf   for imperialist ambitions in Asia struck a chord  with many in China. It fit communist expectations   of capitalist aggression and it was a further  reminder of the evils of Western colonialism,   still very fresh in Chinese history. Mao’s visit to Moscow in the winter of 1949-1950  

reaped important dividends for the CCP.  Negotiations for a revision of the 1945   Sino-Soviet Treaty proved complex but by  the new year, the Soviets had come around   to the idea of signing an entirely new treaty  between the USSR and the PRC and as a result,   the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance,  and Mutual Assistance was signed by both parties   on 14 February 1950. Though respectful of Stalin’s  continued geopolitical concerns, the agreement was   a genuine compromise, in no small part influenced  by the reality that the two countries now shared   a common ideological mission. Events in Korea and  a potential invasion were not discussed in detail;   in effect the PRC agreed to follow plans worked  out between the Soviets and the North Koreans.   Mao was willing for China to play the role  of a supply zone for a potential invasion.   He also transferred PLA units based in  Manchuria, largely composed of ethnic Koreans,   to Kim Il Sung’s command. These troops ultimately  participated in the first assault south of the  

38th Parallel. Mao and CCP leaders were not  enthusiastic about Kim’s invasion but were   willing to put their own priorities aside for now  in the name of international communist solidarity.  Actual Chinese intervention proved a little  more tricky. Kim was the main driver of military  

action in Korea, with input from the Soviets and  relatively little if any consultation with Mao   and other Chinese communists. Mao was clear in his  identification of the United States as the enemy,   but this did not translate into eagerness  for war. In fact, as Kim’s invasion began,   Mao had just approved a demobilization plan for  the PLA. In the first few weeks of the conflict,  

apart from moving the 13th Army Group to the  Chinese-Korean border, Mao and his fellow   communist leaders didn’t do much of anything  in preparation for a military confrontation.  But as the summer of 1950 wore on, it became  clear that the Korean War was not going to   end in the swift and comprehensive victory  hoped for by the North Koreans. On August 4th,   Mao told the politburo that Chinese intervention  may be necessary after all, to prevent an American   victory. The US Air Force was establishing a  presence in Taiwan; American military advisors   were present in Indochina as war raged between Ho  Chi Minh’s communists and French colonial forces.   Of all the potential theaters of conflict  gathering on China’s borders, Mao felt Korea   presented the best option for Chinese success. Yet he still did not welcome war. Douglas  

MacArthur’s dramatic amphibious  landing at Inchon on 15 September,   did little to clarify the Chinese position. On one  hand Mao told Gao Gang, his top man in Manchuria,   to prepare for war. But on the other hand, he gave  his blessing for a communication from Zhou Enlai   to Kim Il Sung encouraging the Korean leader to  “follow the principles of self-reliance and waging   protracted warfare.” Reading between the lines,  Kim could not count on Chinese direct involvement.  Through all this the Chinese communist leadership  hoped that the American advance would stop at the   38th parallel. But as we know, MacArthur would  do no such thing. Having liberated Seoul on 28   September, the American General issued a demand  for unconditional surrender of the North Koreans   on 1 October 1950. The following day in a meeting  among CCP leadership, Mao made a preliminary  

decision to commit troops. Discussion continued  for days, with many of Mao’s inner circle unsure   about the wisdom of entering the war. Ultimately,  Mao pressed ahead. Chinese troops would enter the   war under the auspices of a Peoples Volunteer Army  (PVA), led by revolutionary war hero Peng Dehuai.   The final decision was approved on 14th of  October, and Chinese troops moved into Korea   on the evening of the 19 of October 1950. The Korean War formed an important part   of CCP propaganda for years, even after the war  itself had ended. Chinese heroes of the conflict   continued to appear in propaganda posters until as  late as the 1960s and even the 1970s. Qui Shaoyun,  

a soldier who burned to death in an attack in  October of 1952, appeared in a poster as late   as 1973 and again as late as 1992. The official  Chinese history of the war, published by the PLA   in 1989, stressed the “revolutionary heroism”  of Chinese soldiers amidst “soaring” morale and   indignation amongst the Chinese public towards “US  imperialists’ crimes.” As with so many aspects of   CCP propaganda policy from the Mao-era, the lines  between Party authority, Chinese sovereignty and   self-respect, and national security were blurred. As we mentioned earlier, the CCP had long since   proved their ability as skilled propagandists by  the spring of 1950. Since their founding in 1921,   the party had honed its ability to convey a  socialist message to various constituencies across   the country. In particular, they had overcome  internal debates to sell Chinese peasants on  

a vision of Chinese communism that placed the  much abused and long suffering rural Chinese   population at the center of a revolutionary  project focused on making China a fairer society   and enhancing the country’s ability to stand  up to foreign interference and exploitation.  The CCP understood that the successful delivery  of their message could be just as important as the   message itself. Their military victory by October  of 1949 could hardly have been more complete on   the Chinese mainland, but Mao remained concerned.  He was convinced the new state was vulnerable to   what he saw as foreign imperialist aggression.  Managing domestic opponents - “destroying the   bases of domestic reaction” as Mao  put it - and bringing them into line,   especially in the south of China, would be a  vital component in securing the PRC’s future. 

And this impulse wasn’t driven solely by  ideology. The PRC needed to control inflation,   restore or build its production capacity in  both the industrial and agricultural sector,   guarantee the personal safety of its people  against potential criminal interests…   they had won the war and now they  needed to build a country. However,   the solutions to these problems were conceived and  expressed within an intensely ideological context.   The revolution was indeed ongoing. Mao was  comfortable with the mantle of dictator,   but in a Leninist sense: he would be  singular in his focus in opposing the   “running dogs of imperialism” and “the landlord  class.” But everyone else would benefit.  Building popular support  was key. In the countryside,  

the Party succeeded in gathering support via a  thoroughly effective if often brutal land reform   project that changed the face of land ownership  across China. In the south of the country, roughly   40% of the available cultivated land was taken  away from landlords and given to the peasants.  Active participation by the public in ideological  and political questions at local levels   was deemed vital. The CCP had learned  throughout the 1920s and 30s that active   political participation by large numbers of people  was an essential part of their success. It had,   in fact, become a central part of Maoist thinking.  The “Mass Line” was central to Mao’s theory of not  

just how to unite the country but how  to secure a true communist revolution.  In Yan’an, the northwest province where Mao had  successfully crafted a band of desperate survivors   into a fully functioning political movement, the  infamous “Rectification Campaign” of 1942 saw   the party develop specific tactics for demanding  individual participation in political movements.   Social pressure, intimidation, and the use of  self-criticisms. These were fraught, often highly  

emotional confessions of ideological inadequacy  by party members written in detail and often   read out before their peers and helped create the  illusion of consensus deemed vital for CCP policy.  Now, I can hear some of you asking already  how this relates to the Korean War.   Well, as Kim Il Sung’s troops marched  southward, pushing South Korean forces   further and further back towards the coast,  the Korean War took shape in Chinese society   as a mass movement characterized by a fusion  of nationalist and communist activism.   This mass movement was seen an opportunity  for the CCP. The PRC was not yet a year old   and a lot of work still remained to be done to  gather public support for single party rule.  On 10 October 1950 the party launched a campaign  for the suppression of counter-revolutionaries,   titled “The Directive for Correcting the Rightest  Tendency in Suppressing Reactionary Activities”.  

It targeted suspected agents  of Chiang’s government-in-exile   and removed the old nationalist government  textbooks from schools. The same campaign   dubbed opponents to the ongoing Land Reform  movement as agents of “American imperialism”.   By May 1951 over 2.5 million “reactionaries”  had been arrested. 71,000 were executed.  This campaign was ostensibly focused on  domestic issues, in particular the need   to root out hidden saboteurs and agents. But the  broader context was by now one of clear emergency,   with American aggression in Korea at the  forefront. The “Great Movement to Resist  

America and Aid Korea” - the official title  of the propaganda campaign that was launched,   signaled an intensification of the increasingly  intensive, party-led mass political movements that   shaped domestic Chinese society as the war wore on  through the early 1950s. It was often explicitly   a fusion of domestic and foreign interests. For  example, the “Patriotic Hygiene” campaign of 1952   began with an allegation of American use of  biological warfare: specifically, the dropping   of hundreds of bubonic plague infected rodents  - voles, specifically - on the rather remote   Gannan county in the west of Heilongjiang  province, in the far northeast of China.  

Calls for solidarity in the face of such attacks  paired well with the actual goals of the campaign:   supporting national inoculation drives and  improving sanitary conditions across the country.  By the winter of 1951-52, with the Korean War  having settled into the stalemate that would   last the remainder of the conflict and beyond,  two of the most important mass movements of the   initial years of the PRC had begun . The first  was the Three Anti campaign, against corruption,   waste, and obstructionist bureaucracy launched  first in Manchuria under Gao Gang. The second   campaign was the Five Anti campaign, targeting  bribery, tax evasion, theft of state property,   cheating on government contracts, and stealing  state economic information. launched in January   1952 and very quickly became a reality in every  city in China. Both campaigns were focused on   establishing party control of the private  sector, using intense group pressure to draw   out confessions of mass corruption or disloyalty  to the country from Chinese business leaders. 

Keep in mind, all of this was connected. The  business sector, being so brutally, though   thankfully relatively bloodlessly, brought to  heel was also being stimulated by the needs   of a war economy, with companies in the north in  particular benefitting from PLA procurement needs.   All the mass movements of the 1950s occurred  against the backdrop of what the Party   consistently described as an American invasion of  a fellow socialist country on China’s doorstep. 

Chinese workers were encouraged to donate to the  war effort with workplaces displaying all manner   of pro-Korean and anti-US sentiment, from mass  produced propaganda posters to handwritten banners   hung above factory floors. The Party encouraged  public demonstrations that saw many Chinese   take to the street to denounce American  aggression. By the end of the Korean War in 1953,   Chinese public life was dominated by apparently  grass roots demonstrations in support of a host   of CCP policies. The party itself, and  the implementation of socialist policies,  

was now inseparable from celebrations of Chinese  solidarity and independence. The war had given an   important nationalist framework, and a foreign  enemy, to political movements designed to   consolidate the new government’s grip on power. Today, public memory of the war in China remains   characterized as an important Chinese victory  against a belligerent United States, who the CCP   continues to assert began the war unilaterally  as an act of aggression. This particular read  

on the facts of the war, in conjunction with a  drastic understatement of Chinese casualties,   means that war memory colors present-day  Chinese relationships with the United States,   even as the war remains somewhat  “forgotten” in the West. Xi Jinping,   speaking in 2010 only a few years  before assuming leadership of the CCP   and becoming president of China, stated at an  event commemorating the war’s sixtieth anniversary   that “imperialist invaders imposed  this war on the Chinese people.”  For the CCP, the Korean War continues  to serve specific domestic interests:   a public memory of the war that remembers it as  a fight the Chinese won against the Americans is   far more useful for Chinese leaders politically  than discussions getting into the complexities   of Chinese reluctance to get involved in the  first place. And though the PRC today is a very   different place, with public demonstrations of  support for international socialism and public   self-criticisms largely a thing of the past, the  memory of the Korean War continues to be bent and   shaped to serve domestic political needs, just  as the war itself was seventy years ago . The  

war Americans tend not to remember is a war the  Chinese government does not want people to forget.  We hope you’ve enjoyed today’s episode and to make  sure you don’t miss all of our future episodes,   please make sure you are subscribed to our channel  and have recognized the bell button, creating mass   public demonstrations in support of its triumphal  glory over that OTHER, imperialist Bell button. I   would like to take this opportunity to thank  Dr. John Harney for his work and dedication   to this episode! Please consider supporting  us on Patreon at www.patreon.com/thecoldwar or  

through YouTube membership. We can be reached  via email at thecoldwarchannel@gmail.com.   This is the Cold War Channel and as we think about  the Cold War, I will leave you with the words of   JFK “In the final analysis, our most basic common  link is that we all inhabit this small planet.   We all breathe the same air. We all cherish  our children's future. And we are all mortal.”

2022-05-03 07:17

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