Korean War from the Chinese Perspective - Cold War DOCUMENTARY
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.
My thanks to Squarespace for sponsoring today's video! Squarespace gives you a powerful online platform letting you create a beautiful website for seamless engagement with both customers and followers. Squarespace lets you connect with your audience and generate revenue through gated, members-only content. Leverage audience insights, send email communications, and manage your members, all through one easy to use platform! Build a community through your Squarespace website! It supports threaded comments, replies and likes and lets you use Squarespace’s powerful blogging tools to schedule and share posts. Squarespace even lets you display
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 email@example.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.”