China Chronicles: How and why did China seek rapprochement with the United States?

By Ryan Kilpatrick, May 18, 2015

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China Chronicles is when we have a look back at 5,000 years of Chinese history - and pick out something pertinent...

Last week, we learned that the upcoming film Mr. Deng Goes to Washington is set to make Deng Xiaoping the first Chinese leader to land on the sivler screen in cartoon form. The film depicts Deng's landmark 1979 tour to the United States, which signalled a successful end to the process of normalization between the two nations - a process that was over a decade in the making.

Although Sino-US rapprochment is oftne regarded to have begun with President Nixon's historic 1972 tour of the People's Republic and the  conclusion of the Shanghai Communique, however, gears had already been moving within China for years. Here's a look at some of the complex and lesser-known internal machinations within China that made detente both neccessary and possible...

In the late 1960s and early 70s, China was in the throes of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the most violent convulsions of which occurs in the years leading up to China's decision to seek rapprochement with the United States of America. From 1966-69, the People's Republic effectively had no foreign policy: most Chinese embassies abroad were closed or scaled down, as diplomats were summoned home to have their thoughts "purified."

Most nations continued to regard Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government in Taiwan as the sole legitimate government of the Chinese mainland, and China's seat in the United Nations belonged not to Beijing but to Taipei. Previously Communist China's staunchest ally, the Sino-Soviet split, made official by the recall of all Soviet technicians and advisers in 1960, engendered bitter resentment on both sides.

The Brezhnev Doctrine had justified the Soviet Union's 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by declaring that Moscow retained the right to intervene in the internal affairs of other Communist states deemed deviant from the socialist cause; soon, paranoia about a potentially nuclear Soviet onslaught seized the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

October 1969 was seen as a possible date for a Soviet nuclear strike, and in the middle of the month a million Chinese troops were mobilized and all senior leadership except for Zhou Enlai and top military commanders were evacuated from Beijing.

Their calculations were incorrect, but their paranoia was not completely unfounded: March 1969 saw the first in a series of skirmishes between Chinese and Soviet forces along the Ussuri River in the Xinjiang border region, and the Zhenbao Island incident in 1969 forced a readjustment of Chinese foreign policy.


Chinese troops ready to fight on Zhenbao Island

The Soviets had been lobbying Washington to undertake joint airborne strikes on Chinese nuclear facilities and had amassed 49 army divisions, comprising one million soldiers in total, along the border with China, as well as readying 150 warships in the Pacific border region. According to Henry Kissinger, the Soviets were contemplating a pre-emptive nuclear strike on China and had been lobbying for allies within their sphere of influence. At the same, India, with whom China had started a war in 1962, remained a dangerous enemy with whom they shared equally tense borders. As Beijing's stand off with Taipei persisted and Japan and Korea numbered amongst US allies, China perceived all her coastal borders were under threat.

Slowly, it began to dawn upon Mao how isolated China was in the international community. Like Czechoslovakia, China was without UN membership, and although 7 percent of China's GDP continued to fund foreign revolutionaries in spite poverty at home, this yielded no real success and only served to further antagonize other nations torn asunder by Maoist insurgencies. In 1965, Lin Biao declared that, just as rural revolutionaries had surrounded the strangled Chinese cities in 1948-9, so too must the Third World surround and strangle the superpowers and capitalist nations. Unsurprisingly, this garnered few alliances for the People's Republic and only further underlined China's diplomatic impotence.

Four marshals, led by Chen Yi, were asked by Zhou following the Ninth Party Congress to "pay attention to" China's foreign policy decisions, and they came to the conclusion that China had to emerge from this straightjacket that they had found themselves in. Although they concluded that the Soviet Union was unlikely to launch a full-scale war on China, they suggested that the "American card" be played to guarantee China's security. They argued in their "Preliminary Estimate of the War Situation" that the contradictions between China and the Soviet Union were more serious than those between China and the United States, and that those between the United States and the Soviet Union were more serious than those between the Soviet Union and China, rendering an anti-Chinese war unnecessary.

By 1970, however, Mao was deeply worried about the Soviet build-up along the border; technicians at Daqing the Ministry of Petroleum Industries lobbied actively for an end to China's rejection of more advanced Western technology.

Mao had launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, seizing upon the momentum of the radical Red Guard movement that had erupted on the campuses of Beijing's universities, redirecting their violent fanaticism to target and eliminate his opponents within the party and indulge his utopian fantasies. As the People's Daily put it, "whoever dares to oppose [Mao] shall be hunted down and obliterated."

Lin Biao had replaced Marshal Peng Dehuai as the Minister of National Defence in 1959, after Peng's dismissal for having criticised Mao's catastrophic Great Leap Forward and the cult of personality that was growing around the leader. Lin positioned himself as an ardent devotee of Mao's, compiling and disturbing what became known as the "Little Red Book" throughout the PLA ranks, and his obsequiousness paid off at the Ninth Party Congress in 1969, when he was officially crowned Mao's second-in-command and designated successor.

Lin's ascendancy was coterminous with the fall of Mao's erstwhile number-two Liu Shaoqi. Liu had succeeded Mao as head of state in 1959, but Mao, suspicious that Liu sought to undermine radicalism and take the "capitalist road," retook the reins of the party and demoted him in 1966. Red Guards attacked and humiliated him and his wife, and three years later he died naked and alone, refused medical treatment in an anonymous provincial prison.

Lin Biao

Mao Zedong and Lin Biao with his Little Red Book

At the same time as he was meekly and reverently praising the Great Helmsman, Lin was extending his power beyond the army, into China's internal security apparatus and cultural bureaucracy. He began to shift the PLA further left, taking the extreme measure of abolishing all rank and insignia. As the Red Guards veered dangerously out of control, Mao ordered the military to intervene and restore order.

Mao's strategy of using the PLA to destroy opposition within the party catapulted Lin Biao to power, and when Mao had to call in the army to prevent all-out civil war between Red Guard factions in 1967 Lin and his supporters filled the power vacuum left by the decimation of party organs at various levels. The empty positions left by purged cadres were quickly filled by regional military bosses; by 1970, 23 or the 29 provinces were under military chairmen.

Lin Biao, like Jiang Qing and other "political careerists," took advantage of Mao's delusional theories to advance their own interests and expand their power bases. Lin Biao made preparing for war the primary role of the state, and through the perception of threat the PLA was firmly in the driving seat of China's foreign policy. Therefore, only by neutralising the Soviet through opening up to United States could the role of the PLA and Lin's dominance be.

As Mao grew suspicious of an increasingly assertive Lin, he attacked his supporters and Lin soon found himself with too few allies to manoeuvre himself into office. Now desperate, Lin plotted to assassinate Mao and attempt a coup d'etat with the support of Moscow. When he was exposed by his own daughter, however, he fled to the Soviet Union in a military aircraft; in circumstances that still have not been fully explained, the plane crashed down in Mongolia, killing all on board.

That was 1971, just months before Nixon's visit. In conversation with Nixon, Mao would elude to certain elements within the party who disapproved of rapprochement, but ultimately met with an untimely end. Few foreigners knew the details of China's internal power struggles, but the reference was obvious. Lin Biao and Jiang Qing, the vanguard of China's ultra-left faction, had long opposed any overtures to America, arguing instead for rapprochement with Moscow or complete self-reliance.

The PRC had previously accused the Soviet Union of abandoning communism due to the country's willingness to seek détente with the US, citing Lenin's call for a state of unfailing hostility to the forces of imperialism. Mao's decision to open to the US made nonsense of his own ideological hyperbole a few years previous. It was the victory of national interest over ideology.

In his keynote speech at the Ninth Party Congress, Mao singled out both the US and Soviet Union as imperialist enemies, and in the same year a protest letter was sent to American diplomats referring to Nixon and his predecessor as "jackals" and called any serious Sino-US negotiations "a betrayal of Vietnam." Soon thereafter, he would issue a directive to communist newspapers in Hong Kong to the effect that no contact whatsoever was to be made with the Americans. When he heard that Zhou had invited Nixon to China, he is said to have replied, "if Zhou can invite Nixon, then I can invite Brezhnev." Most of Lin's generals, too, preferred to lean towards their former mentors in Moscow.

Nixon in China

A bemused Richard Nixon dines with Zhou Enlai

What allowed the rapprochement to go ahead was Lin's downfall and Zhou's resumption of authority. As his power increased, Lin Biao and the PLA became the driving force behind China's fledgling foreign policy. They declared war on the Ministry of Foreign affairs and Chen Yi, then Foreign Minister, a moderate, and ally of Zhou Enlai.

Lin and Jiang Qing lent their support and assistance to rioters who tried to kidnap Chen and facilitated the 1967 siege of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Yao Dengshan, a diplomat who had recently been expelled from Jakarta and welcomed home as a national hero by Mao and Jiang. Yao overran the Ministry with 300 Red Guards and became the de-facto Foreign Minister for 16 days, in which time the British Embassy was sacked by Red Guards –the lives of British diplomats saved only the troops ordered in by Zhou – and a march on Hong Kong was threatened.

With characteristic realism, Zhou said that Hong Kong must remain capitalistic because it earned half of the mainland's foreign exchange. Zhou was a seasoned United Front politician with skills in diplomacy that earned him praise from around the world, whereas Lin personified the anarchic zeitgeist of the Cultural Revolution – "all struggle and no alliance." Only Lin's disappearance brought Zhou back to a dominant position in the government, and allowed the necessary critical breakthroughs to take place to ensure reconciliation. It was, at heart, "the triumph of pragmatism over revolutionary ideology."

// For more China Chronicles, click here

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