Chinese Mirrors | The Nation


Chinese Mirrors

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This China where no one smiled was born in 1949, when the Communist revolutionaries led by Mao Zedong prevailed in the country's civil war over the forces of Chiang Kai-shek, who exiled themselves to the island of Taiwan. The panic of the cold war "Wise Men" we lionize today as the apogee of sound strategic wisdom--the enemies of the McCarthyite lunatics--was something to behold. "When a Chinese classical opera company came to Toronto," writes Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian professor and author of Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, "the American authorities announced that any American citizens who bought tickets were violating American law."

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Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of...

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The problem was not merely that China was Communist. Russia was Communist, but containment doctrine still allowed for contact with Moscow. By 1959 the iconic image of Soviet-American relations was Vice President Nixon visiting an American trade fair in Moscow, standing nose to nose with Khrushchev in polite if forceful dialogue over whose system would eventually win. No such "kitchen debate" in China. Instead, the iconic moment was at the 1954 Geneva Conference to settle the Indochinese War and the Korean War. Premier Zhou En-lai politely offered his hand to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Dulles rudely brushed past him.

The original rationale for this, James Peck demonstrates in his brilliant, forceful and awesomely researched study Washington's China: The National Security World, the Cold War, and the Origins of Globalism, was that Mao's government was, as Dean Rusk put it in 1951, "a colonial Russian government. It is not the Government of China. It does not pass the first test. It is not Chinese." To believe it, our Wise Men convinced themselves that these 500 million souls, and the party to which they submitted, had been lobotomized of China's very national character.

The defining political experience of the People's Republic's founders was the "century of humiliation," which stretched from the latter days of the Qing dynasty in the mid-1800s to the 1949 revolution. Zhou En-lai, child of a colonized mandarin class in its death throes, would never forget the shame of being sent, in 1907, to sell the family treasures to pawnbrokers; when a teacher "asked his students why they were studying," MacMillan relates, Zhou replied, "So that China can rise up." The uprising's turn to Marxism was fascinatingly complex: It was relentlessly future-oriented and neatly compatible with "Confucian values of order and harmony and of disdain for business," Lenin's simultaneous vision of anticolonial nationalism and world-conquering vanguardism and China's own "Middle Kingdom" chauvinism that led it easily to believe that it was the vanguard. But these complexities disappeared with a poof! in the reckoning of our Wise Men.

Writes Peck: "American officials never seriously entertained the possibility that Stalin might eventually have to deal with the Chinese communists as a partner or an ally or that China simply could not be dominated." Instead they searched high and low for regime elements that were "more Chi than Commie," as one cable put it. The Taiwan Chinese government, on the other hand--whom we bankrolled--was inherently not just "nationalist" but "free." Even as one diplomat recorded that "any critic is in dire danger of being arrested as a Communist and disappearing.... There is no such thing as a system of justice," a dissident diplomat across the Straight of Taiwan observed, "The most serious allegation of Russian interference I have heard is that they turned over large quantities of Japanese arms and munitions to the Communists when withdrawing from Manchuria."

The intelligence laundering was downright Bushian, and the rest of the world thought us mad. London said the primary appeal of Mao to the peasants was his land reforms, their primary methods were propaganda, inspired popular movements, and personal persuasion." Clement Attlee lectured Truman that "Chinese civilization is very old and it is accustomed to absorbing new things"; Truman was baffled. But then, he was relying on analysis that resembled a John Birch Society newsletter. "To date the Vietnam press and radio have not adopted an anti-American position," a State Department report noted, which suggested "a special dispensation for the Vietnamese government has been arranged in Moscow." The department was apparently unaware that Ho Chi Minh was then sending earnest and ignored telegrams to Truman pledging an independent Vietnam as "a fertile field for American capital and enterprise."

In this context the joint North Korean and Chinese invasion of South Korea was greeted as an opportunity: proof of "centrally directed Communist Imperialism," a State Department cable trumpeted. "With the war," Peck says, "the United States could undertake to isolate and thus contain China through a rapid and massive escalation of power in East Asia." Truman sent the Seventh Fleet to patrol the Taiwan Strait, since Taiwan was obviously next. But Eisenhower was recorded worrying at an NSC meeting the next year, "If Red China...should finally get out of North Korea, release our prisoners, and act decently, how in the world could the United States continue to avoid recognizing Communist China?"

Once more much of the rest of the world thought we were nuts. "Viewed through Asiatic eyes," observed one wise head, a midlevel bureaucrat who didn't prevail, "Formosa belongs to China." In the event of war, "we would find...practically all of the Asiatic countries siding with the Chinese Communists and indeed some of the Western European countries." Other countries also pointed out that China's incursion into Korea, while lawless, was better explained by Chinese history and normal sphere-of-influence politics than Moscow puppetry; and Acheson blew his stack: "While musical strains issuing from Peiping are Chinese, [the] organist is Russian." Why didn't the rest of the world understand?

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