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date: 21 February 2019

China and the Cold War

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the role of China in the Cold War. It describes the origins of Cold War in China and the participation of nationalist China in World War 2 and the Cold War, and suggests that China played a pivotal role as the third (albeit shorter) leg of a cold war tripod. The chapter contends that the Cold War era in China is inseparable from the political supremacy Mao Zedong, and highlights the impact of the split between China and the Soviet Union on the role of China in the Cold War. It also argues that the 1972 Sino-United States rapprochement contributed to the fading of China from the Cold War narrative.

Keywords: Cold War, China, political supremacy, Mao Zedong, Soviet Union, rapprochement

The cold war era in China is inseparable from the political supremacy of one man: Mao Zedong. “Mao's China” and “Cold War China” are interchangeable terms in the minds of many, and the chairman's long tenure in power from 1949 to 1976 had a major influence on the progression of the cold war in Asia and beyond.

Nevertheless, understanding Mao's role is not sufficient to understand the cold war's effect on China. After all, the cold war lasted for over a decade following Mao's death. No less crucially, during the critical period between the end of World War II and the triumph of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949, real political alternatives for China were in conflict with one another. Just as 1945–50 was a turning point in the European cold war, so it was in China. And just as in Europe, China inherited the massive displacements of World War II.

China played a pivotal role as the third (albeit shorter) leg of a cold war tripod. If this suggests a certain unsteadiness, that is not inappropriate. The cold war was also the era of decolonization, and China managed to maintain a simultaneous narrative about itself that was highly convincing to many emerging non-Western states. It used the Bandung Conference in 1955 to argue that it was a new, cooperative force in what would become known as the Third World. However, it also proclaimed itself the savior of the revolutionary world, spearheading anti-imperialist liberation. In saying this, it contrasted itself implicitly, then after 1960, explicitly, with the Soviet Union.

The origins of cold war China: Nationalist China in world war and cold war

When the People's Republic of China (PRC) was officially declared on October 1, 1949, it was the child of a vicious civil war between the CCP and its predecessor, the Nationalists (p. 125) (Guomindang) under Chiang Kai-shek. That war was, in turn, the immediate successor to a devastating world war. In 1945 Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader, emerged victorious against the Japanese, although his victory was a pyrrhic one; the capacity of his state had been deeply compromised. The areas of communist control in China during the war had expanded rapidly, with some 100 million (of the total of 900 million) in broadly CCP-dominated areas by August 1945.

The war against Japan transformed China's future. In the 1920s and 1930s it had been riven by militarist violence. Although nominally united under the Nationalist government established by Chiang Kai-shek in 1928, China suffered from poverty, political corruption, human rights abuses, and repeated outbreaks of civil war. Nonetheless, the country progressed, with new railways, roads, and telecommunications established and international assistance from the League of Nations used to develop flood prevention and new crop varieties. By 1936 the CCP was on the run: the “Long March,” which became part of the party's foundational myth, was actually a retreat by a party that had been shattered by Nationalist attacks.

The outbreak of war between China and Japan in the summer of 1937 destroyed the fitful modernization of the previous decade. The Nationalist government was forced to retreat to the inland city of Chongqing, while the Japanese occupied most of China's eastern heartland. In the north and east communist control expanded. The Nationalist government nearly collapsed under the strains of the war. By 1945 it was beset by corruption, and its military was profoundly dysfunctional. This breakdown resulted largely from four years of fighting almost alone against Japan, the difficulties of running a government under constant aerial bombardment, dealing with refugee displacement running into millions of people, and being forced into a geographical isolation from the sea. By 1945 the Nationalists were exhausted.1

After 1945 mediators, including the American General George C. Marshall, attempted to broker a coalition government between the Nationalists and Communists. Marshall abandoned his effort when it became clear that neither side was willing to compromise. The civil war erupted in 1946 and raged until 1949.2 It became a deadly ideological conflict. Yet much of Chiang's motivation was similar to the underpinnings of foreign policy under the CCP after 1949. In particular, Chiang's actions portended a cold war phenomenon: decolonization and nation-building among non-European peoples. It was the Nationalists, not the Communists, who negotiated an end to the hated “unequal treaties” with the European imperial powers in the late 19th century. As a result, China emerged from war in 1945 as truly sovereign for the first time since the end of the Opium War in 1842. In addition, Nationalist China had been designated one of the “Four Policemen” by Franklin D. Roosevelt and given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The Nationalists and the CCP used significantly different methods in their relationship with the international community, but their aims were not that different, particularly on the question of territorial integrity and sovereignty.

The civil war took place in the middle of a rapidly changing global situation as the cold war took shape. Until 1948 the US and USSR predicated their policies for Asia on the idea that China would be united under the Nationalists. This would have generated a US-oriented East Asia, as Chiang's government would have oriented itself toward the (p. 126) US, and Japan would also have been an American satellite. Stalin was initially complicit with this assumption, and his relations with the CCP waxed hot and cold as he sought to calculate what side was more likely to win the civil war. Nonetheless, the hardening of the global cold war forced Chiang to choose sides; Stalin would not let him accept support from both the US and the USSR. Chiang chose the US as the lesser of two evils.3

The CCP never forgot the way that Stalin had toyed with its loyalty. Their victory, largely a consequence of the collapse of the Nationalist administration, was not long in coming. Chiang's government was too compromised by its own flaws, which had been seriously aggravated by the experience of the war against Japan. Rebuilding state capacity when so much of the country had been destroyed would have been hard enough, but to engage in a major civil war almost immediately afterward was too much. Combined with human rights abuses, corruption, and an unwillingness to compromise on the control of political power, the Nationalists’ brief experiment in sovereign government came to an end with the communist victory in autumn 1949.

Communist victory and the cold war

On October 1, 1949 the chairman of the CCP, Mao Zedong, stood at the Tiananmen Gate in the center of Beijing and announced that the People's Republic of China, the world's most populous state, was now a communist country.

The cold war was central to the shaping of the new state domestically as well as internationally. Militarism had become a major factor as the state atrophied from the late Qing dynasty onward, but the mass dislocations produced by the war against Japan altered society profoundly. Many of the competing regimes within China—the Nationalists in exile in the southwest, the Communists in the north, and Wang Jingwei's collaborationist Nationalists who claimed to have “reorganized” the true Nationalist party in Nanjing—demanded greater contributions from society and offered a wider social vision in return. Although the communist vision proved most compelling, most modern political actors in China saw the need for a wider vision of social reform, which was frequently linked to militarization. Mao's years in charge of the PRC were heavily militarized in many ways (the Cultural Revolution is a notorious example). Propaganda stressed this element of social control at all times.4

The new divisions imposed by the cold war were visible in the PRC's most pressing domestic issue: the economy. There is much historical evidence that China's economy was improving until 1937. The eight years of war changed that: most of China's fledgling industrialization was in the eastern seaboard cities that Japan took over (with much of the plant destroyed by bombing). The war broke up traditional trade routes and economic networks.5

A Nationalist-run China would have drawn on economic assistance from the US. The CCP's victory made that impossible. The United States refused to recognize the new government in Beijing, maintaining that Chiang's government in exile in Taipei was China's legitimate government (in the United Nations Security Council, the “China” seat was (p. 127) also retained by the Republic of China, which held it until 1971). Instead, the country became embedded in the emergent socialist world economy that Stalin's USSR promoted after 1945.6 Although China never joined Comecon, which controlled trade within the socialist bloc, its economy became highly integrated with the organization's members from 1953, when the PRC's first Five Year Plan began. A common cold war point of contrast was between the command economy of the Eastern bloc and free markets of the West, but in fact both bloc leaders sacrificed short-term economic advantage to strengthen the commitment of the parts of East Asia under their control. The US allowed members of its bloc to obtain an economic advantage in return for support by allowing the East Asian developmental states (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea) to maintain highly protected economies for decades. The USSR offered goods within its bloc at advantageous prices to cement the socialist community: for instance, one ton of Chinese frozen pork became enough to buy five tons of steel products. The importance of cementing bloc alliances also led to strategic trade: during the 1953 riots in East Berlin, China sent 50 million rubles worth of foodstuffs to help shore up the fledgling GDR government.7 From its origin, China was brought into the fold of the world socialist economy.

The Korean War

The newly established PRC was almost immediately plunged into another brutal conflict: the Korean War. The war confronted the rulers of the new state with a hard choice. On the one hand, the PRC desperately needed time for domestic consolidation: the regime had won a military victory but had not yet secured all China's territory. On the other, the commitment of the party and Mao Zedong in particular to anti-imperialist liberation was genuine. The war in Korea presented an opportunity for the new state to show its credentials and gain ideological influence.

Part of the Chinese motivation to enter the war in Korea came from frustration over their perception that their Soviet partners regarded them as supplicants. CCP Vice-Chairman Liu Shaoqi visited Stalin in the months before the Chinese Communist victory in 1949 to discuss a variety of issues. It became clear that Mao was unhappy with the patronizing flavor of Stalin's demands.8 The USSR wanted special rights to operate in the parts of China that bordered the USSR (the northeast and northwest). For Mao, Stalin's proposals implied new “unequal treaties.”

So the emergence of a crisis on the Korean peninsula, on China's northeastern border, gave Mao a chance to demonstrate his revolutionary credentials. The emergence of new documentation since the early 1990s, however, shows Stalin and Mao were playing a complex game with each other.9 At stake were ideas about revolutionary anti-imperialism and the leadership of the communist world. The catalyst was the request in April 1950 by Kim Il-Sung, leader of the new communist North Korean state, for approval to invade the south. Stalin eventually acceded. He seems genuinely to have felt that the Western forces were in a position of weakness at that time, and the prospect of success was realistic. However, he was also conscious that he needed to maintain leadership (p. 128) within the communist bloc: having declined the chance to support communist movements in Greece and Indochina, his prestige could have further eroded had he turned his back on the revolution in Korea as well.10 Mao hesitated. The new People's Republic was deeply unstable in 1950, with pockets of resistance to the CCP still to be found in peripheral areas, and the country reeling from the effects of two major wars in quick succession. Nonetheless, Mao had a vision of spreading anti-imperialist communist revolution, and the opportunity opened up by Kim was hard for him to turn down. To undertake support for the Korean War would make a powerful statement of ideological intent.

Stalin proved an uncertain ally during the Korean War, failing to provide much-desired air cover for Chinese troops at a crucial moment in 1950. He had believed that the West would not force a confrontation over a North Korean invasion and was discomfited by the rapid success of UN forces in recapturing the south. Mao, however, having gambled by entering the war, insisted on sticking by Kim. Stalin ultimately provided support, if not actual Soviet troops, for the war effort. While Mao could not claim complete victory, by 1953 the stalemate allowed the new regime to argue that it had prevented the establishment of a hostile state on its borders.

Mao had also made his campaign of domestic consolidation dependent on mobilizing popular support for the war with the “Resist America, Aid Korea” campaign.11 This use of the Korean War to influence domestic politics reflected a dynamic that accompanied the CCP's rise to power in the years before 1949: the radicalizing and pragmatic trends in CCP thought were in conflict not only within the party but also within Mao himself. “Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought” was often pragmatic, as shown by its turn toward the cross-class alliance of “New Democracy” during the war against Japan and the early PRC period. In 1940 Mao had defined the term “New Democracy” as a means of creating a unified society in which the Chinese Communist Party would be paramount, but also cooperate with other elements in society (such as capitalists and entrepreneurs). This adoption of temporary pragmatic politics by Mao, however, did not mean an abandonment of a radical view of the world and of China's future. Mao's vision revolved around class warfare at home and anti-imperialism abroad in the service of an ever-renewing revolutionary stance. This should have been no secret to those who had observed the Rectification (Zhengfeng) movements that marked Mao's radicalization of politics and concentration of it in his own person in the years after 1941. The Korean War became the first test of that commitment in the PRC; by its end society was considerably more radicalized than it had been at the start.

Taiwan crisis, Bandung cooperation

Wider cold war tensions were reflected in confrontations between Mao and Chiang. After his defeat in 1949, Chiang retreated to the island of Taiwan, maintaining that he remained the legitimate ruler of the Republic of China. Mao, of course, regarded the (p. 129) continued irredentism of his great rival as an affront to his new state. In 1954–5 the PRC military shelled the island of Jinmen (Quemoy) and succeeded in capturing smaller Nationalist- held islands off the coast of Zhejiang province.12 Just three years later Taiwan's outlying islands once again came under fire from the PRC. This event had more to do with cold war tensions than any particular urgency caused by the situation within Taiwan itself. Mao's relations with Nikita Khrushchev had deteriorated further after 1956, and he was displeased by the Soviet leader's attempts to discredit Stalin, which he (correctly) thought were an oblique way to criticize Mao himself. Mao was also angry that Khrushchev was seeking to ratchet down tensions with the US without consulting him first. Therefore, Mao initiated the bombardment of the islands of Jinmen and Mazu in August 1958 as a means of heightening general tension rather than as a response to a particular political event.13 Throughout the crisis, as Khrushchev's memoirs attest, the Chinese kept the Soviets in the dark about their intentions.14 The crisis eventually subsided and was not repeated. However, for the inhabitants of Jinmen memories of the bombardment of their small fishing island, along with the militarization of everyday life, became central to their everyday existence.15 The offshore islands became a frontier in the cold war world and affected the lives of ordinary inhabitants in many ways, including the greater militarization of society and the development of a mentality that reflected a permanent state of crisis.

Despite the confrontations over Taiwan, China's international behavior during the 1950s also had a cooperative face, symbolized above all by the 1955 Bandung Conference. This was the first grouping of African and Asian countries which would become known as the Non-Aligned Movement. At Bandung, China projected itself as a leading voice of international engagement and development which was not required to follow the path of “modernization” defined by the American or Soviet bloc. During the conference, China's credentials were measured not only as a rival to Moscow or Washington, but also against the newly independent India. Jawaharlal Nehru was pursuing a program of parliamentary democratic socialism. China's ideological radicalism may have been as much a disadvantage as a benefit in this context, and Zhou Enlai's presence as an advocate of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence” served as a message that the PRC was capable of compromise as well as confrontation. (Zhou used the occasion of his presence at Bandung to announce a halt in the offshore bombing of Taiwan in 1955.) Yet China's closeness to the USSR and radical politics made it an uneasy bedfellow for many of the newly emerging independent states.

The Sino-Soviet split

Even while it tried to carve out a new status for itself in postwar international society, the PRC remained highly dependent on its relationship with its patron, the USSR. Nevertheless, relations between the two giant communist states led to a split in the early 1960s, which was perhaps the most momentous internal event within the communist bloc during the (p. 130) entire cold war. Although the fissure had been brewing for years, it took many Western observers by surprise. The split was never total, but it was nearly three decades before it was overcome with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Beijing in 1989.

Mao and the CCP were wary of Soviet intervention in their revolution from the very earliest days of the PRC. All Chinese nationalists, whether communists or not, had long memories of the “century of humiliation,” in which foreign imperialists (including Russia) had occupied large parts of China's territories. In addition, Stalin's demands for special rights in China's borderlands in 1949–50 had angered Mao greatly. The seeds were sown that would eventually lead to the split with the Soviets. On the one hand, Mao's government wanted to stress that its revolution was indigenous, that it had come to power through its own strategic choices, and that it was genuinely rooted in a popular revolution. On the other hand, for reasons of ideological commitment and economic and strategic need, it had to be close to the USSR.

The relationship between Mao and Stalin had always been marked by distrust as well as admiration: Mao believed that much of Stalin's advice to the CCP before 1949 had been mistaken, and Stalin disliked Mao's independence of thought. However, the two had sufficient respect for each other to maintain effective relations between their two countries. Mao had little respect for Stalin's ultimate successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Furthermore, Mao regarded Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in the secret speech of 1956 as a coded attack on Mao's own cult of personality, which had been developing since the wartime Rectification movements.

The international and domestic tensions came together during 1956–9, in the wake of the Khrushchev thaw in the USSR. Despite China's involvement with the socialist international economic bloc, Mao was deeply suspicious of the Soviet proposal to intervene by military means in the Polish uprisings of 1956: at a Politburo meeting on October 20, 1956, he observed, “This is serious big-power chauvinism, which should not be allowed under any circumstances.”16 Chinese representatives, including Liu Shaoqi, stressed to Khrushchev their uneasiness about Moscow's intervention in the decisions of other socialist countries. The Chinese position altered during the Hungarian crisis later that year, however. Although its initial response toward intervention was negative, the Chinese leadership became alarmed about the nature of the uprising, which they considered “anti-communist” rather than just “anti-Soviet.”17

The theoretical questions raised by the 1956 uprisings in Eastern Europe profoundly influenced the development of Chinese domestic policy. Mao took away the message that the Eastern European parties had not been strong enough to combat “reactionary” forces, and that Moscow had also been heavy-handed in its management of those crises.

The effect of this was a contradictory turn within domestic Chinese politics. In 1956–7 Mao supported the Hundred Flowers Movement, which actively called for constructive criticism of the Party from the wider population. He intended that the CCP should glean suggestions on how to reform itself. By 1957, however, Mao had become alarmed at the harsh level of criticism that had emerged through the Hundred Flowers; he launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign in which thousands of people who had criticized the party were arrested.

(p. 131) 1956 saw the Chinese more enthused about their efforts to have Beijing replace Moscow as the ideological focal point of world communism. Yet the language that Moscow and Beijing used between themselves over the events of 1956 was shared: language, rhetoric, and political understandings genuinely linked the socialist countries and shaped their understanding of what bound them together against the Western bloc. This disparity, in which the PRC and the USSR shared goals while disagreeing on approaches, was another factor that would lead to their split.18

Between 1956 and 1961 relations continued to deteriorate as Mao demanded more radicalism in the face of Soviet attempts to lessen tensions with the Western bloc. Khrushchev had become increasingly disillusioned by what he saw as both Mao's willingness to risk confrontation with the West and his establishment of a cult of personality. Khrushchev was also motivated by a racism that found it hard to take the Chinese seriously. The most symbolic moment was the withdrawal of all Soviet advisors from China in 1960: so sudden was their departure that they left the bridge under construction across the Yangtze at Nanjing half-built. By that stage, the alliance between the two sides was in tatters.

The split with the Soviets meant that China had a new freedom to exercise its influence as a revolutionary actor on the global stage. China projected itself as a role model at a moment when scores of Asian and African countries were decolonizing and seeking to shape their emerging nation-states. While China and the USSR remained allied for the first decade of the PRC's existence, it was clear that China had an authenticity about its rhetoric of anti-imperialist liberation that the Soviet Union lacked (as did the US). Eastern Europe was essentially a colony of Moscow. China's revolution, in contrast, was genuinely indigenous, even if it had received significant Soviet assistance. After the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s, China's rhetoric became much more explicitly anti-Soviet, haranguing Soviet “revisionism and social imperialism.” In his 1965 declaration “Long Live the Victory of People's War,” Lin Biao sneered at the “Khrushchev revisionists,” whom he accused of collaborating with the US “imperialists” trying to sabotage the Chinese-led ideas of “people's war.”19

The Vietnam War

The worsening relationship between the PRC and the USSR was also reflected in the Chinese involvement in the war in Vietnam. China provided support for the Vietnamese in their struggle against French colonialism from its earliest days, and then for the North Vietnamese in their war to unify Vietnam under their control. From the early 1950s to the late 1960s, the CCP exploited their long ties with the Vietnamese Communist movement to offer them support. As with Korea, Chinese policy linked an ideological commitment to a more pragmatic mode of operation. The latter was particularly evident in the 1954 Geneva Accords, through which postcolonial Vietnam's borders were defined. These marked one of the major diplomatic successes of Zhou Enlai, China's foreign (p. 132) minister and prime minister. Nonetheless, the Accords did represent an ideological retreat, as Zhou (and the Soviets) pressured Ho Chi Minh not to press for an immediate unification of the two halves of Vietnam but to accept a “temporary” division of the country—something which Mao later came to regret. Chinese involvement in Vietnam would soon intensify significantly.

During much of the 1960s, the North Vietnamese found themselves in the curious position of accepting assistance from both the PRC and the USSR even while hostility between the latter two states increased.20 Some 320,000 Chinese troops were deployed across the border into North Vietnam between 1965 and 1968. The troops took part in fighting (operating gun positions) and also undertook significant construction work, thereby freeing up Vietnamese soldiers for the assault into South Vietnam. This involvement was never formally acknowledged, nor did the US seek to draw attention to it. Still, it is a marker of the seriousness with which China took its cold war mission. In assisting the North Vietnamese, the Chinese drew attention to their own path for anti-imperialist liberation, which combined allegiance to ideas of radical social change with a strong sense of non-European nationalism. On both these points the USSR was unable to trump China. By intervening in Vietnam, Beijing also made up for those occasions when it had had to draw back from involvement, such as the failure to conquer the south in the Korean War or the inability to prevent a right-wing coup in Indonesia in 1965 against a leadership that seemed to be orienting itself toward Beijing.21

However, that nationalism also caused one of the major rifts between China and Vietnam, and illustrated a wider problem—that China continued to have a highly sinocentric attitude toward its neighbors. Mao's comments on the countries of East Asia that “we belong to the same family and support one another” strongly signaled that he considered China to be the “elder brother” in the relationship.22 Such attitudes and the continuing realization of the Vietnamese that they would have to choose between support from the USSR and from China led to the breakdown of relations between Vietnam and China and the final withdrawal of Chinese troops in 1970.

The opening to the US

The mid-1960s likewise witnessed the most convulsive social change in the whole of Mao's period in power, the Cultural Revolution, which eventually precipitated the biggest ideological shift in China's international behavior: the opening to the United States. The Cultural Revolution was Mao's revolt against his own party: fearing that he was being sidelined and that the PRC as a whole was losing revolutionary fervor, he launched a campaign in 1966 which exhorted China's population to rise up and “bombard the headquarters” of the CCP itself. The result was a massive radicalization of domestic policies for the next three years. However, as the most radical phase of the Cultural Revolution ended, prominent figures in the leadership began to feel China's lack of global allies keenly. By 1969 the relationship between Beijing and Moscow had become so (p. 133) bad that the two sides feared that war might break out over control of territories on China's northeastern border. There were significant reasons for China to reopen relations with its “most respected enemy,” particularly as it became clear that the newly elected American president, Richard Nixon, held similar sentiments. As early as 1967 Nixon had written in an editorial, “[W]e simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations.”23

The reasons that Mao's government reversed its ideological strategy and invited the representatives of the greatest capitalist nation on earth to the heart of Beijing were domestic as well as international. The upheavals of the Cultural Revolution were exposing the contradictions in Mao's vision of modernity. After the departure of Soviet advisors in 1960, it no longer had the indigenous capacity to develop technology, particularly as the Cultural Revolution's initial phase was predicated on breaking down any pretensions to high technical knowledge or expertise. Although various areas of scientific endeavor, such as the Chinese atomic bomb program, remained protected from the Cultural Revolution, overall the movement was immensely destructive to the country's knowledge base. It was clear by the early 1970s that some source of external technical knowledge was needed to replace the Soviets.

Mao himself became a strong supporter of the opening to the US, having read and noted what he took as positive signals from Nixon. The latter's inaugural address had made it clear that he would not be bound simply by ideology in his decisions as to which countries to talk to. However, it seems that Mao's putative successor, Lin Biao, was not favorably inclined toward an opening toward the US.24 The situation changed with Lin's death in 1971. He appears to have been involved in an attempted coup against Mao, and his disappearance from the scene meant that the Chinese leadership became more unified toward the opening toward the US.

After a series of maneuvers and false starts, US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger arrived under conditions of top secrecy in Beijing in 1971. He was subjected to robust conversations by Zhou Enlai and other Chinese officials, and this helped to clear the way for the visit by Nixon. On February 21, 1972, Nixon arrived in Beijing. His visit was only a week long, but it was highly public (more so to the outside world than within China itself) and demonstrated clearly that the cold war structures had been reoriented. With the emergence of détente in Europe, the US became the only superpower to have active engagement with the other two major powers, the USSR and China.25

The myth that “only Nixon could go to China” (that is, only a right-wing Republican could do so without accusations of going soft on communism) is now widely dismissed. Both Kennedy, and more so Johnson, had experimented with greater communication with the PRC. From 1966, however, these efforts were hampered by the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, which made it difficult to have any meaningful communications with the Beijing government.26 The rapprochement between the two countries had as much to do with changes in China as did the arrival of a new US president: even Mao realized that his beloved Cultural Revolution had run out of steam and that to continue it risked domestic collapse and even international conflict. Furthermore, Mao was (p. 134) disturbed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and this may well have inclined him toward seeking an ally against a future attack by Moscow.27

The odd alliance of convenience between the US and China would last for some two decades. When cold war crises emerged, China would side with the West: China attended the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when they were boycotted by the USSR and most Eastern European countries, and the West and China both chose to support the Khmer Rouge in 1979 when the Soviet-backed Vietnamese ousted that genocidal regime. The neutralization of China enabled the US to concentrate on the European front of the cold war.

The other government that was most affected by the switch in US policy was the Republic of China on Taiwan, the rump state controlled by Chiang Kai-shek. For much of the high cold war, Taiwan was a major factor in right-wing US politics (in particular the so-called “China Lobby”), but Democratic as much as Republican presidents found it hard to abandon Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang's regime was clearly underpinned by US support; without the US Seventh Fleet in the Pacific, there would have been little to prevent the PRC retaking the island. Chiang had one overriding agenda, which he repeatedly pressed on his American backers: the recapture of the mainland. However, Taiwan under his rule also achieved certain domestic successes that Chiang had failed to gain on the mainland. The major social change that emerged under American pressure was land reform, the issue on which the Communists had won over much of the peasantry on the mainland.28 Thus Taiwan became a model of a cold war developmental state.

The political constraints of the cold war also allowed Taiwan to maintain a highly protected economy and currency in return for fealty to the US. This enabled it to build a powerful manufacturing base which enabled the island to become a major exporter from the 1970s onward. In political terms, the Republic of China was an authoritarian dictatorship. The Nationalist government committed many human rights abuses. The regime was particularly discriminatory against ethnic Chinese who had been born on the island as opposed to emigrating from the mainland after 1945 or 1949, as well as the island's aboriginal population. Yet it also followed the example of US-backed societies such as authoritarian South Korea and democratic Japan in using its economic policies to drive down income inequality. Chiang's death in 1975 brought his son Chiang Ching-kuo to power, and moves began to legalize the pro-democracy civil society groups, which had started to form on the island. As Taiwan became more diplomatically isolated, it began to use its democratic credentials rather than its anti-communist ones to justify its reluctance to reunify with the mainland.

The culture of cold war China

The language within which China expressed and understood the cold war was in large part a subset of the period's global linguistic environment: a dispute between two differing versions of the Enlightenment, in which the vocabulary of “freedom” and “democracy” became the terrain of contestation between the two blocs. In China, the local (p. 135) variation of this dispute was linked to two different historical streams. The first was the May Fourth Movement, a liberal and anti-traditional strain of Enlightenment thought which had embraced the ideas of “science and democracy” as the key to combating imperialism and renewing China's politics in the 1910s. The Chinese Communist Party, founded in 1921, was just one product of the period.29

The second source was the legacy of the wartime period. China, more than perhaps any belligerent during World War II, had seen the “world war of values” fought on its own soil. The Nationalists and Communists had engaged in a deadly dispute, but they had both sought ownership of the language of democracy. Nationalist China had called itself “Free” China to the outside world, and Mao's major wartime theoretical innovation had been the concept of “New Democracy.” During the cold war, Mao's regime continued to speak of itself as being “democratic.” In doing so, it drew on the pre-1949 tradition of political reform without openly acknowledging that it was doing so.

China also used another commonplace term of the era, “modernization,” to define its own distinctive path. Modernization theory is probably the social scientific phrase most associated with the cold war. It refers to the postwar idea, accepted in the USSR as well as in the West, that technological progress could come through a carefully mapped and defined pathway from “tradition” to “modernity.”30

China provided an alternative view of modernization that shared much of the desire for progress, as well as the goals of “modernization,” but found different pathways to achieve it. For a start, because China remained a less developed and more agrarian country than either the US or USSR, its policies were tied to the countryside more than in the other two countries. Furthermore, Mao's engagement with modernity and progress was always tempered by his dislike of China's “intellectual” classes, which he regarded as insufficiently committed to the revolution and too linked to their Confucian predecessors. Therefore, there were strong elements that ran through the Chinese revolution that differentiated it from the Soviet view. The mobilization of the countryside was central to Mao's view of modernization in the Great Leap Forward of 1958–62.

The Leap was a disaster, leading to a massive famine that killed more than 20 million Chinese. Nonetheless, Mao remained enchanted by the idea of an alternative model of modernization in which the power of rural-dwellers could be unleashed. Other aspects of the Chinese experience did prove inspiring to radical groups and governments as far apart as India and East Africa, and in some cases were assisted by formal Chinese assistance. The TanZam railway, linking Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to landlocked Zambia, was one of the most prominent projects to use Chinese assistance to construct infrastructure in decolonized Africa as an alternative to Western or Soviet assistance.

One element of China's discourse that was specifically tied to the cold war was the fetish that it made of the atomic bomb. The cold war globally was associated with a romantic view of technology and its possibilities. Of course, this was not unprecedented (Futurism was just one of the artistic trends in the early 20th century which was underpinned by an obsession with technology), but nuclear technology in particular is associated inextricably with the wider trajectory of the cold war. For smaller, post-imperial (p. 136) powers such as Britain and France, acquisition of atomic weapons became symbolic of national prowess. The US and USSR found themselves torn between stressing the power that atomic weaponry bestowed and reflecting on its destructiveness. Japan, in contrast, heavily tied its postwar self-image to having been a victim of the only atomic bombs dropped.

The PRC was unequivocal about stressing the search for an atomic weapon as a powerful symbol of national virility. Attitudes on this issue were shaped at the very top: Mao had shocked Khrushchev by declaring, as the two of them relaxed by a swimming pool in Beijing, that the atomic bomb was a “paper tiger.”31 Lin Biao, China's defense minister, gave a pithy example of the metaphor's power when he spoke of Mao Zedong's thought as being “a spiritual atom bomb of infinite power.” This was an image which could never have been used in Japan, or most of postwar Europe. In general, the PRC embraced the romanticism of technology wholeheartedly, and unashamedly combined it with politics.

A new world: from Nixon to the end of the cold war

China tends to fade from the global narrative of the cold war after the Sino-US rapprochement in 1972. After the traumas of the Cultural Revolution, it became clear that China had reversed its policy of international revolutionary intervention. The death of Mao and the arrest of the “Gang of Four,” as the leaders of the Cultural Revolution Central Group became known, were further signs of the move away from radical policies. Nonetheless, Chinese policy had begun to change several years before Mao's death. In 1971 the PRC finally replaced Taiwan at the United Nations. This development was a first step toward socializing the country into the wider international community.

The opening to America had been preceded, not followed, by the opening of relations with Japan. This had happened partly as an act of pique; Prime Minister Satô Eisaku had been angered at the “Nixon Shocks” of 1971–2, when the US president had abandoned the Bretton Woods monetary system and opened channels to China without informing Tokyo in advance. Satô's successor, Tanaka Kakuei, visited Beijing in 1972 and signed the Zhou-Tanaka communiqué, which established the first sustained diplomatic relations between a sovereign Japan and the Chinese mainland since 1938. Another important area that showed a real shift by the PRC in the 1970s was its policy toward Southeast Asia. By the early 1970s China's relations with Vietnam had become frostier, as the latter tied its fortunes to the USSR. However, Beijing continued to maintain a stake in the success of the rival Khmer Rouge movement in neighboring Cambodia. Among the last conversations recorded between Mao and foreign leaders was a dialogue with Pol Pot, in which it is clear that Mao's ideological radicalism had remained undimmed. Beijing (p. 137) offered support for the Khmer Rouge during its four years in power, and in 1979, after the Vietnamese had ousted Pol Pot, Beijing allied with the Western powers in continuing to recognize the Khmer Rouge representative at the UN. In addition, in February 1979 China launched an invasion of northern Vietnam, ostensibly to counter discrimination against ethnic Chinese in the area, but also as a wider warning to Vietnam that they could not act against China and its allies with impunity. For Beijing, the war was a disaster; People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops were expelled fast. The Sino-Vietnamese War remains the last occasion that Chinese troops have been deployed in anger outside Chinese territory.

The late cold war also saw significant changes in the Chinese historical memory of the recent past. In 1949 the Mao regime had decreed that the Nationalist government that preceded it should be treated in public pronouncements and educational materials as villains and rogues: corrupt, in thrall to foreign powers, and worst of all, unwilling or unable to fight the Japanese while the CCP led the war effort. After the 1980s this viewpoint changed significantly. Within China there was widespread disillusionment at the chaos wrought by the Cultural Revolution, and it became clear to the post-Mao leadership that a new source of domestic legitimacy, drawing on nationalism, was needed to substitute for ideological radicalism. Then, the death of Chiang in 1975 and Mao in 1976 removed some of the personal venom from the ideological wars of the previous half-century.

In addition, the politics of the Mao years had stressed the danger from Chiang much more than it had paid attention to the memory of the many war crimes committed in China by the Japanese during the years 1937–45. The PRC had wished to detach Japan from the cold war embrace of the US, and this made it less politic to stress past atrocities. However, once the 1972 Shanghai communiqué had been signed, it became politically useful to remind the Japanese of their past record as a stimulant for domestic nationalism. The emphasis in modern history moved away from the Civil War and back to the War of Resistance against Japan (as the Sino-Japanese War was known in China). The new historiographical turn, which was supported at the highest level in government, saw new museums, books, and films appear. One of the most striking aspects was the remembering of Japanese war crimes, most notably the Nanjing Massacre (“Rape of Nanking”) of 1937–8; a memorial museum was opened in 1985 on the site of one of the mass murders.

But equally notable was the stark, if unstated, shift in cold war historiography with regard to the Nationalist government's wartime role. The major museum in Beijing commemorating the War of Resistance (opened in 1987) stressed the importance of Nationalist victories such as the Battle of Taierzhuang in 1938, in which the CCP had played no part. The new history still emphasized the leading role of the CCP, but it no longer dismissed the Nationalists as useless or cowardly. Instead, the role of the Chiang regime in resisting the Japanese for eight years was given due seriousness. Even Chiang's old mansions in eastern China were rehabilitated as museums and his role given a respectful description: this would have been unthinkable in the era of Mao.32

(p. 138) Uncertain endings

From China, the end of the cold war looks different from the view from the West. In the West, a very clear overarching narrative emerged. One side, the West, “won.” Key figures—notably Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev but also Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl—gave a human face to the narrative. Most importantly, there was a clear shift of regimes from communist to non-communist governance.

This left Asia as a seeming anomaly. The continuing existence of North Korea, Vietnam, and most of all, the People's Republic of China as states still run by communist parties that had no intention of relinquishing power was made to seem like a global outlier. The killings of protestors in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989, seemed to seal China's fate as a dinosaur of history: the emergent superpower of the early 21st century did not appear that way after the Beijing Spring of 1989 had ended. Yet it may be that the most important shifts that ended the cold war structure emerged first in Asia rather than Europe.

The Nixon visit of 1972 and the rapprochement with Japan marked a re-engagement by the PRC with the non-communist world, even while the Cultural Revolution continued and the cold war remained cold. But it is important not to read these events as they have been understood in retrospect—that is, with the knowledge that the USSR would collapse and that communism would end in Eastern Europe. For even in the last years of the cold war, its structures did not appear to be weakening. To many, the appearance of leaders such as Reagan, Thatcher, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko made the cold war still seem very chilly. It was in this context that China's reforms in the 1980s, leading up to 1989, need to be viewed. At the time, they were seen in Beijing not as a way of overcoming communism but of reinterpreting it for a new world in which the US and USSR would both play a role.

The 1980s, then, have some similarity with the years 1945–50 with which this chapter started. In both cases China's story seems in retrospect to be part of a clearly defined wider global narrative: in 1949, one that ended with the establishment of the PRC and the establishment of a cold war Asia, and in 1989, one that ended with the collapse of Eastern European communism and the discrediting of classic state socialism. Yet the major actors did not make decisions at the time with the knowledge of the end result. In 1945, neither the Nationalists nor Communists knew that the latter would win; in 1978, when the Chinese economic reforms started, nobody in Beijing believed that the Soviet Union had only a decade more of existence left. China's final cold war decade was shaped by an understanding that the world would remain under the influence of the superpowers that had dominated it for thirty years. In practice, it was the implosion of one of those superpowers that allowed China to become the power with the global reach that it had craved for decades. And at the start of the 21st century, the question that exercises at least some analysts in the West is whether the end of the old cold war with the USSR has paved the way for a new one with China instead. In the 1950s, there was real debate over (p. 139) whether the Soviet bloc provided an alternative model of modernization that, in Khrushchev's word, might “bury” the West. As the West is racked in the present day by economic crisis and political self-doubt, one of the key questions of the decades to come is whether a Chinese model may pose an equally important challenge, and whether that alternative may prove more lasting than the failed Soviet model.

Select Bibliography

Chen Jian. China's Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Chen Jian. Mao's China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Foot, Rosemary. The Practice of Power: US-China relations since 1949. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Lüthi, Lothar M. The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Qiang Zhai. China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950–1975. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Radchenko, Sergey. Two Suns in the Heavens: The Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy, 1962–1967. Washington, DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center and Stanford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Szonyi, Michael. Cold War Island: Quemoy on the Frontline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Westad, Odd Arne. Cold War and Revolution: Soviet-American Rivalry and the Origins of the Chinese Civil War, 1944–1946. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Westad, Odd Arne, ed. Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945–1963. Washington, DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center and Stanford University Press, 1998.Find this resource:


(1.) An important revisionist work on the Nationalist record is Hans van de Ven, War and Nationalism in China, 1925–1945 (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003).

(2.) Odd Arne Westad, Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946–1950 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).

(3.) Odd Arne Westad, Cold War and Revolution: Soviet-American Rivalry and the Origins of the Chinese Civil War, 1944–1946 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); Chen Jian, Mao's China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), ch. 2.

(4.) On rival nationalisms, see Timothy Brook and Andre Schmidt, Nation Work: Asian Elites and National Identities (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000).

(5.) On China's pre-1937 economy, see Loren Brandt, “Reflections on China's late 19th and early 20th century economy,” The China Quarterly 150 (June 1997): 282–308.

(6.) William C. Kirby, “China's Internationalization in the Early People's Republic: Dreams of a Socialist World Economy,” The China Quarterly 188 (December 2006): 884.

(7.) Kirby, “China's Internationalization,” 887.

(8.) Chen, Mao's China, 52–3.

(9.) Chen, Mao's China, 89–90.

(10.) Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War: From Stalin to Khrushchev (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 55, 62.

(11.) Chen Jian, China's Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

(12.) Chen, Mao's China, 168–70.

(13.) Zubok and Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin, 220–1. See also Thomas Christiansen, Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947–1958 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).

(14.) Zubok and Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin, 222–4.

(15.) Michael Szonyi, Cold War Island: Quemoy on the Front Line (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

(16.) Chen, Mao's China, 147.

(17.) Chen, Mao's China, 155.

(18.) Lorenz M. Lüthi, The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 345.

(19.) Thomas W. Robinson, “Chinese Foreign Policy from the 1940s to the 1990s,” in Thomas W. Robinson and David Shambaugh, eds., Chinese Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 558.

(20.) Qiang Zhai, China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950–1975, 135; Chris Connolly, “The American Factor: Sino-American Rapprochement and Chinese Attitudes to the Vietnam War, 1968–1972,” Cold War History 5/4 (November 2005): 501–527.

(21.) Peter Van Ness, Revolution and Chinese Foreign Policy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1970).

(22.) Odd Arne Westad et al., eds., 77 Conversations between Chinese and Foreign Leaders on the Wars in Indochina, 1964–1977, Cold War International History Project Working Paper 22 (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1998), 185–6.

(23.) Chen, Mao's China, 245. He Di, “The Most Respected Enemy: Mao's Perceptions of the United States,” The China Quarterly 137 (1994):144–158.

(24.) Chen, Mao's China, ch. 9.

(25.) Margaret MacMillan, Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2007).

(26.) Michael Lumbers, Piercing the Bamboo Curtain: Tentative Bridge-Building to China during the Johnson Years (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008).

(27.) Chen, Mao's China, 243, 245.

(28.) John Copper, Taiwan: Nation-State or Province? (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).

(29.) Rana Mitter, A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(30.) Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of our Times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

(31.) Zubok and Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin, 219.

(32.)  Rana Mitter, “Old ghosts, New Memories: China's Changing War History in the Era of Post-Mao Politics”,  Journal of Contemporary History 38/1 (2003):117–131; Parks M. Coble, “China's ‘New Remembering’ of the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance, 1937–1945,” The China Quarterly 190 (2007):394–140.