John Gittings

Mao on China and the World
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This is the Introduction to my book The World and China, first published in the 1970s and recently re-issued. At a time when China's foreign policy and place in the world has assumed a new prominence, and is subject to varied interpretation and concern, it may be of some interest to look back at its starting point and early development until the last years of Mao Zedong. Much more information including original materials has come to light, and many more informative analyses have been published in this area, since I wrote in the early 1970s. I still believe that my approach to the subject then was not too far from the mark, as set out in the following Introduction, and that it may continue to have some relevance today.

April 2021
[The World and China, 1922-1972 (London: Eyre-Methuen, 1974), Introduction, pp. 7-13. This volume has been re-issued in the Routledge Library Editions: History of China, vol. 11 (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2019), ISBN 9781138614659. Available as hardback and paperback, and as a Taylor & Francis E-book or on Kindle.]


This is a history of the ideas behind Chinese foreign policy, and to a large extent these have been and still are the ideas of Mao Zedong. The story begins in the 1920s when Chinese revolutionaries, including Mao, puzzled over the connection between imperialism abroad and revolution at home. It ends in the 1970s, when China has long since made its revolution, but still faces immense problems of a theoretical as well as a practical kind in dealing with the external powers. The visit of President Nixon to Beijing in February 1972 was not an end to China's long search for international security, but only the beginning of another of the many efforts which it has made in that direction.

It is sometimes said that the Chinese communists had little interest in or knowledge of the outside world until they achieved victory in 1949. They had simply followed the 'Soviet line' as, it is argued, they continued to do for several years after setting up the People's Republic. This is far from the truth. Chinese nationalists of every political colour were intensely concerned with the international situation during and between the two world wars, by necessity as much as by choice. Most politically articulate Chinese were making their revolution with the living lesson of imperialism before their eyes, in the Treaty Ports, on the railway lines, among the foreign enterprises which dominated Chinese industry and commerce. And the course of that revolution was on many occasions directly affected by fresh twists and turns on the international scene. To list just a few during the twelve years preceding the Liberation of 1949: there was Japan's aggression against China, the outbreak of the European war, the Soviet Pacts with Germany and later Japan, Pearl Harbour, American and later Soviet intervention in China, American occupation of Japan, Soviet discouragement of the Chinese revolution, the US-sponsored return of the colonial powers to Southeast Asia, the formation of the cold-war power blocs.

If the Chinese had been so 'traditionally Sino-centric' as to ignore the kaleidoscopically changing world around them, they would have simply lost the revolution. On the contrary, their abundant writings on the subject show that Mao and his colleagues were acutely aware of the need to relate their internal revolution to the world scene which, in spite of their geographical isolation for most of the revolutionary period, they followed with avid attention. Furthermore they regarded the international aspect of their situation, that is, China's 'contradiction' with imperialism, as the decisive contradiction to which all others were subordinate. And while they tried to avoid open disagreement with the Soviet 'line', on several important issues there were vital differences. Generally speaking, the Chinese worked out their own analyses of international affairs, using their own language and their own China-oriented terms of reference.

[For the sake of simplicity, when I say 'the Chinese' from here on I shall mean the Chinese communists, whether before or after 1949, except when it is necessary to distinguish between them and the Guomindang or 'Nationalists'.]

Mao Zedong brought to this task of analysing the outside world and its impact upon China the same qualities of insight and decisiveness which he showed in grappling with Chinese society at home. As early as 1928, alone among his colleagues, he cut through the general denunciations of imperialism in China, grasped what he saw to be its essential characteristic -- that it assumed a [semi-colonial form' -- and drew from it a significant theoretical principle. China was better, not worse, off because it was oppressed by many foreign powers rather than dominated by just one. For the rivalries between the powers, and the domestic contradictions which were thereby heightened within China's own ruling class, only created more fertile ground for the revolution. All that was required was for the revolutionary forces to make an accurate assessment of the relative balance of these external and internal contradictions, and to take advantage of those elements with whom the revolution had some temporary common ground in order to oppose the principal enemy.

The theory was simple but it called for clarity of analysis un-obscured by generalized dogmas of the kind which came too frequently from Moscow. As I show in chapters 2 and 3, Mao's theory of semi-colonialism was the starting-point for all the most important strategic concepts of the Chinese revolution. In seeking to apply it Mao met with considerable opposition in the 1930s, but during the anti-Japanese war it was central to the Chinese view of the world (chapters 4 and 5). The flexibility of tactics which it implied led Mao, early in 1945, to seek in effect to win American rather than Soviet backing for his cause. Four years later it led him to lean instead unequivocally to the side of the Soviet Union, negotiating an alliance (under considerable difficulty) with Stalin. Two decades later the same principle -- that of distinguishing between the principal and the subordinate contradictions facing China -- would be invoked to justify inviting Mr Nixon to Beijing.

A second distinctive aspect of Mao's view of the world, which is also central to Chinese policy in the 1970s, emerged during the critical years of 1946-7, when the Chinese communists fought their civil war alone against the Nationalist armies. American neutrality was no longer on the cards; American mediation, backed by considerable military aid, discriminated heavily in favour of Chiang Kai-shek (chapter 6). Stalin advised the Chinese communists to avoid war, fearful that it might disturb the equilibrium between the two post-war power blocs. From his Yenan cave Mao advanced an analysis of the international situation which emphasized not the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union but rather the revolutionary battlefield of the world which lay between the two great powers-the 'intermediate zone' which included China and its own revolution. While compromise might be required between Washington and Moscow, those fighting against imperialism and for revolution in the intermediate countries were not obliged to follow suit (chapter 7). An expanded version of this theory would be argued again from 1958 onwards to show that the Soviet quest for East-West détente between the great powers was not only irrelevant but harmful to the struggles for national liberation. By the late 1960s the two superpowers would be seen as 'colluding yet at the same time contending' to impose their will on the rest of the world -- the intermediate zone -- in its widest sense.

It will be clear from the summary above of my argument that this book is mainly concerned with the ideas behind Chinese foreign policy and their working-out in practice, and that I regard Mao as the inspirational source of these ideas. The contribution of other Chinese leaders, particularly Zhou Enlai, in formulating policy at various times has been considerable, but I regard their role essentially as that of practitioners of Mao’s grand design, although they have often disagreed over how to interpret it. These disagreements and their relationship to Chinese internal politics (especially the Cultural Revolution) is a vast subject which still awaits research, but it is not the subject of this book. Even if it may be slightly exaggerated to treat Chinese foreign policy in such a unified way, Mao's vision of it is the highest common denominator for the subject, which has to be fully grasped before one can go on to speculate about policy differences between other leaders.

By the time of Liberation in 1949, China had experienced more than a century of Western imperialism. During this century almost the entire operation of Chinese foreign policy was taken up at first with resistance to the imperialist powers, then with an enforced accommodation, and later with attempts to mitigate and finally to liquidate the consequences of their aggression. When Mao wrote that 'the history of modern China is a history of imperialist aggression' he was expressing a widely-held conviction. Whether in the same or in different terms, few people outside China would quarrel with his definition either. Foreign relations for China up until 1949 had been almost entirely dependent upon and reactive to the (usually hostile) initiatives of the external powers.

It is perhaps less evident, but just as significant, that after 1949 China continued to be encumbered by the politics of foreign dependence. Between the active hostility of the United States and the loaded friendship of the Soviet Union, China still found itself confined by external pressures. Neither power offered relations with the new People's Republic on an equal basis, but the terms demanded by Washington were more onerous (chapter 8). At least the Soviet Union and the People's Republic shared an ideological bond and, for the time being, a common strategic interest in defending the East against the West.

Yet the Korean War, in which China actively took up arms to defend this common interest, only showed up the perils of dependence upon the Soviet Union while demonstrating even more clearly the difficulties of accommodation with the United States. (American policies in the Korean War have received only a fraction of the critical attention later accorded them in the Vietnam War. In chapter 9 I look briefly at two aspects: American intransigence during the ceasefire negotiations and the policy of terror bombing which put the usual cowboys-and-Red Chinese view of the war in a rather different perspective.)

After the Korean War, China was at long last able to embark seriously upon the quest for an independent foreign policy (chapter 10). As the cold war receded slightly from its most acute phase and as nationalism became a more assertive force throughout the world, it was not unreasonable for Beijing to suppose that it too might benefit from the relaxation of tension. With great skill the Chinese enticed the United States into negotiations, but for three years were quite unable to dent Dulles's armour. While the Soviet Union managed to move slowly towards a détente with the West, China was excluded from this process. This imbalance served to sharpen the differences between the two Socialist countries. By the end of the 1950s China had made no headway with the United States, had lost all faith in the usefulness of its Soviet 'ally', and had achieved only limited progress in the rest of the world. It is no more than a slight overstatement to say that in this first decade China had exchanged dependence for isolation.

It was theoretically possible for the Chinese to concede more to the United States (though this would have meant yielding on Taiwan) or alternatively to concede more to the Soviet Union (though this would have meant accepting a position of uncritical subordination to Soviet policies). Other leaders might have been tempted to seek accommodation in either direction. Mao was not. Although Mao's officially published statements on foreign affairs after 1949 are few and mostly of a formal character, a great mass of 'unofficial' material has more recently become known as a result of the Cultural Revolution when collections were made in China and freely circulated. These reveal Mao's constant and lively preoccupation with the world outside China, and his direct influence upon the formulation of official policy. Towards the United States and the general development of the world 'contradictions' Mao took a cool but in the long-term sanguine view (Chapter 11). At the end of the critical first decade of Chinese foreign policy, Mao recognized the need for a clean break. The United States would never accept relations with Beijing on an equal basis until the Chinese had acquired sufficient economic and military muscle power. Towards the Soviet Union, Mao also calmly accepted the inevitability of a split (chapter 12). He had compared China's revolutionary experience to that of the Soviet Union, resolved to avoid the errors of Stalin and his successors, and discussed them openly. He had insisted on frank criticism of Soviet doctrine and foreign policy where it adversely affected the overall interests of the socialist bloc. Mao's attitude ensured that no patched-up compromise could mask the parting of the ways as the Soviet-American détente developed, and in the early 1960s he took personal responsibility for the great Chinese polemics which lay bare the differences.

In 1928, after the bloody suppression of the communists by Chiang, Mao had countered 'pessimism' in the ranks of his followers with his analysis of the bright future ahead of semi-colonial China. Again in 1946-7 he rallied those who were pessimistic about the outcome of the civil war with his world's eye view from a Yenan cave. For a third time when China again found itself isolated in the early 1960s, Mao's combination of ideological conviction and shrewd judgment of the changing balance of power carried his countrymen through the lean years.

For external as well as domestic reasons, the Cultural Revolution was seen by Mao to be a necessity for China (Conclusion). Yet its ending coincided with changes in the international situation which at last made possible the breakthrough in foreign policy which the Chinese had long sought. China's regaining of its seat in the United Nations, the opening of de facto relations with the United States and of diplomatic relations with the vast majority of other countries in the world, was the result of a volte-face not on the part of Beijing but of Washington, and it was consistent with the long-term thrust of Maoist foreign policy. Yet at the same time it does involve a number of problems -- or 'contradictions' as the Chinese would say -- which I shall briefly examine in my final conclusions.

[Today I would find a more severe adjective to characterize the 'lean years' of the early 1960s after the Great Leap Forward – the first disaster of Mao's ultra-leftist policies in his last two decades, to be followed by the Cultural Revolution. jg, March 2021]

My main concern in writing this book has been to show that China's discussion and analysis of international affairs, both in the revolutionary past and since 1949, is neither the product of dogma, nor a justification for policies undertaken for reasons of narrow national interest, nor liable to change automatically in response to domestic political changes. The Chinese view of the world, from a position which is Chinese as well as Marxist-Leninist, involves a serious attempt to understand the processes at work and how they affect China. It should be of interest to us not only as a guide to motives behind Beijing's foreign policy, now and in the future, but in its own right as a serious perspective on the affairs of a world which we share with the Chinese.

Since the sources and (where they exist) translations of many of the documents which I quote are not readily available, I have provided a checklist of the more important ones. The reader who is interested in these textual matters should also consult my Note on Sources which precedes the Checklist.

Two institutions have helped me in the most essential sense to produce this book. A year's fellowship at the Centre for International Studies, London School of Economics, was generously extended by another year to enable me to complete the research for it. And more recently as an associate fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam (an affiliate of the Institute for Policy Studies, Washington DC), I have again been generously helped to pass another critical half-way point and complete the writing of it. December 1973