Why do we care so much about China? It’s obvious why our Chinese friends here focus their attention on the present and the future of their homeland. But what about the rest of us?
The man who taught me the most about China was Dr. Walter Judd, who lived and worked in South China and then North China for a decade. Asked why China is so important, he would stretch out his hand and say, “Here is Asia: my palm is China, the Middle Kingdom; my fingers are the nations branching out from China—Japan, Korea, Indochina, the Philippines, and Indonesia.”
When China is at peace and accepts the idea of freedom and democracy, Dr. Judd would say, then all of Asia is at peace and lives in freedom. But if China builds a mighty military machine and tries to bully its neighbors, then all of Asia is threatened.
The same analogy can be applied internationally. China is at the center of global commerce and trading. It competes with the US, Russia, Japan, Germany, and the EU, among other nations. If China abides by the rules of fair trade and international law, the world is at peace and accepts China as an integral member of the community of nations.
But if China is aggressive, and not only in economic matters, then the world becomes uneasy and troubled. That is why what China does matters to everyone.
And if we want to understand China, we must understand the central role of the Communist Party in the management of China’s affairs.
So, here is a brief history lesson of China and the Party.
Beginning in the 1920s, China suffered through a brutal civil war between the Red Army of Mao Zedong and the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek. By the early 1930s, Chiang had gained the upper hand and instituted a promising program of reconstruction and economic development for the new Republic of China.
Mao holed up in Yunnan in northern China, seemingly no longer a factor in Chinese affairs. Then came a turning point in Chinese and world history—the Japanese invaded China in 1937, starting the Sino-Japanese War. Chiang and Mao reluctantly joined forces against a common enemy.
For the next eight years, the Nationalists bore the brunt of the Japanese invasion, sacrificing the lives of an estimated 2 million Chinese soldiers, but tying up as many 1 million Japanese troops. The Communists also fought, but mostly as guerrillas and when they could engage with a smaller enemy.
Again and again, the Japanese extended peace offers to Chiang but he rejected every one, confident that his strategy of “trading space for time” would eventually wear out the Japanese.
Mao’s strategy was revealed in a secret directive published a decade later: “The Sino-Japanese war affords our party an excellent opportunity for expansion. Our policy should be 70 percent expansion, 20 percent dealing with the [Nationalists], and 10 percent resisting Japan.”
With Japan’s unconditional surrender in August 1945, the Communists restarted China’s dormant civil war. At first it was official U.S. policy to support the Nationalists, consistent with pledges that President Roosevelt had made to Chiang at the Cairo Conference in November 1943. But pro-Communist American diplomats in China began to advocate a united front of Nationalists and Communists. They reassured Washington that Mao and his colleagues were simply “agrarian reformers.”
At this critical time, the Soviet Union handed over to the Chinese Communists massive amounts of arms and military equipment acquired from Japanese forces when they took control of Manchuria.
In contrast, and in an effort to bring about a coalition government, Washington embargoed the delivery of American arms to the Nationalists. When Chiang refused to join with the Chinese Communists, a frustrated President Truman announced a hands-off policy on China, contributing to an almost certain Nationalist defeat.
Throughout 1947 and 1948, city after city in China fell to the Communists until on October 1, 1949—a little over 66 years ago—Mao Zedong declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek had already left the mainland to establish a government-in-exile on Taiwan.
The US State Department denied any responsibility for the “loss of China,” but Dr. Judd and others disagreed. He pointed out that the US had contributed decisively to the fall of China to the Communists. First, with the Yalta Conference, which gave the Soviets effective control of Manchuria after promising it to Nationalist China at Cairo, and second, with the 1946-47 arms embargo that deprived the Nationalists of ammunition at a critical point in the civil war.
Years later, the distinguished columnist Joseph Alsop, who had served in China during World War II, summed up the cumulative impact of pro-Mao U.S. diplomats:
“Throughout the fateful years in China, the American representatives there actively favored the Chinese Communists. They also contributed to the weakness, both political and military, of the Nationalist Government. And in the end they came close to offering China up to the Communists, like a trussed bird on a platter, over four years before the eventual Communist triumph.”
As Dr. Judd and others knew full well, the impact of that “triumph” would be profound and long-lasting. “Communist conquest of China is a mortal peril to all Asia,” Dr. Judd warned. He was proven right first by the Korean War and then the Vietnam War, in both of which Communist China played a key supporting role.
In conclusion, the history of Communist China is the history of the Chinese Communist Party, which has been at the center of all the pivotal events of modern China, including the One Hundred Flowers Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square massacre. None of these tragedies would have happened without the endorsement and direction of the Chinese Communist Party.
With its 88 million members, the CCP is involved in every aspect of Chinese life, from schools to factories, from the countryside to the coastal regions, from the stock market to the People’s Liberation Army, from the Laogai to the People’s Daily.
Mao said that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” In China it is the Communist Party that holds the gun.
Editor’s Note: These remarks were delivered during the inaugural China Forum in Washington, D.C., on November 5, 2015.