Convincing the masses
By October 1949, when Chairman Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Chinese people had been at war intermittently either with a major foreign power or with one another for over a century, since the arrival of British steamships started the first Opium War in 1842. The so-called “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign imperialism—first European, then Japanese—was also a century of civil war. The civil war in the 1850s and 1860s spawned by the Taiping rebellion killed tens of millions, and the civil war fought between Mao’s Communists and Chiang Kaishek’s Nationalists forces from 1945 to 1949 devastated large parts of the country. To an impoverished, war-weary populace, Mao’s victory over Chiang, and the expulsion of the Nationalist to Taiwan, rose the alluring prospect of, at long last, a period of peace.
All the more reason why Mao’s decision to commit Chinese forces to the Korean War in October 1950, exactly one year after the birth of Red China, must have generated mixed feelings among the Chinese population. Although Korean communist guerrillas had fought against Japan from bases in China, and Chinese Communist forces received support from North Korea during early stages of the civil war against the Nationalists, relatively speaking only a small segment of the Chinese population had a feeling of connectedness with the Koreans, and those would have been concentrated in the northeast. For the average citizen of the newly minted People’s Republic, Korea was remote. And the notion of passing on the peace dividend of 1949 in order to “defend Korea and resist America”—in other words, take on yet another major foreign power—must have been hard to swallow.
The historian Zhao Ma at Washington University in St. Louis Missouri is doing fascinating research work on precisely this question—how did Mao convince the Chinese masses to fight yet another battle, this one ostensibly on behalf of their Korean brothers. Zhao is looking, for example, at a famous Chinese propaganda film produced during the Korean War (fans of contemporary Chinese art will be intrigued to learn that the film’s script writer was Ai Qing, father of the famous artist Ai Weiwei). He points out how the film describes Kim’s revolution as a mirror image of Mao’s, and then appeals to Chinese viewer’s sense of international communist solidarity in order to win their support of the war effort. You can watch the documentary for yourself in this step’s related link (although you might want to find a friend who speaks Chinese, if you don’t yet know Mandarin yourself, to watch with you).
Through rigorous research into archival materials, Zhao is discovering many other important aspects of the war mobilization and propaganda campaign—including plentiful evidence of how Chinese people remained skeptical and unconvinced. For the full version of Zhao Ma’s findings, we will have to wait for the publication of his book-in-progress, Seditious Voices in Revolutionary Beijing, 1950-1953.
Of course, the “masses”, as they were heroically called, who bore the brunt and paid the price of Mao’s decision to send China back to war were the soldiers of the Chinese People’s Volunteer army. Even the all-powerful U.S. Army struggled to keep its troops in Korea well-fed and supplied, particularly in the brutally cold conditions of winter war in the mountainous north of the peninsula. The Chinese forces had to fight just as hard but with even less—sometimes relying on “mass warfare” tactics in which the sheer number of lightly armed infantry overwhelmed American defensive positions, but at horrifying loss of life for the “victorious” Chinese units. Although the Chinese were separated from Korea by a river, rather than an ocean, the sense of fighting someone else’s war and dying on someone else’s land was not unique to dismayed American soldiers in Korea.
© John Delury