Mao and Zhou Enlai- the artisans of Chinese Foreign Policy

Mao proclaiming the Creation of the People's Republic of China

Mao proclaiming the Creation of the People’s Republic of China

October 1st 1949 was the date that Chairman Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China. China was just coming after a costly war against the Empire of Japan, and moreover, after a hardly fought civil war between Mao’s communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. Shortly after the Communists obtained a firm grip on the country they found themselves dragged in another major conflict.

In 1950, the Korean war begun. Chinese actions during the Korean War were triggered mainly by the leadership’s view on the United States. “Beijing’s management of the Korean crisis was based primarily on the Chinese Communist’s perception of America’s threat on Chinese national security.”  (FENG). Mao was challenging the West for the first time.

At the beginning Mao tried to seek the help of the Soviet Union, as it was the first socialist state. However, the Sino-Soviet ideological dispute marked a tremendous shift in the international order during the Cold War. The two communist giants disagreed on several aspects such as the presence of Soviet soldiers on Chinese soil (as Khrushchev proposed) or the position of leading state in the Socialist camp. The Sino-Soviet ideological dispute made two important victims in the highest ranks of the Communist Party: Liu Shaoqi, China’s forgotten president and author of How to be a good Communist, and Lin Biao, Mao’s designated heir and author of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung or The little Red Book, title through which it is more commonly known.

Liu Shaoqi

Liu Shaoqi

Taiwan has been China’s most delicate international dispute. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists retreated on the island of Taiwan after the Communist victory where they proclaimed the Republic of China. During Mao’s reign there were two crisis situations regarding the Taiwan Strait in 1954-1955 and in 1958. Both occasions saw the shelling of tampon islands that delimitated Taiwan from mainland China. They did not end in an all-out invasion by Beijing. The consequences of the Taiwanese Crisis were multiple. The first one was the formal resumption of Sino-American diplomatic relations, which eventually paved the way for the Kissinger-Zhou meetings, and later on for the Mao-Nixon ones. Another consequence is the influence the domestic policies had in respect with this particular crisis. “The state-society relationship mainly denotes the interactions between government and civil society, especially the impact of the latter on political elites.”(JIAN)

1962 brings China yet another challenge. Even before this year, there have been serious quarrels with India concerning the designated border between the two countries. “The Sino-Indian border crisis concerned two territories located in the high Himalayas in the trackless and largely uninhabitable region of plateaus amidst forbidding mountains between Tibet and India.” (Kissinger)  This conflict arose due to the fact that the Indian authorities recognized only a line of demarcation set by the previous British colonial rulers. Despite during this war no aircraft were used, the Chinese casualties did not exceed 2000 and also no Chinese soldier was captured by the Indians, which is a rarity in war history. “On the whole, China’s victory was characterized as an example of a good strategy and strong initiative in campaign art (zhanyi zhudong quan).” (Burkitt p. 23) Like the United States did in Korea, India underestimated the power of the Chinese Army and forced a military confrontation. The Sino-Indian conflict proved the strength of the People’s Liberation Army and the determination of the Chinese state to defend its sovereign territory. It was a warning directed against both the Soviets and the Americans.

China was seen by the West as the revolutionary state by definition. It was conceived even more dangerous than the Soviet Union, as its leadership was portrayed as the most volatile and aggressive communist entity. Despite the severe ideological differences the impossible occurred in 1971, when Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor met the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, in Beijing. The next year marked Nixon’s historical visit in China. His visit marked the turning point in the Cold War. . From Nixon’s meetings with Mao and Zhou Enlai, the most important outcome was the Shanghai Communique. It was a joint declaration that stipulated the will of both sides to normalize relations between themselves. By far, the most important article of this Statement, was that concerning the anti-hegemonic stance adopted by both parties: “neither [side] should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony.”  (KISSINGER).

Zhou Enlai and Nixon

Zhou Enlai and Nixon

The Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

Cultural Revolution Propaganda Poster

Cultural Revolution Propaganda Poster


Internally China underwent a rapid Soviet-style industrialization. Agriculture was collectivized, massive industrial complexes were built and all private property was confiscated. Mao tried to skip the steps that the Soviets planned to the construction of Socialism, and thus The Great Leap Forward was envisioned. From 1958 to 1961, Mao sought to surpass the British Empire in steel production and transform China in a communist society. However, the results were catastrophic. The policy lead to the biggest man made famine in history. An estimate of 43 million Chinese citizens died due to the Great Leap Forward. The other destructive policy implemented by Mao was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution which begun in 1966 and ended in 1976. The Chinese society fell into chaos, and the sole beneficiary was Mao, who by implementing this policy managed to rescue his grip on power. Violence was the word of that troubled time. “Yet the official policy was clear: yao wendou bu yao wudou (engage in the struggle with words but not physical attack.”  (GAO). Children went against their parents, students against professors and all culture was turned upside down. China also fell into isolation on the international arena, which hampered the rapprochement with America, but did not stop it.

Deng Xiaoping and Socialism with Chinese characteristics


Deng Xiaoping

Deng Xiaoping

The shift in power, that followed the Chairman’s death, did not mean the continuation of his ideology, nor did it mean the perpetuation of his domestic policies. Deng Xiaoping embarked in modernizing China through reform. The first steps that the new paramount leader took, were that of economic reform. He envisioned the creation of the so called special economic zones; zones in which free trade was allowed. Deng Xiaoping named this “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” All the Chinese state worked for its own transformation and opening to the world. In 1985, a sudden economic boom occurred due to the reforms undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party. Despite this boom, it had proven to have its own side-effects such as massive inflation. In this unstable environment, there emerged prosperous small-scale businesses.

The war with Vietnam- Deng punishes China’s former ally.

The third Vietnam War was an important endeavor on which Deng Xiaoping embarked in 1979. Deng, which, by this time had not yet consolidated his position in the Chinese Communist Party had to make key decision regarding China’s strategic future. Deng was worried by Hanoi’s plan for the creation of the Indochina state under its patronage. The war was short, with high casualties on the Chinese side due to the vast politicization that took place during the Cultural Revolution and also because the People’s Liberation Army had bad logistics and old technology. Nevertheless, a comparable force with that of the Korean intervention was assembled and sent to Vietnam. After capturing some province capitals on the border, the People’s Liberation Army retreated, and declared the action a total success. The looser of this conflict was the Soviet Union as it was unable to protect its ally, Vietnam.

Hong Kong and Tiananmen


Tiananmen Square Protests


Hong Kong


The issue of the return of Hong Kong has been decided during Deng’s leadership, despite its actual return came in 1997. Deng Xiaoping was a promoter of the One Country, Two Systems principle.

In 1985 a joint Sino-British declaration was signed concerning the future of Hong Kong based on the “One Country, Two Systems” principle. Deng Xiaoping was a pragmatic and visionary politician that saw the importance of Hong Kong as opening market for Chinese products. This is the reason for the strong Chinese appeal towards the regaining of Hong Kong. The Tiananmen Square incidents were the red stain on the face of the Reformed People’s Republic. . “It all began with the death of Hu Yaobang. Deng had overseen his rise in 1981 to General Secretary, the highest leadership post of the Communist Party.”  Hu was seen as a figure of liberalization and reform. Angry students on the current inflation, corruption and on the fact that the elder party leaders were still leading China from the shadow gathered in Tiananmen Square to express their grievances. This was possible due to the liberalization reform undertaken by Deng. (KISSINGER) . “The Mandate of Heaven (an old Chinese idea suggesting that the Heavens approve of leaders as long as they maintain order), in a form of Communist rule, was sacrosanct.”(Hay)   Under this principle, the Communist Party decided that the Square should be cleared of protesters, which had in fact, happened. The People’s Liberation Army violently crushed the protests.

The Cold War ends- the birth of the Chinese dream.


The Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier

The end of the Cold War found China as one of the few surviving Socialist states. All three presidents that followed Deng, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and now Xi Jinping further enhanced the Paramount Leader’s economic reform. The Chinese Communist Party has maintained the Socialism with Chinese characteristics principle in its ideology. The “Chinese dream” is a new ideological approach inspired by the corresponding American notion. Every Chinese citizen should be able to have a good life, a safe life. However, poverty is a big issue in China, despite the good standard of life in big cities. The rural area is still extremely poor. Militarily, China enhances its naval, aerial and land capabilities, the People’s Liberation Army, gradually becoming a force to be reckoned with. The best example is the Liaoning, China’s new Aircraft Carrier. With the current protests in Hong Kong, unemployment, unrest in Xinjiang, Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption in the party, China faces new challenges. Further articles will reveal interesting aspects about nowadays China.


BURKITT, Laurie, Andrew Scobell, Larry M. Wortzel (editors), The lessons of History: The Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, Carliste, 2003.

FENG, Huiyun, CHINESE STRATEGIC CULTURE AND FOREIGN POLICY DECISION-MAKING Confucianism, leadership and war, Routledge, London and New York, 2007.

GAO, Mobo, The battle for China’s past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, Pluto Press, London, Ann Arbor, 2008.

JIAN, Chen, Mao’s China and the Cold War, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 2001.

KISSINGER, Henry, On China, The Penguin Press, New York, 2011.

HAY, Jeff, (editor), Perspectives on Modern World History, The Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, Greenhaven Press, Detroit, 2010.

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