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Mao’s China and the Cold War

March 22, 2010

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

Patrick Deegan (2004)

Chen’s purpose is two-fold. He is interested in reviewing new documents emerging from China, including memoirs and oral accounts. Secondly, Chen is concerned with how these new documents impact the historical understanding of China’s part in the Cold War, the various roles ideology played during the period, and to better understand the dynamic between Mao’s revolution and China’s foreign policy.(2) These three themes are brought to light in nine “case studies” that focus primarily on China’s rise in the global political arena and the intrigues that accompanied that rise.

At the heart of Chen’s book is the thesis debunking “America’s Lost Chance in China.” The theory, in short, claiming that the U.S. anti-Communist and pro-KMT stance, along with China’s vulnerable ties to the Soviet Union, were clumsily handled and a U.S.-China partnership lost in the bungling. Chen argues that Mao’s China, on the contrary, never sought any ties with the U.S., and even suggests the U.S., as representative of Western Imperialism, was anathema to Mao’s China. From the very beginning it seems Mao never wanted close working ties to the U.S..

Part of this argument’s success is derived from a tacit argument by Chen on China’s “Central Kingdom concept,” and how this concept evolved into a Chinese “victim mentality” and fear of “big power chauvinism.” The loss of face at the end of the Qing to Western imperial forces becomes a part of an inferiority complex in Mao’s China. This self-image of China affects both domestic policy and international policy. In the latter, Chen argues this position best when describing China’s relationship to Soviet policy as it pertained to Mao’s continuous revolution, but can also be seen in Mao’s resistance to U.S. imperialism especially as viewed in the intrigues during the Korean War. In all cases, Mao is aggressively defensive, or defensively aggressive in his drive to remake China’s global image.

The guiding theme of Chen’s book is more than debunking one myth. It is about the dynamic connection between Mao’s foreign policy and his domestic policy, and between Mao’s ideology and its formative part in China’s history. All are inextricably connected, and never can one part function without influencing the other. This sheds important light on, among other things, China’s role in Eastern Europe as it relates to Mao’s continuous revolution, Mao’s Communist ideology, and China’s relationship with the Soviet Union. It also offers insight into the machinations involved in China’s shelling of Jinmen, as well as its early involvement in the successive wars in Vietnam. Lastly, Chen apparently confirms a “big man” theory of history as well as ideology as an active force.

While Chen goes a great distance in offering convincing explanations for Mao’s foreign policy choices, importantly this shows that agency may in fact lead to destruction, thus addressing historians interested in apologies via agency. Mao is still the central figure of this work, yet Chen’s characterization of Mao relies heavily on secondary sources. Lastly, though Chen debunks the “Lost Chance” myth, the narrative of the book ultimately concludes with the U.S. and China coming together. While not contradictory to a debunking, it gives the impression that the “Lost Chance” was really merely a “deferred inevitability.” If this is the case, none of the reviewers seem to think the less for it (cf. Markey Political Science Quaterly 117.2; Li China Review International 9.2), and all acknowledge Chen’s breakthrough in revisionary histories of China.

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