The Opening Stage of China

At the outset of the 1960s, the newly installed Kennedy administration attempted an opening to Beijing. In early 1961, with Secretary of State Dean Rusk in command, an offer was made to exchange journalists, as I had proposed. I had talked with Rusk in the course of drafting my report [the Conlon Report] and had sent him a personal copy upon its completion. Beijing responded by asserting that the Taiwan issue had to be “settled” first, thereby postponing any forward movement. It was not until after the Ussuri River clash with the Russians in 1969 that Mao Zedong set his political and ideological proclivities aside and opted for accommodation with the United States.

Meanwhile, I had continued to seek a more sophisticated policy toward the PRC than that being pursued. I organized a conference at UC Berkeley, held on December 9, 1964, to discuss various views and options regarding Communist China. Since the participants included Henry and Clare Booth Luce on one side and Felix Greene on the other, as well as certain prominent scholars, it is not surprising that heated arguments took place, but the subject of the PRC and its current course was thoroughly explored.

During this period, I had become acquainted with Cecil Thomas, American Friends Service Committee director in the Bay Area. After the widespread attention that the Berkeley conference received, we decided to organize a second symposium in Washington, D.C., elaborate planning followed, and the conference was held at the end of April 1965. With an emphasis upon balance, speakers representing diverse views were chosen; the audience totaled more than eight hundred, and there was widespread media coverage. Once again, the effort was to explore developments in China from various perspectives and examine U.S.-China policies, past, present and future.

Several months after the Washington conference, Cecil called me, saying he wanted to talk to me about something that he had in mind. I told him that while I would be happy to talk, I could not take on additional assignments, given my heavy schedule. Nevertheless, Cecil came to the house, accompanied by his assistant, Robert Mang. The idea was to establish an organization devoted to a continuing exploration of U.S.-China relations, including all alternatives. After an hour of conversation, I said that I would call some of my colleagues to see whether they thought the idea had merit. Shortly thereafter, I talked with several close friends including Doak Barnett and Lucian Pye. The consensus was that the time might be ripe for such a project. I called Cecil and said that we could go forward, exploring the possibilities. Subsequently, on December 9, a small group met in New York, spending some four hours discussing the matter. While there was strong support for the idea of an organization, the decision was to examine the details more fully before any public action.

By April 1966, after many discussions, an organizing group had been formed, and a letter of invitation, which I signed, was sent to a hundred carefully selected people, asking them to join in creating a National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Those receiving the letter had been chosen to represent various fields and points of view; the business community, labor leaders, representatives of religious groups, and academics all were on the list. We sought, however, to avoid selecting anyone from the extreme Left or Right while still preserving ample opportunity for differences of opinion. Because we wanted the committee to be nonpartisan and outside officialdom, invitations were not sent to people in public office, national or otherwise. With some sixty of those invited agreeing to participate, the National Committee was officially launched on June 9, 1966, and I was appointed chairman, with Cecil as executive director. While most of the committee members were open to some shifts in U.S. policy toward China, we had determined that the committee would avoid taking specific policy positions, serving rather as a body exploring all available facts about China and U.S.-China relations. Our task was to move the dialogue away from the McCarthy era, reaching out both to the general public and to policy leaders.

Funding was a major challenge, but ultimately sizeable grants from the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund, and the Ford Foundation were forthcoming. We organized meetings in a variety of places, contacted diverse Asians through trips to Japan and elsewhere, and in February 1968, eight of us, including six scholars, met with President Lyndon Johnson at the White House to discuss our China policy. Despite his preoccupation with Vietnam, the president was receptive, and urged us to keep in contact. Meetings with other national and international leaders followed.

Thus was the foundation laid for the role of the National Committee in the visit of the Chinese Ping-Pong players to the United States in 1971. At this point, China had opened the window if not the door to interaction with the United States, and the Ping-Pong team was the first card played. The State Department asked the committee to host the team, and they were accompanied throughout the country by committee representatives. Consequently, the PRC government decided to invite the National Committee board of directors as guests in 1972, with the date set in December, some months after the Nixon visit.

The trip was truly memorable. I was no longer chairman, that position being held by Alex Eckstein, an economist teaching at the University of Michigan, with Jan Berris as a very able executive. Tragically, Cecil had been killed in an automobile accident in Africa. Our group was fifteen in number with three wives, including my wife Dee, accompanying board members. We were to take a train from Hong Kong through the New Territories to the PRC border, thence to Canton (Guangzhou). This was the only route available to Americans at that time. Our group filled half of a railroad car; the other half was occupied by a group of New York radicals who sang revolutionary songs lustily as we moved toward the border. Finally, we stopped in the middle of a tunnel and were met by uniformed and armed Red soldiers. Disembarking, we were escorted to VIP quarters, while the revolutionaries were put in the regular entry line with Hong Kong amahs and others. We heard no more songs! After a rest, we were taken to a train en route to Canton. At an early point, officials asked Alex, “What is the order of your delegation?” Somewhat startled, Alex responded, “We don’t have an order. We are all equal.” The response, “Oh, but you must have an order since we have seven cars in Canton with which to transport you.” So our visit to a proletarian state began!

Our place on the train was clearly reserved for dignitaries, with big leather chairs and ample space for one’s feet. Delicious green tea was served while we viewed the countryside from the windows. The area from the border to Canton was intensely cultivated, with a wide range of crops. This was still a premechanized era for the region. Labor was human and buffalo, with men and women working bare-legged in the fields, pulling carts, carrying large bundles of straw, and tending to such animals as cows and ducks. Certain villages gave evidence of some new structures, but most seemed run-down, with houses made of mud, brick, and plaster. People were dressed in the familiar blue tunics or, in some cases, gray or black pants and white undershirts; much of the clothing was patched. Footwear was scarce except for simple sandals. Yet for the most part, the people looked reasonably healthy and adequately fed. Political sloganeering in the villages seemed on the wane, with most posted slogans badly faded and few fresh ones to be seen. We saw very few vehicles on the road, only an occasional truck. We saw some soldiers in the larger villages. As we approached Canton, signs of industrialization came into view along with extensive pollution, including red-dyed streams.

We had our first discussions with local Party officials shortly after reaching Canton. When we inquired about education, they told us that the university had just reopened, and everything was on an experimental basis. “Everyone wants to go into the army,” they said when we asked about youthful desires. “You learn a skill there,” our informant quickly added. “You also go out of patriotic motives.” Young men were drafted at eighteen years of age and served two years. When we went to the recently opened revolutionary museum, Mao—flanked by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin—was eulogized; those ousted during the early stages of the Cultural Revolution were nowhere to be seen. Lin Biao, Liu Shaoqi, and others purged had been scrubbed out of the pictures; only Zhou Enlai, Kang Sheng, Dong Biwu , and several others were pictured with the Great Leader.

During the first evening’s dinner, I overstepped the bounds of permissible political discussion. I first commented that parading those accused of misconduct through the streets in dunce caps was likely to create permanent wounds, especially with reports that some of those accused were later exonerated. The host at our table said that cadres learned from the errors committed, and it was a cardinal principle of the Party to accept criticism from the people. I continued by saying that in the United States, “the people” were all citizens irrespective of their views, whereas in China, it appeared that the masses were divided into “the people” and “enemies of the people.” Who determined those who were expressing the voice of the people? My respondent answered quickly, “The Central Committee makes that determination.” I responded that the top could be wrong. Even Chairman Mao had evidently made mistakes such as in the selection of Lin Biao as his successor.

That overstepped the bounds of permissible discussion, and the Beijing Foreign Affairs Institute representative with whom I had been conversing abruptly rose to toast the guests at the next table. Later, I proposed my own toast, stating that the American and Chinese people had been separated from each other too long, that in our country, frank and open discussion was a mark of friendship, and while our opinions would differ with our Chinese friends on certain matters, I and others looked forward to the widening of our mutual dialogue. However, the evening gave me a fairly clear idea of what boundaries should not be overstepped if one wished to continue a political dialogue.

The next day, we toured the Canton Fair and various other sites in the city, and in the afternoon, we took a lengthy walk. Though seemingly adequately fed and provided for, the great majority of people wore drab blue or dark clothes. Tremendous curiosity greeted us as we walked, with crowds gathering around us on occasions. At this point, foreigners of any type were extremely rare. We were treated not in hostile or friendly fashion but with intense curiosity, as if we had come from Mars.

I had started to take down prices in stores and compare them with wages, concerning which I queried our escorts. My general conclusion after a few days was that the urban worker could manage insofar as the necessities were concerned, with two products—grain and cloth—rationed, and rents reasonably low. Affluence, however, was not to be seen. Moreover, the contrast between Canton and Hong Kong was dramatic. Hong Kong had hustle and bustle, neon lights, and extensive traffic. In contrast, Canton symbolized quietude, drabness, and aloofness from others, especially outsiders.

It was on to Beijing via air. As a Soviet-built plane arrived at the Canton airport, I asked Han, who was accompanying us, whether there was any difficulty in obtaining parts, and he responded, “Yes, and that is why we are determined upon the course of self-reliance.” When we arrived in Beijing, we were met by a sizeable group from the People’s Institute and People’s Friendship Association, headed by the vice president of Peking University, Zhou Peiyuan, and his wife. Zhou, a 1928 graduate of Cal Tech and a physicist by training, had thus far weathered the storm. Early the next morning, five of us took a walk along the wide main streets and one of Beijing’s numerous hutong, a traditional alley bounded on either side by ancient gates and walls. Again, I sought to compare prices and wages. This being winter, some items such as vegetables were not cheap. Later, after breakfast, we took a tour of Beijing’s monumental Tiananmen Square and the magnificent Temple of Heaven. In contrast, the new Russian buildings were strikingly unattractive.

We were also taken to a show factory that specialized in making artifacts of diverse types. We were briefed on the nature of the plant’s Revolutionary Committee and the political meetings held three times a week for workers. Posters, loudspeakers, meetings—what do they mean for the individual worker: enthusiasm? Boredom? If we must, we must? I could not determine.

The following day, we climbed the Great Wall and ended with a dinner hosted by some of the Ping-Pong players who had visited the United States. After a delicious meal and maotai unlimited, I returned to the hotel, took two Alka Seltzer, and went to bed. On our next day in Beijing, we began with a tour of Tsinghua University, which included discussions with faculty and a quick examination of facilities, including the library. It developed that the university had ceased enrolling students in the opening years of the Cultural Revolution because “the educational methods employed were antiquated,” and started to enroll students again only in 1970.

At the library I asked, “What happens to the writings of someone like Liu Shaoqi when he is declared a revisionist and ousted from the Party?” The answer: “His works are not taken out of the library, but his card file is removed.” In the library, I saw a small stand containing a display of Western works, possibly set up for our visit. It included The Tale of Marco Polo as well as works by Jack Belden, Edgar Snow, Owen Lattimore, and Anna Louise Strong—a collection scarcely representative of American writing on modern China!

Shortly thereafter, we were taken to Shenyang and Anshan in Manchuria. It was intensely cold, but the inhabitants seemed amply dressed for the weather. Again, the curiosity regarding foreigners was intense. On the morning after our arrival in Anshan, I left the guest house alone to go into a nearby store to take down prices. When I entered, there were no customers. Suddenly, people began to pour in—to look at me. After scores had entered, I fled, moving rapidly up a hill until I had lost everyone except one young man. Finally, I stopped, and in my rudimentary Chinese, asked, “Do you know who I am?” Silence, then “Albanian?” Never before nor since have I been confused with an Albanian, but Albania was China’s only friend at the time.

Visiting an Anshan factory, we were told that the Guomindang had destroyed many plants in the region, with no mention of the oft-repeated assertion that the Russians had taken away much industrial equipment. When confronted with this matter, our informant insisted that the Guomindang had destroyed this factory, but he acknowledged that the Russians had removed equipment from the area. Moreover, when I called his attention to a toy aircraft hoisted above the roof, I laughingly asked, “Who is the enemy—the United States, the USSR, or Japan?” I then said that because the plane was headed northeast, it must be Japan. He quickly stated, “The Japanese are not our immediate problem.” I then said, “The Russians?” He replied, “It is a fact that the Russians have large numbers of troops on our borders. That fact cannot be denied.” This was but one indication among many that the Chinese were deeply concerned about the post-Stalin USSR, especially after the Ussuri River clash.

We bantered about the slogans hung high over the main factory floor: Continue the Revolutionary Struggle; Liberate Taiwan; and People of the World Unite! I told him that I could at least support the latter slogan providing I was allowed to interpret it. In touring the factories, I was impressed with the diligence of the workers but distressed over the lack of safety equipment and the grim conditions. Throughout our visit to Manchuria, we continued a dialogue with various guides and mentors, covering a wide range of subjects—from economic conditions in the region to domestic politics and foreign relations. Knowledge and ignorance abetted by ideological considerations were intertwined. For example, it was asserted that Moscow hoped to see a pro-Soviet faction emerge after Mao’s death. With respect to Taiwan, one of our hosts insisted that China could help Taiwan develop and that the Taiwanese were yearning for liberation.

On December 19, we returned to Beijing. The following day, after another morning visiting historic sites, we had a detailed briefing on the current status of Chinese commerce and agriculture—informative and misinformative, especially with respect to the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the PRC economy. The following day, we met with Wu Yushen, vice president of the Academy of Sciences. A day later, we had a lengthy meeting with the Central Institute of National Minorities. Yet the most revealing meeting was one at Peking University on December 23. A number of professors were seated around the table, but the person who gave the briefing was a young man with Party rather than academic credentials. We received an unequivocal message of support for the Cultural Revolution and its impact on the university. Our informant asserted that the purpose of the Cultural Revolution was to unite, educate, and remold the teaching staff. Previously, the faculty had been separated from the workers, the peasant masses, and working conditions. To change this, they were sent down to the countryside and into factories to take part in productive labor.

At one point, I had been sufficiently disturbed by this account to raise a question. “You closed the university for four years at a time when China needed people trained in such fields as science and technology, and for the most part, research was stopped. Did not this action cause grave damage to China’s forward economic development and also cause the people who were left out of the educational process for those years to feel cheated?” The answer was stern: “The word ‘cheat’ is a bad word. The university in the New China does not cheat people. Those faculty and students involved in that period received a political education. If it had not been for the Cultural Revolution, we would have become revisionists like those in the USSR.” Then, for the first time, he turned to one of the professors and said, “Don’t you agree, Professor Zhou?” Zhou said, “Yes, of course.” Some years later, I was told that my remarks had circulated on campus, much to different people’s amusement—and support.

In the afternoon, we met with Vice Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua. We had been scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, but the U.S. bombing of the Hanoi vicinity caused that meeting to be cancelled, although a different excuse was given. Qiao expressed hope for an expansion of unofficial contacts, but ruled out official relations or Chinese studying in the United States as long as Washington recognized the ROC. He also expressed opposition to the partial test ban treaty with the Soviet Union and asked why only the United States, the USSR, and Great Britain should be allowed to possess nuclear weapons? Then, he expressed the hope that PRC-Japan relations would improve, given the recent establishment of diplomatic relations, but he was less hopeful regarding relations with the Soviet Union, indicating that no progress had been achieved in recent talks. Indeed, throughout his remarks, he recurrently voiced a distrust of Russia, including the statement that China owed Khrushchev a debt “because he forced us to seek self-reliance.” With regard to Party politics, he insisted that a person would not be expelled from the Party for differing on a single issue, as in the case of Liu Shaoqi. In general, Qiao set forth in clear fashion the PRC’s current position with respect to both domestic and international politics.

That evening, Qiao attended the dinner hosted by Peking University Vice President Zhou, and we continued our conversation. I remember one memorable remark. Qiao was strong in his praise for President Nixon and his efforts to improve Sino-American relations. I commented that although Nixon should be given full credit for his policies, earlier, at the beginning of President Kennedy’s administration, the United States had made overtures to China such as suggesting the exchange of journalists. Qiao’s response astonished us. “I don’t like any of the Kennedys,” he asserted. “They didn’t understand Asia. They have just tried to use it for their own political purposes.” At the time, I was puzzled. Later, I decided that Qiao’s wrath was directed at Ted Kennedy, who had supported India in the China-India conflict that had erupted a few years earlier.

On Christmas Day, we flew to Nanjing. Our stay there involved a one-hour trip from the city to the October People’s Commune. We had an interesting discussion with the chairman of the Commune Revolutionary Committee and some associates. He told us that the commune had some 3,500 households with more than 16,000 people. The chairman had numerous statistics, the gist of which was that crop production had greatly improved, with living standards rising; mechanization had increased; and work points were based on the quality as well as the volume of work, with one-half of the allotment as compensation for labor in grain and other products, one-half in money. Private plots now accounted for only 5-7 percent of the total cultivated area. This was clearly a Commune selected for visitors. In several private conversations, however, we were told that even in this showplace, the average yearly income was only 130 yuan per capita, although the official figure that had been given us was three times that amount. In Nanjing as elsewhere, concern about the Russians was clear. Repeatedly, we were asked, “Do you think that they will attack us?”

Soon, it was off to Shanghai. Here, we were introduced to China’s ongoing efforts to advance industrial production, visiting several large factories. Later, we went to Fudan University where once again the briefing was given by a young man whose title was vice chairman of the University Revolutionary Committee but who was oblivious to meaningful higher education and who had all the grace of a boar. The key theme was one that we had heard a number of times before: in former times, students learned only from books; now they and the faculty were sent to factories, to the countryside, to commercial shops so that they could come back to the university with enlarged practical knowledge.

In the English class, while a dialogue was taking place, I borrowed the English-language book that had been prepared for practice from one of the students. The contents were shocking. Two themes were prominent: total sacrifice for the “fatherland” and hatred for “the enemy.” As I read on, the chief enemy was the Soviet Union, but there were negative sections about Great Britain, Japan, and the United States, the latter being blamed for the Vietnam War (this might not have been the complaint a few years later, when China invaded that nation!).

I left Fudan University in a state of deep depression. That evening, after dinner, we were taken to an opera, Song of the Dragon River. In it, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” were presented in totally white and black dimensions. On the way back to our quarters, I pondered a central question. What we had seen and heard centered on pure ideology; on the other hand, much that was going on in China was infinitely more complex, containing diverse motivations—personal, economic, and political. How would the contrasts be reconciled?

On December 29, we were taken to another model commune, about twenty-five miles from the city. In the detailed briefing, we were told that twelve successive years of bumper harvests had greatly increased grain production. Further, a hospital had been set up and new schools built, with eighteen middle and primary schools now in operation. Only about 5 percent of the cultivated land was private property. Moreover, yearly income was only 170 yuan per capita. The following day, we were given a detailed briefing on Shanghai’s role in the Cultural Revolution from its beginnings to the current scene. Included were supportive remarks about the role of Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) and her compatriots, who were later to be known as the Gang of Four. Their primary effort had been to oust the moderates, starting with Deng Xiaoping, with considerable initial success.

On January 1, we were taken by air to Hangzhou, where we had a chance to see some beautiful scenery. Our stay here was mainly sightseeing; a few days later, we left for Canton. Once again, on the day following our arrival, we were taken to a rural commune, and in the days that followed, we visited factories and Zhongshan University. Little new was revealed in the various conversations that took place. At the university, the theme was praise for the Cultural Revolution, which had put teaching “on the right track” and repudiated the “counter-revolutionary line” of Liu Shaoqi. It was acknowledged that at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, a few students were killed or injured and much property had been damaged, but after the students “received education from Chairman Mao’s line,” violence ceased. The university had closed down in June 1966, and although a workers’ team came in mid-1968, the first graduates, few in number, did not emerge until 1970. At that time, the Philosophy Department had added politics to its discipline. As the chair of the department said, “During the past two years, we have persisted in implementing the principle of putting politics in command of knowledge, and also of uniting theory and practice.” Hence, a student had to spend one-third of the time in work off campus.

On January 6, we departed by train for Hong Kong. When we arrived, we knew we were back in an open society—the noise, confusion, and color were almost frightening. We scrambled with others to get a taxi, and finally climbed into one. The driver immediately asked, “What did you think of China?” We merely said that it was very interesting, whereupon he said, “I was born in Shanghai, but I will never go back. It is all right for tourists, yet they want everyone to think like them and support Chairman Mao, but we don’t. Everyone in Hong Kong feels that way.” Probably “everyone” was an exaggeration, but it was easy to see why a majority would prefer leaving the PRC at this point to foreign tourists.

This piece was adapted from Robert Scalapino's memoirs, From Leavenworth to Lhasa.