China has second thoughts on Mao's `great' triumph

Party historians are rewriting the official version of the Korean War, writes Teresa Poole in Peking
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The Independent Online
For decades, Chinese schoolchildren have been drilled in the history of China's "glorious victory" in the 1950-53 Korean War against the "imperialist" forces of America, a war that is always blamed in official Chinese accounts on a US-backed South Korean invasion.

Now, however, a very different Chinese history of the period has been published by a party journal, contradicting much of the orthodox view and showing how Chairman Mao was repeatedly manipulated and outwitted by Stalin.

The author writes how Stalin gave Mao a supposed power of veto over the war, that senior Chinese generals and Politburo members had serious misgivings about the whole venture, and that Mao disregarded the advice of his senior military commander in North Korea.

The 33-page three-part series has appeared in a new magazine called Hundred Year Tide, which is written by academics at the Central Party History Research Centre. It should be viewed against the backdrop of the internal foreign policy and military debate in China over the Taiwan issue and Sino-US relations.

Publication of the articles suggests that historians and foreign policy activists on the reformist wing of the party are confident enough to offer a revisionist version of this episode in Chinese history. It remains to be seen what other historical subjects will also be tackled.

This particular rewriting of history would seem to have had its genesis last year, after China's hawkish missile tests off Taiwan dismayed those who would argue for a more conciliatory posture towards Taiwan and the United States.

But it has also emerged at a time when China is seeking to play an effective role in defusing tensions on the Korean peninsula. By coincidence, this setting straight of the official record has caught the outside world's attention just as Peking prepares to take part in the four-party peace talks this week in New York aimed at securing a formal peace settlement to the Korean War.

The author uses the name Qing Shi, which sounds the same as "Clear History" in Chinese. He writes that in April 1949, Mao had requested 200 aircraft and pilot-training from the Soviet Union in support of his plan to take Taiwan from the Nationalist Kuomintang. The Soviet response was "ambiguous". Soon afterwards, North Korea asked Stalin for military support for its plans to invade South Korea, and the Soviet Union chose to back Pyongyang.

The articles reveal that in May 1950, Kim Il Sung, the North Korea ruler, arrived secretly in Peking, after being told by Stalin to secure Mao's go-ahead for his plan to unify Korea. Kim told Mao that he already had Stalin's backing, but that the final approval must be China's. Mao was "very annoyed that he had been kept in the dark" about this pact, but agreed to the invasion plan. China promised to send troops if American soldiers entered the war. In June 1950, Mao saw his Taiwan ambitions collapse when the US Seventh Fleet sailed into the Taiwan Strait.

"After the death of Stalin, Mao repeatedly complained about Stalin's wrong decision on the Korean War. He called it a big mistake, 100 per cent wrong. Maybe Mao was thinking, without this mistake, the Taiwan problem would not have been stuck in such a dilemma and the Chinese Communist Party would have liberated Taiwan at half the cost it spent on the Korean War," writes Mr Qing.

Rejecting the official Chinese view that the war was started by a South Korean invasion, the articles state that it was North Korean forces which crossed the border in June 1950 in a successful aggressive assault. Stalin encouraged China to gather its "volunteer" forces along its border with North Korea. When the United Nations troops turned the tide and forced back the North Korea soldiers, "Mao still thought, with Soviet air protection and Soviet military equipment, it was not difficult to defeat the Americans, and if the Chinese troops won in North Korea, the US would not dare to attack China."

Mao's most senior officials and generals thought otherwise. They opposed sending troops and military leaders expressed "lack of confidence in confronting the US," reveals Mr Qing. The role of the Soviet Union as described by these articles is not one usually aired in China. "The Korean War was basically good for Soviet interests in Far East Asia, and that was why Stalin encouraged China to help North Korea ..."

Moscow, still refusing to put its own troops in North Korea, promised to back China if Washington subsequently declared war against Peking. Zhou Enlai was sent to negotiate in Moscow, where Stalin warned: "If your decision is not to send in troops, then socialism in North Korea will soon collapse." That would mean an exiled North Korean government in north- east China, which would put Chinese soil under threat from the US.

Mao gave the go-ahead and in October 1950 Chinese troops swept into North Korea, driving back the UN forces. Mao quickly became over-confident, setting hopelessly ambitious conditions for a ceasefire including Taiwan's expulsion from the UN.

General Peng Dehuai advised Mao to let the Chinese troops halt at the 38th parallel, and recover their strength to fight the following spring. He refused, and the battle recommenced. By 1951, China was suffering serious reverses and heavy casualties. Still Stalin told Mao: "... the Korean War should not be quickened, because Chinese troops can learn about modern war in a lengthy one".

By the July 1953 truce, Peking had won none of its demands and any chance to retake Taiwan had evaporated. The historical reminder on offer from the authors would seem to be that hopes for reunification with Taiwan are ill-served by bad Sino-US relations - then and now.