Huang Hua: Politician and diplomat who played a leading role in bringing China out of international isolation

Martin Childs
Tuesday 07 December 2010 01:00

Huang Hua played a pivotal role in shaping China's modern foreign policy, helping to restore diplomatic relations with the United States, playing a significant role in thawing China's frosty relations with the Soviet Union and also participating in the talks that ended the Korean War. He enjoyed a number of ambassadorial roles, and was China's first permanent representative to the United Nations. Huang went on to become foreign minister and vice premier. The former US Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, admired Huang's "diplomatic skills, subtlety and tenacity" and described him "as one of the ablest public servants I have ever met" and "a trusted friend".

The son of a teacher, Huang was born Wang Rumei just after the fall of the Qing dynasty in Hebei province in northern China. He studied at the American mission-run Yanjing University in Beijing, and secretly joined the then-underground Chinese Communist Party in 1936, just before the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) which was to devastate the country. It was then that he changed his name to Huang Hua. While at university, he demonstrated against Japanese aggression in China and helped found the December 9th Movement, named after the date of an anti-Japanese protest in Beijing.

In 1936, Huang was given the opportunity to serve as an interpreter for the American journalist Edgar Snow, who had arranged to travel to the communist-controlled region of northern Shaanxi, then under blockade by the Nationalist Chinese government. Huang translated Snow's notes into Chinese and showed them to Mao to determine if they were accurate. Snow's work resulted in the book Red Star over China (1937), which was widely credited with introducing the communists and their leadership, and in particular Mao Zedong, to the rest of the world. Although Snow denied any bias, he was later accused of writing communist propaganda, and eventually emigrated to Switzerland, where he died in 1972. Huang visited him shortly before his death.

After working with Snow, Huang remained in the region to aid the revolution. In the 1940s he worked as assistant to Zhu De, one of the leading military strategists, seen as the founder of the Chinese Red Army. Here, the met and married He Liliang, who had moved to the region with her father, an adviser to Mao. Later, Huang served as an interpreter for the US Army Observer Group, which travelled to Yan'an to meet Mao and other rebel leaders after the American-backed Chinese nationalists formed an alliance with the communists to fight against Japan.

With the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1945, the civil war between the communists and Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists exploded again, and Huang served as secretary to General Ye Jianying. Huang's excellent spoken English meant that, with the communist victory in 1949, he was positioned in the newly established ministry of foreign affairs. Thereafter, he was involved in the Korean War armistice talks which ended in 1953 and the Geneva Conference in 1954.

In 1958, Huang took part in tentative contacts with the US, in Warsaw – at the time the only conduit for direct contacts. He then served as ambassador to Ghana and Egypt between 1960 and 1969. At one point during the Cultural Revolution, Huang was China's sole representative abroad when China was becoming more and more isolated. He was summoned home and spent a year apart from his wife while they worked on farms in different regions.

In 1970 Beijing recalled him, initially as an interpreter for Snow, who had been invited by Mao. In July 1971, Huang was appointed China's first ambassador to Canada, and later that year was named China's first permanent representative to the United Nations, taking up the post shortly after Beijing gained a UN seat. Subsequently he was a member of the five-strong Chinese team that met Kissinger on 9 July 1971 on his secret arrival in China to break the ice between the two countries and facilitate agreement on Vietnam and Taiwan. A second round of talks followed in October. This paved the way for the historic 1972 summit between President Nixon, Premier Zhou Enlai, and the Communist Party Chairman Mao. It concluded with the formalisation of relations between the countries, ending 23 years of diplomatic isolation and mutual hostility. Huang also negotiated with a series of US presidents including Jimmy Carter, George Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Dramatic changes followed Mao's death in 1976. Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua was dismissed and arrested because of his close ties to the notorious Gang of Four, which ruled in Mao's name during his final years. Huang replaced him as foreign minister. Trusted by China's new leader, Deng Xiaoping, Huang served concurrently as a state councillor and vice premier until the mid-1980s, when he retired.

In 1978, Huang held talks that led to a peace and friendship treaty with Japan, which was to reap huge economic benefits for China over the following two decades. In the following year, he accompanied Deng to the US and drafted the accord, after tough negotiations, by which America formally recognised the People's Republic of China's claim to Taiwan. In 1980, Huang began negotiations with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher regarding the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong back to Chinese sovereignty. A key mission to New Delhi followed in 1981.

This was a landmark, as China and India worked to normalise ties which had been left frozen after their 1962 border war. Equally importantly, Huang led China's efforts to diffuse bitter tensions with the Soviet Union. From the 1950s onwards, Huang was viewed by many diplomats as their first point of contact with the new regime in Beijing and the man mandated with building dialogue and trust.

In retirement Huang remained active, heading the China Welfare Institute, the China Society for People's Friendship Studies, the Great Wall Society and a host of other institutions. He even learnt how to use a computer, saying, "It is never too late to learn". At 95 he published his memoirs, recounting 70 years of Chinese diplomacy. One observer noted: "His straightforwardness and warmth of character proved to be a great plus in liaising with diplomats and leaders." During the 2009 Olympic Games, 96-year-old Huang met "his old friend", the 85-year-old Kissinger, and his family in Beijing for a final hug.

Huang Hua (Wang Rumei), diplomat: born Hebei province, northern China 25 January 1913; married He Liliang (two sons, one daughter); died Beijing 24 November 2010.

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