Li Ta-chao, a Founder of the Chinese Communist Party

Author: Liu Nung-chao1
Source: People’s China, July 1957; No. 13, p.24-29.
Transcribed/HTML: Mike B. for, 2013
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2013). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

LI TA-CHAO was China’s first propagandist for Marxism and one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. He was born into a peasant family in Taheito Village, Loting County, Hopei Province on October 29, 1889, six years after the death of Marx and nineteen years after the birth of Lenin. He was a posthumous child and became an orphan as soon as he was born (his mother having died in childbirth). The sole heir to the family fortunes was brought up by his grandparents.

The child grew up at a time when world capitalism was changing into imperialism and the old China was drifting more and more to the position of a semi-colonial and semi-feudal country At eleven, the boy personally saw the atrocities committed by the troops of the eight allied powers on Chinese soil and the heroic resistance put up by the Yi Ho Tuan (“Boxers”) against them. An indelible impression was thus left on his young mind. At sixteen, Li Ta-chao sold about an acre of land, the only property the family had, and with the money enrolled at the Yungping Middle School, Lulung County, Hopei. After a lapse of two years, he left the school and joined the Peiyang School of Law and Politics in Tientsin.

In the 1900s the revolutionary movement was showing signs of fresh power and growth. Between 1905 when it was founded and 1910, the Tung Meng Hui (Revolutionary League), whose leader was Sun Yat-sen, staged seven armed uprisings and grew rapidly. In 1910 spontaneous large-scale revolts broke out in Hunan, Shantung and Yunnan. In the same year, Japan annexed Korea; clearly the spearhead of aggression was now turned towards China.

A Staunch Revolutionary

In 1911 the tide of the democratic revolution swept through north China, and anti-imperialist and anti-feudal ideas began to take root in the mind of the young student. Li Ta-chao not only hated intensely the despotism which condemned the people to a miserable life but also firmly opposed the evils inherent in feudal monarchy which had inflicted untold sufferings on the people for thousands of years. He resolved to join the Tung Meng Hui (Revolutionary League) after the example of his teacher in the Peiyang College,Pai Ya-yu. The neighbourhood of his native county, Loting, was his sphere of activities. There he urged units of the New Army to take revolutionary action.2 On October 10 the Wuchang Uprising which toppled the 2,000 year-old autocratic monarchy erupted. In November the New Army units stationed at Luanchow staged a revolt which was planned by Pai Ya-yu and Li Ta-chao. The uprising was a failure but it nevertheless gave a lively impetus to the 1911 Revolution as it occurred in Chihli Province (the present- day Hopei) where the Manchu court was strongest.

Activities Against Yuan Shih-kai

In 1912, Yuan Shih-kai, boss of the Northern Warlords, took advantage of the revolutionary gains and engineered his election to the provisional presidency of the young republic. The Tung Meng Hui, now reorganized as the Kuomintang, became more and more demoralized with every passing day. Li Ta-chao was angered by the situation and commented on the outcome of the revolution in these words. “The democratic government as it is today is the dictatorship of a handful of violent and crafty scoundrels, it is not a government of the people. The people have been robbed of their rights by a group of these scoundrels and can claim nothing. All the benefit goes to these scoundrels, and the people have nothing at all.”

In 1913 Sung Chiao-jen, one of the leaders of the Kuomintang, was assassinated on the orders of Yuan Shih-kai who was trying his utmost to strengthen his dictatorship. The Yen Chih (Statesmanship), a monthly in Tientsin, carried articles by Li Ta-chao which attacked Yuan in a most outspoken manner. Towards the end of the same year, the situation compelled Li to take flight and seek refuge in Japan. The following year, he entered Waseda University in Tokyo where he studied politics and economics and at the same time continued his activities against the regime. In 1915, the dictator gave in to the Twenty- one Demands of the Japanese Government. These demands, if enforced, would have brought China under Japanese suzerainty. Li Ta-chao travelled all over Japan, calling upan the Chinee students there to rise and fight against the notorious demands. On the suggestion of his fellow students, he drafted “An Open Letter to Our Countrymen” which gained a wide circulation in China, evoking a response even among school children in rural areas. In 1916. Yuan went a step further in his treachery by declaring himself emperor of China. Li Ta-chao immediately returned to Shang-hai, established contacts with various groups and prepared the organization of armed forces for a punitive expedition against Yuan. The nationwide support for the march on Peking finally compelled Yuan to give up his kingship, and he died not long afterwards.

Li Ta-chao
[alternatively: Li Dazhou]

After this victory Li Ta-chao returned to Peking which became the base of his revolutionary activities in the ten years that followed. At this time Peking was the centre of the new cultural movement which made feudalism its enemy and was spreading throughout the country. The soul of the movement was the Hsin Citing Nien (New Youth) magazine. Li Ta-chao was a member of its editorial board and published his famous philosophical article “Youth” in the first number of Volume Two, which appeared on September 1, 1916. This was the first article to appear in modern China which interpreted the universe and human life on the basis of dialectical materialism. Li Ta-chao ended his article with this challenge: “What the Chinese youth should say most solemnly to the world is that it must stop arguing why the old China will not perish but that it should work untiringly for the rebirth of a young China.”

By this time, Li Ta-chao had become known as a prominent scholar who had earned the respect and love of the country’s youth. In 1917, at the age of 28, he was appointed to a professorship at Peking University and also as its librarian.

The October Revolution

In 1917 the October Revolution triumphed in Russia, and the imperialist powers launched a cruel war of intervention against the Soviet state. In May 1918 Japan took advantage of the opportunity to work secretly with Tuan Chi-jui, leader of the Anhwei faction of the Northern Warlord group, then in occupation of Peking, to conclude with him so-called military and naval agreements. In the same month more than 2,700 Chinese students in Japan suspended their studies and returned to China to join the fight against the secret agreements. Some of them met in Peking and staged a demonstration under Li’s personal guidance.

From the very first, Li Ta-chao expressed his fast friendship for the young soviet state and pledged all support for it. In an article on the October Revolution, written for the July 1 issue of the Yen Chih, he pointed out: “Civilization after the early days of the twentieth century will surely grow out of today’s Russian revolution…Let us hold our heads up and greet the dawn of the world’s new civilization, let us hearken to the news coming from the new Russia of freedom and humanity!”

Spreading Marxism

Meanwhile, Li Ta-chao invited some young men who were rather more aware of the issues facing the country to form the “Young China Society.” He was also the guide of the “Students’ National Salvation Society,” organized by students formerly in Japan for the continuation of their patriotic anti-Japanese activities. After October 1918 Li got together some able young men from various organizations and founded the “Society for the Study of Marxism” with its headquarters in Peking University Library. “When I worked as an assistant librarian in Peking University,” Mao Tse-tung has said of the period, “it did not take long before I took the road of Marxism under the leadership of Li Ta-chao.” Shortly afterwards, Peking University students founded the Hsin Glum Sheh (New Tide Society) also under Li’s inspiration.

On November 11, the First World War ended. At a mass rally held in the Tien An Men Square in Peking Li delivered a speech entitled “The Victory of the Common People” in which he pointed out that the defeat of Germany was the victory of the masses and the working people. He developed his views further in an article, “Bolshevism’s Victory,” which appeared almost at the same time in the Hsin Ching Niem magazine. “The victory over German militarism,” he wrote, “is the victory of Bolshevism and of the world’s working class; the great achievement is to the credit of Lenin and Marx.” His assessment of the influence of the October Revolution on world history was full of confidence: “It is really impossible for the capitalist governments to dam the onrushing tide…From now on we shall see the flags of victorious Bolshevism and hear its triumphant songs wherever we go. The bell of humanity has sounded! The dawn of freedom is now visible! The world of the future will be the world of the Red Flag!”

In December Li Ta-chao launched a new venture called the Meichou Pinglun (Weekly Review). In an article entitled “A New Epoch,” published in the New Year’s Day issue, 1919, he wrote: “Out of the bloodshed of the 1914 World War and the bloodshed of the Russian Revolution in 1917 has emerged a new epoch. Living in dark China and in deadly silent Peking, we see the first glimmerings of the dawn lighting up the road to a new life. We should seize the opportunity this light offers and march forward and work for the interests of humanity.”

The October Revolution was heartily welcomed by many sections of Chinese society, for their country had tasted to the full the bitterness of oppression by the imperialist powers. However, there were many, including some radical democrats, who were yet unable to appreciate immediately the significance of the October Revolution to the world and the Chinese revolution. But Li Ta-chao was sensitive enough to have observed that it had begun a new epoch for human history and that the Chinese revolution must follow its example. It was this keenness of perception that gave Li Ta-chao his place as the pioneer in modern Chinese history. The radical democrat became a communist.

May the Fourth Movement

On May 4, 1919 the May the Fourth Movement broke out. Li played a leading role in the campaign and dispatched some members of the Society for the Study of Marxism to popularize the movement in several of the larger cities. In the Weekly Review he proposed that the following three principles should guide the course of the movement: (1) Transformation of this robber world, (2) Non-recognition of secret treaties and (3) National self-determination. The movement was thus directed towards a struggle against imperialism and warlord rule. It was a demand for national liberation, democracy and freedom. Thanks to the ideological leadership of Li Ta-chao and other early communists, the events of May the Fourth developed into a great movement to throw out imperialism and feudalism; it began a new era in China.

Only two months after the May the Fourth Movement began, the rapid spread of socialist ideas caused the spokesmen of the comprador bourgeoisie in cultural spheres to come out openly with a call to “stop the tide of Bolshevism.” This led to a major conflict between the communists, with Li Ta-chao at their head, and the bourgeois right-wing represented by Hu Shih. The battle was centred on “Problems and Isms.” In an article “More Study of Problems and Less Talk About Isms,” Hu Shih revealed himself as an opponent of Marxism and a reformist. Hu Shih’s attack was treated to a withering counter- blast by Li Ta-chao. Although many young men had thrown themselves into the struggle against the antiquated culture and its influence, it never crossed their minds that such a fundamental divergence of views could exist among the advocates of the new culture. It was the great debate that opened their eyes to the fact that obsolete bourgeois ideas and nascent proletarian ideas were circulating in their own camp. Where was the new youth of the day heading? They had to make up their minds. The controversy between Hu Shih and Li Ta-chao had the effect of gradually increasing the numbers of those studying and propagating Marxism.

In May 1920 Li Ta-chao organized the first group of Marxists and laid the foundations for the future Communist Party From the earliest days the labour problem engaged the attention of Li Ta-chao. The Weekly Review in the spring of 1919 carried a short article by him about the coal miners’ life in Tangshan, Hopei. Li took a keen interest in the power of the peasants. Before and after the May the Fourth Movement he repeatedly called upon the young people to go to the countryside. After the founding of the Marxist group, propaganda and organizational work was immediately carried out among the workers and Marxism was rapidly linked up with the working-class movement.

After Founding the Party

On July 1, 1921 the Communist Party of China was founded.

Li Ta-chao was put in charge of Party work in north China where he was the guide of progressive students and organizer of the railway workers in their struggles under conditions of brutality and immense difficulties. In August 1922 he went to Shanghai and represented the Party in preliminary talks with Sun Yat-sen on the problem of forming a united front. These talks paved the way for Kuomintang-Communist co-operation, which the Kuomintang National Congress approved in Canton in January 1924. At this congress, Li Ta-chao was elected to the five-man presidium and also to the committee examining the Kuomintang statutes and its manifesto. Thanks to this co-operation with the Communists Sun Yat-sen made a fresh interpretation of his “Three People’s Principles”—Nationalism, Democracy and the People’s Welfare— and formulated the Three Policies of alliance with Soviet Russia, co-operation with the Communist Party and help to the workers and peasants. Li’s work contributed greatly towards the rapid progress of the revolution.

In September of the same year, after a visit to the Soviet Union, Li returned to Peking which was under the control of the Chihli group of the Peiyang Warlords. He established secret contacts with General Feng Yu-hsiang in Peking, whose troops had taken part in an armed uprising at Luanchow in 1911, and urged him to throw in his lot with the revolutionary forces. General Feng rewarded his efforts with a coup d’etat in October which expelled the Chihli regime.3 This coup d’etat helped push forward the revolution in the north. In 1925 Shanghai was shaken by the famous anti- imperialist and patriotic May the Thirtieth Movement which rapidly drew in the whole country. The imperialist powers collaborated with the various warlord groups to attack General Feng’s troops in Peking, Tientsin and Paoting. On March 12, 1926, gunboats of the Fengtien warlords with Japanese naval support raided the Taku Bar and clashed with the National Army. On the sixteenth, the Ministers of eight powers including Britain, the United States and Japan threatened the Peking government with a “protest” which demanded the withdrawal of the National Army Incensed by the demand, the citizens and students of Peking called a mass rally which was followed by a demonstration on March 18 in the Tien An Men Square under the leadership of the Communist Party. The demonstrators proceeded to Tuan Chi-jui’s office, where they demanded an immediate rejection of the eight-power ultimatum. The leader of the demonstrators was Li Ta-chao. Tuan Chi-jui replied to the petition with bullets, more than 200 people were either killed or wounded in the massacre in front of Tuan’s office. While organizing the retreat, Li Ta-chao was knocked down by the running crowd. Despite serious head wounds he managed to get up and did all he could to help the injured.

The incident is known as the tragedy of March eighteenth. The next day the Tuan government issued orders for Li’s arrest, but despite the danger, he continued to work underground in Peking dealing with the heavy work thrown up by the revolutionary movement in the north China provinces. Soon afterwards, the Northern Expedition campaign began and put a priority on revolutionary activities in north China. Li Ta-chao continued to remain at his post, although a white terror raged in the city, and rejected all advice to leave Peking.

A Martyr’s Death

On April 6, 1927 Li and many other revolutionaries were arrested by Chang Tso- lin, a Fengtien warlord, who had then seized Peking. Although he was horribly tortured in prison, he continued to spread the ideas of communism. His courage won over some of the prison guards who carried secret messages for him.

The arrest of Li Ta-chao aroused public indignation and there was talk of action for his release. Students, writers, teachers and others made strong demands for the immediate release of Li, whom they described as a “scholar of great moral courage.” The National Army which had then retreated to Shensi also served a warning by sending a telegram to the militarists in Peking. Railway workers in north China planned to storm the prison and liberate Li Ta-chao even at the cost of their lives. However, Li strongly opposed this rash action on the ground that the revolutionary forces must be preserved at all costs.

On April 28 Li Ta-chao and nineteen other revolutionaries were secretly taken to a remand prison in Hsi Chiao Mm Hsiang where preparations had been made to murder them. The weather was turning warm. Li Ta-chao, his hair uncombed and wearing a brown suit, walked to the execution ground, which was enclosed by trees. Raising his head, he saw the gallows and understood that the brutes were ready to kill him. Smiling, he walked on to the platform and addressed the soldiers and policemen who were to witness his death. It was a hero who spoke: “You are all like fish swimming in a saucepan, yet you are stupid enough to do a shameful deed. The great cause of communism will not die simply because you hang me today! We have trained a multitude of comrades and they are like the seeds of red flowers sown all over the country. We believe that the glorious victory of communism will come in China!” Li Ta-chao proudly finished his words, looked at the sky, smiled, then walked calmly to the gallows! He was 38 when he died.

Li Ta-chao’s whole life was one of an unending pursuit of truth. At first, he grew from a patriotic intellectual into a radical democrat. With the May the Fourth Movement he became a Marxist and together with other communists charted a new road for the Chinese revolution.

Li Ta-chao had many of the qualities indispensable to a revolutionary. In an article commemorating Li Ta-chao, Lu Hsun has written. “He made a very good impression on me: he was honest, modest, and reticent.” All his short life he was hard-working and frugal. When he was arrested, all he had was one yuan and a small gold ring.


1. The author is a professor at Tsinghua University, Peking. As of 1953. —MIA transcriber.

2. The New Army was an imperial armed force formed along modern lines in the closing stages of the Ching (Manchu) dynasty. The revolutionaries made it one of their main fields of activities.

3. The Northern Warlords were mainly divided into three groups: the Anhwei clique under Tuan Chi-jui, the Chihli clique under Tsao Kun and Wu Pei-fu, and the Fengtien clique with Chang Tso-lin as leader. Following Yuan Shih-kai’s death, civil wars were almost continuously waged between the various cliques which were jockeying for power. Feng Yu-hsiang’s troops were originally under Wu Pei-fu’s command. In the autumn of 1924, a great battle was fought between the Chihli and Fengtien groups in north China. When at the Jehol front Feng’s men rebelled and were moved back to Peking where they staged a coup d’etat, ousted “President'” Tsao Kun and joined the Fengtien forces in a pincer attack on the Chihli armies. Wu Pei-fu was defeated and withdrew to the middle Yangtse. Taking advantage of the chaos Tuan Chi-jui, the Anhwei boss, took over the reins of the Peking government and styled himself the “Provisional Chief Executive of the Republic of China.”

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Tales of the Cold War: Cosmos-954

Originally posted way back in 2006.

A while back, I was going through an old footlocker full of various magazines I have collected over the years. I had quite a bit of stuff in there, including a lot of sci-fi & horror magazines, many issues of Mad, Cracked and Crazy, music-related magazines, and the like. Included in the mix were about three issues of an old magazine called Future: The Magazine of Science Adventure. All of the issues were from the late 1970s and I figure I must have bought these magazines a Half Price Books or some other secondhand shop many years ago. As I inspected the issues for the first time in several years, the one issue that especially caught my eye was the May 1978 issue that had a small white and red wraparound ad that screamed: TOP SECRET: The Truth About ORBITING SOVIET BOMBS! See page 16.” It certainly looked like good reading, so I set the magazine aside and once I had thumbed through and organized the other magazines, I had a look at the “Top Secret” report.

The article was a very short story entitled “Cosmos-954: A Glimpse of Space Disaster” which chronicled the January 24, 1978 crash of a nuclear-powered Soviet satellite in Northwest Territories, Canada.  The article is a classic mixture of science fiction and Cold War hype:

The newspaper headlines were straight out of a fifties science-fiction film: KILLER SATELLITE CRASHES IN CANADA! Only this time the story was real. The crash-landing of the Soviet nuclear-powered satellite, Cosmos-954, north of the American border was a nightmare come true. The effects of the event were felt immediately. Politicians started talking in scientific jargon while many scientists issued distinctly political statements. An interest in space law was (belatedly) revitalized. People began looking to the heavens with increased anxiety. The spectre of a Russian- spawned war in space hovered over the globe. “Perhaps Chicken Little was right,” some joked in reference to the unexpected appearance of the stray spacecraft. But Cosmos-954’s appearance was no joke.


The killer satellite seems best suited for a sneak attack on U.S. command and control, and early-warning satellites in 24-hour orbits. The FOBS (Fractional Orbital Bombardment System) orbital H-bombs seem to be a useful way to approach the U.S. in low orbits, eluding radar detection until the last minute. The nuclear-power naval watchers would mainly be useful in plotting at- tacks on aircraft carriers and nuclear missile subs prior to the start of a war from space.

Cosmos-954 schematics

The real story of Cosmos-954 — the post-Cold War version, anyway, — is much less fantastic.  It is now known that Cosmos-954 was a Soviet Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite (RORSAT) that was powered by a nuclear reactor. The former website UFO Phenomenon in the North previously offered a bit more information on the ultimate demise of the mission:

Previous Soviet missions using such technology would split the reactor from the parent body of the spacecraft and boost the radioactive material into a higher orbit where the reactor would remain for 300-1000 years once the short lifetime of the satellite was over (which was well beyond the life of the radioactive material). Cosmos 954 had a special problem, however – it went out of control and the technicians were unable to separate the reactor from the spacecraft’s parent body.

The Future article implicitly condemns the USSR for failing to notify anyone prior to the crash of Cosmos-954, but more recent accounts of the tale offer information that the USSR did send out a warning regarding the impending calamity, thus allowing NORAD to track the satellite until the crash. Moreover, some accounts note that the orbit of Cosmos-954 had become unstable as far back as September 18, 1977 and that its movements were monitored on a regular basis up until its demise.  A report from CBC Radio (dated Jan. 28, 1978 ) indicates that U.S. President Jimmy Carter contacted the Canadian Prime Minister by phone to advise him of the issue shortly before the satellite’s crash.  According to the CBC, in the wake of the crash, Canadian officials expressed disdain over the American delay in sharing information regarding the impending crash of Cosmos-954.

When Cosmos-954 finally did crash, it fell in the Great Slave Lake area of the Northwest Territories in Canada (near Yellowknife), spreading radioactive material across an area as large as 124,000 km² (some sources suggest the area was around 80,000 km²).  The total amount of radioactive material that reached the ground was around 25% of the estimated 68 pounds of Uranium-235 that was originally aboard Cosmos-954.  The remaining 75% of the U-235 burned up during re-entry.  No human deaths were reported as a result of the crash and it seems that information regarding the long-term environmental effects of contamination is rather few and far between.

Interestingly enough, the USSR eventually agreed to pay Canada a total of $15 million (US) for cleanup efforts, but they ultimately paid somewhere around half of the total bill.  By March 1978, most debris from the satellite had been collected through joint U.S.-Canadian recovery efforts.

In terms of nuclear accidents, Cosmos-954 was certainly an intriguing story back in 1978.  But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to some of the other nuclear accidents which have come to light in the past few decades.  For some particularly harrowing fare, check out Atomic Archive’s list of nuclear weapons incidents since 1950.

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Yes, It Really Happened: Steve Strong Vs. The Devil & Mel Sharples

Originally written in 2015  for another website.

Go ahead and file it in the “so bad, it’s good” category. After all, “Basher Malone,” a 1988 episode of the cult classic horror series Tales from the Darkside isn’t exactly without its charm. And hey, it’s built around the seedy world of territory-era pro wrestling, which is something that should strike a chord with nostalgia buffs far and wide.

Vic Tayback and friends, from the “Basher Malone” episode.

The story is built around a feud between “good guy” Basher Malone and a gym owner and promoter named Tippy Ryan. Tippy was played by Vic Tayback, who is best known for his role as Mel Sharples on the 1980s sitcom Alice. His arch-enemy, Basher Malone, was portrayed by Steve Strong. ‘88 was, of course, the heyday of Hulkamania, and a lot of Basher’s shtick seemed to be modeled after Hulk Hogan—although there was also a hint of an anti-Ric Flair persona mixed in for good measure.

“Kids need a righteous hero like myself to look up to. A square-dealing, straight-shooting, clean fighting man … And kids, don’t forget what the Basher yells you: Brush your teeth after every meal, do your homework, and listen to your mom…”

After Basher Malone vanquishes all of Tippy’s best men in the ring, Tippy gets a call from “Old Scratch” offering to send up one of his best bad guys from the netherworld down below to settle the score with Malone. Tippy challenges Basher to do battle with his sinister new grappler, telling Malone that he’ll close up shop forever if the babyface wins their no-holds-barred contest.

Malone brings his elderly mother to Tippy’s gym at midnight for the fight and Tippy summons his demonic wrestler Trog via a portal in a Pepsi machine. The stakes are high, as Basher puts his title, his career, and his status as a role model on the line against the Devil’s best wrestler.

The ending is easy enough to predict: Despite a few twists and turns, Basher Malone vanquishes Trog, who carries Vic Tayback back to hell through the Pepsi portal. And even though this all sounds kinda awful, it’s fun to watch, complete with cheesy sound effects and a weird soundtrack that’s comprised mostly of bass and synthesizer licks. It’s really a fun, mindless diversion for wrestling fans and horror aficionados alike and, truth be told, watching the video isn’t a bad way to spend 20 minutes of your life.

The story doesn’t end for Basher Malone and Trog with the closing credits of Tales from the Darkside. Trog, who went by the name of Magic Schwarz, wrestled from 1983 to 1990. His personal website details his experiences through a number of professions, including his work as a wrestler in AWA and NWA.

As for Steve Strong, he was featured in the cult wrestling film Grunt! Strong also attained notoriety as an artist under his actual name, Stephen Cepello. He has painted two portraits of his fellow wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura, including one that was displayed in the Minnesota State Capitol.

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Meeting Zhou Enlai

In 1971, Australian historian Ross Terrill visited the People’s Republic of China and he subsequently chronicled the trip in the 1972 book 800,000,000: The Real China. The title of the book was a reference to the PRC’s population at that time. As of April 2020, the population of the PRC is approaching 1.4 billion people.

The excerpt below is Terrill’s account of his meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai, from chapter 12 of the above-noted book. In the author’s original work, names are presented via the Wade-Giles method of transliteration ( “Chou En-Lai”) as opposed to the more modern Pinyin method (“Zhou Enlai”). The text is presented under the terms of Fair Use.

The prelude to a meeting with a Chinese leader is al­ways the same. There is no fixed appointment time, but word is one day given “not to leave the hotel.” Suddenly a phone call comes to say that the man you are to see has just left the com­pound where the Chinese leadership works. You leave immedi­ately for the Great Hall of the People. The idea is to have the two parties arrive at the same time.

With Chou En-lai, Premier for twenty-two years and (last summer) number three man in China’s government, the call is likely to come late at night. This war-horse of revolution, “sev­enty-three years young,” works until 4:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m., then sleeps until midmorning. Our group (I was with my coun­tryman E. Gough Whitlam, leader of the Australian Labor party) was advised late on July 5 to stay about the Peking Hotel. There would be an “interesting film” that evening. The Foreign Minis­try official did not explain why we were advised to put on suits and ties for the occasion. Just after 9:00 p.m. a call came: the film was off, Chou En-lai was on.

The Great Hall of the People is really the Great Hall of the Government. Only on highly formal occasions do the masses view its murals and tread its crimson carpets. A stone oblong in semi-Chinese style, it was built in a mere ten months around the time of the Great Leap Forward. Its fawn solidity stands guard over the biggest square in the world, Tien An Men; the Imperial City is to the left, the big museums opposite. The building’s area of 560,000 square feet includes an auditorium for 10,000 people, a room decorated in the style of each of China’s provinces, and sparsely furnished halls such as the East Room, where we found the Premier.

He enters from one door, we from another. A red badge with the Chinese characters “Serve the People” lights up his tunic. He is all in gray except for black socks inside leather sandals and black hair showing strongly through silver fringes. Introduced to him by Ma Yu-chen of the Foreign Ministry (the man who at¬tended James Reston at his hospital bed), I suddenly realized that he is a slim, short man. We talked for a moment of the background to the Whitlam visit; then he asked where I learned Chinese. Told “in America,” he smiled broadly and said, “That is a fine thing, to learn Chinese in America!”

Recalling his amazing career over half a century, I marveled at his freshness. This man has been a member of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party since 1927 (well before Mao); was forty-five years ago a close colleague of Chiang Kai-shek’s in Canton; played leftist politics in Europe at the time of Lenin; covered the last miles of the Long March through north Shensi in 1935 on a stretcher, gravely ill. Now he reaches across an epoch of China’s modern history to face Richard Nixon in the Ping-Pong diplomacy of the 1970s.

Though he is like David to Mr. Whitlam’s Goliath (the Australian is six feet four), you quickly forget his height; it is his face and hands which rivet every eye in the room for the next two hours. The expression is tough, even forbidding, yet sometimes it melts into the disarming smile which used to flutter the hearts of foreign ladies in Chungking (Mr. Chou was the Communist rep  resentative in Chiang Kai-shek’s capital during World War II). The eyes are steely, but they laugh when he wants them to. The voice, too, has double possibilities. One moment he is nearly whispering, weary and modest. The next he is soaring to contradict his visitor, and the streaky, sensual voice projects across the hall. From a side angle, a rather flat nose takes away all his fierceness. The mouth is low in the face and set forward tautly, giving a grim grandeur to the whole appearance.

The small, fine hands, moving sinuously as if direct from the shoulder, serve his rapidly varying tone and mood. Now they lie meekly on the blue-gray trousers, as he graciously compliments Mr. Whitlam on the Labor party’s “struggle” to get back to power in Australia. Now they fly like an actor’s in the air, as he denounces Prime Minister Sato of Japan. Now the right hand is extended, its fingers spread-eagled in professorial authority, as he instructs me to study well a recent editorial in the People’s Daily.

Sitting back in a wicker chair, wrists flapping over the chair’s arms, he seems so relaxed as to be without bones, poured into the chair, almost part of it, as persons seem part of their sur­roundings in old Chinese paintings. Beside this loose-limbed wil­low of a man, Mr. Whitlam, hunched together in concentration, seems stiff as a pine.

But the conversation is a freewheeling give-and-take. The Australian style, blunt and informal, fits in well with Mr. Chou’s. The evening has a lively, argumentative note rare in talks be­tween politicians of different countries, rarer still when the coun­tries represent different civilizations. When he disagreed — as on how widespread militarism is in Japan — the Premier would in­terrupt in English: “No, no, no!” Talking of Australian affairs, he twice frankly said he hoped the Labor party would win the next election in 1972.  Occasionally he struck a didactic note. “As you come to China,” he said after suggesting a lesson Aus­tralia ought to draw (about the United States) from China’s expe­rience with Russia, “we ask you to take this as a matter for your reference.” Both sides enjoyed themselves making barbs against John Foster Dulles’s policies. The ambience was, in brief, keen and frank.

Just before the author was introduced to Chou En-lai, he took this close up of the Premier. On the left is Professor Chang Hsi-jo, head of the Peoples Institute for Foreign Affairs: behind Mr. Chou, and obscured, are the Chinese Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade.

Mr. Chou’s aides from the Foreign Ministry and the State Council office had prepared him well. He knew, from reports of what his visitors had said to the Chinese Foreign Minister, that on Taiwan and China’s United Nations seat no great problem ex­isted between Peking and the Labor party. Mr. Whitlam said a Labor government would switch Australia’s diplomatic ties from Taipei to Peking, and vote for Peking’s installation in the China seat at the UN. (Prime Minister McMahon’s regime supported Washington’s unsuccessful “two Chinas’’ proposal in October, 1971.) So the Premier hardly touched these bilateral issues, but instead pitched a complex argument about the overall problems of Asia. (The efficient briefing continued throughout the week. At the evening’s end, Mr. Whitlam happened to recall that his birthday was near. Five days later in Shanghai, the Australian found his birthday observed with a festive dinner and a large cake — tactfully adorned with a single candle.)

Mr. Chou painted a picture of China threatened by three adversaries: the United States, Russia, and Japan. In one way or another, the Chinese press has given this picture ever since November, 1969, when Japan — following the communique signed by Nixon and Sato — seemed to step up to the status of major enemy in Peking’s eyes. Interesting in the Premier’s remarks was the pattern of relationships he sketched between the three adversaries.

After preliminary talk, Mr. Chou reached for his mug of tea, sipped, swilled with deliberation, then asked a question which turned the conversation where he wanted it to go. He was going to be very direct, he warned. What was meant by saying, as the Australians had said the previous day, that the ANZUS treaty (which binds the United States, Australia, and New Zealand in mutual defense) was designed to meet any restoration of Japanese militarism? “That is a special approach to us, so I would like to ask you to inform us what articles or what points of that treaty are directed toward preventing the restoration of Japanese militarism?” Mr. Chou was fingering the apex of Peking’s triangular anxiety.

The Australian background was explained. After World War II, Australia was much less anxious to sign a peace treaty with Japan than was the United States (and to this day Australians are slower to forget Japanese aggression than are Americans). The United States signed ANZUS (in 1951) in large measure to reassure an Australia (and New Zealand) still fearful of Japan. This perspective on ANZUS “down under” was shared by all shades of political opinion. The treaty was a purely defensive arrangement, concerned not with Communist revolutions in Asia, but with Japan — the only country that has ever attacked Aus­tralia.

The Chinese leaders leaned forward attentively. The Ministers for Foreign Affairs (Chi P’eng-fei) and Foreign Trade (Pai Hsiang-kuo) were present with senior aides, but the Premier did all the talking. “You know, we too have a defensive treaty, con­cluded one year before the treaty you have.” He recalled with a grim, ironic smile: “That treaty was called the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Aid. And its first ar­ticle was that the aim of the treaty is to prevent the resurgence of Japanese militarism!”

But what has happened, the Premier asked rhetorically, his eyes and hands now stirring to life. His answer, in a word, was that both Australia’s ally (the United States) and China’s ally (Russia) have gone back on their pledge to forestall any new danger from Japan. He charged that the Pentagon “is considering whether to give Japan tactical nuclear weapons or even some­thing more powerful.” Does not the fourth Japanese defense plan total $ 16 billion, one-third more than the amount spent on the three previous plans put together? The Nixon Doctrine, he noted, turns Japan into “a vanguard in the Far East.” With a shrewd addition to the usual slogan (“using Asians to fight Asians”), de­signed to make his visitors feel their potential importance, he as­sailed the doctrine’s motives. “It is in the spirit of using… ‘Austro-Asians to fight Austro-Asians.’ ”

Then Mr. Chou weighed the actions of the Soviet Union. He never referred to it by name but by sarcastic indirection. “And what about our so-called ally? What about them? They have very warm relations with the Sato government.” Unveiling China’s vi­sion of the world, the Premier wove in two further themes. The Russians, he observed, are also “engaged in warm discussions with the Nixon government on so-called nuclear disarmament.” Now his point came home: “Meanwhile we, their ally, are being threatened by both [Japan, the United States] together!” He fin­ished with an application to Australia’s situation. “So we feel our ‘ally’ is not so very reliable. Is your ‘ally’ so very reliable?

The Premier had a formidable case. He had put it with pas­sion and embroidered it with detail apt for Australian listeners.

It was, Whitlam conceded, a “powerful indictment,” and the Australian took a few moments to marshal himself and probe its questionable parts.

  • The first theme had been Japanese militarism.
  • The second, the failure of Washington and Moscow to resist it.
  • The third, the charge that the United States and Russia are in collusion with each other.
  • The fourth, a deep skepticism that any country can really be the ally of any other, an assertion that each country is utterly alone in the world, with nothing but its own resources and its “independence” to gird it.

Throughout forty days in China, these four themes met me at high levels and low. Later there is more to say of each. But stay now with Mr. Chou, for he had a fifth theme in his analysis of the triangle of menace facing China. It was introduced by an­other of the curious historical analogies he is fond of deploying.

During the talk, Mr. Chou showed a kind of fascination with John Foster Dulles. I remembered with a certain shame what had reportedly happened between these two men at the Geneva Con­ference in 1954. After lunch one day Dulles walked into the chamber and found only one man there — Chou En-lai. An em­barrassing turn of events! Chou held out his hand. Dulles de­clined it (one account says he murmured “I cannot”), gripped his hands behind his back, and strode out. But this evening Mr. Chou displayed no bitterness, just amusement, at Dulles; and a hearty contempt for his policies. Recalling the circle of defense pacts, multilateral and bilateral, which Dulles made with nations on China’s southeastern borders — and showing accurate knowl­edge of Dulles’s role as an adviser to the Truman Administration before he became Secretary of State — the Premier mused that it seemed to be an imperative of the “soul” of Dulles to throw a military harness around China. He spoke, I felt, as a man gazing down the corridor of history rather than as one faced with bur­glars at the door.

Suddenly it became clear that this historical excursion was for the purpose of analogy. He switched to the present. “Now Dulles has a successor,” said Mr. Chou with a laugh that was not a laugh of amusement, “in our northern neighbor.” The Premier was launched in earnest on his fifth theme. Today’s military en­circlement of China is by Russia.

This emphasis — that the Dulleses of the 1970s sit in Moscow — was confirmed when discussion turned to present trends within the United States. Mr. Whitlam said that the “soul of Dulles does not go marching on” in America. American pub­lic opinion, he judged, would not again permit its government to practice the interventionism in Asia that resulted from the “de­structive zeal” of Dulles. Mr. Chou responded: “1 have similar sentiments to you on such a positive appraisal of the American people.” By implication, he agreed that Dullesism was now eclipsed in the United States.

Later he spoke admiringly of the strength of antiwar feeling from coast to coast in the United States (“Even military men on active service and veterans have gone to Washington to demon­strate”). He frankly revealed the source of his confidence about the future course of U.S. policy: “The American people will force the American government to change its policies.” Casting around the room, Mr. Chou asked if his visitors had “in the past two years or so” been in the United States. They had. He then summed up with heavy stress: “So you realize from your own ex­perience that in these past years the American people have been in the process of change.”

Of course, the Chinese Premier disapproves of particular cur­rent U.S. actions in Asia; his words on Indo-China made that quite plain. But when he mapped trends, the United States did not seem to loom largest among his concerns. And when he ana­lyzed the dynamics within the triangle of threat, the United States was evidently not the ultimate focus of opposition. He lashed Washington less for its own activities than for its support of Japanese activities and for its collusion with Russian activities.

Caution would be wise in construing what Mr. Chou said. Maybe the three threats to China are so diverse in character that comparing their magnitude is invalid. The Japanese threat is “rising.” The Russian threat is “immediate” in a crude military sense. The U.S. threat may yet be the “biggest” if the three were to be measured objectively against each other at the present mo­ment. A conversation cannot give systematic finality to this cald­ron of slippery variables. Nevertheless, it was all very different from what Peking was saying in 1964 or even two years ago. Here was a picture of the world that featured power more than ideology, fluid forces more than rigid blocs, emerging problems more than well-worn problems.

Recall that the Premier was talking to Australians, and with an Australian political leader whose views on Taiwan were not opposed to his own. So the two chief bones of bilateral conten­tion between Peking and Washington — the UN seat, the U.S. military presence in Taiwan — did not even come into the con­versation. Maybe Mr. Chou calculated that of the three threats to Chinese security, Japan was the one to stress to these visitors. The Russians are far from Australia. The American tie is inti­mate, and no Australian leader is about to break it. Japan, how­ever, is both important to Australia and a country about which Australians have ambivalent feelings. Yet it was remarkable that Mr. Chou did not raise — nor did his Foreign Minister the pre­vious day — queries about the substantial and sensitive Ameri­can bases (some related to nuclear weaponry) that dot Australia. Mr. Whitlam told me he had expected — as I had — that the Chinese would harp upon these bases.

It was easy to see that Japan was in the forefront of the Pre­mier’s mind. Whichever country came up, he linked it somehow with Japan. He quoted the Japan Socialist party to buttress his point of view. Broaching the subject of nuclear weapons, he seemed more worried by potential Japanese weapons than by ex­isting massive American and Russian stockpiles. Discussing the Australian Labor party’s international connections, he wondered in particular if it was close to the Japanese socialists. Should not Mr. Whitlam, when he left China for Japan — Mr. Chou had somehow unearthed this unpublicized fact of Mr. Whitlam’s itinerary — make a point of having serious talks with the Japa­nese socialist leaders as well as with Mr. Sato? The Komeito (Clean Government Party) especially kept popping up. Mr. Chou had met with its leaders the previous week (I had traveled into China in their compartment and watched them photograph each other, the train, and the countryside all the way from Hong Kong to Canton). Was it not “quite something for a Japanese, Bud­dhist, pacifist party” to make the shift it has this year (to a rather pro-Peking position)? Musing on the Labor party’s prospects of winning power in Australia next year, Mr. Chou again brought in the Komeito party, and made a comparison with it. But seeing its inaptness, he diplomatically qualified himself: “Of course it’s different; your party is very near to power.” A few days later, Mr. Whitlam was surprised that the Chinese put on his program a Japanese movie. Entitled Our Navy, it dealt with World War II and its background. The film was not out of the ordinary. But it seemed remarkable that the Chinese chose to show a foreign (military-political) film to a delegation visiting China, and no accident that it was Japanese.

Zhou Enlai at Huairou Reservoir, Beijing. August 30, 1960.
Photo by Du Xiu Xian; reprinted by Central Documentary Press, Beijing.

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