Thursday, 23 January 2014

The IRA and Mao's China: in the press

My piece on the IRA's, in the guise of Seamus Costello, approach to the Mao Zedong's China in 1964 was picked up by Clifford Coonan of The Irish Times, with whom I had an email exchange to expand on some issues before he wrote the piece.

I've just been made aware, however, that The Times also picked up (£) on the story, in what is a pretty garbled and incoherent account, complete with totally made up quotes from me!  (Google has informed me that ran with The Times story as well.

Obviously, a lot of what I said to Cliff by email didn't make it into the piece he wrote, so I have decided to include the bulk of the email below, in case people were interested in a little more of the detail and my take on events.  (Some comments were in response to specific questions, which I have removed).

It wasn't difficult at all to get access to the documents.  About 6 or so years ago the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs partially opened its archives to researchers.  They had spent several years scanning as PDFs and cataloguing a selection of MFA documents that could be examined on computer terminals in the reading room at the MFA.  Now, of course, this doesn't come close to getting your hands on the files and documents themselves, as would be the case in 'real' research in an archive - much is learned from the feel, and the organisation and the filing of the documents - but it was a huge step forward in terms of archival access in China.  The period available for study was from 1949 to 1965, the eve of the Cultural Revolution, when things get a little too 'hot' and complicated, but nonetheless it was an exciting new avenue for research into China's foreign relations.  The other obvious drawback, however, was that you don't know what you are not seeing: what had been withheld and not scanned or made available.  At least in the US archives, for example, when a document has been pulled for national security reasons there is a page inserted in place of the relevant page or document, detailing (vaguely) the reasons for its removal, and there is an appeal process that can be applied to to have the decision reviewed, so you have to be aware that you are only seeing what the Party and government want you to see, and view as being non-controversial.  Still, what was non-controversial a few years ago can become controversial, and the archive has now closed off access to about 90% of what was formerly open (see here).  (On a sidenote, the Bush administration reclassified a ton of formerly declassified documents relating to the Middle East after 9/11, so it is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon).  Whether we will see open access to the 90% that has been withdrawn after another thoroughgoing review is a question we don't know the answer to at the moment.  So in some respects I was lucky to have been able to avail of that window of opportunity while it was open.

I wasn't there to do any research on Ireland at all, as it happened.  I was researching a piece on 'The Games of the New Emerging Forces' (tweet or email me if you want a copy of the article), a sort of anti-Olympics hosted by Sukharno's Indonesia and supported by Mao's China in the mid-1960s in protest at the IOC's suspension of Indonesia for refusing visas to Taiwanese and Israeli athletes when Jakarta hosted the Asian Games.  Knowing that there would be much less documentation on Ireland than on the topic I was there to research, I just put a few Ireland-related search terms into the computer system to see what it threw up and in order to familiarise myself with it and how it functioned.  I was quite surprised by the results.

I think it is extremely unlikely that even if the IRA had approached the Chinese earlier that they would have had much more of a chance of obtaining assistance, though the rationale for refusing it may have been different.  Prior to 1964, Mao was taking a back seat after the debacle of the Great Leap Forward and the focus was on domestic reconstruction.  Additionally, in the absence of the Embassy in Paris, it would simply have been a lot more difficult for the IRA to make contact with the PRC in Western Europe in any case: Seamus Costello would have had to have travelled to Switzerland, Scandanavia, or somewhere in the Eastern Bloc, so the opportunities for physical contact were much more limited.  The point I was making in my article was that they did approach at a time when Chinese foreign policy was taking a radical turn, but it was a radical turn in a direction even less favourable to the IRA getting any assistance from Beijing than had previously been the case.

I think it is a false dichotomy to try and determine whether he was anti-American rather than anti-Imperialist - as his rapprochement with Nixon in order to oppose the Soviet Union later proved.  And this has to be viewed in the context of Mao's belief that the USSR had become a social imperialist country, as demonstrated by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.  This reflects the nuanced view that Mao and the Chinese leaders had, which was deeply rooted in a very specific, Chinese worldview, fitted into a Marxist framework, that placed a high priority and emphasis on state sovereignty, non-interference in domestic affairs and in the revolutionary context, the necessity of self-reliance and the successful implementation of the necessary domestic political struggle before a revolution could move on to the military stage.  In that regard they would probably have viewed the IRA's chances for success, in what was clearly a very conservative country - Ireland north and south - in the absence of prior political mobilisation as doomed to fail in any case.  China getting implicated in a hopeless and shambolic campaign against the British in Northern Ireland would not have suited China's broader international goals very well.  Everyone knows Mao's famous dictum that "political power comes from the barrel of a gun", but few know that that is only half of what he said.  The full statement was that "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party."  I think Mao would have recognised that the IRA was a military movement in search of a political base, not the other way round, and that to him was in no uncertain terms putting the cart before the horse.

Beijing would have been vaguely aware of the IRA, but would have been sceptical about both their nature and purposes, partly for the reasons explained above.  Their knowledge of Ireland was fairly limited, and what they did know upon coming to power in 1949/50, for example, came from two main sources: Moscow, and the relatively large numbers of Irish Catholic missionaries in China, whom they set about expelling along with almost all other foreigners.  Under Moscow's influence they viewed de Valera and Fianna Fáil as being fascists, because of Ireland's neutrality in World War II, and the evident Catholic influence would have leant itself to supporting that perception.  They would have been open to the idea that the IRA might be a genuine national liberation movement, but would certainly have categorised it as being part of a 'national democratic' revolutionary phase to rid the country of British imperialism.  They would have had strong doubts as to whether they were socialists at all (ironically, these were the same doubts that Stalin harboured towards Mao and the Chinese Communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and played a role in Stalin nudging China into the Korean War).

Whether the Chinese were guided by pragmatism or by a Marxist dialectic analysis is a question that will always prove impossible to answer, because the two could always be brought to bring the same answer.  In comparison to North Korea, certainly Beijing was more cautious, but that is also partly a reflection of Mao and Beijing's worldview, that was cognisant of a particular place China occupied in the world more broadly, and in Asia particularly.  The bottom line was that Mao's China had little interest in fermenting revolution outside the traditional boundaries of China's imperial and historical experience.  This could be justified on both ideological grounds (insufficient information; or in dialectic terms being a distraction from the primary contradiction; or analytically the country in question was not yet ready to pass from the plane of political to military struggle) and indeed pragmatic ones.  But ultimately, for Mao, much was rooted in a very Chinese notion of China's role: he wanted revolutionary China to be respected and adulated across the world, but took little active interest in fermenting revolution any further beyond China's borders than the emperors had sought to suppress it.
The IRA's Chinese Takeaway (Chris A. Connolly) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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The IRA's Chinese Takeaway by Chris A. Connolly is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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