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Nigel Harris

Special Asian Survey

Chinese Policy

(June 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.48, June/July 1971, pp.13-15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Maulana Bashani,of National Awami Party (East Pakistan) sent a telegram to Mao Tse-tung, in March 1971:

‘The ideology of socialism is to fight oppression ... and if Mao refuses to protest against the atrocities of the military junta, the world may think you are not the friend of the oppressed’.

It is a little less easy for supporters of China to be as polite as Bashani now about Peking’s role in East Pakistan. Some of the tanks that blitzed Dacca and a lot of the small arms that decimated Bangla Desh were Chinese. The aviation fuel that kept aloft West Pakistani aircraft so that they could dive-bomb the population centres of East Pakistan came increasingly from China.

By April, the four lane all-weather highway which the Chinese have just constructed to link Sinkiang in the far northwest of China with Karachi, the major port of West Pakistan, was open. A hundred lorries a day from China funnelled military equipment into Pakistan in transit for the East. And newsprint to break the Bengal strike which had prevented newsprint shipments from East Pakistan to West through much of March and April was obtained by the same route.

China’s help to the West Pakistan generals was not just material, although that was vital enough for an army fighting a war with lines of communication stretching three thousand miles through Colombo in Ceylon (the rumour, emanating from Delhi, that China provided facilities for the transit of West Pakistan troops by air to the East has never been properly verified). On Pakistan National Day (March 23rd), Chou En-lai sent fulsome greetings to the President, General Yahya Khan, assuring him of the undying support of the People’s Republic of China in Pakistan’s struggle to safeguard its ‘national independence and state sovereignty’. And ever loyal to the desperate efforts of the West’s generals to attribute the whole Bangla Desh affair to a Hindu-Delhi plot, China duly protested to India about its intervention in the ‘internal affairs’ of Pakistan.

The threat implicit in the protest was not an idle one. In the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, China’s loyalty to Pakistan was such that it mobilised its troops on the Indo-Chinese border next to Sinkiang (on the grounds that India had pinched 59 yaks and 800 sheep, a really profound ‘socialist’ basis for a war if there ever was one, and one which paid scant respect to the need of Indian Maoists to survive in a hostile environment). As a result, the Indian army was divided between two fronts, and the war came to a close. The same threat was there this time. It is a remarkable sign of China’s commitment to Pakistan, for China has never, for example, opened up hostilities against Taiwan in order to divide the US forces and so help the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. It is no wonder that Bhutto, the maverick of West Pakistan politics, should make an ostentatious visit in mid-April to thank the Chinese ambassador for China’s ‘prompt promise of support in Pakistan’s struggle to preserve its territorial integrity’, and, especially, for saying that East Pakistan is an ‘internal matter’.

Serious Maoists must be very concerned about such Chinese policies, although others have already begun apologising for the West Pakistan generals by saying the whole Bangla Desh movement is ‘an imperialist plot’ – by the CIA rather than India – to discredit China. Other Maoists will be less able to keep out the light of day.

What has to be pointed out is that China’s loyalty to the West Pakistan generals – as opposed to any revolutionary opposition – is not at all peculiar. Apart from one or two rare examples, it has always been true that Peking places its main reliance on official diplomatic relationships with other governments, including aid and trade, rather than on encouraging rebel forces against established governments. And that has been so, regardless by and large of the political nature of the governments concerned.

Consider the energetic activities of Chou En-lai in mid-April when the whole embarrassing business in Pakistan was at its height. In Peking at the same time as the American and British table tennis team was a Pakistan air force delegation on a state visit, perhaps just returned from bombing Bengalis. Chou gave a state banquet in their honour. He also gave a splendid meal for another visitor, Princess Ashraf Pahlevi, sister to the Shah of Persia, also on a state visit to China. At the banquet, Chou spoke, regretting the sad decline in Iran-China relations after the second world war (a euphemism: Iran was and still remains a member of the US maintained military alliance, CENTO) and praising Iran’s ‘struggle against foreign aggression and for national construction’. Ask any opponent of the Shah’s regime. Right at the moment, the ‘struggle’ – for Comrade Chou’s benefit – includes gaoling thousands of domestic oppositionists, the summary execution of 13 rebels in March, and a manhunt for guerrillas by SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, throughout April.

China’s leaders primary interest abroad is competing as a great power with the Soviet Union and the United States. As a result the last thing they want is to get a reputation in government circles for fostering subversion.

At times, of course, China has tried to use official government delegations to influence local movements, particularly youth movements. But this is less and less important, simply because it is so dangerous for government-to-government relations. In Africa, for example, Chinese diplomatic representatives have been expelled from Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo (Kinhasa), Dahomey, Ghana and Kenya for allegedly, dabbling in local politics. As each of these countries has a vote that is a serious blow to China’s long term aim of getting voted into the United Nations and being accepted as leader of the ‘Third World’. In Zambia, where the Chinese maintain their biggest aid project, the Tanzam railway (£167 million), Kaunda complained about the distribution of Chinese literature, and China dutifully withdrew lest it affect the cordial relationship with Kaunda.

But now that only the insane can hope to blame the Soviet Union for fomenting revolution, governments are strongly tempted to use the Chinese as a scapegoat and as a lever to make the US give civil and military assistance. It takes quite a lot of money for Peking to provide an incentive for them to act otherwise.

China’s resources are very limited, and it cannot seriously compete wherever the Soviet Union is really involved. China has tried for years to establish more than elementary links with Egypt, but has too little to offer. Being poor, China is the more desperate to retain what links it can, regardless of possible adverse political by-products. Thus, China’s adherence to West Pakistan. Or the speed with which China recognised the Boumedienne military coup in Algeria and abandoned Ben Bella. Even in Indonesia in 1965, when a Right-wing military coup slaughtered half a million oppositionists, including much of the ‘Maoist’ Communist Party (PKI), China did not immediately break off relations with Djakarta. Peking kept reassuring the Indonesian generals that all would be well, China would complete the textile mill it was building and so on, provided Chinese personnel were not attacked; in fact, Chinese economic assistance to Indonesia was not suspended until April 1966 (the coup was at the end of September 1965). Of course the Soviet Union with a massive aid mission in Indonesia, did not even consider leaving for a moment.

One reason for the intensity of China’s support for the West Pakistan generals is the fear that the Soviet Union may be trying to outbid Peking and may succeed. In June last year, General Yahya visited Moscow and returned with the promise of substantial aid, including a prize prestige project, a steel mill. The visit came just after the signing of a new Chinese-Pakistan aid agreement for China to build four modest industrial projects in Pakistan. The alarm in Peking must have been considerable. But the Russian promise was before the Pakistan elections last December which brought a substantial vote for Bhutto and his pro-China/anti-India policy. So far as the Soviet Union is concerned, flirtations with Pakistan and Ceylon are subordinate to its main interest, India. As between Bhutto and the Bengali leader Mujib, Moscow inevitably favoured Mujib. The hot Russo-Chinese competition in South Asia neatly divided between Bhutto and Mujib; but the domestic politics of either candidate was irrelevant.

The same rivalry is apparent in another important area of Chinese activity abroad, trade. As the Soviet Union moved towards closer relationships with the military junta in Greece, so did China. In January of this year, a China-Greece trading agreement was signed to exchange Chinese mutton for surplus Greek tobacco. The deal was arranged by Swiss banks, not by the more obvious agent, the joint Greek-Albanian Chamber of Commerce. The goods are to be shipped by Onassis and Niarchos. Again, as the Soviet Union tries to expand its position in the Indian Ocean, and in particular, to establish a naval base near Aden, China has extended £23 million to the South Yemen government.

It should already be clear from these examples that the political complexion of foreign governments does not trouble Peking in its diplomatic and trading relationships. Nor should it if the ‘five principles of peaceful co-existence’ advanced by China at the Bandung conference in 1955 are to apply – questions of ‘internal polities’ are strictly for the local government concerned, and the worst crime of a foreign power is to ‘interfere’ in the domestic affairs of another country. That is the slogan, advanced equally by China, the Soviet Union, the United States and every ruling class threatened by its own workers or peasants.

But even where there are no official diplomatic relations, China trades with countries that are supposed to be entirely repudiated by even the liberal powers of the world. China’s trade with South Africa expanded to £7 million per annum after the imposition of the boycott on South African trade in 1960 (the trade was organised through a French trading company). China was named (along with France, Germany, Holland, Portugal, South Korea and Czechoslovakia) as one of the countries that purchased more than £6 million worth of Rhodesian tobacco in 1966 in the face of what was supposed to be a world ban on trading with Rhodesia. And the nastiest story of all, from The Observer in 1967, that Chinese merchants in Singapore were acting as agents for steel exports from China delivered to the US forces fighting in South Vietnam.

The Chinese aid programme is equally unsqueamish. Aid went to that most reactionary regime, the Imamate of Yemen in 1959, just before the Imam was overthrown. It went to the Batutsi, the feudal ruling class of the old state of Ruanda-Burundi. It went to the Emperor Haile Selassi to assist him in retaining power against all comers. Indeed, it went to Pakistan, a member of the two US maintained alliances, CENTO and SEATO, and a Right-wing military dictatorship. China tactfully chose to ‘understand’ that Pakistan could not leave the alliances quickly, since it depended upon Western aid and military supplies; like the Soviet Union, China was prepared to tolerate the U2 spy flights emanating from Peshawar and elsewhere in West Pakistan.

What is surprising is not China’s recent diplomatic behaviour but that revolutionaries have been able for so long to keep the most elementary facts about Chinese foreign policy out of their minds. For it is not just over the past half year that the West Pakistani generals have been able to use the prestige derived from China’s support to batter the ‘Maoist’ opposition in East Pakistan; it has been going on for the past ten years. Pakistan is only the tip of the iceberg. The whole basis of Chinese foreign policy has been only accidentally related to the pursuit of socialism: and that means that it has usually inhibited the possibility of the development of local opposition, if not – as in Pakistan – positively supplied the arms to crush it. Some Maoists will inevitably escape these facts. Some will move from one wrong position to another, as some Indian Maoists move from Maoism straight into Indian chauvinism. But perhaps some will begin the task of an independent assessment of the reactionary role of China in world affairs today, and what follows from this in understanding events within China and the task of revolutionaries.

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Last updated: 6.2.2008