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Excerpt from China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy by Peter Martin
Edgar Snow goes to meet Mao
This free issue of the newsletter is an excerpt from Bloomberg journalist Peter Martin’s new book China's Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy. We chose the chapter about Edgar Snow, the American journalist who introduced Mao to the world.
Snow is very popular again this year, with multiple official calls for journalists like him in this New Era, including at the first Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference this year:
The year 2021 will be of historic significance to China as we will celebrate the CPC's centenary. In the 1930s and 1940s, when the then Kuomintang government sealed off Yan'an and spared no efforts to "demonize" the CPC, foreign journalists like Americans Edgar Snow, Anna Louise Strong and Agnes Smedley, curious about who and what the CPC is, chose to blend in with the CPC members in Yan'an after going through various difficulties to get there, where they wrote many objective reports as well as works like the famous Red Star over China, giving the world its first glimpse of the CPC and its endeavor in uniting and leading the Chinese people in pursuing national independence and people's liberation. They were indeed a window for the world to understand the CPC and China. They will always be remembered by the Chinese people as our good and true friends.
We will celebrate the CPC's centenary and realize the first "centenary goal" in the year 2021, the first chapter of the Party's great cause and embark on the second "centenary goal" to build a new journey of fully building a modern socialist country. We sincerely hope that all of the foreign journalists will employ their pens and cameras to faithfully and objectively report on the CPC's state governance, the Chinese people's pursuit of their dreams and China's commitment to peaceful development. In promoting mutual understanding and cooperation, you will serve as the indispensable bridge and bond between China and the rest of the world.
I hope you enjoy the excerpt, and the book in its entirety.
Chapter 2: Shadow Diplomacy
One summer day in 1936, Huang Hua slipped out of his dormitory with a single leather suitcase in hand, telling no one of his departure. The twenty-three-year-old student’s destination was the Communist Party’s remote revolutionary base in the badlands of Shaanxi province.
Born Wang Rumei in 1913, the bright-eyed student with a broad toothy smile had grown up in Hebei province on the vast North China Plain. Civil war had disrupted his studies in his hometown, forcing him head to the country’s Northeast to continue his education, only to see that too cut short by Japan’s invasion of the region in 1931. Huang and his classmates watched trainloads of Chinese students retreating south in the face of the advance by their stronger Asian neighbor.
In 1932, Huang had enrolled in Yenching University in Beijing (then “Beiping”), a school run by American missionaries. At Yenching, Huang mixed with left-wing professors and got hooked on books about Marxism. In short succession, he’d marched against Japanese aggression, joined the Communist Party, experimented with homemade explosives, and found himself imprisoned for subversive activities. Huang’s support for the Communists spoke to a passionate, almost visceral desire to remake his country through revolution and restore it to a place of dignity. Like many of his contemporaries in the underground Communist movement, he adopted a new name on joining the Party. Wang Rumei became Huang Hua.
Now a senior at Yenching, Huang had agreed to act as translator for the American journalist Edgar Snow, who was on his way to meet the already legendary guerrilla leader, Mao Zedong. For Huang, the journey would mark the start of a lifetime representing Chinese Communism to the world. He’d go on to serve as China’s first ambassador to the United Nations and eventually foreign minister. For now, though, Huang would need to make it across the country without being caught.
His first stop was Xi’an, an ancient walled city at the eastern end of the Silk Road that had been the capital multiple ancient dynasties. Xi’an was now a battleground for local warlords and a den of Nationalist government spies. Its ancient streets teemed with beggars, colorfully dressed prostitutes, villagers selling hand-spun clothes, and merchants delivering goods to Western department stores.
After traveling to the city separately, Huang and Snow agreed to rendezvous in Xi’an’s West Capital Hotel. The pair decided that Snow and his friend, the American doctor George Hatem, would carry on ahead in a military truck while Huang would wait for instructions from underground contacts.
At one point, Huang narrowly evaded capture by Kuomintang agents patrolling the city. Two men knocked at his door, demanding that he explain his business in Xi’an and to see his papers. Thinking on his feet, Huang dropped the names of local dignitaries to signal that he was politically well-connected. “You’re welcome to enter and search my things,” Huang said, projecting confidence he did not possess. “No, it seems you’re one of us,” one of the agents replied. When Huang recounted the story to his contacts in Xi’an, they told him it was time for him to get out of the city. “Xi’an is not safe. You shouldn’t stay here any longer,” one told him.
Three tense days later, it was time to leave. Huang’s contact picked him up in a military truck, together with a friendly colonel who would help them get through the city’s checkpoints. Once they reached the outskirts, they donned the uniforms of the local warlord army and set out on a 200-mile journey through some of the most lawless parts of rural China.
Huang and his companions drove for three days until the road literally ended. The colonel headed back while Huang and his contact continued on foot along a mud road, climbing ridges and crossing rivers barefoot.
Although both were tired and hungry, Huang’s companion told him it was too dangerous to stop: the risk of encountering armed bandits was just too high. At one point, an unknown voice cried out from behind: “Give me the password or I’ll shoot.” Huang’s contact ignored the voice and kept walking. Huang Hua followed.
When he eventually arrived at the Communist Party’s base area centered on the town of Bao’an (they later moved to nearby Yan’an), he was greeted by Party spymaster Li Kenong, who quizzed him about his background and Party connections.Once Li was satisfied that he was not a spy, Huang was cleared to begin exploring his new environment. And some environment it was.
The area surrounding Bao’an, was one of the poorest and most technologically backward parts of China. Farmers eked out their livings from arid hillsides during the five frost-free months of the year, but often found their efforts washed away by flooding in July and August. Ineptly governed for centuries, the area had been decimated by warlord and bandit attacks after 1911. Many peasants lived in the rubble of deserted towns and villages linked by crumbling roads.
It was in this most hostile of environments that the Communist Party set the tone it would impose on China’s future and the country’s diplomacy. Knowing that it needed international legitimacy to survive, the Party put together a small coterie of foreign affairs specialists, including Huang Hua, who would go on to emerge as the core of the foreign ministry’s leadership in 1949.
Many of the practices and cultures laid down by this group continue to shape Chinese foreign policy today—for better and for worse. Communist leaders charmed overseas guests using hospitality techniques that endure today. They enticed foreigners, especially Americans, with promises of political liberalization they had no intention of keeping.
Most important, this period saw Mao Zedong’s overweening political influence begin to shape the Party’s diplomatic culture, just as he shaped almost all other aspects of political life. In the years that followed, China’s fledgling diplomats experienced methods of political control that would recur periodically inside the foreign ministry, most dramatically during the Cultural Revolution and more recently under Xi Jinping. First, though, Edgar Snow had arrived at the Party’s base area and he was in need of entertainment.
Snow’s arrival at the revolutionary base presented the Party with an opportunity to try its hand at what we now call public diplomacy.
When Zhou Enlai had put out feelers for a foreign journalist who could travel to Shaanxi, Snow seemed like the perfect fit. Born to a middle class family in the leafy suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri, Snow dropped out of college to join an advertising firm in New York at the height of the Roaring Twenties. He’d soon saved enough for a trip to Asia and set sail in 1928. “I knew nothing of foreign peoples,” he later remembered. “I didn’t know a communist from a Catholic when I went to China.”
Snow traveled across Asia, earning money as a writer before moving to Beijing with his new bride in 1933. Once there, he used his media connections to help left-wing Chinese writers get published in the West and raise money for local labor unions. Genuinely distressed by the poverty and inequality he witnessed in Nationalist China, Snow had become strongly critical of Chiang Kai-shek and was doggedly pursuing an interview with Mao Zedong.
In Snow, the Party saw an opportunity to raise its profile in elite circles in the United States. Its treatment of Snow helped establish an enduring model where flattery and careful stage management secured the support of foreign “friends.”
Step one was flattery. When Snow and his companion Hatem arrived at the base, they were treated like international statesmen. A marching band played as Red Army troops lined the streets and crowds shouted, “Welcome, American comrades!” An array of top Communist leaders greeted the pair after their long journey before treating them to a banquet.
“The effect pronounced on me was highly emotional,” Snow wrote in his diary. “It was the first time I had been greeted by the entire cabinet of a government, the first time a whole city had been turned out to welcome me.”
The Chinese government continues to deploy flattery as a diplomatic tool today. When President Donald Trump announced his first official visit to Beijing in November 2017, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador in Washington, played to the president’s ego by promising a “state visit-plus,” suggesting a level of access and decorum not usually afforded to foreign dignitaries. During the visit, Xi Jinping hosted Trump for dinner in the Forbidden City, making him the first foreign leader the People’s Republic had invited to dine in the palace that housed Chinese emperors for nearly 500 years. Trump and his wife Melania were treated to afternoon tea in the Hall of Embodied Treasures and a private performance of Peking Opera in the Belvedere of Pleasant Sounds, a theater once used to entertain the imperial family. Trump would later describe the visit as “one of the most incredible of my life.” He was just one in a long line of foreign guests wined, dined, and flattered by Communist Party leaders on the model of Edgar Snow.
Snow’s arrival in Shaanxi was a validating for the Communists too. When Snow and Hatem delivered a speech to members of the Red Army, attendees unfurled banners in both English and Chinese that read, “We are not isolated. We have the support of international friends.” For a political Party that had spent so much of its history isolated and on the run, Snow’s visit was an uncommon moment of international recognition.
Once Snow was settled, the Communists arranged for him to tour the base area, assigning Huang Hua and his handler. Huang accompanied Snow to meetings with Red Army commanders and soldiers on the front line where the American heard stories about the Long March as well as the Party’s redistributive programs. Mao also met with Snow every day for ten days to impart his life story. Throughout the trip, Snow’s experiences were carefully choreographed. His writing was personally reviewed and censored by Mao through translations provided by Huang.
By the time Snow first met him, Mao was forty-three years old. Born in the rustic village of Shaoshan in rural Hunan province, Mao was the son of a rich peasant farmer whose domineering personality he grew to despise. A voracious reader from a young age, Mao became interested in the works of nationalist reformers as an elementary school student. He later became acquainted with the founding members of the Chinese Communist Party while serving as a librarian at Peking University, and went on to become one of its earliest members.
With messy hair parted in the middle and a thick Hunan accent, Mao stood above most of his contemporaries at nearly six feet tall. He was in many ways the opposite of Zhou Enlai, especially in his distrust of intellectuals and contempt for discipline. Throughout his career, Mao’s commitment to social justice was matched by a restless desire to dismantle the social and political institutions of traditional China, which he believed had kept the country weak. Mao also had a remarkable capacity for personal and political grudges and an overpowering drive for revenge.
Initially overlooked by Soviet advisers and even shunned by other revolutionaries, Mao’s belief in peasant revolution had been vindicated after the Party’s previous Soviet-backed policy of urban insurrection took it to the brink of extinction in 1934. By the end of the Long March, Mao was unquestionably the dominant force in the Party. The power of his personality and his vision for China’s revolution would shape Chinese politics for decades to come.
Snow turned the interviews into a book, Red Star over China, which became a bestseller after its publication in 1937. The book marked the beginning of Mao’s transformation into an international revolutionary icon. It praised Mao as a “Lincolnesque” leader who could “awaken” China’s population to “a belief in human rights.” The Party’s first major attempt at public diplomacy had gone better than it could have hoped.