m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

A P R I L  1 9 5 7

China: Time for a Policy

Writer and teacher, JOHN K. FAIRBANK traveled widely in China for seven years and lectured at Tsing Hua University, Peking, before coming to Harvard as Professor of History. During the war he served as Special Assistant to the American Ambassador in Chungking, and later as Director of the USIS in China. He is the author of The United States and China, 1948, and coauthor of A Documentary History of Chinese Communism, 1952, and China's Response to the West, 1954, all published by the Harvard University Press.

by John K. Fairbank


OUR relations with China are stuck between two worlds. Beneath the legalism and defensiveness of our recent China policy lies a traditional American attitude: we seek self-determination and freedom of access among peoples within an international rule of law. Mixed in among Peking's Marxist pronouncements are echoes of the traditional Confucian world view: that the Chinese culture area is a political universe in which a centralized Chinese despotism stands supreme, surrounded by cultural-political vassals.

These two antithetic political traditions now confront each other across the Formosa Straits and mark the impasse in Chinese-American relations, which is created not only by today's conflict between the West and Communism but also by the long-term contrast between American and Chinese political institutions.

Our reaction to Chinese Communism is naturally surcharged with resentment. The Chinese people, whom we long befriended, have been ruthlessly mobilized against us. Peking has fabricated intricate lies like germ warfare and forced them upon tortured American fliers. It seems in character that Peking now supports the Russians in Hungary. Our national revulsion is evidenced in the unanimous resolution of the Eighty-fourth Congress against seating Red China in the UN. Yet revulsion is an attitude rather than a policy, and we need to discuss policy.

Our present posture toward China is righteous, isolated, and negative. The once consoling explanation that Communism won China only through a transpacific conspiracy no longer satisfies even the least thoughtful ultrapatriot. We now face an apparently high degree of compatibility between Soviet totalitarianism and old-style Chinese despotism. It is not exorcised by the fact that those who think they see it are, as is customary in these matters, accused of abetting it. Our problem is more profound than we like to acknowledge: Communism seems to be flourishing in China, and American ways are rejected. Neither collapse at Peking nor defection from Moscow seems likely. A new United States policy is needed to meet new problems in Asia. Waiting hopefully for the enemy to fall on his face is not a policy.

Inevitably, in the face of Communist tactics, our diplomacy has an air of frustration. Almost singlehandedly we support Chiang Kai-shek's claim to represent the Chinese one-quarter of mankind, though the chances of his regaining the mainland are so dim as to be invisible. We oppose Communist China's admission to the UN, though a majority in the General Assembly may defeat us next year in the name of recognizing fact as fact. Our defense of Taiwan seems to have no future, since Taipei has joined Peking in denouncing the un-Chinese idea of "Two Chinas"; neither side will contemplate an independent Republic of Taiwan. Our negotiations with Peking at Geneva have been stalled by the Communist refusal to renounce the use of force in the Taiwan area (Chou En-lai calls Taiwan "a domestic issue") or to release Americans improperly held.

Seeing this frustration, critics attack our China policy as petulant and sterile, which it well may be, and yet remarkably little is offered to improve it. American public discussion, notably during the 1956 election, has shied away from the real issues. Our commentators have not dwelt upon the remarkable successes of Chinese Communism in establishing its controls over such disparate things as prices, persons, and minds, mobilizing patriotic youth, collectivizing the rural economy, and pushing industrialization. For good or ill, these have been great achievements, refashioning the world's largest and most ancient society. In Asian eyes they outshine all the first steps and small bits of Chinese modernization with which Americans were associated during our century of treaty contact. Peking's offer last summer to admit American journalists bespeaks the Communist pride in these vast transformations and the desire to advertise them to the American public. Our refusal to accept such contacts and the information they might bring, as long as Communist China refuses to accept certain rudiments of international law, underlines our intransigence--indeed, it puts us in the dubious position of denying our own principle of freedom of the press in order to misuse the issue as an expedient form of diplomatic pressure.

If we examine our side of the impasse, two long-term principles have been evident in the American approach to China since 1785. First, FREEDOM OF ACCESS to the Chinese civilization as part of an international world order of trade, travel, and enterprise. This was expressed in treaty rights of commerce, missionary proselytism, and most-favored-nation treatment. Later it was embodied in the Open Door for trade (1899), which acquiesced in imperialist spheres of interest but demanded equal commercial access to all China.

Secondly, NATIONAL SELF-DETERMINATION on the part of the Chinese people. This was referred to in the Open Door notes of 1900 and often subsequently, as in the Nine-power Treaty of 1922--usually as China's "political integrity," the same principle we are trying to apply to the states of the Middle East in l957.

Harking back to the New World experience of creating one state after another all across a continent, Americans assume that a new government may be created to meet the needs of any people who are sufficiently united to govern themselves in a recognizable geographical area--even an area so spread out as the islands of Indonesia. Ours is the modern doctrine of nationalism, which influenced China long before the rise of Communism.

These two principles point toward an ideal world order of free peoples sovereign within their respective nations and enjoying freedom of access among nations. These are still valid goals of American policy in Taiwan, even though they are rejected by the mainland. The argument for the independence of Taiwan rests on these ideals, which can be realized there.

For us Taiwan offers the only access to a Chinese area where Chinese cultural studies, political and social institutions, and economic life can develop on a non-Communist basis. We believe in pluralism, not a monolithic centralized society, and have an interest in seeing that not all Chinese life is monopolized and manipulated from Peking.

The 10 million Chinese on Taiwan are a geographically distinct unit. The minority of refugees from the mainland and the majority who were freed from Japanese colonialism are developing the basic elements of a democratic political process, albeit beneath a continuing superstructure of Kuomintang dictatorship. The Chinese on Taiwan deserve an opportunity for self-determination, to join the mainland or remain free of it as they wish. There is little doubt today that they would seek freedom from the mainland.


On the other side of the impasse, the Chinese political tradition assumes that China is a single centralized state embracing all persons of Sinic culture, who are united under a common social order and a common political dispensation, with no exceptions.

This Chinese polity is the oldest continuous one which has survived among a single people since ancient times. The Son of Heaven has been supplanted since 1912, with increasing vigor, by Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Tse-tung in succession, each of whom has met certain old and certain new criteria while claiming the central personal role in reuniting China.

This Chinese tradition of the unified empire, ruled from one central source which claims a monopoly of all political organization, is still a factor in Chinese politics. As for thirty years past, it drives Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists to cling tenaciously to their claim to rule all China and so today to represent all China in the UN. It also motivates Peking to extirpate its rival. Previous changes of the ruling power in China have all seen a determined effort by the new rulers to annihilate any remaining vestiges of the preceding dynasty, no matter how long it might take or how feeble the defeated claimant to the central power might have become. Thus the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) finally wiped out the last Chinese claimant to the Sung throne off the southeast coast, in 1279, the Chinese founders of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) led their armies across steppe and desert to destroy the remnants of Mongol power before and after 1400, and the Manchu conquerors who founded the Ming Dynasty (1644-1912) demolished the last Chinese naval resistance, based on Taiwan, in 1683, forty years after their seizure of Peking.

In looking at Peking today, of course, we will be in error if we see only a repetition of the motifs of Chinese history, such as reunification under a new dynasty which merely "happens" to be Communist. On the contrary, the age-old patterns have been disrupted and mixed into a new amalgam which is both Chinese and Communist. Modern nationalism and industrialization overlie the age-old ethnocentrism. The resulting revolution is comparable in scope and significance to the French or Russian revolutions--one of the "great" social changes of all time. Not only are the Chinese almost a quarter of mankind situated in a strategic area: the uprooting and reshaping of their social, political, and economic institutions during the modern century have constituted one of the most arduous and cataclysmic processes in the whole human record, more change within a shorter span than anything ever experienced in the West.

Only a century ago China was still "all under Heaven," the immemorial center of culture and politics within the four seas of its known world. Within a lifetime this Middle Kingdom was invaded, humiliated, condemned as backward and proved impotent, while all the ancient balances of the Confucian family system and bureaucratic empire were upset and destroyed. Sun Yat-sen ruefully had to call his countrymen "a sheet of loose sand." Yet within another lifetime a vigorous centralized government has reappeared, and has again organized both the student elite and the peasant masses. This disintegration and rebirth of Chinese state power in modern times has been neither easy nor kind, but we can no longer doubt that it has occurred.

Riding the revolution, Peking now makes use of new forces as well as old, particularly a modern nationalism which is one of the strongest in all history anywhere. The explosive capacity of this new nationalism stems from the ingrained tradition of Chinese superiority and its frustration by repeated foreign humiliations and "semicolonial" subjection ever since the Opium War of 1840. The result has been, I think, to leave a deep sense of grievance in the Chinese mind, which the Communists can focus upon "foreign imperialism" and (by distorting history) the U.S.A.


Taiwan, for Peking's purposes, is a built-to-order irredentist grievance, an invaluable focus of patriotic anti-American resentment. What issue could be more spectacularly useful? Taiwan is 10,000 miles from the United States but only 100 miles from the Chinese mainland. Far enough offshore to explain the mainland's not seizing it by force, it is still too close for strategic comfort or public apathy whenever Peking wants to sound the tocsin. Its independence preserved only by our Seventh Fleet, Taiwan is a vivid reminder of earlier Japanese imperialism, a present self-proclaimed military threat, a constant challenge to Peking's prestige, a concrete example of American "imperialism" and its alliance with the "traitorous Chiang Kai-shek clique." We well may wonder whether Chou En-lai could afford to part with so provocative a political issue, lying so availably on the national doorstep.

For us, the organized wrath of 600 million people in China is not something to go out and seek; yet by our principles we have little alternative. It takes an effort of imagination for us to recognize what we are really defending and confronting in the Formosa Straits.

Our hardest task in evaluating the Peking regime and updating our policy is to transcend our experience of China in the past. The recent century of treaty port privileges and missionary benefactions has left us with happy memories of a China which, however, no longer exists. During the century from 1842 to 1943 the unequal treaties put the most ordinary American in the status of a member of the Chinese ruling class, not subject to local law or ordinary police action. This arrangement helped our various forms of enterprise and subtly contributed to the charm of foreign life in China. Even the least responsible young seaman in Shanghai and the humblest missionary far in the interior had this superior status thrust upon them. Extraterritoriality let the foreigner buy and sell, preach and teach, travel and study, shielded from the reality of Chinese judicial practice, insulated from the normal despotism of the Chinese state. From 1842 to 1949 that state was weak; now it is strong and again despotic.

During the past century of backwardness and weakness vis-a-vis the West, China acquired a reputation for easygoing pacifism among the populace, corrupt incompetence among administrators, and general disorganization, which is no longer true. Twenty centuries of training in bureaucratic government and Confucian ideological orthodoxy seem to have left the Chinese people susceptible to large-scale organization by modern totalitarian methods, even though our modern minded Chinese friends may deplore both the old laxness and the new rigor as unrepresentative of the best in the Confucian tradition.

If we can hardly overestimate the potential vigor and persistence of mainland opposition to our Taiwan policy, neither can we overlook the Stalin that Taiwan represents in power politics: it stands on the trade lanes to Japan and in Communist hands could mount sea-air power capable, with Russia, of squeezing the Japanese islands and their vital commerce. The military potential of Japan, particularly its trained industrial manpower, once under Communist control could soon upset the world balance of power and oblige us to fight or acquiesce in Communist hegemony.

Thinking along this line, one cannot help speculating whether the current relaxation of Far Eastern tension may not sometime be climaxed, dialectically, by a Communist squeeze play. Suppose that we continue to have no UN consensus mobilized in formal support of our Taiwan position. Suppose that on a Saturday midnight Peking announces that the coastal islands now in Nationalist hands, Quemoy and Matsu, are part of the mainland, as any map will show, and that 3000 Soviet-built Chinese jets will provide air cover for an armed recovery operation, which is proclaimed to be no threat to Taiwan but only a local police action. It is not altogether fanciful to suppose that this might leave us the alternatives of holding Quemoy and Matsu by dropping A-bombs again on Asians, thereby losing the rest of Asia from Fukien to Suez, or taking our loss by turning the other cheek.

Such speculations suggest that our position in Taiwan, confronting mainland China's new Communist-led nationalism, is seriously exposed and isolated and may become steadily more vulnerable, so long as it stands on the one leg of American power and lacks the diplomatic support of other and particularly the Asian nations. Indeed we cannot overlook the possibility that, as the mainland builds up, its power of attraction by promise and threat may undermine Taiwan's capacity for independence, which is an American conception, as I have tried to indicate, more than a traditional Chinese conception.


Our policy failure today is less one of purpose than of execution, less the fault of diplomats than of national leadership and the public opinion it represents. The extremist positions, that we can solve our Chinese problem with the toughness of a nucleated MacArthurism, or on the other hand merely by being friendly and admiring like the fellow travelers, are both bankrupt. Yet a policy in the middle of the road is no good unless it goes forward.

Our support of an independent Taiwan must rest on principles we hold in common with neutralist Asia. The first of these is self-determination: that if the Chinese of Taiwan so desire, they may remain independent of the rest of China. This is not an open-and-shut proposition. By Peking it can be compared with the Confederate doctrine of secession rejected in our Civil War, and it is true that India in the case of Kashmir and Indonesia in western New Guinea (Irian) are opposing self-determination in their peripheral areas. Nevertheless on balance the new post-war democracies of non-Communist Asia cannot easily renounce this principle which gave them birth.

Its application to Taiwan is justified from another angle of practical morality: out of concern for the 10 million people there, whose standard of living, thanks to Japan's material development of the island, is undoubtedly higher than that of the mainland. Meanwhile the thousands of trained and patriotic administrators, scholars, and other leaders of modern China who are refugees with the Nationalist Government are a key group in world strategy--chief fruit of Chinese (and also Western) efforts at modernization, custodians of liberal values now spurned on the mainland, capable of training Chinese talent and pursuing scholarly studies on a non-Communist basis. Theirs is the only Chinese government outside the Communist orbit, the only rallying point where free Chinese political institutions can be developed.

Thus it is understandable that if the United States, because of deep political conviction, has nurtured Philippine independence, defended South Korea, and supported South Vietnam, we should similarly seek the independence of Taiwan, which has hardly been under mainland rule in this century. For Taiwan to have self-determination, including the right to join the mainland if it wishes, is a concrete application of the general rule of law and government by consent on which our society is based and on which we hope the new multistate, international order can be based.

This view also expresses our belief in freedom and diversity rather than conformity. Why should there not be an alternative, albeit small, focus of Chinese political life, creative scholarship, and socioeconomic development, separate from the mainland? How will mankind be better served if all the cultural tradition and creative talent of the Chinese race are monopolized and manipulated from Peking? These questions, which need no asking in the United States, are intelligible to neutralist Asia and also to the Chinese trading communities of Southeast Asia. But can this idea be realized in Asia, where even the strongest Western doctrines may wilt and wither?

Chiang Kai-shek, it seems safe to predict from our very considerable experience, is not likely to accept our view any more than Mao Tse-tung's. He claims all China, nothing less. The eight years of Communist rule have been no longer to date than the eight years of the earlier Japanese occupation. He has survived both, and his supporters retain their hopes.

Yet one thing is sure: if the Peking regime unexpectedly collapses, it is more likely to be followed by a new government born on the mainland than by an old government returning from Taiwan. Perhaps we can agree realistically, as was decided during the Korean war, that no American policy can be dedicated to putting Chiang back on the mainland by force. We might well say so more explicitly. We hold a veto over his use of our aid to mount an assault.

How do we engineer an independent Republic of Taiwan, guaranteed as such by the United Nations, when the ruler of Taiwan, the Nationalist Government, will have none of it and claims to rule all China? This problem demands top diplomatic talent of the stature of our Panmunjom negotiator, Arthur Dean--someone of proven capacity and incredible stamina. While insoluble in Western legal terms, the problem can perhaps be dealt with on a de facto basis. There is no question what government actually rules Taiwan. As its genuine electoral process continues to develop in scope and efficacy, it can be seen by all Asia to be a government by consent, with participation of the governed, and thus it can validly claim to be a channel of popular self-determination, without recourse to a plebiscite which it would never consent to hold. If with our aid the island's standard of living and degree of political freedom can keep developing well ahead of conditions on the mainland, Taiwan's de facto independence can gradually become more firmly established. Full recognition of it can follow a period during which Peking and Taipei, while renouncing no claims in formal, face-losing terms, can tacitly acquiesce in the compromise situation which already exists.

Let us not leap from one illusion to another. An American policy aimed at the peaceful development of an independent Republic of Taiwan will have hard sledding: Communists will continue to flail it (How would Americans feel with Puerto Rico allied to Russia?), the Nationalists and their ardent supporters will denounce it as pinko appeasement (How can we destroy their prestige among overseas Chinese?), neutralists will eye it with suspicion as neo-imperialism, the people of Taiwan may approve it but can offer no votes in American elections. Mainlanders in Taipei may eventually respond to Communist offers and the pull of their homeland, more than we now expect. Yet when all these continuing difficulties are foreseen, it remains a fact that Taiwan's independence has been the chief fruit of our China policy for seven years past and there is nothing on the horizon, except disaster, to alter it.


In this Context "recognition of Communist China" is an ambiguous phrase. Are we to recognize Peking as ruling the mainland without Taiwan--which Peking can hardly accept as recognition? On our part we certainly will not recognize Peking as ruling Taiwan. Thus terms acceptable to us will be unacceptable to Peking and vice versa. It is simplistic to assume that an avuncular nod of "recognition" from Uncle Sam can settle anything or persuade the Chinese Communists to act in a more civilized fashion.

Negotiation, however, is a different matter. The argument for dealing with Peking (which we have been doing at Geneva in a small way for more than a year already) is not that Chinese Communism is such a good thing that we must approve it, but rather that it is such a great problem that we cannot ignore it. To negotiate or not to negotiate is a question not of principle but of expediency. Our diehard anti-Communists, even the most romantic must accept the idea that when an evil becomes serious enough, it must be dealt with. For example, the Russians are so serious a menace to us that we cannot afford not to communicate with them. Indeed, we have got beyond the fear of losing our shirts at a conference table because we sometimes can gain our point.

This need to negotiate gives us a positive reason to see Red China in the US, which exists as a forum where diplomatic dealings may avert the common danger of nuclear war. Other valid reasons have militated against Peking's admission--chiefly that it would be a defeat presumably transforming Nationalist China into the Republic of Taiwan with a seat in the Assembly but not in the Security Council. While this would make the UN a more comprehensive body, it would be a considerable climb-down for the United States and we could gain from it only as we combined it with other countervailing elements of a general Far Eastern settlement--for example, a UN guarantee of Taiwan with our mutual defense alliance also continuing the seating of India and Japan permanently on the Security Council along with Communist China, and measures by which Peking is purged of her aggression in Korea.

Taipei has argued that the mere idea of any kind of negotiation or settlement would demoralize the Nationalist position in Taiwan and the overseas Chinese still fence-sitting in Southeast Asia. Certainly a sellout would do so, and quite properly. But an effort to get recognition of the realities which have emerged over the past seven years, both in Taiwan and on the mainland, should be the opposite of a sellout; for it has become plain that the old American traditions of self-determination and mutual access among peoples are not merely Western but world-wide ideals. The Chinese imperial tradition is out of date on both sides of the Straits of Formosa.

Our opportunity and that of our friends on Taiwan is to help develop there an economy, a political process, and a body of trained personnel, within the Chinese world but free of Peking's totalitarian control, as an investment for a happier day when these same ideals may apply to all the Chinese people. A settlement committing us to defend them in the Republic of Taiwan recognizes present realities but surrenders nothing for the future.

Copyright © 1957 by John K. Fairbank. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly Group; April 1957; China: Time for a Policy; Volume 199, No. 4; pages 35 - 39.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture