Explaining China's Intervention in the Korean War in 1950

By Bangning Zhou
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2015, Vol. 2014/2015 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

In October 1950, Chinese troops under the name of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (CPV) crossed the Yalu River to assist North Korean armies, and engaged in the Korean War in an offensive manner after the U.S. troops crossed the 38th parallel. One central question immediately arises with regard to the Chinese intervention: Why did the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC) decide to send its troops to engage in a war which did not take place on its own territory?

This issue is especially puzzling when one considers the facts that the economy of the PRC was shattered, with high inflation, extremely tight fiscal budget and lack of material resources. The internal security and authority of the regime was under threat by various acts of sabotage undertaken by remaining Kuomintang (KMT) agents, and the enemy China faced was far stronger in terms of military equipment and logistical supply. It should also be noted that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was preparing for the battles in Taiwan to unify the whole of China. In general, the conditions were highly unfavourable for an intervention operation. Most scholars, like Allen Whiting and Hao Yufan, argue that the reason for the Chinese intervention was mainly the security concern of a possible U.S. invasion of Chinese territory.1 Others, like Sergei Goncharov and John Lewis, put more emphasis on influence of individual leaders like Mao Zedong.2 All the above explanations, however, do not take into consideration possible alternative options China might have had and therefore ignored other aspects behind the decision to intervene.

This paper argues that three main factors drove the Chinese decision to engage in the Korean War: security concerns, the need to consolidate CCP’s regime and domestic control, and the ideologies possessed by the individual leaders.

This paper will be divided into four parts. The first part of this paper will briefly provide a historical background of the Chinese intervention in the Korean War. The paper will propose that besides traditional security concern of territorial sovereignty, which is a standard explanation for the Chinese decision to intervene, there are also some other important reasons that should be considered. The following three parts will identify and analyse those reasons from three perspectives. In the second part, this paper will analyse Chinese security concerns at the time. The paper examines how the Chinese leadership perceived the level of threat posed by the U.S. presence in the Korean peninsula, and argues that besides the threat on territorial integrity and sovereignty, Beijing was more worried about the constrains on future economic reconstruction and troop deployment posed by a U.S. presence in the border regions.

The third part analyses Chinese domestic politics and argues that the second driving force for intervening the Korean War was the need to strengthen the CCP’s regime, boost domestic morale, and reduce the remaining KMT sabotage activities. The fourth part examines the role of the individual Chinese leaders. It looks at the ideologies possessed by key CCP leaders in the Politburo, especially Mao, and argues that the third driving force for the decision to assist Korea is the ideologies possessed by Chinese leaders: internationalism offered by Marxism-Leninism ideology, and hostility towards the U.S. The paper will conclude that the above three factors persuaded Chinese leaders to decide to intervene in the Korean War.

Historical Background of the Intervention

On 25 June 1950 the North Korean army led by Kim Il Sung, launched an offensive against South Korea. Although newly emerged evidence indicates that there was an exchange of views between Kim, Mao and Stalin on the North’s plan of military invasion,3 several signs indicate that China was still not prepared for an invasion. One example would be that the CCP started a large campaign of demobilisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) five days before the outbreak of conflict, in which 1.4 million of the PLA were supposed to be demobilised.4 As a result, the border area near the Yalu River was left with only one army which was stationed there for crop production purposes.5

At the same time, the domestic situation, especially the economic one, was not favourable for an intervention. Agricultural production fell by 40 per cent compared to the pre-civil war years, while major industrial outputs fell by more than 50 per cent.6 Moreover, the military expenditure was cut, together with the large campaign of demobilisation mentioned above. It was estimated that less than 10 per cent of the budget was allocated for the militaries in the Northeast region in 1950.7 With other problems including a high inflation rate and remaining anti-Communist forces of local ‘bandits’ which sought to establish their own authorities and KMT agents, the situation seemed highly unfavourable for armed intervention. In fact, at the initial stage, China took a passive response to the situation in North Korea. Besides moral support for Kim, the only material support provided by Beijing at the time was to send approximately 14,000 Korean Chinese who were then serving in the PLA back to Korea.8 However, three subsequent events dramatically changed Beijing’s attitudes.

The first is that on June 27, the U.S. Seventh Fleet was sent to the Taiwan Strait to ‘neutralise’ the situation. On the same day, President Truman announced air and naval support for South Korea. These movements lead the Chinese leaders to reassess American intentions towards China and redeploy some of its troops to the Northern border. But the debate on whether to send troops across the border still continued in the Politburo. The second and third events are the Inchon landing on September 15 and the U.S. troops’ crossing of 38th parallel on September 25. The former event, according to the explanations found in much of the literature, endangered China’s security interests and threatened the security of the Chinese mainland directly.9 China quickly mobilised troops and resources in preparation for possible escalation, and issued its warning through Indian ambassador Kavalam Madhava Panikkar that China would intervene in the war if the American troops entered North Korea.10 After the U.S. troops crossed the 38th parallel on September 25, China made the decision to intervene and the first Chinese troops entered North Korea on October 14.

In this brief overview of the historical background of China’s intervention, it seems that the reason behind the Chinese decision was the threat to the security of mainland China posed by the United States. However, there are still questions to be answered. On the one hand, the deteriorating economic situation and weak military power could hardly support such an intervention, and the unstable political situation at home required relatively high resources to be deployed domestically. Moreover, China had at the time an important security guarantee from the Soviet Union which theoretically could reduce the need to intervene. The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, which was signed in February 1950 and stated that ‘all-out’ support would be provided by the Soviet Union if China was involved in military confrontations with the so-called imperialist countries,11 served as a clear insurance of security of mainland China. The security treaty therefore greatly reduced the possibility of an American invasion.

As a result, staying out of the war seemed to be a cheap and secure alternative for Beijing besides sending its troops to assist Kim, especially given the fact that Beijing had great faith and confidence of the reliability of such strategic alliance and the treaty.12 The fact that Beijing did not choose this alternative suggests that there must be other considerations besides the security of Chinese sovereignty. Therefore, the following sections will analyse Beijing’s policy considerations from three perspectives: security consideration, China’s domestic situation, and ideologies shared by influential individual leaders in the CCP Politburo.

Security Concerns

Before examining the security concern created by the United States to China, it is necessary to look at the role the Soviet Union played in Chinese strategic considerations. As the tension in the Korean peninsula escalated, Stalin became more cautious in avoiding direct confrontation with the United States and refused to send troops to Korea. Instead, he encouraged the Chinese to send their armies to assist the North and promised, according to the alliance treaty mentioned above, to support China with military equipment and air force cover for Chinese troops in Korea and to defend Chinese borders.13 Beijing considered the Soviet support crucial to China’s intervention.

Mao specifically sent Premier Zhou Enlai to Moscow to discuss the Soviet support and made the decision to intervene only after such assurance was made. He also immediately halted all actions of the CPV after learning that the Soviet Union would not provide air support at the initial stage. Nevertheless, Beijing still proceeded in the absence of the important Soviet air support. If such a decision was made, as Allen Whiting argued, because of China’s ‘vulnerability’,14 then it is necessary to find out in which areas China felt vulnerable. If it is just the physical security of the mainland, why did China not opt for relying on the alliance treaty, especially when it knew that there would be no Soviet air support at the initial stage, which was crucial to Beijing’s decision as analysed above? It suggests that there are some other vulnerable aspects which raised the awareness of Chinese leaders and compelled them to intervene.

One explanation for these ‘other vulnerable aspects’ is that Beijing’s security concern is not only about the physical security threat posed by American forces moving towards the Chinese border, but also about the constrains on Chinese domestic development it might bring. In a telegram to Zhou, explaining the necessity to intervene, Mao emphasised that if the U.S. proceeded near the border ‘all the North-eastern border defence forces will be absorbed’.15 Zhou later also implicitly expressed his worries that there would be not enough troops to guard the ‘one thousand kilometres’ of borders if the Americans occupied North Korea.16 Such concerns imply that the leaders in Beijing were deeply worried about the fact that once American troops were stationed in the border region, China would be forced to focus most of its troops and resources on the North-eastern border region. This would be both fiscally expensive and politically dangerous.17

On the one hand, the Northeast region contains the main economic resources including steel, coal and hydropower to support the economic reconstruction and recovery for most of China. As Zhou points out that if the U.S. troops proceeded to the Yalu River, industries (especially heavy industries) would be ‘within range of enemy bombers’ and it was impossible to have ‘the peace of mind to go about production’.18 With resources and heavy industries under threat, the economic production and reconstruction would be severely constrained. Furthermore, the troops were forced to deploy troops around the border lines, the CCP would have limited military resources to continue their plan of ‘liberation’ of Taiwan and to deal with remaining KMT sabotage forces, especially at the time when the sabotages and harassments became more frequent domestically,19 and the presence of the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait posed another security threat to China’s Southern coastline. Furthermore, the constrains on economic reconstruction and countering anti-Communist activities would heavily constrain the CCP’s efforts to consolidate its regime and domestic authorities, which, serves as an important reason for Beijing’s decision to intervene.

The above analysis shows that security concern did play a role in China’s decision to intervene in Korea. While the alliance treaty could guarantee full Soviet support to protect China’s security when its territory was invaded, it could not lift the constrains on economic reconstruction and troop deployments for ‘liberating’ Taiwan and combating internal opposition forces posed by the U.S. presence near the border. Compelled by these obstacles for CCP’s efforts to consolidate its regime, Beijing had to opt for an armed intervention to eliminate the root of such constrains: the American presence near its border if the North Koreans were defeated.

Domestic Situation

As mentioned before, one constraint posed by U.S. military presence near the Yalu River is that it limited China’s ability to respond to domestic anti-Communist movements. Implicitly behind this campaign of countering anti-Communist elements was the CCP’s need to consolidate its regime which was established less than a year ago. More importantly, the CCP faced the difficult task of establishing its authority and credibility by creating extensive internal support from the population at large.20 Influenced by the traditional Chinese strategic culture of regarding crisis (weiji) as constituted by both danger (wei) and opportunity (ji), the outbreak of crisis in Korea was seen by the CCP as both a challenge and a rare opportunity for the CCP to achieve the above objectives.21

It was obvious that leaders in Beijing, especially Mao, were deeply worried about the possible impact of a U.S. victory over North Korea on domestic anti-Communist forces. In his telegram to Zhou, Mao mentioned that allowing the U.S. to press to the border would allow the growing of arrogance of ‘reactionaries at home’, and would be ‘disadvantageous’ not only to China, but also Korea and the Far East.22 In another telegram summarising the Politburo discussion nine days later, Mao again stressed that if the American troops reached the border region, ‘the international and domestic reactionary bluster would surely become louder’.23 Such emphasis on the effect of countering domestic anti-Communist forces can be seen as a direct response to the growing activities of such forces, including attacks on local officials and militaries, sabotages, assassinations and, according to the intelligence acquired by the public security ministry at the time, a bombardment of Tiananmen on the celebration of National Day on October 1.24

By sending troops to combat the U.S. forces and prevent their arrival at the border regions, the CCP leaders hoped that it can ‘beat the arrogance’ of both the U.S. abroad and the reactionary forces at home.25 In doing so the CCP could increase its strength on anti-sabotage campaigns as well as domestic reconstruction, and hence consolidated its authorities. In this sense, the intervention in Korea served as an important move to prevent the enemy from ‘fanning counterrevolution sentiments’ in China to threaten its domestic unity and security.26

Another aspect of domestic consideration is the CCP’s desire and need to gain wider support among the public by successfully managing the Korean crisis. For the CCP and its regime, established for less than a year after a destructive civil war, this task was especially crucial and challenging. The population who had just experienced foreign and domestic conflict and had limited knowledge of the CCP’s internal and external policies would take the Korean crisis as a test of the CCP’s capability to govern the country.27 The CCP also realised that the Korean crisis was an opportunity to ‘mobilise the masses’ and to ‘inspire the comrades-in-arms’.28

To achieve such objectives, the Chinese leadership addressed both the ‘revolutionary enthusiasm’ and patriotism among the public. One example can be seen from an internal directive on official propaganda from the General Information Bureau, which stated that ‘we have to…start a widespread campaign of propaganda…to educate our people at home’.29 By stressing both the revolutionary characteristics (anti-imperialist) and the patriotic characteristics (defending sovereignty) of the Korean War, the CCP leadership believed that engaging in Korea could create a revolutionary momentum of the Chinese people and therefore strengthen the authority and reputation of the CCP.30

To summarise the above analysis, considerations of the domestic situation, specifically the need to counter anti-Communist forces and strengthen the CCP’s regime played an important role in Beijing’s decision to intervene. By sending its troops to assist the North Koreans in countering what they saw as ‘imperialist’ invasion, the CCP could decrease the morale of domestic anti-Communist forces on the one hand, and strengthen its legitimacy and authority by showing to the public its dedication to defend national sovereignty and Communism and fight against imperialism (which were the objectives the CCP had always stressed on before coming to power) on the other hand.

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