Decision Making Theories and China's Military Intervention in the Korean War

By Hao Ming Xiong
2017, Vol. 9 No. 11 | pg. 1/1


This article uses two decision-making theories – rational choice theory and prospect theory – to examine China’s resolution to intervene militarily in the Korean War. I argue that Chairman Mao Zedong was in a domain of loss both domestically and internationally when the U.N. Command crossed the 38 Parallel and approached the Yalu River. In this context, loss aversion predisposed him to gamble on a risky option – direct military intervention – which is estimated to have a higher utility than strengthening border defenses, an option that would have been more attractive to a rational decision maker. Using a decision tree, this article also discusses the probability of success of each of the alternative options.

Since 2015, a series of provocations from Pyongyang has led to a fear of “Korean War Two,” which looms over both scholars and the public. This is fueling a new interest in “The Forgotten War”1 that took place on this small East Asian peninsula more than 60 years ago. Between mid-1950 and mid-1953, nearly one million men, women and children died as a result of military hostilities in the region. In addition to those who died, there were another two million injured and untold thousands missing and never accounted for.2 This war is the only direct military clash in history between the current superpower, the United States, and the emerging superpower, the People’s Republic of China. The conflict buried any hope for a Sino-U.S. accommodation at that time and greatly reshaped the foreign policies of both countries during the first half of the Cold War, leading to a confrontation that lasted nearly twenty years.

Because of the significant impact of this conflict, there has been a great deal of research and analysis by specialists on the Korean War since the 1950s. Although there are some studies exploring the inception of the confrontation, most focus on the relationship between the Soviet Union and the U.S., China and the Soviet Union, and Sino-U.S. relations to uncover the war’s origins. However, the analyses of the decision-making process of Chinese leaders are generally insubstantial. According to the revised second edition of Keith D. McFarland’s The Korean War: An Annotated Bibliography, as of 2009, there were 2,600 books, journal articles and magazine stories about the Korean War, but only 12 studies focusing on “The Chinese Decision to Intervene.”3

Meanwhile, even after several decades, the question of why Mao decided to assist North Korea in fighting against a coalition of nearly all the Western industrial powers still has limited and imperfect answers from both Chinese and Western scholars.4 Some analysts, such as Allen S. Whiting and Walter W. Rostow, considered the environment in which Beijing made the decision and concluded that national security was the main concern of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders.5 Others attributed the conflict to miscalculations on the part of both countries, especially U.S. policy-makers who had decided to unify Korea.6 There are also scholars who believe that because of Mao’s domestic and foreign policy goals, as well as his ideological commitment, Chinese entry into the conflict was thoughtful, proactive and inevitable.7

However, almost all these utility-based arguments focus primarily on the external drives and overlook the internal factors such as feelings or emotions of the major decision maker. Would Mao continue to pursue his domestic and international goals if the probability of failure was high and the outcome of losing the conflict was disastrous? A rational decision maker would probably say no. In the Korean War, it was actually the relatively high probability of failure that made China’s involvement one of the two most difficult decisions of Mao’s life8 and caused him to lose much sleep and smoke many cigarettes in the days after Incheon.9 If this is the case, then why did Mao still insist on military intervention despite the perception of the low probability of achieving his goals?

Andrew Kennedy argued that Mao’s martial efficacy made him believe that Chinese forces would be able to destroy the American forces on the peninsula. In other words, Mao overestimated the probability of success and dismissed the probability of total defeat10. However, with the cautious behaviors in decision making before the intervention, Mao seemed to be fully aware of the low probability of winning and was not confident about expelling the U.S. from the peninsula. Hence, current work may not provide a satisfactory explanation.

By applying two commonly used decision-making theories – rational choice theory and prospect theory – this article argues that if risk is calculated, a rational decision maker on the Chinese side would probably not choose to intervene in the Korean War. A better explanation comes from prospect theory. The next section of this article provides a brief introduction to the basic assumptions, definitions and differences that characterize the two theories. Then, in the following sections, a two-stage analysis featuring a framing phase and an evaluation phase is applied to explain Mao’s behavior in this decision-making process using the two theories. From this, I conclude that prospect theory can provide a better explanation than rational choice theory of China’s risky behavior after the UN forces crossed the 38th Parallel.

Rational Choice & Prospect Theory

A basic economic tenet, rational choice theory has been widely used to prescribe action as well as to describe the behavior of consumers, entrepreneurs, voters, and politicians. It is commonly assumed that most, if not all, economic and political agents obey the maxims of consistency and coherence leading to the maximization of utility.11 In foreign policy analysis, the principal assumptions of rational choice theory are the following. (a) The decisions of a country on a policy option can be viewed as though they were the product of the calculations of a single, all-important decision maker. In other words, the country should be perceived as a single chess player in the international political arena, and all of its moves are based on calculation. (b) Decision makers are considered rational utility maximizers, as they calculate the costs and benefits of each policy option based on the information available to them and choose the option with the highest utility. (c) Before making their final decision, decision makers must take into account the risk associated with each of their policy alternatives, such as the likelihood of failure and the behaviors or reactions of other actors. The utility achieved is the product of the gains (or losses) and the probability of achieving them.

However, a decade of laboratory experiments has revealed that people systematically violate the axioms of subjective expected utility theory,12 leading to the emergence of prospect theory, a descriptive theory of decision making under risk. As Danial Kahneman and Amos Tversky argued, among other things, our interpretation of the choices, whether as gains or losses, influences how much risk we will take. Gains and losses are judged relative to a starting reference point. In most cases, this is the status quo. If we frame an outcome as a loss, we will assume more risk to avoid that outcome than if we framed the identical outcome as a gain.13 In short, people tend to be risk-seeking in the domain of losses and risk-averse in the domain of gains.14

Similar to rational choice theory, prospect theory focuses on individual decision making. That is, in the international political arena, it assumes that policy decisions are made by a single but significant decision maker. However, according to prospect theory, the final choice is subject to individual perceptions of gain and loss as well as the probabilities (risks) inherent in each option instead of the amount of utility alone. Hence, before applying prospect theory to analyze options in any given case, it is crucial to first establish the operative domain as one of either gains or losses. While it may be impossible to actually get inside the head of the relevant decision maker to assess his or her subjective perspective, it is possible to use other indicators to access the most likely domain of action (loss or gain).15 In what follows, I will apply these concepts to the situation in 1950.


On June 25, 1950, troops from North Korea invaded South Korea, leading to the first conflict following World War Two. Two days later, President Truman ordered U.S. air and sea forces to give South Korean forces cover and support, and the U.N. Security Council voted 7–1–2 to adopt a U.S.-backed resolution calling for members to furnish aid to South Korea to repel the attack and restore peace.16 Nevertheless, the outbreak of the Korean War did not immediately attract much attention from Beijing, and the event certainly did not cause a change in the CCP’s national agenda17. A Land Reform Law was passed on June 30, and a military demobilization decision was signed by Mao and Zhou Enlai on the same day, leading to the beginning of the largest demobilization in Chinese history.18 Neither did Beijing immediately abandon its plan to liberate Taiwan simply because the U.S. government ordered the Seventh Fleet to enter the Taiwan Strait19.

Not until a unified U.N. Command was established on July 7 did Mao and his aides realize the seriousness of the situation. After two Central Military Commission meetings, 4 corps, 3 artillery divisions and 3 Air Force regiments consisting of a total of 255 thousand troops were deployed to guard China’s northeastern border in early August.20 A month later, U.N. Command successfully landed at Incheon and advanced across the 38th Parallel. This “rollback” led to a series of meetings and discussions among Chinese leaders and between Beijing and Moscow. Finally Mao decided to send the Chinese People's Volunteer Army (CPV) to cross the Yalu on October 19, 1950.

Based on this brief summary of China’s behavior before entering the Korean War, the division of Korea at the 38th Parallel can be considered as the reference point for Mao and the CCP leaders. As early as July 2, when meeting with Soviet ambassador Roshchin, Premier Zhou Enlai had made it clear that “if the American troops crossed the 38th Parallel, the Chinese soldiers would put on the uniforms of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and fight the Americans as volunteers”21. And he repeated this position while meeting with Indian ambassador Panikkar on October 3rd22 and delivering a speech in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Standing Committee meeting on October 24th23. As the slogan of CPV shows, the aim of the intervention was to “resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea” (Kang mei yuan chao). Only if the U.S. crossed the 38th Parallel could it be framed as the aggressor against North Korea. Moreover, Chief of Staff Nie Rongzhen directly noted later in his memoir that “the political purpose of China’s involvement in the Korean War was to kick the enemy out of North Korea and re-establish the status quo that had existed before the conflict.”24 Before the Incheon landing, Beijing had been keeping tabs on the progress of the battles. Although they deployed a certain number of troops at the border to prepare for the looming conflict, there was insufficient motive for China to intervene. However, when U.N. forces led by General MacArthur crossed the 38th Parallel, Mao began to feel that compared with the status quo before the conflict, the situation was rapidly deteriorating and that he was operating in a domain of loss both domestically and internationally.

From the domestic perspective, Mao faced a combination of vulnerability and insecurity both inside and outside of China. On the home front, it was obvious that the new elite faced a host of actual and potential enemies at home.25 Although the Communist Party controlled most of the land at that time, “counter-revolutionary” activities, including opposition from the remnants of the Kuomintang forces, mountain bandits, and landlords were still a problem throughout the country. Those activities, together with the Tibetan, Mongol and Kazakh resistance movements, as well as espionage by Kuomintang spies, greatly affected the stability of the new regime. Mao feared that if the Communist leadership passively accepted the U.S. victory in North Korea, domestic reactionaries would become more confident and active.26

In terms of external security, aside from safeguarding electrical power supplies in North Korea and the industrial base in Manchuria, Mao’s attention was mainly absorbed by the national security. He believed that if Korea were fully occupied by the U.S., Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang leader in Taiwan, would be encouraged and supported by Western countries to engage in renewed attacks on the Chinese mainland via the Korean Peninsula, just as Japan had during their invasion of Manchuria.27 However, even without a direct invasion in northeast, Mao was still concerned that the U.S. would replicate these military actions in Vietnam and Myanmar, putting great pressure on China’s national border defenses.28

From an international perspective, Mao’s loss perception was framed by three main issues: China-DPRK relations, Sino-Soviet relations and China’s role in Asia. First, after the foundation of the CCP, communists in Korea had maintained close contact with communists in China. During the 1930s and 1940s, a great number of Korean communists had come to China to support Chinese forces in the war with Japan.

Moreover, as one of the most important logistical bases in northeastern China, North Korea played a significant role in helping the CCP to defeat the Kuomintang in Manchuria during the civil war. Therefore, when the U.N. forces crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded North Korea, Mao felt he was losing one of his best allies. In his own words, “Once (North Korea) was in a crisis, we would have felt bad if we stood idly by.”29 Moreover, despite signing the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship in February 1950, Stalin still retained some mistrust of China because unlike other countries such as North Korea, the establishment of the new communist regime in China did not depend fully on support and assistance from the U.S.S.R.30 Stalin understood Mao as a nationalist who might follow in Marshal Tito’s footsteps.31

From Mao’s perspective, Beijing’s failure to intervene in Korea would prove Stalin’s doubts, and China might be isolated in the socialist camp.32 If mutual trust with Moscow deteriorated, Beijing would not be able to count on enough support for recovery and development. Finally, the crossing of the 38th Parallel by the U.N. Command made Mao feel that Chinese Communist prestige in the area was directly affected. In fact, Mao was proud of his military achievements and strategy in the Chinese civil war and wanted to set up a model for Communist parties elsewhere. However, an unchallenged imperialist victory for the US in North Korea seemed to overshadow all his efforts and success.33

Thus, Mao personally faced tremendous loss in terms of domestic security, international relations and global prestige when the U.N. Command crossed the 38th Parallel and marched towards the Yalu River. According to prospect theory, his likely choice would be a gamble to return things to the previous status quo – the division of Korea at the 38th Parallel – and even to gain more benefits by taking risky actions to mitigate domestic insecurity, regain the trust of Stalin and Kim Il Sung, and improve his international reputation, repel the Americans.

The Framing of Options

For both rational choice theory and prospect theory, framing possible options before reacting to the challenge that they present is an important phase. Rational choice theory requires a thorough analysis of observable costs and benefits as well as the probability of success of each option to calculate its utility, whereas prospect theory requires an additional assessment of the relative riskiness (defined as probability of success) of each. This additional risk assessment can be achieved by evaluating the probability of success and the utility of each option. In other words, a riskier option should be the one with both the lower probability of success and the higher amount of utility. If it fails, the negative influence typically tends to be greater.

From the outset, four basic options were framed by Mao and his aides in their decision-making process focused on solving the crisis. From the lowest to the highest level of risk, these options were as follows:

  1. Mediation via diplomatic efforts;
  2. Do nothing but maintain a strong border defense;
  3. Engage in a military intervention with the help of the Soviet Red Army;
  4. Initiate a conflict without direct military assistance from the Soviet Union.

The first option was diplomatic mediation. This option was presented in a conversation between Zhou and the Indian Ambassador, Panikkar, on October 3, 1950. In this conversation, Zhou declared that the Korean issue should be settled peacefully. All hostilities and the U.S. led attack should cease immediately, and the relevant countries should negotiate a solution within the U.N. framework.34 Compared with the other options, diplomatic efforts have the least cost. However, since China was not a member of the U.N. at that time, it could not act as a mediator in the negotiations even if all parties agreed to a negotiated settlement. Additionally, because the initial military action to assist South Korea was authorized by the U.N. and General MacArthur subsequently chose to continue the advance, China realized that this was an unrealistic option that should be abandoned.

The second option was to maintain a strong defense line on China’s northeastern border. That is, the troops deployed on the northeastern border should be maintained and strengthened to ensure national security. This was the option that gained the most support in the Politburo meeting on October 4 and 5, 1950. Many Politburo members explained their reasons from different perspectives. According to General Lin Biao’s statement, “it is urgent for China to heal the wounds of civil war.” And “there is a huge gap between the U.S. and China in terms of military and economic power. Since we have never fought against the U.S. before, if we fail to push them back, Manchuria may become a battleground.” He believed that “it is not appropriate for China, a country with 500 million people, to make great sacrifices to assist North Korea, a country with only several million people.” Therefore, “the best choice is to guard the northeastern border.”35 Chief of Staff Nie Rongzhen also agreed that “although we have enough manpower, our outdated arsenal is a big problem. Without tanks, aircrafts and artillery, it is impossible to initiate a modern war.”36 Other members, such as Zhang Wentian and Chen Yun were more concerned about domestic economic and social difficulties.37 With China facing a huge fiscal deficit and a high unemployment rate,38 they believed the costs of strengthening northeastern border defenses were much lower than direct military intervention and that the holistic benefits were also considerable.

The third option emphasized military involvement with the direct help of the Soviet Red Army. In other words, the proposers suggested that China and the Soviet Union should fight together against the U.S. forces. Due to limitations on access to relevant archives, it is still unclear who made this suggestion at the Politburo meeting. However, according to the Memorandum on the Korean War (1950-1953), it was obvious that some participants in the meeting thought that “it is better to wait for the involvement of the Soviet Red Army or a joint intervention than to send troops all by ourselves.”39 In other words, the proposer(s) believed that this would reduce the risks as well as the costs of involving in a war with the U.N. Command. Nevertheless, this suggestion soon proved unworkable. Before the Korean War started, Stalin had decided not to prepare for open conflict and thus to try to avoid a direct military clash with the United States.40 Therefore, when Stalin received the telegraph from Kim Il Sung asking for help, his response was to urge China to send troops to provide assistance. Thus, Mao and his aides knew that action from Moscow would not be forthcoming. In fact, Stalin was also reluctant to provide air support during the negotiations with Zhou on October 10 and had already begun to consider abandoning North Korea instead of entering the war, saying that “if China has difficulties (in sending troops), no assistance (to Pyongyang) is also acceptable. Even if North Korea is defeated, China still exists, and we are still socialists.”41

The final option, which was supported by General Peng Dehuai, was to intervene directly in the Korean War. Peng argued that conflict with the U.S. was inevitable. Even if China could avoid military confrontation in the short term, “there should be a war within three to five years.” Moreover, at that time, “the industry developed during the intervening period would still be destroyed by the war.” And “maybe Japan and West Germany have been rearmed by Western countries, but our military equipment, especially that of the navy, is not greatly improved. So it is better to fight now than later.”42 Peng also analyzed the costs and weaknesses of passive reactions, such as guarding the border. He believed that after the victory of the Chinese revolution, the advantage was on the side of world revolution, and if China did not help its neighbors to fight against invaders, this would greatly discourage the progress of the global socialist revolution.43 Needless to say, compared with other options, direct military intervention had the highest costs as well as the greatest returns. If China was able to successfully save North Korea, it would definitely gain more benefits in the domains of domestic affairs, international reputation and relationships with allies.

Rational Choice Theory & the Expected Decision

As discussed in the previous chapter, although the CCP leaders framed 4 options during the decision-making process, options 1 and 3 were generally considered to be unfeasible. Therefore, while applying decision-making theories to predict their expected choice, we only have to focus on the utilities and probability of success of the remaining two options: strengthening border defenses and initiating military intervention without the direct help of the Soviet Union.

Rational choice theory stresses the maximization of utility in decision-making behavior. However, because each option has a probability of success and a certain amount of loss when it fails, the final utility can be described as:

In this equation, refers to the final utility; and refers to the probability of success and failure, respectively; and are the total benefits from the success or failure of the option; and and refers to the total cost of the success or failure of the option separately. We will use this equation to estimate the final utilities of the two options.

According to the analysis of option 2, if China adopts the border defense option, the main costs will be found in the required military spending. As Zhou calculated in his speech on October 24, “passive defense…needs to spend the equivalent of 50 million kilograms of millet to refit an airport, and if we have to have 11 airports in all, then we need to spend the equivalent of more than half a billion kilograms of millet.” Apart from those expenditures, “many facilities and military bases need to be built” and “manpower should be devoted to the border defenses along the Yalu River.”44 Moreover, as discussed above, China’s international reputation and relationship with its allies would also be affected by its passive behavior. In terms of benefits, it seems most parts of China would be able to retain a peaceful environment for development, which is particularly important for a new country. Domestic policies, such as land reform, could be implemented to accelerate the recovery from the destruction of the civil war. Therefore, if both the benefits and costs are considered, the total utility seems to be medium because this would sacrifice the development of Manchuria (three provinces) in exchange for the recovery of the rest of the whole country. Regarding the probability of success, because of the existence of Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Beijing was confident that the U.N. forces would not invade its territory. Nowhere in the archives does it appear that either Mao or the other CCP leaders were worried about an invasion of China by the U.N. Command if they did not intervene. In other words, the probability of success for this option was very high.

Compared with passive defense, the active option – military intervention – seems to be complicated because it involves a judgment on the probability of achieving a goal through war. Several factors need to be taken into account to predict the outcomes of a war. Clausewitz emphasizes that to develop a good strategy at least five elements – moral, physical, mathematical, geographical and statistical – should be considered.45 Sun Tzu also said that “to ascertain the results of a war, five factors, including politics, weather, terrain, commander and doctrine, should be analyzed.”46 Based on the writings of these past theorists, it is argued here that a rational decision-maker should evaluate the probability of success in war via a comparison of military strength. The relevant military strengths of countries in a war depend on two major factors: “tangible power” and “intangible power.”

Tangible power consists of power that can be quantified, including economic power, the number of soldiers involved in the conflict, the quantity of military equipment, and the technological quality of the weapons. Intangible power has a similar meaning to Clausewitz’s “moral element,” which includes the skills of the commander, the experience and courage of the troops, and the troops’ morale. The military strength of a country can therefore be defined as:

In this equation, refers to the military strength of country “i” and equals the sum of all “tangible power” (TPi) times the skill of the commander (Si) plus intangible power (IPi,other), such as the experience, courage, spirit and discipline of the troops as well as other observed or unobserved factors (Xi), such as alliances, weather, geographic advantage and luck (the combination of all unpredictable factors). Here, the skills of the commander are emphasized because a better commander is more likely to make full use of the other resources to influence the result of the war. In other words, an excellent commander has the ability to amplify the advantages of tangible power, while a commander with mediocre or low abilities may neglect the advantages at hand.

By applying this formula to evaluate the respective military power of China and the U.S., it should be noted that there was a huge and obvious discrepancy between the two countries. As is made clear by the archives, in terms of economic power, GDP and steel production in the U.S. in 1950 was $284.8 billion and 87.7 million tons, respectively, whereas in the figures for China were $28.7 billion and 0.6 million tons, respectively, or 1/10 and 1/144 of American production.47 In the military domain, the United States possessed the most modern military in the world. On the ground, the US Army consisted of 10 combat divisions, a figure that would double during the course of war in Korea.48 Its inventory included more than 3,000 tanks, 27,000 motor vehicles and an abundance of towed artillery. The ground operations also benefited from tactical air support and the mobility afforded by the world’s most powerful navy.49 In contrast, the PLA did not have an Air Force or a Navy. Many soldiers only had limited training. Though they had gained some experience in the War of Resistance against the Japanese and in the civil war,50 they had never fought beyond China’s borders and had no efficient logistics system.51 However, they had more men and their morale was on average much higher than that of their opponents. If all these elements are combined together, it can be inferred that the U.N. Command, which mainly consisted of U.S. soldiers, had a huge advantage in most tangible and intangible factors. To be more specific, they had overwhelming superiority in “∑TPi” and most of the “IPi,other.”

In terms of the skills of the commanders, it is universally acknowledged that General MacArthur was an excellent commander, while General Peng also had substantial combat experience and a strong command capability; thus, it is hard to estimate the difference of “Si” between the two parties. Moreover, the complex and narrow geographic features of the Korean Peninsula set the obstacles for both parties: not only limited the advantages of mechanized combat for the U.S. forces but also constrained the bush fighting and mobile battle abilities of the CPV. The only advantages of the CPV lie in the morale of its soldiers and those of its local allies. The troops of North Korea were much stronger than those of South Korea, albeit after the Incheon landing the KPA also suffered from low morale. Therefore, in light of these observed factors, for the CPV to push U.S. forces back to the 38th Parallel seems like a difficult challenge. The probability of success was in other words abysmal (As shown in Table 1 below).

Table 1: Military Strength Analysis of China and U.S. in Korean War

Table 1

As discussed above, if China could succeed in preventing the invasion of Pyongyang by U.N. forces (which had a low probability), the benefits would be high. Not only could a buffer zone be regained but also Mao and the CCP would raise their international profile and increase trust from their allies. However, if China failed to save North Korea – which had a high probability as General Lin Biao predicted in the Politburo meeting – although it might gain some trust from Stalin, there would be a huge loss of Chinese Communist prestige in the world, especially Mao’s reputation of military achievement. And in addition to the high numbers of casualties and a high economic cost, Manchuria might once again become a battlefield. Hence, the expected utility of this option is negative high.

Based on the analysis above, if Mao were a rational decision maker, according to the decision tree shown below, he would probably not choose to intervene in the Korean War because the total utility of the active option tends to be negative (the negative high utility with high probability cannot be balanced by the high utility with low probability). The utility of the passive choice (border defense), although not high, is nevertheless positive (as Figure 1 below shows).

Figure 1: Decision Tree of China’s Reaction to the Crisis in 1950

Figure 1

Prospect Theory & the Expected Decision

Prospect theory argues that in the loss domain, the decision maker is more likely to opt for a risky gamble that might return the situation to its former status quo and even to gain more benefits. Such a risky gamble is characterized by a situation in which the probability of success is lower than that offered by other options, but the utility of the outcome is higher.52 Based on the analysis above, it seems that compared with guarding the border, immediate military intervention had both a higher probability of failure (which means it is riskier) and more utility. However, the above analysis is only a rational exploration from an ex-post perspective. Since prospect theory emphasizes the significance of subjective judgment, the utilities and risks of the available options are all subject to the framing of the decision maker. In other words, regardless of the actual utility and risk of each option, it is important to trace back and figure out the utility and risk that Mao perceived for each option at the time.

Although there is no special archive or personal memoirs that describe Mao’s perception of the risk and utility of each option at the time, reasonable inferences can still be drawn from currently available historical evidence. First, in terms of utility, Mao clearly expressed his calculations in a telegram to Zhou on October 13, 1950. In that telegraph, Mao said, “Sending troops to Korea is more favorable…We believe that China should enter the war and must enter the war. We can benefit a lot from entry.”53 It can be inferred that Mao also believed that the expected utility of a successful military intervention was higher than that of strengthening the border defense.

With regard to riskiness, it is also possible to conclude, in light of currently available materials, that Mao was not confident in achieving his goal (at least in terms of pushing the U.N. forces back to the 38th Parallel) when deciding to send the CPV to Korea. To make up for weaknesses in military equipment, after deciding to intervene in the Korean War, Mao sent Zhou to Moscow to ask Stalin for help. However, when he received the news that Soviet Union would not provide air support for the CPV for at least two months after October 11, he immediately telegraphed General Peng to cease carrying out the intervention order and organized another Politburo meeting to discuss the situation.54 His brave General, Peng Dehuai, became angry when he learned that the Soviets would not provide air support, and he wanted to resign as the commander of the volunteers55. In other words, even Peng, a firm supporter of military intervention, did not believe that China could beat the U.S. without the help of Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Mao also sent another telegram to inform the Soviets that the Chinese army had not yet entered Korea and that orders had been given to “stop the implementation of the plan to enter Korea”56.

Moreover, military equipment was not Mao’s only concern. In his meeting with Kim Il Sung in 1970, Mao recalled that before the CPV entered the war, there was a survey that revealed that only 20% of the soldiers were eager to fight.57 This was a relatively low percentage for the era during which Mao had the greatest spiritual influence in China. He was cautious about the low morale, which might affect the performance of the soldiers. In addition, at the strategic level, Mao’s plan also showed his reluctance in fighting against the U.S. army. In a telegraph to Zhou, he said that “in the first phase, we should focus on the South Korean Army. We are confident in defeating those troops…and if we can destroy some of its divisions, favorable changes may come.”58

These behaviors demonstrate that Mao, at least during the decision making process of intervening in Korean War, unlike what Andrew Kennedy argued, did not play up the opportunities and play down the dangers because of his martial confidence59. Instead, he was fully aware that without air support from the Soviet Air Force, it would be very dangerous to fight against the U.N. Command with an army of moderate morale. In fact, Mao had already started to consider the reaction to the situation of being pushed back by the U.S. force. According to the memoir of General Peng, in Mao’s final comment on the meeting on October 13, the Chairman – despite his challenge-oriented personality – showed his uncertainty: “if we fail (to defeat the U.S.) …we can fight again whenever we want in the future.”60 His plan seemed to be joining the conflict and waiting for an opportunity.

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that before making his final decision, Mao had already been aware of the utility as well as the riskiness of each option. Although guarding the border was safer, he still chose direct military intervention without immediate help from the Soviet Air Force. He believed that even though the probability of success of was low, had the intervention of CPV been successful at pushing the U.N. forces back to the 38th Parallel or even out of the Peninsula, he would be able to recoup all his losses and gain some extra benefits as well. In other words, he took a gamble, which he understood to be militarily risky, to grab a chance to re-establish the previous status quo.


After nineteen days of tough choices, the CPV finally crossed the Yalu River on October 19, 1950. Chairman Mao’s decision to do so changed the fate of China for the next two decades. Ex post facto, an analyst would agree that from the perspective of rational choice theory, the best option should have been that of strengthening the border defenses because it had a high probability of success and decent utility compared with the other option. However, Mao took the riskier option – direct military intervention – in the end. Indeed, there is no question that the decision was made during a domain of loss for Mao when the U.S. force crossed the 38th Parallel. His behavior is consistent with prospect theory: when Mao was in a domain of loss, he was likelier to gamble on a riskier option (military intervention) with a higher expected utility. If successful, he would recoup all losses and restore the prior status quo with some extra benefits. Fortunately for Mao, his gambling succeeded in the end – China achieved its political purpose (kick the enemy out of North Korea and re-establish the status quo that had existed before the conflict) in the Korean War by direct military intervention, though the costs of Chinese “victory” were also huge – approximately 180,000 deaths and billions of economic losses. This finding provides an illustration of the operation of prospect theory and sheds light on a new approach to the analysis of China’s foreign policy.


  1. McFarland, K. D. (2009). The Korean War: an annotated bibliography. Routledge.
  2. McFarland, K. D. (2009). The Korean War: an annotated bibliography. Routledge.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Jian, C. (1995).China's road to the Korean War: The making of the Sino-American confrontation. Columbia University Press.
  5. McFarland, K. D. (2009). The Korean War: an annotated bibliography. Routledge. Tom Christensen has renewed the emphasis on Mao’s security concerns. See Christensen, T. J. (1996).Useful adversaries: Grand strategy, domestic mobilization, and Sino-American conflict, 1947-1958. Princeton University Press.
  6. McFarland, K. D. (2009). The Korean War: an annotated bibliography. Routledge.
  7. Jian, C. (1995).China's road to the Korean War: The making of the Sino-American confrontation. Columbia University Press.
  8. CCP Central Literature Research Center. (2003). The Memories of Hu Qiaomu about Mao Zedong. People's Publishing House.
  9. Jian, C. (1995).China's road to the Korean War: The making of the Sino-American confrontation. Columbia University Press.
  10. Kennedy, A. (2011).The International Ambitions of Mao and Nehru: National Efficacy Beliefs and the Making of Foreign Policy. Cambridge University Press.
  11. Quattrone, G. A., & Tversky, A. (1988). Contrasting rational and psychological analyses of political choice.American Political Science Review,82(3), 719-736.
  12. Mercer, J. (2005). Prospect theory and political science.Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci.,8, 1-21.
  13. Ibid.
  14. McDermott, R. (1992). Prospect theory in international relations: The Iranian hostage rescue mission.Political Psychology, 237-263.
  15. McDermott, R. (1992). Prospect theory in international relations: The Iranian hostage rescue mission. Political Psychology, 237-263.
  16. McFarland, K. D. (2009). The Korean War: an annotated bibliography. Routledge.
  17. Shen, Z., & Li, D. (2011). After leaning to one side: China and its allies in the cold war. Stanford, Calif, Washington, D.C, Woodrow Wilson Center Press.
  18. Meng T. & Wu H. (2013). The Korean War and Defending the Homeland: Mao’s Tough Decisions of Sending Troops to Korea, History Monthly.
  19. Ibid.
  20. CCP Central Literature Research Center. (1987). The Manuscripts of Mao Zedong since the Founding of China, Volume1. CCP Central Literature Publishing House.
  21. Shen, Z., & Li, D. (2011). After leaning to one side: China and its allies in the cold war. Stanford, Calif, Washington, D.C, Woodrow Wilson Center Press.
  22. CCP Central Literature Research Center and PLA Academy of Military Sciences. (1997). Zhou Enlai's Military Anthology, Volume 4. Beijing, People’s Publishing House.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Nie Rongzhen. (1986). The Memoir of Nie Rongzhen. Beijing, PLA Publishing House.
  25. Whiting, A. S. (1968).China crosses the Yalu: The decision to enter the Korean War. Stanford University Press.
  26. Military Historical Research Department of the Military Academy. (2000). The History of Korean War, Volume 1.
  27. Whiting, A. S. (1968).China crosses the Yalu: The decision to enter the Korean War. Stanford University Press.
  28. Military Historical Research Department of the Military Academy. (2000). The History of Korean War, Volume 1.
  29. Peng Dehuai. (1981). The Autobiographical Notes of Peng Dehuai. Beijing: People’s Publishing House.
  30. Meng T. & Wu H. (2013). The Korean War and Defending the Homeland: Mao’s Tough Decisions of Sending Troops to Korea, History Monthly.
  31. Shen, Z., & Li, D. (2011). After leaning to one side: China and its allies in the cold war. Stanford, Calif, Washington, D.C, Woodrow Wilson Center Press.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Whiting, A. S. (1968).China crosses the Yalu: The decision to enter the Korean War. Stanford University Press.
  34. CCP Central Literature Research Center and PLA Academy of Military Sciences. (1997). Zhou Enlai's Military Anthology, Volume 4. Beijing, People’s Publishing House.
  35. Hu H. (2009). Memorandum of The Korean War (1950-1953). Jinan: Huang He Publishing House.
  36. Wei W. (2006). The Biography of Nie Rongzhen. Beijing: Contemporary China Publishing House.
  37. CCP Central Literature Research Center. (2005). The Biography of Chen Yun. Beijing: CCP Central Literature Publishing House.
  38. Goncharov, S. N., Lewis, J. W., & Litai, X. (1993). Uncertain Partners: Stalin.Mao, and the Korean War,12, 14.
  39. Hu H. (2009). Memorandum of The Korean War (1950-1953). Jinan: Huang He Publishing House.
  40. Shen, Z. (2012).Mao, Stalin and the Korean War: trilateral communist relations in the 1950s. Routledge.
  41. Military Historical Research Department of the Military Academy. (2000). The History of Korean War, Volume 1.
  42. Writing Group of Biography of Peng Dehuai. (1988). Peng Dehuai's Military Anthology. Beijing: CCP Central Literature Publishing House.
  43. Ibid.
  44. CCP Central Literature Research Center and PLA Academy of Military Sciences. (1997). Zhou Enlai's Military Anthology, Volume 4. Beijing, People’s Publishing House.
  45. Clausewitz, C. V., & War, O. (1989). edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret.On War.
  46. Tzu, S. (2005). The art of war. Shambhala Publications.
  47. Military Historical Research Department of the Military Academy. (2000). The History of Korean War, Volume 1.
  48. Kennedy, A. (2011).The International Ambitions of Mao and Nehru: National Efficacy Beliefs and the Making of Foreign Policy. Cambridge University Press.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Military Historical Research Department of the Military Academy. (2000). The History of Korean War, Volume 1.
  51. Kennedy, A. (2011).The International Ambitions of Mao and Nehru: National Efficacy Beliefs and the Making of Foreign Policy. Cambridge University Press.
  52. McDermott, R. (1992). Prospect theory in international relations: The Iranian hostage rescue mission.Political Psychology, 237-263..
  53. Military Historical Research Department of the Military Academy. (2000). The History of Korean War, Volume 1.
  54. Military Historical Research Department of the Military Academy. (2000). The History of Korean War, Volume 1.
  55. Shen, Z., & Li, D. (2011). After leaning to one side: China and its allies in the cold war. Stanford, Calif Washington, D.C: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.
  56. Shen, Z., & Xia, Y. (2015).Mao and the Sino–Soviet Partnership, 1945–1959: A New History. Lexington Books.
  57. Conversation excerpt of the meeting with Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung on October 10, 1970.
  58. Military Historical Research Department of the Military Academy. (2000). The History of Korean War, Volume 1.
  59. Kennedy, A. (2011).The International Ambitions of Mao and Nehru: National Efficacy Beliefs and the Making of Foreign Policy. Cambridge University Press.
  60. Military Historical Research Department of the Military Academy. (2000). The History of Korean War, Volume 1.

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