Will China Disintegrate? A British Assessment in 1947

On either side of an energizing North Korea public event I did this past Friday in London, I make two treks out to the UK’s National Archives in Kew Gardens. My goal was explore Foreign Office papers about the U.S. occupation of Japan with a focus on war crimes tribunals and Chinese public opinion, and the Korean War with a focus on atrocities in South Hwanghae province.

In the coming weeks, I hope to share a handful of interesting finds from the archives on those subjects, since there were ample documents and more than a few surprises. Today’s document stems from the files originating in China in the late 1940s.

As might be expected, the men writing reports from British outposts in cities like Shenyang and Nanjing in the period of the Chinese civil war collected an array of information. At times, anonymous reports would funnel in (usually, but not always, bent toward a Kuomintang-friendly perspective). At other times, counterparts in the Dutch, Canadian, French and American embassies would share insights and intelligence.

Back in London at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, notes would be read, and, occasionally, vigorously responded to on a cover sheet. A.L. Scott was among the most active writers of marginalia. One of his flowing scripts follows, emerging out of his disapproval of a memorandum’s interpretation of the Chinese Communist Party, circa 1947:

‘I regret to see that the War Office still attempts to discriminate between one Chinese communist and another. To the W.O. the Chinese Communists still seem to wear the threadbare garments of ‘agrarian reformer.’ In fact, if any distinction exists it will be the more radical communists who will gain the upper hand, as they did in Russia, at the expense of their more moderate good and more ‘Chinese’ brethren, who will be liquidated as unorthodox as soon as they have outlived their usefulness. Nor do I think that the Chinese people will be able to react effectively ag’st Communism; certainly they will not succeed without outside assistance. Their efforts will be spasmodic and uncoordinated, and will be doomed to failure ag’st a cohesive and strongly directed force. One cannot apply Chinese principles to China where Communism is concerned only Communist principles, which are the same all over the world.’

Source: A.L. Scott, marginalia on ‘Will China Disintegrate?’, a War Office memorandum from Major P. Macmillan to Mr. Kitson, 12 August 1947, in National Archives (Kew Gardens, London), FO 371 / 63326, File F10513/76/10. 

Image: Communist dramatists skewer the ‘four families’ of Nationalist China in newly liberated Shanghai, 1949.

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