Border Consolidation in Liaoning: From Chen Yun to Xi Jinping

For presentation at Leiden University lecture series “Borders: Life on the Edge of Area Studies“, 28 February 2017:

For the Chinese Communist Party, the northeastern province of Liaoning today inhabits an odd position on the “One Belt, One Road” strategic line. Stuck with a recalcitrant North Korean neighbour, the CCP is endeavouring to revive the regional economy by reaching beyond various fundamental North Korean blockages and toward Seoul and Incheon, while simultaneously securing the border from drugs and deserters from Sinuiju. Corruption remains a staggering problem in the province, whose economic growth is among the lowest in the People’s Republic in spite of massive improvements in infrastructure, with occasional spectacularly dangerous interfaces with the North Korean economy (as in the case of Hongxiang, a firm targeted by US sanctions as a result). The first section of the paper will draw upon fieldwork in the province to investigate these issues.

In search of continuities, the paper then leaps back in time 70 years, and uses newly published documents to investigate the CCP policy in the border region during the Chinese civil war, or “War of Liberation” (jiefang zhanzheng), followed by the Korean War. Led by the Northeastern Bureau and Chen Yun, the CCP was a party forced to the periphery and a rural strategy in 1945 and 1946, a period when cross-border interactions with occupied Korea were mediated by the Soviet Red Army. Chen Yun and Gao Gang took an activist role in the establishment of base areas in the province, leveraging interactions with North Korean counterparts and ultimately winning the debate over the need to focus on the peripheral border regions over the large industrialized urban trunk of Manchuria. During the Korean War, Dandong was a hub for international socialist interactions as well as supply of the (literally underground and heavily bombed) North Korean economy.

There are striking parallels amid the obvious discontinuities. In both periods, we see the difficult role of CCP leaders in the province, questions of loyalty and corruption amid international interactions in the border region, and the age-old tension between local realities and central needs (be “the Center” in Zhongnanhai, Harbin, or Yan’an). We also see how the Party takes an ambivalent view toward North Korean assistance of Chinese Communist Party goals throughout: Even when North Korean comrades might lend vital assistance, the CCP rarely forces the issue, and looks for solutions within the province and the Party itself. Finally, the paper compares international pressure on the CCP in the border hub of Dandong today with that the Korean War era, noting the focus of the UN in both cases on interactions with North Koreans in the border region, a charged site of interaction, inspection, and potential violence. 

Image: Wind band of the People’s Liberation Army upon victory in Shenyang, 2 November 1948, via Hebei State Television.

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