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Revisiting Mao’s Role in the ‘Three-Anti’ Campaign

If there is one thing that appears certain about contemporary China and Chinese historical studies, it is that Mao’s role in sparking and sustaining violence during the period of his rule (1949-1976) will invariably provoke controversy and contention.

On this blog, we have  previously delved into Mao’s interactions with the ultra-hardline Tao Zhu in Guangxi in the early 1950s, and made reference to Frank Dikotter’s work in the context of ostensible brutality in the countryside.

I’m currently at work on a project which looks at Mao’s role in stimulating killing, torture, and psychological pressure on merchants as well as local officials in a particular county in China during the Three Anti and Five Anti campaigns of 1951-52.

Thus far, the best article I’ve been able to find anywhere near this topic is by Michael Sheng, whose work I first got to know when studying Cold War history in Ohio in the early 2000s. Sheng’s work is always extremely well-anchored in published CCP Party documents, and he has a kind of combative streak as a writer which gives the prose more than a bit of life and propulsion. Mao comes across as a living, breathing, human being in Sheng’s work, enmeshed in almost arbitrary schemes and ideologies.

In this 2006 article, Dr. Sheng seeks to turn the image of Mao during the Three Anti campaign away from the notion of consensus-building and collective leadership, and more towards an image of a leader without proper checks and balances, pitting region vs. region and provincial leaders against one another — in addition to pitting essentially every Party organization against itself.

According to Sheng, Three Anti was ‘the brainchild of Mao, who dictated the decision process and managed, or mismanaged, the campaign single-handedly’ (p. 57) even as he pulled Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and other top cadre into its irrational managerial orbit.  (On p. 58, Sheng says ‘Mao compelled his subordinates onto a deadly path of witch-hunting.’)


A poster from the Three-Anti, Five-Anti period in China advises a tall ’embezzler’ and a portly ‘traitor merchant’ to come clean about their anti-Party corruption. Or, as the large caption says, ‘Only by confessing is there a way out.’ Source: Southern Daily  

But even when Mao is being painted as a central mastermind of the movement, Sheng notes the Party structure and debate among the top cadre helped to set the table, if not the violent agenda, of the movement. In May 1951, Gao Gang, the maestro of the critical, industrial, and Korean war-bordered Northeast region, initiated a movement to ‘increase production and reduce expenditure / ‘ (p. 58). Gao Gang’s report to the Central Committee of 1 November 1951, almost precisely a year to the day of China’s immense military involvement in the Korean War, called out ’embezzlement and degeneration /退‘  among the bureaucracy. For a Party that had been in power in the whole of the Northeast for just over three years, and over most of China for just over two years, these were serious accusations.

Sheng notes the absence of the precise ‘Three Anti’ phraseology in the Northeast during 1951, but indicates that Mao coined the term in his comments on Gao’s 1 November report, which he forwarded to the Central Committee on 20 November 1951, by lining up the task as follows:

…you will carry out the anti-corruption, anti-waste, and anti-bureaucratism struggle in the nationwide campaign to increase production and reduce expenditure. (Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong Wengao, vol. 2, pp. 513-514)

This is how policy is shifted even today in the CCP: One has to be alert for the regional campaigns, the test-run slogans, and who is running them and where, and then be on the lookout for the grafting of new language onto these directives or slogans.

But the test is in significance; most bureaucratic prose does not end up sparking major new nationwide campaigns. Sheng makes a big claim here, stating that Mao’s coining of the the three antis amid support for the ‘increase production and reduce expenditure’ movement therefore means that :

…there is no evidence of a collective leadership, nor a policy deliberation process that defined the nature and targets of the movement. Instead, Mao came to identify himself as the Party Central Committee and he wrote in the name of the Center without any discussion with the leadership…[F]rom Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and on down into the lower ranks, no one ever tried to resist Mao’s dominance. (Sheng, pp. 59-60).

Perhaps that is because most of these leaders were also of the mind that corruption among cadre relatively newly installed in China’s urban centers — and this was an absolutely urban campaign at the outset — was a problem that had to be rooted out?  It would of course take quite a bit of piecing together of Gao Gang’s 1951 itinerary and documentary trail to see just how much leeway he had, or to what extent the ‘increase production and reduce expenditure’ / zengchan jieyue movement had emerged out of a matrix of local experimentation and debate.

This is hard to do without having read a big book about land reform in the CCP-controlled Northeast from 1946-1948, and attitudes and policies toward peasants, particularly in eastern Manchuria, in the few years thereafter. But does such a book exist? (If you, dear reader, have any suggestions apart from Harold Tanner’s rather bruising military history of the Liao-Shen campaign, or Steven Levine’s classic Anvil of Victory, please say so in the comments or via Twitter.)


Gao Gang, extreme right, on Tiananmen Gate with (from left) Ye Jianying, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Mao Zedong, Zhu De, and an unidentified leader on 1 May 1953.

Or, we could be ruthlessly presentist about Sheng’s take on Mao’s power grab: He is just making a statement about Mao within the eternal theme of leadership and nascent personality cults in Chinese politics.

More recently, Jeff Wasserstrom and Jay Carter have reminded us that some apparently peculiar aspects of Xi Jinping’s drive toward personal power and state revival are in fact more strongly rooted in the Republican era than any CCP Party history.

(Besides being cleverly anchored in a great co-authored text, Thunder over China, Wasserstrom and Carter’s co-authored tack has the added advantage of moving us away from the suffocating emphasis on Mao, and the notion that any move toward centralization or autocracy in China by the CCP must by rights be compared to the Hunanese Helmsman.)

Kerry Brown, now head of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, recently had a very useful point of view on the question of seeing personalist power grabs at work in interpreting CCP actions, rather than interpreting policy as having emerging out of tensions, dialogue, and inner-Party debate. Writing for The Diplomat, Brown argued:

One less noted side effect of this fixation on succession is just how much attention it draws away from discussion of policy and competing political ideas within China. It serves as the ultimate distraction. Because, at the end of the day, despite not being a multiparty democracy, ideas still have a role to play in domestic politics in China. It is not all about personalities and factions. There are, for instance, arguments for and against marketization, with the vast spectrum of opinion in between. This fault line has been there since the 1980s when figures like the hardline leftist Deng Liqun slogged it out with Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun. The issue has evidently never really been resolved.

To return to the purely historical, it perhaps would be glib to riposte to Sheng that ‘it’s still too early to tell’ or that the jury is still out on the generation of the Three Anti campaign or Gao Gang’s precise role in generating it. But to have made such a broad claim without at least acknowledging that it is damn near impossible to figure out the precise roots of the campaign without prying open Gao Gang’s semi-taboo, often censored, history and the problem of Gao’s character assassination seems to me to be a bit overly confident.

But that is what historians are supposed to do, and Sheng should in no way be taken to task (least of all in a blog entry) for not having had enough data at his disposal when writing this up in 2004-05. Indeed, Sheng managed to make significant headway into Gao’s career a few years later, publishing ‘Mao and Chinese Elite Politics in the 1950s: The Gao Gang Affair Revisited‘ in Twentieth-Century China in 2011. Being overly slow, I have yet to read this piece or to see if Sheng goes back to answer the question I’ve raised — well, raised in his own work — above, so again would welcome reader comments.

This blog entry has been an interesting experiment, one which shows a pattern which I imagine to be common among China historians. One starts with the intent of asking a very specific question about specifically local aspects of a political campaign in the Mao era, and one is dragged back as if by physical force to the question of Mao’s personality. Not only that, but one is forced to confront debates about Mao’s role in sparking and managing the campaign, the question of what his colleagues were supposed to have done about it in some noble counterfactual past, and the old buzzsaw of ‘what we know and how we know it.’ And I’ve not even got into the ingots of data published in the Mao Nianpu in December 2013, whose six dense paper volumes Maura Cunningham led me to in Shanghai not long thereafter. There are still limitations to writing the history of the Three Antis, but progress is being made anyway.

Citation: Michael Sheng, ‘Mao Zedong and the Three-Anti Campaign (November 1951 to April 1952): A Revised Interpretation,’ Twentieth-Century China, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 56-80.

Image: A criticism and public denunciation scene, possibly with connection to South Central Bureau. Via a remarkable collection of anti-corruption Party history photos on a Chinese BBS, posted on 10 October 2014. 

Chinese Aid to Flood-Hit Areas in North Korea

The PRC’s National Day (1 October) celebrations were muted in Pyongyang, but they did provide an opportunity for Li Jinjun, the Chinese Ambassador to North Korea, to make a few remarks. Reading the rhetoric for such occasions is often not terribly useful; North Korean speakers are not there to announce a change in bilateral policy, nor is their purpose to reveal much of anything by giving lip service to “the Chinese dream” or stating that “under the spirit of the Seventh Party Congress, the country is engaged in economic development via a ‘200-day struggle campaign,” as Li’s counterpart did at this event.

However, such events sometimes result in small statements from the Chinese side which give a better sense of the texture of bilateral relations, in whatever direction they may be trending, in ways that are more interesting than occurs under the dry klieg lights of the PRC Foreign Ministry press conferences.

Thus, in Pyongyang on 1 October, Li Jinjun’s comments were of interest.  Primarily, his mention Chinese aid to North Korea in light of the ongoing humanitarian struggle in the DPRK’s northeastern border region with China:


Which translates roughly as:

Ambassador Li also expressed consolation for the floods in the northern areas of the DPRK, emphasizing that Chinese saw the floods in the DPRK and sympathetically felt as if it could have happened to them [感同身受]. Out of Sino-North Korean friendship and humanitarianism, China has provided assistance to the DPRK as far as its capabilities extend [力所能及], and wishes that the soldiers and civilians of the DPRK will conquer natural disasters as early as possible and help people in the disaster-hit areas to rebuild their homes in order lead happy and healthy lives.

Not to parse this to death, but in combination with my more detailed analysis of China’s flood response (published in The Diplomat on 27 September 2016), you can see the PRC hedging slightly, while also being overt about the fact that aid has been provided. The idioms used by the Ambassador are particularly piquant; the first almost encapsulates a kind of criticism. In other words, Li could certainly be implying, we inhabited the same Tumen River valley, but because of our superior preparation, we did not suffer the same levels of destruction as you did.

In following North Korea’s evening news reports since the disaster, I have found it interesting that the DPRK’s messaging to its own people about its flood response is entirely about work performed after the fact; there is no discussion of having prepared well for the floods, there is only meant to be joyous thanks to the Party for replacing homes that were destroyed by the waters.

As aid workers will tell you, there is so much more than mortar and bricks that need to be replaced; there are bridges to be rebuilt (another story line, one which both DPRK and China have made nods to of late) and sanitation systems to be restored.

Finally, Li’s somewhat apologetic note that the PRC aided North Korea only “as far as its capabilities extend” might be a reference to the fact that more massive aid was offered in the border region, and turned down by the North Koreans, but that is speculation for another day.

Image: Chinese Ambassador Li Jinjun pays his annual visit to a Sino-North Korean Friendship Cooperative outside of Pyongyang on 21 October 2016. Via PRC Embassy Pyongyang. 


Youth Work and Class Education under Kim Jong-un

The following is my original intro to a piece I just published in Seoul after some substantial carving down. In other words, the intro was cut, but I think it still stands up, so now you can read that particular argumentative flourish here on SinoMondiale with no paywall, and accompanied by my preferred images and links.

Youth Work and Class Education under Kim Jong-un

Certain messages in English get repeated so often with respect to North Korea that to write them risks little disagreement. Among these statements are three gems, which we can take in turn:  “Kim Jong-un is still consolidating power”, “China needs to do more to stop North Korean nuclear weapons development”, and “North Korea should be flooded with outside information.”

For opponents of the Kim family regime, the real work gets done at the sub-levels of these otherwise sleep-inducing axioms.

If Kim Jong-un is still consolidating power, then one has to drill down into the Party structures and the military political bureaus where that activity is presumably taking place. Where is power being consolidated, and how is it demonstrably different from the previous Kimist incarnation? One has to recognise the meaning of new slogans, understand how Kim Jong-un’s presumptive military genius is depicted internally, and track the ouster or the temporary re-education of whatever generals or elite cadre who have failed to recognise the urgency of the task of establishing, consolidating, and continuously re-c0nsolidating Kim Jong-un’s personal power.

Likewise, if China is intended to hurt North Korea through secondary sanctions, then advocates of that policy need to explain why they think the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping is likely to actually take action against the DPRK in the delicate border region, further inland in Shenyang, or against North Korean enterprises in that fertile ring for economic activity around Hong Kong.

While they are at it, perhaps those same opponents could explain the political path forward whereby Xi Jinping could back down from his opposition to the THAAD deployment in South Korea — and still remain unscathed within the notoriously treacherous power structure of the Chinese Communist Party while riding the tiger of nationalist public opinion.

Finally — and to the subject of this essay — the question of outside information and its promise in North Korea. Defector memoirs tell with greater and lesser degrees of emotion the importance that outside information has had for individuals in need of a spark of consciousness of the world beyond the rigid physical and ideological boundaries of the DPRK. For some, it was a Dvorak symphony that triggered a desire for exodus; for others, a Hollywood film or a South Korean drama. Indeed, as I write these sentences, the US State Department is collecting applications for an increase in funding for projects whose purpose it is to penetrate North Korea with information.

What goes unspoken in much of the discussion of outside operations, however, is Pyongyang’s counter, and the generational component of the North Koreans who ought to be reached with such data.

To push for greater informational penetration of North Korea without delving into questions specific to youth in that country, and the multiple fail-safes which the regime has developed over the past decades for youth work, is in a certain sense to engage in activities which are not unlike those of the leaflet bombers over North Korea in the 1950s: These are acts of faith which help the propagandist shape his or her own self image as a democratic apostle, but they cannot concern themselves with the questions of reception and internal dis-incentives for even so much as acknowledging outside information if such activities (and the budgets that sustain them) are to continue.

North Korean youth strategy goes well beyond suppression and forbidding of foreign media —  it drives to the heart of Kim Jong-un’s strategy for a long-term grip on power.

Read the full essay at NK News

Lead image: Voting in unison at the Ninth Congress of the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League, Pyongyang, 29 August 2016. Courtesy Chosun Central Television.

Recent Histories of (Local) Violence in the Korean War

Today I received a stunning new text: Su-kyoung Hwang’s monograph Korea’s Grievous War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). A link to the publisher’s description of the book is here.

Dr. Hwang received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, teaches at the University of Sydney, and has put together a very impressive work. She appears to go well beyond the issues laid out in Kim Dong-choon’s book from 2000/2009, and possibly even Kim Dong-choon’s new c0-authored book  (In the 2009 version of The Unending Korean War, Kim Dong-choon recognizes that he has probably made mistakes which will need correcting in his future work — a wise approach, since he seems to have made an absolute mess out of the citations in his 2000 article in the Journal of Genocide Studies, something which I’ll post at length about later) Dr. Hwang’s work looks very worthwhile, professional, and clearly conceived.

As tends to happen when a new text arrives, a single footnote in Hwang’s book expressed an incomplete idea and, therefore, caught my eye. I was quickly down a kind of rabbit hole, and this post (bread crumbs, really) was the only way out. On page 122 of her text, Hwang cites Pak Chan-sung’s 2010 book, The Korean War Goes to the Village, as “the best scholarly work available on the subject [of fratricidal violence],” but then moved on immediately to The Guest. 

I have seen Pak’s book referenced a handful of places previously. Pak’s book is not available in translation, although it appears to be sparking all kinds of debate in South Korean historical circles. There are of course other efforts which are worth consulting.


Kim Dong-choon’s new c0-authored work on the Korean War (published 2014).

Of course it is not necessary to author an entire book on the subject to contribute to the documentation of local-level violence in the Korean War, as Choe Sang-hun’s moving 2008 dispatch from South Cholla province indicates.

At any rate, in searching for Pak’s book online, I ran across a number of new texts published in Pyongyang since 2010 — in other words, more or less “in the Kim Jong-un era.” It is of course doubtful that these text present absolutely new evidence, but one has to wonder to what extent the new era (or the continuation of Kim family rule) has resulted in any modifications whatsoever to the North Korean historical approach. As I and others have written elsewhere, North Korean researchers have supposedly unearthed new remains from the Korean War since 2015, some of which might merit reassessment.

In any event, here are the citations. All texts are available at the University of Toronto Library; all translations of the texts, including the inclusion of hanja or Chinese characters, are my own.

고 상진 [Ko Sang-jin, editor], 조선 전쟁 시기 감행 한 미제 의 만행 / Chosŏn chŏnjaeng sigi kamhaeng han Mije ŭi manhaeng [Outrageous Atrocities of US Imperialism in the Korean War/  朝鲜战争时美国帝国主义的暴行风险 (P’yŏngyang: Sahoe Kwahak Ch’ulp’ansa [Social Science Publishing House], 2013) 273 pp.

김 화명 [Kim Hwa-myŏng, editor], 미국 의 세균전 만행 을 고발 한다 / Miguk ŭi segyunjŏn manhaeng ŭl kobal handa [The Cruelty of United States Bacteriological War/美国细菌战战争的残酷] (P’yŏngyang: P’yŏngyang Ch’ulp’ansa, 2015), 31 pp.

필자 원 영수, 윤 금철, 김 영범 [Wŏn Yŏng-su, Yun Kŭm-ch’ŏl, Kim Yŏng-bŏm, eds.], 침략 과 범죄 의 력사 / Ch’imnyak kwa pŏmjoe ŭi yŏksa [Guilty History of Invasion / 侵略和罪行的历史] (P’yŏngyang : P’yŏngyang Ch’ulp’ansa, 2010), 406 pp.

Finally, the US National Archives is finally putting more materials relating to Korean War atrocities online, although there is no substitute for a trip and a week or two in College Park, Maryland to dig around for yourself amid the propaganda and the ephemera. While the materials in the archives and oral history collections in London (for instance at the Imperial War Museum) are less abundant, they could still keep a person busy for weeks. But Washington is still the place. Where else can you dig up a sound reel of Syngman Rhee praising American napalm raids over North Korea?

Image: An orphan called ‘Number One’ adopted by the troops of the US motor pool in Inchon, 1950. Courtesy NARA.


New Essay in The Diplomat

Entitled ‘Unraveling China-North Korea Relations,’ this 2000-word essay delves into recent bilateral implications of events in Dandong and Tumen, and argues that taking a broader geographical area into account helps us create a more holistic picture of the relationship.

Corruption, Sanctions, Dandong

In two essays which I anticipate publishing this week (in NK News and CPI Analysis, respectively), I question the connection between Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption activity and the implementation of sanctions on North Korea.

Here are some of the data points I’m dealing with, in no particular order. Sadly, in pulling my research materials together, I found that the Hongxiang firm appears to have wiped its website of most of the good stuff. Likewise, a handful of promising blog entries published in mainland China in the last two weeks have been “harmonized” (i.e., deleted) by Chinese censors.

In a subsequent post on Sino-NK, I hope to discuss what I learned from conversations with Chinese counterparts I met with in Seoul last week, thanks to a small gathering sponsored by the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, a think-tank overseen by the ROK Foreign Ministry. There was some scuttlebutt there about the Hongxiang case, so my ideas were certainly workshopped, and, I think, of interest to Korean counterparts. However, the Hongxiang glimmers of positive collaboration were mainly overshadowed by a bruising US-China-ROK anti-missile debate that nearly got out of control at times. On the whole the ethos was one of healthy discussion and plenty of conversations over meals and drinks which one imagines to be where the real diplomacy actually takes place.

Anyway, a look at what we know about Dandong, the anti-corruption struggle in and around it, and a few related themes which I hope to bring together in my upcoming work:

  • South Korean newspaper interviews trader in Dandong who expresses surprise that PRC has not put tougher customs inspections on North Korea after the 5th nuclear test [“More robust N. Korea-China trade happens after nuclear test,” Dong-A Ilbo, 18 September 2016].
  • People’s Daily in Beijing describes a new wave of officials appointed in Liaoning, including a new Party Secretary for the CCP Party Committee (essentially the top job) in Dandong. [刘兴伟拟任辽宁丹东市委书记 高科拟任盘锦市委书记
    2016年09月19 人民网-地方领导]




Image: A night drive along the Yalu River, moon over the northeastern outskirts of Sinuiju, DPRK. Photo by Adam Cathcart, 2016. 

The Fifth North Korean Nuclear Test: Impacts on the US and China

On 9 September, North Korea (the DPRK) set off a nuclear test, its fifth. I was in London for an academic conference, but managed to write an op-ed for CNN international.

I also shared some thoughts with AFP on the China angle which had overlooked by others, namely, that the Chinese Foreign Ministry had probably been forewarned by the North Korean side of the test.

Tom Phillips, the Guardian reporter in Beijing, asked me for some reflections on China’s likely response, comments which were included in that newspaper’s live blog of the post-test kerfuffle.

Looking back, I probably should have been more aggressive in forcing reporters to speed-read my new article for the Royal United Services Institute, which runs about 2000 words and provides an in-depth assessment of China-North Korean relations in 2016. That essay provides details from my fieldwork in the border region (including conversations with local trade officials in Dandong) and one tidbit about coal which I learned when in the DPRK this past spring. The overall assessment — indeed, my preferred title of the piece — was one of “Continuity amid Turbulence.”

Illustration: For expediency and because this post is being composed in a Tokyo Starbucks with very dodgy Wi-fi, I am stealing from Sino-NK, whose social media director Sherri Ter-Molen was proficient enough to put two images of me together which I am unaware of how to separate. Photos were taken in Dandong and Pyongyang in March 2016.