Why should we care about scholars in China, or the complaints they have toward North Korea? Usually, readers take interest in Chinese scholarly debates because something specific and enticing has been translated into English implying that a Beijing policy shift toward North Korea may be in the offing.
Shen Zhihua’s March 2017 speech in Dalian became the latest in this periodic series of subterranean rumblings. Thanks to Chris Buckley, part of Shen’s speech made it into English and the New York Times, thus providing new fodder for the (now Trump-Twitterworthy) debate over Sino-North Korean relations.
Buckley said that Shen “urged Beijing to rethink its longstanding support for North Korea,” and had leveled “a strikingly bold public challenge to Chinese policy.” Bonnie Glaser noted the significance of Shen’s statement, while Carla Freeman cited its longevity in 38 North.
Shen himself likened Chinese-North Korean relations to a “wasp nest” of a topic that more cautious scholars would probably simply leave alone, but that had to be handled whenever something dramatic happened in the news.
But Shen is a preeminent Cold War historian in China, and his voice ought to resonate in ways that go beyond the headlines, much less the leaden missives of Party hacks, reflexive nationalists, careerist bureaucrats, and scholars whose ties to the national policy apparatus in Beijing have rendered them into pure conveyors of the Party line rather than challengers of it.
Was Shen’s speech, in fact, a fundamental challenge to Beijing’s current policy, a blueprint for walking away from the DPRK? What exactly did Shen say? A look at the whole speech – rather than Chris Buckley’s able translation of a small portion of it – gives us a number themes to ponder that should help us to better understand the role of scholars on the PRC’s debate over the past, present, and future of Sino-North Korean relations.
THE ROLE OF SCHOLARS IN DPRK-PRC RELATIONS
Shen Zhihua’s position in the overall policy debate over North Korea today might be likened to that played by the Princeton University scholar Bernard Lewis in the U.S. policy debates over the Middle East in the early 2000s.
There are certainly fans of his work within the government, and his theses help to shape the overall discourse of the discipline, but he is hardly in the driver’s seat when it comes to policy.
Shen has had contact with policy makers, to be sure; he once briefed Jiang Zemin, and Xi Jinping has allegedly shown interest in his work. Shen generally works on large books on Cold War history, eschewing the shorter op-ed format and publishing substantive academic journal articles. He is, in other words, an important public intellectual who occasionally steps into an advisory role.
In terms of scholars who are better representatives of the conservative limits of Communist Party policy toward North Korea, we might look to Yang Xiyu (Chinese Institute of International Studies) who appears with regularity in Shijie Zhishi, the foreign affairs magazine affiliated with the PRC Foreign Ministry.
The same is true for Lü Chao in Shenyang, who tends to be quite conservative and appears to be deployed by Zhongnanhai from time to time. Cheng Xiaohe is another scholar in Beijing whose relationship with official thinking and whose sometimes provocative views might be likened to that of his Nanjing colleague Zhu Feng.
Xi Jinping has allegedly shown interest in his work
But the depth with which any of these individuals is able to impact or shape, rather than reflect and inflect, China’s policy toward North Korea is still fairly opaque. Xi Jinping has been centralizing control of domestic and foreign policies in a way not seen since Mao Zedong. Even his Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, I was recently told by a knowledgeable source in Beijing, is “not a human” i.e. he is purely a puppet of Xi.
Shen Zhihua lectures at the Wilson Center in 2013
Given all of this, Shen’s speech in Dalian has to be understood within its limits. His essay as a whole does not really call for fundamental or even small and specific policy changes toward North Korea, it is more a portrait of an-often frustrated reflection by a senior scholar on Sino-Korean relations and with several unique and relatively brave complaints.
Shen has ample reserves of what we might call chutzpah, built up from his prior life experience. In a preface to the English-language edition of a book which Shen co-authored with his wife Li Danhui, the historian Chen Jian describes how he had carved out a certain swathe of courage and even foolhardy conviction for himself as early as the early 1980s.
After what is typically tactfully described as trumped-up links with Russians and the collection of Russian documents in that more free-wheeling decade of the 1980s, Shen was imprisoned for a period, was released, and went into business. His entrepreneurial and bureaucratic talents are not to be scoffed at – his life path is very different from, say, Zhang Lian’gui’s experience as a young Red Guard in the Sino-North Korean border city of Tumen in 1968.
In his Dalian speech, Shen operates explicitly in reference to the dazheng fangzhen – the fundamental direction of state state. Shen critiques the timidity of (unnamed) scholars who are engaged in careerism, listening all too carefully for the “wind from above.”
But he also admits that the goal of any given Chinese scholars’ research is to give the government and policy makers a few more options within the parameters of big choices which have already been made.
It is with his reflections on the “One Belt, One Road” framework that Shen first really clashes with the government line in this speech, seen globally rather than only with reference to the Korean peninsula. Shen notes the inherent contradictions of the sprawling “One Belt, One Road” strategy, whose propaganda posits a China reaching out to frontier states and beyond.
Much has been made of Shen’s statement that North Korea was a “potential enemy” of China
Shen’s critique is undertaken in the context of a zhoubian or frontier research project which the government is heavily funding and promoting, and from which Shen himself has benefitted. There are also multiple journals of borderland studies in China, the framework for which is very nationalist as efforts to intellectually consolidate borders and define them and defend them.
But Shen punctures the artifice at the core of Xi’s policy line, noting that China is in a state of peace with virtually none of its bordering states. He throws in a story about experiencing anti-Chinese discrimination in Mongolia, anecdotal proof for his audience that most of China’s neighbors don’t take kindly to the PRC. And he notes that the unsettled nature of China’s eastern borders means that even as “China reaches westward to develop, its buttocks are on fire.”
USING MAO TO UNDERSTAND NORTH KOREA
In a recent essay for China File, the historian Sergei Radchenko advises returning to 1956 for the purposes of understanding North Korean intransigence. While Radchenko’s essay is extensive, it does not examine Xi’s fascination with Mao, nor does it ask if Mao’s approach to North Korea continues to shape policy advice from Chinese historians and intellectuals today.
This was not about “cutting North Korea loose” in order that Beijing could embrace Washington
There is a kind of realist Maoist logic at work when Shen discusses the alliance with North Korea. In fact, the “enemies” construction that the New York Times found so compelling about his speech is a Maoist one, and it is the crux of his lecture. Seeking something stable and clarifying amid the bluff and bluster of “One Belt, One Road,” Shen turns to the opening lines of Mao’s 1926 “Analysis of the Classes of Chinese Society.”
This provocative question allows Shen to turn his gaze on “the strange” formal alliance with North Korea, first signed in 1961. Unlike Lu Chao, who recently told a Canadian journalist that the treaty no longer held, Shen appears to believe that the agreement is still in force, while recalling the old maxim that no nation has eternal friends, and alliances are bound to change.
Much has been made of Shen’s statement that North Korea was a “potential enemy” of China. On its face, this realignment of North Korea has something in common with Deng Yuwen’s controversial Financial Times editorial of 2013. Little wonder that the lecture stirred up quite a storm on the Chinese internet.
Nevertheless, the context of even this statement of Shen’s was overlooked: North Korea’s ugly profile toward China still occurs within utter criticism by Shen of the United States in Northeast Asia. This was not about “cutting North Korea loose” in order that Beijing could embrace Washington, or join the global consensus of North Korea as a pariah state. Those who think that Chinese frictions with North Korea will ipso facto lead Beijing to a closer alignment with Washington are not thinking straight.
GUERRILLA ALLIANCE, OR FRATERNAL STATES?
Shen’s overall conception of Sino-North Korean relations often returns to the Korean War as the foundation for the relationship. This is important conceptually, because a focus on the Korean War and the 1950s helps in detaching the observer from the deep layers of mythology that have accrued around history of the relationship in the 1930s. (This was a period prior to the foundation of North Korea, but when Koreans in northeast and northern China – including the future leaders of the DPRK – joined the Chinese Communist Party in order to fight Japan.)
Looking at bilateral relations during the Korean War presents us with the structural aspects of two huge armies and large bureaucracies forced to interact broadly. The period also moves us well beyond the tenuous concept of Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung as blood brothers in the anti-Japanese struggle of the 1930s.
Those who think that Chinese frictions with North Korea will ipso facto lead Beijing to a closer alignment with Washington are not thinking straight
If anything, the Korean communists who bonded most with Mao and his comrades in Yan’an during the anti-Japanese war were the cause of much anxiety for Kim Il Sung. In some respects it is this very longevity of Chinese influence, and the difficulty of those ties, that has resulted in such friction and resentment on the North Korean side.
Shen is not terribly interested in getting into the close weave between Korean and Chinese communists in northeast China in the early and late 1940s – these are the ties that North Korean mythology and state historians have in the past emphasized, and which Chinese historians have also taken great pains to maximize in past decades.
Chinese friends of Kim Il Sung and therefore North Korea, men like Zhou Baozhong, will turn up in the occasional North Korean museum, or in Kim Il Sung’s voluminous memoirs “With the Century.” These are small linkages between Chinese individuals and the Kim family, but these ties ought to the fostered rather than downplayed in terms of Chinese connectivity and information gathering in Pyongyang.
In spite of Shen’s glancing assessment of the history of ties prior to 1950, there remains some nostalgia in his writing for a time when China had more shuxi, or familiar, Party-Party ties with the North Koreans. Shen recalls Chinese preeminence on the peninsula after the Korean War, a five-year period when hundreds of thousands of “Chinese People’s Volunteers” were occupying and reconstructing North Korea – and causing Kim Il Sung to chafe.
Chinese largesse and security guarantees emboldened Kim Il Sung to chart out a more militarist path
In 1955, the North Korean leadership was upset at China for not being more proactive in supporting a new effort to unify the peninsula under Pyongyang’s star.
But as he was doing with the Tibetan religious leadership in Lhasa at the same time, Mao always gave the North Koreans a say. (In fact, Melvyn Goldstein uncovered a document in his massive “History of Modern Tibet” that showed how Mao actually compared Kim Il Sung’s demanded reverence from his people with that of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.)
And Mao would occasionally execute an explicit 180-degree turn with North Korea policies if it would reduce tensions.
In Shen’s reading, Mao was extraordinarily conciliatory toward Kim Il Sung and North Korea generally. This was the case not just with the withdrawal of Chinese troops from the peninsula in 1958 – a decision which was also quite pragmatic – but also with territorial issues and material supply.
For Mao, there was a kind of casualness to the Chinese-North Korean border issues that reflected an almost imperial approach, more influenced by Qianlong than Stalin.Ultimately, Shen argues, Chinese largesse and security guarantees emboldened Kim Il Sung to chart out a more militarist path.
China’s pivot toward the U.S. in the late 1970s is seen by Shen less as a strategic betrayal of Kim Il Sung’s aching desire to again invade South Korea, but a spiritual betrayal in the eyes of the North Koreans. China had to open up the economy to investment, to foreign capital, and the Americans and the overseas Chinese were the ones with the money.
This ideological point of difference with North Korea during the Deng Xiaoping years should not be underestimated. Naturally, the Chinese decision to recognize South Korea in 1992 further alienated Kim Il Sung.
Some incongruous musings on South Korean civil society and its role in possible Korean unification bring Shen toward a point of conclusion. Does he tell his audience that South Korea clearly has the answers for a North Korea on the brink of collapse, that China’s new ally should be Seoul? Hardly. He praises the South Korean public for opposing Park Geun-hye and urges them them to oppose the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system.
The contrarian scholar can only be contrarian in so many respects. After complaining about the stupidity of most online nationalism, Shen then urges his students to study foreign languages so that they can go forth and defend China’s national territorial integrity as seen in various maps in the archives.
No answers are proffered about how China ought to go forward with North Korea in the fields of trade, diplomacy, military-military ties, or even renewing their security alliance. The topic of Chinese enforcement of UN sanctions on North Korea was by and large bypassed.
But the Maoist questions, as reinterpreted by Shen, remain for China. These questions are loaded with potential for change in Beijing’s North Korea policy. And they are also ripe for meaning for contemporary intellectuals whose analytical capacities are too often lost in the fog of propaganda: “Who are our enemies? Who are our friends?”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
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