DENNIS ARGALL. A comparison of the DPRK now with China in the early 1970s

Public discussion of issues relating to North Korea and détente with the United States is largely deprived of any sense of history — unstudied or seen through prisms by the lawyers, commerce graduates and high priests of strategic analysis who command discussion with airy speculation and terror talk…with an adversarial sense of our justness and wisdom, the enemy’s wickedness and folly.

It is informative to compare the circumstances of the DPRK now with those of China in the beginning of the 1970s. In many ways the DPRK is in a more advantageous position now than China was then. More will change in relation to the DPRK in the next decade than changed in relation to China in the 1970s.

This is a big subject. To begin, it is useful to remind ourselves of the shock attending changes back then. At 10am on 16 July 1971, Australian Prime Minister William McMahon told the federal conference of his Liberal Party, meeting in Devonport Tasmania, that the leader of the Australian Labor Party Gough Whitlam during a just concluded visit to Beijing had been “played like a trout” by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Two hours later, midday in Australia, 8pm 15 July in the US, US President Nixon announced in a television address that his then National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, had just been in Beijing and had laid the groundwork for Nixon to visit China in 1972. This was a shock to the world at large, after sustained and aggressive policies from 1950 by the US, preventing trade, preventing visits or any other tolerance of mainland China, a closure to China as least as extensive as that that now applied to North Korea.

China through the period from the 1949 revolution to the 1970s had not revealed economic data to the world. As flimsy straws in the wind, some notions of the size and state of the economy were derived from Zhou Enlai’s 1971 conversation with Edgar Snow and with a Canadian trade delegation. As China desk officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs then, I likened our dependence on transcripts and translations of impenetrable broadcasts in China to trying to understand the political economy of Nepal by sampling the water of the Ganges at Calcutta.

The Chinese economy was managed in

…a fundamentally different way from that of market economies in much of the rest of the world and from what the Chinese economy became in the 21st century after three decades of market-oriented economic reform.

… an extract from the article at link which provides a succinct account of the command economy approach from 1949 in China and the explorations and experiments with divergence from the soviet model’s rigid controls, alternatives more suited to a very poor country.

By 1970 China had struggled with the disastrous and deadly consequences of the 1958 Great Leap Forward and was barely beginning to emerge from the depths of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966 which, while contributing an array of enthusiasms globally from anti-Vietnam war movements in the US to Marcusian contestation of elites in western Europe, It was physically and educationally damaging to several generations of people, also to the totality of social, economic, political, military and engineering infrastructure in China. The enthusiasm to “tear down the headquarters” meant battered elders and also city youth hurrying voluntarily or otherwise to the countryside, some reporting much later of have been shocked by the experience of naked and starving people besieging their trains in the night when stopped in rural areas’. It was rural poverty unimagined in the cities of political debate.

That’s abstract. This next is from the history of one family.

Xi Jinping, the ‘core leader’ of China today, born 1953, was child of a very senior member of the Communist Party Xi Zhongxun who like former General Secretary Hu Yaobang had been sentenced to death in the early years of the revolutionary war and saved at the last moment.  He was a military and political hero, known for his moderation. The present Dalai Lama was in Beijing for half a year in 1954. At age 77, the Dalai Lama recalled Xi Senior as “very friendly, comparatively open-minded, very nice”. When Xi Jinping was nine his father was purged from all positions including as Vice Premier and eventually sent to run a tractor factory. Xi Senior was persecuted and imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. Xi Junior’s education stopped at 15 when all schools were shut. The family home was ransacked, a sister killed. Xi Junior’s mother was forced to publicly denounce her son as an enemy of the revolution as he was paraded through Beijing, an experience similar to that of the older Hu Yaobang, later General Secretary. Hu died in 1989 after being purged by Deng Xiaoping for launching a campaign for generosity, tolerance and relaxation (‘Sankuan”). Hu’s death precipitated events leading to the ‘Tiananmen Incident’. Deng, architect of economic reform, opponent of political or cultural diversity, remained a hero to the West.

Xi Junior was sent to the countryside in western China in 1969, but ran away back to Beijing***, was arrested as a deserter, sent to dig ditches. He became party branch secretary of his ‘production team’, until 1975. Then to study. A degree in chemical engineering and later a doctorate in law and ideological education. Xi Senior was rehabilitated in 1978 and as Governor in Guangdong province pioneered economic reform and the establishment of special economic zones. Recent hagiographic tales of Xi Jinping’s early life in the China Daily (China’s first English language newspaper now disparaged but born at The Age in Melbourne 1980) for International Children’s Day skip the dark bits in favour of bedtime story quality.

I suggest that there are people in leadership positions in Pyongyang – or cast into darkness elsewhere in North Korea – who will in future be seen with pasts like these. We had only abstract, conjectural and generally ideologically tilted views in 1970 of what was happening in China, as also now as regards North Korea. Too many castles of ‘understanding’ of North Korea are built from fragments of uncertain reliability. A political scientist in Seoul recently wrote to me saying most western writing on the DPRK is “b*lls**t”.

In 1969 there had been border skirmishes in the spring and autumn between China and the USSR. Mass programs of tunnel building in Chinese cities in preparation for war were reminiscent of bomb shelter building in the US in the 1950s with fear of war with the USSR. China had an advantage in the nuclear game. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty adopted in a UN General Assembly resolution in 1968, declared existing nuclear weapon states to have a special status. China’s first nuclear test was in 1964. Under the NPT, China was from the outset a ‘nuclear weapon state’. In a rather complicated way, the China seat in the UN still occupied, until 1971, by the government of the Republic of China which had in 1949 skipped to Taipei; the ROC with territorial claims more extensive than those of the government of the Peoples Republic of China in Beijing.

China therefore was as isolated at the beginning of the 1970s as is the DPRK today… and its economy as muddled, its people as battered. Recovery takes a long time.

In the winter in early 1984 at the Beijing Friendship Store, still till that year the only place for foreigners to buy fresh food, there were just cabbages and bruised apples. Much changed in food supply, with private endeavours in the next year and beyond. In 1984 I remarked to a friend who was a Vice Minister that the bruised apples were a marker: we would know China was safe for the future when neither the apples nor the people were bruised. He replied without disputing my point, saying that their worst time was in the month between the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976 and the arrest of the ‘Gang of Four’ in October. In that period “we all feared” China could be cast back a decade into the Cultural Revolution if the Gang of Four, led by Mao’s widow, succeeded Mao in power.

There will be many moments of apprehensions and forks in the road of great risk  in North Korea. As Mao remarked (and so might Trump or Kim Jong-un):

A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.

“Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” (March 1927), Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 28

In the early 1970s China made a start with economic engagement with market economies, as did the DPRK. Each faltered, aided by the ‘oil shock’ of 1973. The DPRK got some recovery from serious trade imbalance in time for its minerals exports to suffer another price crash with the second oil shock in 1979. Some DPRK debts from that period are  still not settled now. China was still finding  a faltering way with heavy industry reform into the 1980s, with some sour experiences of turnkey projects. As western businessmen began hastening into Shanghai and further into China, some of those who went beyond China, to Pyongyang, were at best adventurers. While there may now be dreams, arising from Trump-Kim, of Burger King and Seven-11 planting flags in North Korea, the North Koreans are not naïve but armed with diverse experiences of foreign traders.

*** Xi Jinping’s running from Shaanxi province to Beijing may sound fanciful. I had a friend in Canberra who in the climax days of the revolution, in 1949, walked from Pakistan to the home of his English parents at Tianjin, on the coast near Beijing. When finally admitted, bedraggled, by reluctant servants, his mother exclaimed: “Oh dear, did you walk down the street looking like that!”

Dennis Argall has been an observer of north Asian affairs since 1970 and was ambassador in Beijing in the 1980s

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