History of China | CIA Documentary on a Communist Empire | 1967


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This film is a 1967 documentary written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Theodore H. White. It attempts to analyze the Anti-Western sentiment in China from the official American’s perspective, covering 170 years of China’s history, from Boxer Rebellion of the Qing Dynasty to Cultural Revolution.

While the film won an Emmy Award in the documentary category soon after its release, contemporary critics remarked that White never attempted to take on board the Chinese viewpoint. Furthermore, there were unconfirmed rumours that the CIA was involved in the film’s making.

Historical Background / Context – History of China (1912 – 1966):

Frustrated by the Qing court’s resistance to reforms and by China’s weakness, young officials, military officers, and students began to advocate the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the creation of a republic. They were inspired by the revolutionary ideas of Sun Yat-sen.

A revolutionary military uprising, the Wuchang Uprising, began on 10 October 1911. The provisional government of the Republic of China was formed in Nanjing on 12 March 1912. Sun Yat-sen was declared President, but Sun was forced to turn power over to Yuan Shikai, who commanded the New Army and was Prime Minister under the Qing government. Yuan declared himself emperor in late 1915. His ambitions were fiercely opposed by his subordinates; faced with the prospect of rebellion, he abdicated in March 1916, and died in June of that year.

Yuan’s death in 1916 left a power vacuum in China. This ushered in the warlord Era, during which much of the country was ruled by shifting coalitions of provincial military leaders.

In 1919, the May Fourth Movement began as a response to the terms imposed on China by the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I, but quickly became a protest movement about the domestic situation in China. The discrediting of liberal Western philosophy amongst Chinese intellectuals was followed by the adoption of more radical lines of thought. This in turn planted the seeds for the irreconcilable conflict between the left and right in China.

In the 1920s, Sun Yat-sen established a revolutionary base in south China, and set out to unite the fragmented nation. With assistance from the Soviet Union, he entered into an alliance with the Communist Party of China (CPC). After Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925, one of his protégés, Chiang Kai-shek, seized control of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party or KMT) and succeeded in bringing most of south and central China under its rule in a military campaign known as the Northern Expedition (1926 – 1927). In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek turned on the communists and relentlessly chased the CPC armies and its leaders from their bases in southern and eastern China. In 1934, driven from their mountain bases such as the Chinese Soviet Republic, the communist forces embarked on the Long March across China’s most desolate terrain to the northwest, where they established a base. During the Long March, the communists reorganized under a new leader, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung).

The bitter struggle between the KMT and the CPC continued through the 14-year long Japanese occupation of various parts of the country (1931 – 1945). The two Chinese parties nominally formed a united front to oppose the Japanese in 1937, during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), which became a part of World War II.

Following the defeat of Japan in 1945, the stuggle between the KMT and the CPC resumed. By 1949, the CPC had established control over most of the country. Chiang Kai-shek defeated by CPC forces in mainland China in 1949, and retreated to Taiwan with his government and his troops. The Communist Party of China was left in control of mainland China. On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The PRC was shaped by a series of campaigns and five-year plans, with mixed success. For example, the economic and social plan known as the Great Leap Forward, intended to be a five-year effort, was halted in 1960 after three years. It had cost an estimated 20 to 48 million lives as a result of catastrophic economic policy. In 1966, Mao and his allies launched the so called Cultural Revolution program, which would last until Mao’s death a decade later. The Cultural Revolution, motivated by power struggles within the Party and a fear of the Soviet Union, led to a major upheaval in Chinese society.

History of China | CIA Documentary on a Communist Empire | 1967

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