The Rediff Special/Claude Arpi
Even if the Indian Government jealously keeps secret its own findings of the 1962 war with China, several authors, mostly retired generals and journalists, have covered the military sides of the conflict. Amongst them, Brigadier John Dalvi's Himalayan Blunder shines as a great classic, written by a soldier who paid for the foolishness and arrogance of the few in power at that time. However, as we mentioned in a previous article, several aspects in the conflict have never been researched properly, mainly due to the absence of archival documents and written memories.
One of these angles is the internal struggles within China between 1959 and 1962 and the role of Mao Zedong during these crucial years. A study of the Russian and East European archives, already partially opened, throws new light on the real motivation for the Chinese attack.
One of the greatest crimes against humanity, which began in China in February 1958, is known as the 'Great Leap Forward'. It resulted in the largest man-made starvation in humanity's history. By initiating his Leap Forward, the Great Helmsman's objective was to surpass Great Britain in industrial production within 15 years. For the purpose, every Chinese had to start producing steel at home, with a backyard furnace. In agriculture, Mao thought that very large communes would cater for a many-fold increase in the cereal production to make China into a heaven of abundance. Introduced and managed with frantic fanaticism, it did not take much time before the program collapsed. However, the more the plan failed, the more the party cadres provided inflated production figures to Mao and more people died of starvation.
Only one man tried to raise his voice against the general madness and sycophancy. This was Marshall Peng Denhai, defence minister and old companion of Mao during the Long March. Marshal Peng, who was a simple, honest and straightforward officer [the Dalai Lama once told me: 'He was my favourite Chinese'], wrote a long personal letter to Mao about what he had seen in the countryside and the misery of the people. Mao immediately distributed his friend's critics to all the Party cadres and 'purged' old Peng. The Great Leap Forward was to continue till 1961/1962 and it is estimated that between 30-40 million died of hunger in China during these three years. The book, The Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine by Jasper Becker has brilliantly documented this tragedy.
At the beginning of 1962, while tension was increasing on the Indian border, did Nehru realize that China was a starving nation? In fact, very few grasped what was going on in China at that time. On his return from a visit to Beijing in 1961, François Mitterrand, who later became the president of France, wrote: "Mao is a humanist…a new type of man in whom doctrinal rigour is allied with a vigilant realism."
Outside China how many knew that, by the end of 1961 Mao was practically out of power? It was Lui Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping who were ruling the country and struggling to introduce economical reforms.
Dr Zhisui Li, Mao's personal physician recounts how in 1961 Mao was: "…depressed over the agricultural crisis and angry with the party elite, upon whom he was less able now to work his will, Mao was in temporary eclipse, spending most his time in bed."
A year later, at the beginning of the fateful 1962, Mao's situation had not improved, Dr Li noted: "1962 was a political turning point for Mao. In January, when he convened another expanded Central Committee work conference to discuss the continuing disaster, his support within the party was at its lowest."
During the Conference known as the 7,000 Cadres' Conference, Lui Shaoqi said: "…man-made disasters strike the whole country." He was targeting Mao. After a month, as the meeting could not conclude, Mao decided that it was enough: he would stage a comeback against 'left adventurism' and the 'capitalist roaders'. Dr. Li disclosed: "In the summer of 1962, he [Mao] emerged from his retreat. …I knew that his counter offensive was about to begin."
At that point in time, one person stood up and defended Mao: this was Lin Biao who had replaced Marshall Peng as Defence Minister. Lin, who would lead the attack on India a few months later asserted: "The thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct." This newly found alliance between Mao and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Chief was, no doubt, one of the most important factors in the 1962 conflict.
In September 1962, at the 10th Plenum of the Party's 8th Central Committee, Mao took back the fate of China into his hands; he denounced 'the members of the bourgeoisie right in the party ranks'. He even attacked his mild Premier Zhou Enlai and Foreign Minister Chen Yi. They were accused to try to rehabilitate the intellectuals and the scientists: "the party has not yet properly educated the intellectuals. The bourgeois spirit hangs over like a ghost over their heads."
We should not forget that till the summer of 1962, Zhou and Chen were the two main makers of China's India policy and that Zhou had initiated negotiations with the Indian government on the border issue.
Though there is little archival evidence from the Chinese side, it appears that the attack on India was for Mao and his new protégé Lin Biao another way to reassert their supremacy over Lui Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.
The timings of the October 1962 events coincide exactly with the beginning of Mao's return to the political stage in China.
Militarily, from the Chinese side, the 1962 attack was only a spank to an ill-prepared Indian army and once the blow was given, the PLA immediately returned to its barracks in Tibet. In this connection, it is worth noting the point made by Jasper Becker in his book: the PLA was the only section of the Chinese population who had not starved during the Great Leap. Mao and Lin had been careful to keep the army on their side.
A factor which may have pushed Mao to strike at that particular time, was the brewing discontent in Tibet which manifested itself by a 70,000-character petition sent by the Panchen Lama to Mao in April 1962. In the September CCP Conference, Mao denounced the 'poisonous arrow' sent by the Lama and called him "an enemy of our class". A longer war, with its supply base in Tibet, would have been very difficult to sustain in the atmosphere of 'rebellion' prevalent on the Roof of the World at that time. The Panchen Lama was openly siding with the 'reformists' camp led by Lui Shaoqi and Deng.
Another important factor that probably influenced Mao in ordering his troops to cross the McMahon Line was the split with the Soviet Union. Apart from border clashes that are always indicative of a larger problem, Moscow and Beijing were looking at several issues very differently. Their views were particularly diverging on the policy of 'peaceful coexistence' with the West initiated by Khrushchev. For Beijing, "to achieve peace without wars is sheer non-sense" and "imperialism will not fall if not pushed". One must remember that Nehru's government was, at that time, considered as a "lackey of the revisionists", meaning the Soviets.
The second issue dividing the two communist giants was the leadership of the Third World. When Mao had declared: "the wind from the East had come to prevail over the wind from the West", Moscow got the message: Beijing wanted to assume the leadership of the newly liberated Asian and African countries.
Two factors contributed to the split coming to the fore in October 1962: one was the Sino-Indian border row and the other one, the Cuban crisis that erupted on October 22. Though, Moscow had sided with Beijing in March 1959, when an uprising of the Tibetan population in Lhasa forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India, a few months later, when a first clash occurred on the McMahon Line, the Russians refused to support the Chinese. They believed that the flare-up had been provoked by China's intransigent attitude on the McMahon Line. They further advised both parties to settle the matter by 'peaceful means'. For China, this was a betrayal and the Soviet attitude was violating the "principles of proletarian internationalism". Mao at that time considered Nehru as "half-man and half-devil" and he thought that China should "wash off his face so that it won't be frightening, like a devil's".
Though Moscow systematically refused to be a mediator between the two parties or even organize a historical conference with scholars and historians from both sides to present their findings on the border issue, Khrushchev and his colleagues tried to influence the Chinese leadership to change their stance and accept some compromise. A report prepared by the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1959, concluded that a change in China's approach could only occur "as a result of review by the leaders of the PRC of their foreign policy conceptions as a whole". China was certainly not ready to change its stand. Mao still believed in usefulness of war, had he not said, "Some people have ridiculed us as the advocates of omnipotence of war. Yes, we are: we are the advocates of the omnipotence of the revolutionary war, which is not bad at all, but good and is Marxist."
The Cuban crisis did not improve the relations between China and the USSR. For a long time, Khrushchev tried to hide the built up of missiles in Cuba from the Chinese. He thought that he alone could reap the benefits.
In the September's Conference, while Mao was staging his comeback, his anti-Soviet mood hardened in Beijing. The day India was attacked, the Chinese government sent a memorandum to the Soviet government on the non-proliferation issue, directly attacking Moscow: "However strong the military capabilities of the Soviet Union, it is not able to solve the defence issue of all the socialist nations. For example, on the question of the defence by the Chinese of their borders with India, the Soviet side played just the opposite role."
The split had come into the open.
Since a first clash with India in August, Beijing felt that Moscow had become more pro-Indian, because prior to the event, the Russians had provided India with some military helicopters and transport planes which were used in the border hostilities. Mid-October 1962, Beijing made a last attempt to compel Moscow to take a "class position" on China's border dispute with India. They wanted "to teach certain comrades [Russians] to separate truth from untruth."
Only five days after the October 20 attack on India, the Soviets, isolated after Kennedy's ultimatum on the dismantlement of the missiles in Cuba and facing the possibility of a nuclear war, took a U-turn on the Sino-Indian conflict. The Pravda wrote in an editorial that the McMahon line was "notoriously the result of British imperialism," and "consequently illegal". Nehru felt betrayed and the Chinese did not answer.
In any case, it was already too late for the Russians. Beijing was winning on all fronts: they had humiliated India on the NEFA front and without Soviets support; on the Cuban front, if Kennedy had backed out, the Chinese would prove right: 'imperialists are paper tigers'; but if Moscow retreated [as it did], Mao would prove his point that "peaceful co-existence used by contemporary revisionists" could not help Asian or African [or Cuban] 'fraternal parties' in case of crisis.
Mao's stature within China and internationally emerged much taller from the double crisis. The great strategist had come out of his bed to strike back. The PLA could now withdraw from Indian territory.
Forty years later, India has not yet really digested the bitter pill.
As for Mao: "People may ask if there is contradiction to abandon a territory gained by heroic battle. Does it mean that the heroic fighters shed their blood in vain and to no purpose? This is to put the wrong question. Does one eat to no purpose simply because he relieves himself later? Does one sleep in vain because one wakes up and goes about? I do not think the questions should be asked thus; rather one should keep on eating and sleeping or fighting. These are illusions born out of subjectivism and formalism and do not exist in real life."