Update 5: Everything is politicized, or thought to be: China under missionaries’ observations, 1948-1950

In this update, I want to explore one question which created enormous uneasiness for anyone who are trying to understand Communist China in its earlier years: Is it a totalitarian state abducted by revolutionary fever? For Americans at that time—most of the common people, scholars, journalists and politicians—the answer was Yes. The U.S. was imagining that China and the Chinese people were tightly gripped and brainwashed by Communists who were antagonistic to America and ready to be a Soviet satellite in the so-called “World Revolution.” This mentality, verified by the Chinese participation in the Korean War and amplified by the McCarthyism, made the relationship full of tensions and suspicions. Since 1970s when Sino-American rapprochement began, historians are taking a revisionist approach to the earlier years of People’s Republic of China (PRC), and some argued that this early period was more evolutionary than revolutionary, and that the Communists did not grip China as tightly as many may imagine. These works, however, hardly included the missionaries. They were observers who had long lived with another set of political and social values, yet they were also personally living in “New China” and seeking understanding and accommodations. the Perhaps the missionaries’ writings are often characterized by emotions, bias, rumors and lack of information, but it is exactly why they are valuable sources to study the tensions, and the efforts of adjustment and understanding, between two worlds.
The missionaries under the Communist authority were principally caught by one question: were their experiences determined by the orders from the above, i.e. the intentions of the top leaders of the Communist Party ? Or were their experienced determined by local officials who not necessarily represent the attitude of the top leadership, and sometimes even went against it?

This question is extremely confusing in Communist China. The missionaries, impressed by the strictly well-disciplined Communist Army and the propaganda/indoctrination efforts, were convinced that Communists were holding everyone under the new pattern. The life of everyone was highly politicized and supposed to comply with one authority, and thus every action of the government officials were supposed to represent the Central Government—its political philosophy and its attitudes. This assumption brought specific uneasiness for missionaries, because they assumed every unfriendly actions of local officers as an intentional sign or tactic of the Central Government.

Yet in fact, the Central Government probably did not have such an extensive and tight control. As Edger Riggs observed, the local officials of his region were selected from local population and thus not well trained nor well understand every order from above. Further, some of the police force were even the former Nationalist police. Ruth Earnshaw—who had long been in contact with the Nationalist police—commented that “as a habit, they think intimidation is more effective than friendliness.” That’s why one missionary tried to remind others to pay attention to “the general trend instead of occasional irritations” as the local officials not necessarily represent or controlled by the authority as many may imagine. However, it is undeniable that under the politicalized atmosphere, it is confusing whether the official represent the intentions from above, or was just personal behaviors. Their uneasiness, written in their letters to family, friends and community members in the US, added to the American public’s suspicion of Communist China. When the Central Government did escalate the hostilities towards Americans since the Korean War, which “verified” the idea that the Communists would take a progressively harsh attitude towards foreigners, the missionaries and their communities felt it impossible to trust any words of the Communists. Looking back to history, however, it is hard to determine whether there was a secret, well-planned progressively restrictive tactic, or was it a result of absence of tight control, and of actions and reactions.

What further complicated missionaries’ experiences was that they watched even accidental events as one sign of the Central Government. For example, from the Liberation of Nanking in April, 1949 to August, 1949, the mailing service was disrupted and thus missionaries were unable to receive letters, magazines and newspapers from the U.S. though they could still listen to American radios. Some missionaries saw this as an intentional tactic to encroach their personal liberties and was skeptical of censorship. Though later unreceived materials arrived and mailing services were restored, many missionaries still could not be fully convinced that the former disruption was free of conspiracies, even though no evidence supported the conspiracy theory. I would write more in my final paper, but these two examples impressed me most, because it demonstrated how suspicions were deepened and how difficult it is to trust the other side even for the missionaries who were living in China, trying to be neutral and trying to seek accommodations, not to mention the US policy makers who were making decisions based on second-hand information and under the Cold War background. In the next update I will talk about missionaries’ controversial role in influencing the US mentality which contributed to the foreign policies to China.