Unearthing China-Asean history

Diplomatic pioneer: Tun Razak and Chairman Mao shaking hands when they met in Beijing in 1974, which marked the start of relations between Malaysia and China.

WHEN former Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein met Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing on May 29, 1974 – his first and only meeting with the Chinese revolutionary leader – he suggested that China renounce support for the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).

The MCP, led by Chin Peng then, was waging a guerrilla warfare aimed at overthrowing Razak’s government.

The Malaysian leader argued that since China was going to establish diplomatic ties with Malaysia, Mao should tell Chin Peng to lay down arms in the jungles bordering the peninsula and Thailand.

Mao, who seemed baffled, replied: “How could a communist party tell a fellow communist party ‘I don’t support you’? Anyway, what do you have to worry? The MCP cannot win the war against you.”

For Mao, who had spent his entire life on revolution, plotting war strategies and exporting revolution to Asean countries, Razak’s request was just unthinkable.

After that historic meeting, Malaysia became the first country in Asean to establish diplomatic ties with communist China. But despite this, Beijing’s armed support for MCP continued.

The tense relations took a turn after Deng Xiaoping, who opened up China to the world in 1979, took over the helm.

One day in the early 1980s, Deng summoned Chin Peng to his office and declared: “Now China’s focus is on reforms and economic development, not revolution. This 4mil yuan is the last batch of money from us. Your comrades can use this to either do business or rebuild their lives. You can start peace talks with your government.”

This reversal in China’s stance was devastating for Chin Peng, who in 1962 was directed by Lin Biao – a marshal pivotal to the communist victory in the Chinese civil war – to invigorate MCP’s armed activities.

But without China’s support, MCP finally signed a peace accord in Haadyai with the government of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on Dec 2, 1989.

These interesting details on the Razak-Mao and Deng-Chin conversations will soon be revealed in the writings of Chinese scholars tasked with a mission to research into history that has shaped the relations between China and Asean nations.

Until recent decades, there was a lack of mutual trust between these countries. Chinese support for communists in the region is cited as the key reason.

China needs to know history

According to Professor Shen Zhihua from the East China Normal University, his team has been able to unearth more information on China and Asean relations since 2015.

“Our central government has directed the university to conduct an extensive international research into past China-Asean relations for future policy formulation, particularly on the Belt and Road initiative,” says Shen in an interview after addressing an international workshop in Universiti Malaya.

“Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China’s foreign policy focus is on economic development and peaceful co-existence. But Beijing has difficulty in understanding its neighbours due to the lack of knowledge on history,” he adds.

Professor Shen: All issues have their historical roots and reasons.
Professor Shen: All issues have their historical roots and reasons.

China, which had been embroiled in liberation movement and revolution in a large part of the 20th century, lacks archives on its neighbours – Japan, the Korean peninsula and Asean.

“Currently, China is having a lot of conflicts and problems with its neighbours, such as Japan and Vietnam. Hence, the government wants us to research into the developments that have led to the current situation.

“If you don’t know history, how are you going to plan policies? With US$1 trillion (RM4.2 trillion) allocated to the Belt and Road initiative, there is even more urgency for China to formulate the correct policy towards its neighbours.”

Shen reveals that Chinese leaders could not even figure out why India and North Korea are antagonistic towards Beijing. Records on past relations is scanty.

And at ground level, there is a mismatch in people’s expectations due to ignorance of historical developments.

Mainland Chinese still could not understand why most Chinese living in Singapore and Malaysia lack special sentiment towards China, where their ancestors had come from.

Mainlanders expect Chinese Malaysians and Singaporeans to regard China as their motherland. But to their dismay, most people see China as a foreign country.

New information

According to Prof Dr Danny Wong Tze Ken, director of UM’s Institute of China Studies, which hosted the workshop, there are still many scholars who do not know about China-Asean relations during the Cold War.

Cold War refers to the period of over 40 years after the Second World War. This period was also the anti-colonial era and nation-building period for Asean countries. During that period, China was supporting communist insurgency in the region.

“The archives in China contain sources on events which were not available to scholars earlier. Now some are accessible – not a lot but at least better than before.

Dr Wong: A lot of information on China-Asean Cold War has yet to be unearthed.
Dr Wong: A lot of information on China-Asean Cold War has yet to be unearthed.

“These would include information on not just government to government relations but also on party-to-party ties (communist parties). The latter is important as it had been a thorn in normalising relations.”

Dr Wong notes that as Prof Shen’s team have obtained archives of the former socialist Soviet Union, they are in possession of information on inter-party communications in the region.

On party-to-party relations between China and Malaysia, Wong says researchers at the workshop had presented hitherto unknown materials on the failed 1956 Baling talks between first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Chin Peng.

New materials have also emerged from research by Malaysian scholars who had interviewed former MCP members and read the memoirs of former Special Branch senior officers.

No restrictions on research

Chinese leaders first realised the importance of historical background in 2015 after they had made flawed foreign policies, according to Prof Shen.

East China Normal University, noted for its research on the Cold War, was then given the important task to report regional history accurately to Beijing.

“There is no specific instruction how the research should be carried out. We are left to do our professional job,” says Shen.

On Malaysia-China ties, Shen’s research is likely to conclude that China had made a major historical error to support the MCP.

He notes that China had failed to examine whether Malaysia possessed the “right ingredients for revolution” in the 20th century.

Shen’s other conclusion is that MCP was “a flop and disaster” because it “had achieved nothing in the end”.

He observes that living MCP leaders and members, whom he had interviewed, are denied entry to Malaysia to reunite with their families. The fate of Chin Peng, who died in Bangkok, is an example.

“When you start an armed struggle, you should ask whether the environment is right for revolution? Looking back, it was not realistic and right for China to export revolution and support MCP.

“Also within the MCP, there were factions and inter-killings. After fighting for so long, they gave up and many just felt forlorn in southern Thailand.”

MCP was founded in 1930. It operated as an illegal organisation under British rule, but gained acknowledgement for its active role in fighting Japanese occupation and independence movement.

After independence, about 2,000 MCP members continued their armed struggle for a communist state. But this had to come to an end in late 1989.

In his presentation at the workshop organised by the Institute of China Studies and East China Normal University, Shen says his team is focussing research on the four aspects: economic exchanges, cultural exchanges, problems faced by Chinese immigrants and ethnic Chinese, and communist insurgency in the region.

He notes that communists in Asean began to look to China for leadership and support after World War II.

He also observes that China’s foreign policies changed under different eras.

Before the 1970s, Beijing’s main ideology was to help arm communists in the region to overthrow the then capitalist system.

But after President Richard Nixon’s epoch-making visit to Beijing in 1972 and China’s entry into the United Nations, gradual changes in policy took place.

“China had to play by international rules. You cannot encourage revolution while building diplomatic ties with countries. Before that, China had its own rules.

“China’s history demonstrates that at different eras, there are different policy decisions. Different leaders respond differently to the needs of the era.

“In the current era, Beijing wants to improve international relations, hence we need to understand history by going through archives and records,” Prof Shen notes.

As China’s historical records are limited, Shen and his team are ploughing archives from the former Soviet Union, the United States, Japan and Britain.

While the US and Britain have colonised Asean countries, Japan had invaded the region while the Soviets had strong influence in the region before World War II.

The archives and past intelligence gathered by these countries are expected to offer a better insight into China-Asean history.

“All issues have their historical roots and reasons. Our responsibility in such independent research work is heavy and the journey will be long,” says Shen.

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