Liangxiang Forum | Shen Zhihua: The War of Founding a Nation: The Korean War and China’s Decision-making

The Korean War has always been a popular yet challenging topic in the field of international historiography, especially in the field of Cold War historiography. In recent years, with the declassification of more and more Soviet archives during the Cold War, for example, the deciphering of General Mike Arthur’s telegram, and the changes in the international landscape, new historical discussions on the Korean War and the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea have emerged, and China’s traditional historical narration of the movement is facing challenges. 2020 marks the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, which provides an opportunity to reflect on and study the War and China’s decision to make the movement.

On October 9th, 2020, Institute of International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University (IIAS-THU) held the first session of Liangxiang Forum, titled “The War of Founding a Nation: The Korean War and China’s Decision-making”, targeting at doctoral candidates at IIAS. The keynote speaker was Shen Zhihua, Tenure Professor in the Department of History at East China Normal University and Member of the Academic Steering Committee and Part-time Professor of IIAS.

Prof. Shen Zhihua at the lecture

Starting from the new historical literatures about the Korean War and the changes in the international landscape, Prof. Shen answered why the history of the Korean War should be re-examined. He pointed out the view that “the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea was a war to found a nation”, and explained “the definition of founding a nation” and its importance with classics.

Prof. Shen gave a vivid account of the history of the Korean War from a new perspective. Based on the analysis and compilation of new historical literatures, he first reviewed many crises and challenges faced by New China from home and abroad on the eve of the War. The newly established regime in China was still fledgling. Taiwan wasn’t recovered. The new regime lacked experience in governing the country, which was poor and destitute, with its production to be resumed urgently. The Cold War spread in the world and the two camps of the United States and the Soviet Union were in opposition. Although the Sino-Soviet alliance was established, the two countries lacked mutual trust, and the situation on the Korean Peninsula deteriorated….

Later, Prof. Shen identified four stages of the Korean War. The first stage was from the time when the United States announced its participation in the War to the time before it successfully landed in Incheon, that is, July-August). The second stage was from the successful landing in Incheon to the time before UN troops crossed the Parallel, i.e., September. The third stage was from October 1st to October 10th. And the fourth stage was from October 11th to October 18th. According to the analysis of historical literatures such as memoirs, oral history of participants and documents issued, Prof. Shen believed that there are four motives for China’s decision to make the movement. First of all, its responsibilities and obligations to the socialist camp, especially to North Korea, according to the international division. Second, the revolutionary enthusiasm against U.S. Imperialism triggered by the 7th Fleet’s entry into the Taiwan Strait. Third, worries about threats to China’s border security and sovereignty integrity. And fourth, to maintain the strategic situation of Sino-Soviet alliance to ensure the consolidation of the CPC regime.

Then, by comparing the goals of the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea with the results of the War, Prof. Shen commented that the turning point for Stalin to trust Mao Zedong and China was China’s movement to North Korea. He went on to conclude that the outbreak of the Korean War was due to differences and contradictions between China and the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong decided to intervene in the War precisely to resolve such differences and strengthen the Sino-Soviet alliance. In other words, the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea was a war of “founding a nation” to consolidate the new regime.

This lecture fully demonstrated Prof. Shen’s theory of history, which combines rigorous academic attitude and humorous, vivid and interesting teaching style. He knows a lot about the historical details of the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea. His psychological analysis of political figures was profound and detailed. His speech was full of witty remarks, which vividly reproduced the tense international situation in the early days of the Cold War, the arduous task of founding New China, and the psychological game between Sino-Soviet political leaders. At the end of the lecture, a Q&A session took place, during which Prof. Shen shared his insights with the doctoral candidates present and discussed the issues involved in the lecture.

At the lecture

This lecture was highly praised by doctoral candidates at IIAS, who commented that Prof. Shen Zhihua’s lecture was both profound and vivid, inspired thinking and understanding of the history of the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea and triggered their interest in the history of the Cold War. They passionately looked forward to the follow-up lecture of Liangxiang Forum.

Prof. Shen Zhihua is currently Tenured Professor in the Department of History at East China Normal University, Director of the Cold War International History Research Center, President of the Research Institute of Neighboring Countries, Senior Research Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Scholar Center in the United States, Senior Research Fellow of Taihe Think Tank and Member of the Academic Steering Committee of IIAS. His research interest includes the international history of the Cold War, the history of the Soviet Union, Sino-Soviet relations and Sino-North Korea relations. Prof. Shen has published a number of books, including “The Last Imperial Court’ – Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung and China-North Korea Relations (1945-1976)” (revised and updated in 2017 and 2018), “The Choice at the Crossroads – China in 1956-1957” (2013) and “The Helpless Choice – Cold War and the Destiny of Sino-Soviet Alliance” (2013). He has also edited numerous academic publications and archives.

This lecture is the first session of Liangxiang Forum, which is a key academic program of IIAS and was planned to be held from the fall semester of 2020. Liangxiang, meaning “two towns” in Chinese, is named after a poem saying “though separated by a mountain, we’ll share the same clouds and rain; and a bright moon belongs our two towns”. Taking Liangxiang Forum as an academic bridge, IIAS will invite academic experts from all over the world who are deeply engaged in area studies to discuss the topics of linking experience, theories and reality in the construction and research of area studies in developing countries, with a view to promoting the exchange of global views, inclusiveness and seeking common grounds while reserving differences. This Forum is designed to bring intellectual thinking and ideological enlightenment to participants from multi-disciplinary, multi-perspective, multi-paradigm and multi-viewpoint aspects.

By: Hua Xiuli
Photography: Cheng Yao & Wang Tingyi