The Ambassador in China ( Johnson ) to the Secretary of State

No. 758

Sir: 1. I have the honor to relate below as of possible interest to the Department certain developments which have come to the attention of the Embassy in regard to publicity and its bearing on the relationship of the Kuomintang (and National Government) to the Chinese communists.

Summary. The Chinese communists have displayed skill and ingenuity in the field of publicity. They have a good press abroad. The Government’s policy has been to “play down” publicity concerning relations with the communists. Recently, however, the Government appears to have taken cognizance of the situation; this policy has for the time being at any rate been succeeded by one involving the issuance of communiques and permitting the publication of comment in the vernacular press.

2. The Department will, of course, be aware that the Chinese communists have hitherto had and still appear to have a good press abroad. They have exercised much subtlety and skill in their relations with foreign press correspondents, especially Americans. Perhaps the one American who has done more than any other to portray and to explain the Chinese communists and their principles and objectives in a favorable light has been Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China. Through the agency of that book alone the Chinese communists were colorfully dramatized and made known to millions of Americans and Europeans. Other American journalists and writers [Page 470] such as Randall Gould, Anna Louise Strong, Agnes Smedley and Major E. F. Carlson have perseveringly and sympathetically explained the role that the communists have played and continue to play in China. Often their reports are objective, other times somewhat colored. In general, their reports paint a glowing picture of the Chinese communists and their activities; rarely are they couched in critical terms. Even foreign correspondents of an acknowledged neutral attitude are often wont to publish articles laudatory of the communists and critical of the Kuomintang and its leaders. Is this because they are genuinely impressed with the program and objectives of the Chinese communists or is it attributable to other reasons? It seems not unlikely that the favorable foreign press which the Chinese communists enjoy is ascribable to a variety of reasons: the communists encourage contact; they freely supply correspondents with information; they utilize propaganda skilfully; they are adept in seeing that their versions of incidents and problems are promptly placed before correspondents and other third-power nationals of consequence. Moreover, they are in a sense the “underdog”; as the chief opposition party they are often the recipients of sympathy. They are poor, young, enthusiastic. More important, they have a definite program and they are adroit in describing it. They sound very impressive when they talk of “mass mobilization of the people”, “unity”, “resistance to the last”, “down with imperialism (including the United States and Great Britain but not Soviet Russia in this category)”. And it is generally acknowledged, even among Kuomintang leaders, that the Chinese communists have a praiseworthy political and military organization, that they are animated by an admirable “esprit de corps”, and that they possess a deep spirit of discipline and loyalty in relation to the ideals and principles of their political party. Is it to be wondered, then, that they create a favorable impression among foreign correspondents and that they have a good press abroad? In a sense it is they and not the Kuomintang who today comprise the “revolutionary” party of China!

3. By contrast, the Kuomintang and the National Government appear to have been on the defensive, to have taken a negative attitude. Until very recently when the crisis between the National Government grew acute and when the Chinese communists were felt to be exploiting the situation by the dissemination of reports and propaganda favorable to their cause and inimical to the National Government, it appeared to be the settled policy of the Government and its leaders and spokesmen to refrain from the discussion and ventilation of relations with the Chinese communists. Rarely was it possible for a correspondent or even a diplomatic officer to obtain satisfactory or full information from such sources; almost never were articles relating to [Page 471] the Chinese communists to be found in the press and periodicals. The reason for this reluctance to discuss the relationship with the communists is not clear. It may be that it is attributable to a desire to “play down” the communist question to neutral observers, to refuse to admit a fundamental internal schism in the face of large-scale foreign aggression. But whatever the motive, it seems clear that; the communists have capitalized upon the reticence of the nationalist authorities.

4. On January 6, 1941, the Vice Minister of Publicity, Dr. Hollington K. Tong, referred to this question during the course of an informal conversation with an officer of this Embassy. Dr. Tong said that he had just refused to permit the transmission of a press message prepared by Mr. Jack Belden, International News Correspondent, which set forth the communist point of view in relation to the transfer of the New Fourth Army. He went on to say that he knew Belden was on good terms with the communists and that there was no objection to that. However, there was objection, he said, to the dissemination of information giving a one-sided point of view. It was agreed that this was a rational point of view, but the suggestion was offered that the Government’s attitude and policy in relation to the communist question might be better understood and portrayed to the public if constructive steps were taken by the Government to set forth its point of view.

5. Again, on January 17, 1941, Dr. Tong referred to this question in conversation with an officer of the Embassy. In this instance he produced a telegram which had recently been received from New York, the gist of which was to the effect that the New York Herald Tribiune had published an article despatched from Hong Kong by Edgar Snow stating that the situation in China had reached a critical stage owing to the growing disruption of Kuomintang-communist relations and the deterioration of the economic situation. The strained relations existing between the Kuomintang and the communists were ascribed to the machinations of a group of Chinese headed by General Ho Ying-chin which had endeavored to seize control of China during the Sian Incident. According to the telegram, the article by Snow had contained a statement to the effect that my British and Soviet colleagues and I had made representations to General Chiang Kai-shek urging the maintenance of national unity at all costs.* Dr. Tong observed that the article by Snow was distorted, misleading and obviously false in regard to the assertions concerning General Ho Ying-chin and the alleged representations made by my colleagues and me to General Chiang.

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6. Since the occurrence of the conversation reported in the immediately preceding paragraph the Embassy has learned from reliable sources that following the receipt of the telegram outlining Snow’s despatch to the New York Herald Tribune, General Chiang Kai-shek summoned Chou En-lai, communist liaison agent at Chungking, informed him of the contents of Snow’s despatch, and observed that he (Chou) knew very well that the despatch was inaccurate and misleading. Chou is reported to have replied that the despatch was, of course, inaccurate but to have denied that the despatch was communist-inspired or based on information received from communist sources. General Chiang Kai-shek is then said to have demanded that Chou send a telegram (presumably to the New York Herald Tribune) refuting the allegations contained in Snow’s despatch. Chou is represented as having reluctantly agreed to do so but as having not sent the message after all because knowledge had meanwhile reached him of the occurrence of the incident in south Anhwei which involved the liquidation of a unit of the New Fourth Army.

7. Following the incident in south Anhwei, it would appear that the National Government has abandoned the policy of reticence and uncommunicativeness. On the evening of January 17 the semi-official Central News Agency published a long report gleaned from the statements of the military spokesman in regard to the incident. On January 18 the Central Daily News, official Kuomintang organ, published an editorial emphasizing the necessity of a unified military command and criticizing the actions of the New Fourth Army. And on January 21 the Ta Kung Pao published a long leading article which, while pointing out the absolute need of a national army under unified leadership, nevertheless asked for generous treatment of the New Fourth Army and urged leniency for its commander.§

8. It would seem logical to conclude from the actions noted above that the National Government has now found it expedient to revise its publicity policy toward the communists; at any rate where there was no publicity heretofore communiques are now being issued, where there was utterly no comment before long leading articles are now being permitted to appear in print. The favorable manner in which the communist position has been portrayed abroad has been brought home to the Chinese Government. It seems not unlikely that in the future the Government will take steps to present its case more fully and clearly than in the past. It may well be that a freer discussion of [Page 473] the subject may tend to dispel some of the misunderstanding, distrust and suspicion now prevailing.26


Nelson Trusler Johnson
  1. Embassy’s telegram No. 632, December 23, 12 noon. [Footnote in the original; for telegram; see Foreign Relations, 1940, vol. iv, p. 472.]
  2. Embassy’s telegrams Nos. 23, January 16, 11 a.m.; 25, January 17, 12 noon; and Embassy’s despatch No. 751, January 18, 1941. [Footnote in the original; despatch No. 751 not printed.]
  3. Embassy’s telegram No. 27, January 18, 4 p.m. [Footnote in the original; telegram not printed.]
  4. Embassy’s telegram No. 38, January 21, 5 p.m. [Footnote in the original; telegram not printed.]
  5. In an attached memorandum dated February 19, John P. Davies, Jr., of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs, dissented from the “interpretation in this despatch”, holding that “the Central Government does not have the foreign partisan advocates that the Communists have…because of such larger factors as the obvious failings of and corruption within the Central Government and the crusading appeal of the Communist movement.”