143. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft) to President Ford 1


  • Peking’s Current Political Instability and Its Import for U.S.–PRC Relations

In view of recent surprising developments in the Peking political scene—the unexpected announcement that a relatively unknown [Page 920] leader, Hua Kuo-feng (rather than Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-p’ing), has been appointed as acting Premier; the release in December of a long-detained Soviet helicopter crew; and the February visit to China of former President Nixon—I have had a member of the staff prepare for you an interpretive analysis.2

The study at Tab A3 places the political turmoil now apparent in China in the context of tensions within the leadership of the People’s Republic of China which have been evident in a general way since 1970. It also suggests some implications of these recent developments for the course of U.S.–PRC relations in the year ahead.

The study reaches the following major conclusions:

  • Teng Hsiao-p’ing , groomed for the Premiership since 1973 by Mao and Chou but under continuing criticism from Party radicals, was blocked in gaining the Premiership in January because he had alienated key military leaders who have become temporary allies of the Party’s radical faction.
  • The outcome of the current conflict in Peking is indeterminate, but the most likely developments are either, (a) once the radicals have brought about Teng Hsiao-p’ing’s demise they will draw back and work within the coalition leadership which Chou-En-lai built up over the past several years, or (b) the radicals will overplay their attack on Teng and other rehabilitated leaders, alienate their temporary allies, and produce a counterattack that will lead to their own fall. It seems doubtful that the Party’s leftist faction can dominate the Peking political scene for a sustained period.
  • Mao Tse-tung’s role in the current leadership dispute is ambiguous, probably because the Chairman is not in full control of the situation. He has been aloof from various radical leaders in recent years, and thus far has not given overt support for their attack on Teng. He probably withdrew his backing from the Vice Premier when he was unable to command sufficient support from the Politburo for the Premiership, and he appears to have given at least tentative support to Hua Kuo-feng.

    Mao, however, has his differences with the leftist faction and the military and may be playing a rather passive role in the current conflict. At this point we are unable to tell how much the Chairman is being used by the anti-Teng forces as opposed to siding with them. Mao’s physical frailty, difficulty in speaking, and personal isolation (heightened by the death of his long-time associate Chou En-lai) increasingly [Page 921] weaken him as an active leadership force. His death in the next year or two could compound the present instability in the leadership.

  • —The release of the Soviet helicopter crew last December, and the recent visit to China of former President Nixon, are indicators of political cross-currents on foreign policy issues. The military and some others in Peking may be urging a less hostile orientation toward the Soviets and greater aloofness from the U.S. Mao, however, remains determined to keep the Russians at a distance and strengthen relations with a U.S. that will actively counterweight the Soviets abroad.
  • —There is very little the U.S. can do to influence the PRC as the current leadership feud plays itself out. We are passive observers of that situation, as were the Chinese as they watched the unfolding of Watergate. We are most likely to hold the Chinese to their foreign policy course of dealing with us if we can reassert a more active foreign policy that combines efforts to reach agreements that serve our interests with both Moscow and Peking, and at the same time demonstrate a willingness to stand up to Soviet pressures. Completion of normalization of U.S.–PRC relations might make the relationship less vulnerable to criticism in China, but such a move would invite contempt rather than respect if taken from a position of weakness in foreign affairs, and with an attitude of beseeching China to hold to its “American tilt.”

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Box 13, People’s Republic of China. Secret. Sent for information. The correspondence profile indicates that Ford noted this memorandum on March 16. (Ibid.)
  2. Solomon sent the study to Scowcroft on March 8 with a covering memorandum for Scowcroft to sign and forward to the President. (Memorandum from Solomon to Scowcroft, March 8; ibid.)
  3. Attached but not printed.