"This will be an excellent collection of archival documents about China between 1919 and 1948, which covers not only British experience of China’s massive domestic issues, such as the conflict between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party, but also the external relations of China with other countries (especially Britain and the British Indian Empire), including the Sino-Indian frontier issue, Tibet, Hong Kong and British business in Shanghai. This resource will be a great aid to understanding the real China under the rule of the Kuomintang."
Yuanmei Yao, School of Advanced International and Area Studies, East China Normal University, Shanghai

"The era from 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party won power, until Mao Zedong's death in 1976, is a colossally important period in modern Chinese history. Britain was one of very few western countries to maintain diplomatic relations with China and from 1950 onward, and from their vantage point in Beijing British diplomats reported on the turbulent and confusing political, social, and economic developments. Making these records available in digital, searchable form will be exceptionally valuable to all scholars and students of post-1949 China."
Priscilla Roberts, Department of History, University of Hong Kong


The twentieth century in China was one of constant change. The post-revolutionary 1920s were a time of political confusion bordering on chaos, as warlords carved China up into petty, competing fiefdoms. Only in 1928 was the country effectively reunified with the entry of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang forces into Beijing. Yet by this time the Communist Party had grown into China's second political force, and the 1930s were dominated by a simplified civil war between the two parties' armies. The Long March of 1934-5 enabled the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, to evade the Kuomintang's grasp until the two sides were brought together in 1937 to face a full-scale invasion by Japan, which had already occupied the nothern region of Manchuria and set up a puppet government there under the last Chinese emperor, Puyi. Throughout this time, the western communities of Shanghai and the other treaty ports carried on their trading activities, largely governing themselves under the principle of extraterritoriality, until the Japanese occupation of swathes of northern and eastern China ended this privileged, semi-detached existence.

Following the Japanese defeat in 1945 and the resumption of civil war, the Kuomintang found themselves driven from the mainland by 1949 to seek refuge on the island of Taiwan, from where the Republic of China government, protected by the US Navy, continued to claim sovereignty over the whole country. In the rest of China the new authorities of the People's Republic enacted immensely wide-ranging political and economic change encompassing agricultural collectivisation, industrial development and attempts at cultural realignment to reflect, initially, Stalinist ideology. However, Sino-Soviet relations worsened towards the end of the 1950s, with Mao's ideas diverging from Soviet practice on the issue of how China could best make the transition to true communism. The major domestic result of this was the Great Leap Forward, a catastrophic attempt at ultra-rapid industrialisation during which millions of people were killed or died of hunger. Despite his marginalisation in the party as a consequence, Mao was able to reassume control with the Cultural Revolution of 1966, in which 'revisionists' were purged from the party and from wider Chinese society. Only with Mao's death in 1976 was the grip of his thinking on China's governance loosened, ushering in economic reform and growth under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. During this period, Kuomintang-ruled Taiwan developed an export-driven manufacturing economy with US assistance, though the government remained autocratic and intolerant of dissent. Hong Kong and Macau continued as British and Portuguese colonial outposts in an increasingly decolonising world.

This resource, published in six parts, makes available the complete British Foreign Office files dealing with China, Hong Kong and Taiwan during these decades.

The quality and depth of the Foreign Office’s reporting on politics, industry, trade and cultural affairs is second to none. The documents combine eyewitness accounts, weekly and monthly summaries, annual reviews, reports and analyses with a synthesis of newspaper articles and conference reports, economic assessments and synopses on leading Chinese personalities. There is a constant exchange of information between London and British diplomatic outposts in China and a continual dialogue on issues relating to East Asia between Britain and America as well as with European and Commonwealth partners. Sino-Soviet relations also become a very important consideration in the Cold War era.


Nature and Scope

The six parts of this resource span the period 1919 to 1980:

1919-1929: Kuomintang, CCP and the Third International
List of documents

1930-1937: The Long March, civil war in China and the Manchurian Crisis
List of documents

1938-1948: Open Door, Japanese war and the seeds of Communist victory
List of documents

1949-1956: The Communist revolution
List of documents

1957-1966: The Great Leap Forward
List of documents

1967-1980: The Cultural Revolution
List of documents


The material is hugely varied, and includes:

  • British diplomatic dispatches, originating in both London and China
  • Correspondence, both government and private
  • Newspaper cuttings/transcriptions and translations of press reports
  • Minutes of meetings
  • Political, economic and military analyses
  • Statistical tables
  • Biographies of prominent figures
  • Reports of visits, investigations etc
  • Published booklets and leaflets, posters, propaganda etc
  • Annual reports, detailing events in a territory during the previous year
  • Maps



1919-1929: Kuomintang, CCP and the Third International

In the years following the revolution of 1912 which ousted the millennia-old monarchy, numerous forces coalesced to attempt to change Chinese society. The Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) grew out of a society founded in Hawaii in 1894, adopting in 1905 the ‘Three Principles of the People’ articulated by its early leader Sun Yat-sen: ‘nationalism, democracy and the people’s livelihood’. The May 4th Movement was an anti-imperialist, cultural and political movement which grew out of student demonstrations in Beijing starting on 4th May 1919 against the Chinese Government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles. The Chinese Communist Party was officially founded in 1921, and from small beginnings developed an uneasy 'United Front' with the Kuomintang, facilitated by agents of the the Third International. As the Foreign Office files show, these developments gave rise to a wave of Chinese nationalism, heralding a new era of populism and political mobilisation.

By 1919 the position of the central government in Beijing was precarious. Though internationally recognised as the government of all China, the authorities of the republic came to control only the nation's representation abroad and the revenue of the Maritime Customs (an organisation largely staffed by Europeans and Americans). Power had fallen into the hands of numerous local warlords, recognising no national authority, and Tibet and Mongolia had become more or less independent, with the latter under the increasing influence of the Soviet Union. Each warlord controlled his own army; socio-political change now depended on his outlook and policies. But in spite of the depredations caused by near-constant fighting, the economy boomed, the index of industrial production rising by 300% between 1916 and 1928.

In the face of the warlords the Kuomintang retreated to its southern powerbase in Guangzhou (known in the west at this time as Canton), tolerated by the local warlord, Chen Jiongming (Chen Chiung-ming). Its major political rival was now the Chinese Communist Party, also dedicated to the cause of reform but taking its inspiration from the Russian Revolution and not from western democracies. The CCP was, however, soon encouraged to work with the Kuomintang by advisers from the Third International (Comintern), the organisation established by the Soviet Union in 1919 to foment communist revolution abroad. Under Lenin’s doctrine for the Comintern, communist parties in ‘colonial’ countries, such as China, were to cooperate with ‘bourgeois-democratic’ parties to hasten the coming of late capitalism and thus the transition to communism. CCP members were thus welcomed into the Kuomintang, and Comintern advisers began to reorganise the structure of the larger party along Bolshevik lines. This alliance was aided by the flexibility – or vagueness – of Kuomintang ideology, under which ‘the people’s livelihood’ could be interpreted to mean socialism. Bolstered by the association, the CCP gained greatly in size and prestige and began to become involved in the burgeoning Chinese labour movement, particularly in the south.

More immediately important for the Kuomintang was the establishment in May 1924 of a party military academy at Huangpu (Whampoa), intended to train the nucleus of a national army to defeat the warlords and reunify the country. For the 150,000 soldiers led by Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Huangpu academy, successes came quickly, with cells of communists moving ahead of the army and proselytising to the peasantry about the superior treatment they could expect from the Kuomintang as compared to the warlords’ men, promises which were, on the whole, fulfilled.

But tension had long been building between the two parties, despite their formal cooperation. The Kuomintang’s leaders and core members were generally from the moneyed classes, and had begun to look with alarm on the CCP’s increasing efforts to mobilise peasants in the cause of redistribution of property. Chiang had been careful to minimise the communist presence in the Huangpu army; communist soldiers had been purged, together with Comintern advisers, shortly before the push north began. As the 'Northern Expedition' rolled on, the rift grew acute. In March 1927 a group of trade unions in Shanghai seized the city ahead of the approaching Nationalist troops; in response Chiang used his contacts in Shanghai’s underworld and with the foreign powers there to have the unionists killed and the city handed over. In April, after a meeting of Kuomintang leaders in Nanjing (Nanking), members of the CCP were officially expelled from the Kuomintang and the smaller party banned. This precipitated revolts in the countryside, one of which was led by a youthful Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). These efforts to curb Chiang’s power, however, were an abject failure, and the CCP sank into (temporary) obscurity, its membership reduced to about a fifth of its previous peak. In June 1928 Kuomintang forces entered Beijing, and in October Chiang was officially proclaimed head of state of a reunified Republic of China with a distinctly authoritarian bent.

Throughout this period the strong western presence in the 'treaty ports' remained. Protected by agreements of extraterritoriality which made them subject only to the laws of their home country, Europeans and Americans (and, increasingly as the decade went on, Japanese) flocked to Chinese cities, above all Shanghai, attracted by the possibilities of enrichment through trade. There also developed a significant population of refugees, particularly 'white' Russians who had opposed the 1917 revolution there. For more detail on the western communities of 1920s China, see Catherine Ladds's essay.

Other topics covered by the files include:

  • Repatriation of Central Powers subjects in China (1919)
  • The Shantung (Shandong) Question, over the return of Germany's Shantung concessions to China or their transfer to Japan
  • The importance of Canton and Shanghai
  • The May 30th Incident, 1925, when Sikh police opened fire on Chinese demonstrators in Shanghai, killing 11
  • Sino-British companies, the localisation of British activities in China and the broader colonial context
  • The foreign ownership of many large enterprises in China, large-scale strikes in the summer of 1925 and nationalist agitation as a threat to foreign-controlled concessions, sometimes prompting police intervention
  • Anti-British boycotts, 1925-1927
  • Major crop failures and starvation among the peasantry
  • Failure of Communist uprisings in Jiangxi, Hunan, Hubei and Guangdong provinces in 1927
  • Japanese clashes with Kuomintang forces in 1927 and 1928
  • The demise of the Beiyang government and the assassination of the Manchurian warlord Zuang Zholin (Chang Tso-lin) by Japanese agents
  • The Shanghai Defence Force
  • Police and courts in Shanghai
  • The activities and personnel of the Chinese Maritime Customs, and the distribution of revenue
  • Piracy
  • Anti-Japanese sentiment in China
  • The Nanking Incident (March 1927), when foreign warships bombarded the city in response to looting of foreigners' property
  • Foreign loans
  • Railway development
  • Opium: import, export, smuggling, cultivation, consumption, laws
  • Arms supply and embargoes
  • Frontier disputes, particularly with British India (Burma)
  • Banking
  • Status of Mongolia vis-a-vis China
  • Events in Tibet
  • Supply of aircraft
  • Missions and missionaries
  • Famine and famine relief
  • Mining
  • Oil
  • Bolshevism in China and relations with the Soviet Union
  • Telegraph and wireless concessions
  • Development of harbours and river navigation
  • Treaties between China and other countries
  • Washington Conference on the affairs of China (1922)
  • Issue of return of British Weihaiwei to China
  • Boxer Indemnity
  • Strikes and trade union activities
  • Shipping
  • Anti-British propaganda
  • Soviet agents, representatives and military personnel in China
  • Salt administration
  • Protection of British nationals and property in areas subject to military activity



1930-1937: The Long March, civil war in China and the Manchurian Crisis

The documents spanning 1930-37 cover the period building up to the Sino-Japanese War – a time of civil war, radical nationalism, rebellion, and foreign invasion. In January 1930, the Republic of China passed a mandate abolishing the extraterritorial rights of the Western powers and Japan in China. The measure proved impossible to enforce and was subsequently postponed. While ineffective, the ROC’s mandate marked a step towards Chinese sovereignty which, within a year, was violently challenged by the Empire of Japan. Japanese influence in East Asia had been on the rise since Japan’s victories in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). The annexation of Korea in 1910 saw Japan’s influence grow further, as it set its sights on colonizing continental Asia. The British Foreign Office files in this collection chart Japan’s aggressive invasion of China, enabling researchers to read contemporary British accounts of the Mukden Incident in 1931 – Japan’s staged sabotage of the South Manchuria Railway which provided the pretext required for the invasion of Manchuria and the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Documents for this period provide scholars with an insight into the Nationalist (Kuomintang) Government’s failure to check Japanese aggression, right up to the Marco Polo Bridge Incident and the capture of Nanjing during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It is demonstrated how the Nationalist Party was wrought with internal division and preoccupied with defeating the Communist Party. These factors weakened the Nationalist Government, hindering its ability to resist Japanese forces and ultimately leading to a policy of appeasement towards Japanese aggression.

The material from 1930-37 also provides information on the civil war between the Nationalist Government and the Communist Party. From 1930 to 1934, Nationalist troops waged five successive campaigns against the Jiangxi Soviet (the Communist base in Jiangxi). During this period the Communist Party initially followed Mao Zedong’s lead in fighting a guerrilla war. With the rise of the 28 Bolsheviks within the party came a more European outlook on warfare, one which caused the capitulation of the Jiangxi Soviet in October 1934 and forced the Communist Party onto the Long March. The Communists subsequently elected Mao as leader – a rebuff to the Comintern, which favoured the Moscow-educated Bo Gu. At the end of the Long March, Mao relocated the Communist Party headquarters to Yan’an in Shanxi Province, where the leadership mooted the idea of a truce with the Nationalists to combat Japan.

The 1930s also witnessed deep divisions within the Nationalist Party. Military leaders in Fujian who were frustrated by Chiang Kai-shek’s appeasement of Japan, among other things, founded an independent state in November 1933. The Fujian People’s Government was quickly suppressed by the Kuomintang. Frictions continued within the party however, especially regarding Chiang’s policy towards Japan. These shifting internal divisions were scrutinized in detail by British officials, who observed the Fujian Rebellion and also the kidnapping of Chiang by Zhang Xueliang. The latter incident was conducted to force Chiang to adopt a more aggressive stance against Japan, and led to the Second United Front between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party.

Other topics covered by these files include:

  • Political situation in Korea, including communist activities
  • Railways
  • Customs
  • Report of the Lytton Commission (1932) on the causes of the Mukden Incident
  • Re-establishment of Chinese monarchy in Manchukuo (1932)
  • Education
  • Formosa (Taiwan)
  • China and the League of Nations
  • Emperor Pu Yi’s visit to Japan (1935)
  • The export of, and embargoes on, arms
  • The Keelung Incident (1936)
  • Attacks on British ships in Chinese waters (1937)
  • Extraterritoriality and its abolition
  • Claims for losses sustained during violent incidents
  • Piracy and sinking of ships
  • Missionaries, including their kidnapping
  • Development of motor transport
  • The Shanghai Municipal Council
  • Sino-Soviet relations
  • Weihaiwei and its rendition to China
  • Soviet military operations in Manchuria
  • Nepalese-Tibetan relations
  • The British aircraft trade in China
  • German military and industrial advisers in China
  • The Opium Suppression Bureau
  • Cable and wireless communications
  • Famine, famine relief and the Red Cross
  • Trade unions and labour relations
  • Anti-British and anti-Japanese demonstrations
  • Salt
  • Boxer Indemnity fund
  • Banditry and brigandage
  • British trade interests in China
  • Chinese constitutions
  • The British community of Shanghai
  • The Chinese-Burmese frontier at Yunnan
  • The UK Universities China Committee
  • Diplomatic recognition of Manchukuo


1938-1948: Open Door, Japanese war and the seeds of Communist victory

The outbreak of full-scale war between China and Japan in July 1937 proved vital for Mao and the Communists’ long-term success. Facing a foreign enemy meant a temporary standstill in hostilities with the Nationalists, and the CCP armies emerged from Japan’s defeat in 1945 reinvigorated and, crucially, unified in relation to their Nationalist foes. Defeat followed rapid defeat for the Nationalists in the years following the resumption of the civil war, and by 1949 the last of Chiang’s forces had been forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan. On 1st October 1949 Mao, now secure in Beijing, proclaimed the new state of the People’s Republic of China.

The Japanese advance in late 1937 and early 1938 seemed unstoppable; documents in the collection cover bombing raids on Chinese cities and shipping, claims for damages to British property and the issue of recognition of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in the north. Chiang’s decision to open the dykes of the Yellow River, causing a shift in its course by hundreds of miles, delayed the Japanese but could not stop them, and his government was forced into the interior, establishing a wartime capital at Chongqing (Chungking). Japan’s forces, meanwhile, set up a collaborationist regime under the former Nationalist Wang Jingwei (Wang Ching-wei), having first horrified both China and the world by the extraordinary violence and brutality of their occupation.

Despite the anti-communist rhetoric of Japanese propaganda, Japan’s perception of the Kuomintang as its main enemy gave Mao’s forces an opportunity to entrench themselves. Japan did not have the manpower to occupy all of China; in areas from which the Kuomintang had fled or been expelled, the Communists were able to fill the power vacuum. By 1940 they controlled an area centred on Shaanxi province with perhaps 100 million inhabitants.

The Japanese forces in China also had to contend with the Western powers in varying degrees. Material aid had been reaching the beleaguered Chinese armies through the British and French colonies to China’s south; the documents have much to say about military assistance and the routes through British Burma and Assam along which it was supplied. But when Japan invaded and conquered these territories from late 1941 (also occupying the foreign enclaves in China in cities such as Shanghai), these channels were blocked, and the Western powers had to search for alternative ways of helping their new allies. American efforts were spearheaded by General Joseph Stilwell, Chiang’s chief of staff from November 1942, though his attempts to hone the training of KMT officers were constantly frustrated by Chiang’s military timidity and his reluctance to see the creation of a group of powerful subordinates who might eventually challenge his own authority. The Americans also entered into tentative talks with the Communists (the ‘Dixie Mission’), though concrete cooperation was frustrated by the US’s unwillingness to cease regarding Chiang’s government as the legitimate authority over all China.

After the defeat and surrender of Japan in summer 1945 the Americans took on the new role of preventing China slipping into renewed civil war, but their efforts were frustrated by the favoured position they accorded Chiang and by the intractable rivalry between the Nationalists and Communists, which the presence of the Japanese had never fully dampened. Agreements on ceasefires and the dissolution of army units reached in early 1946 were ignored by both sides; by late in the year full-scale fighting had recommenced. Though the Nationalists had some early successes, the Communists were aided in their efforts both by their genuine popularity among many of the people they governed – built up through effective socio-economic reforms – and, conversely, by the Nationalists’ incompetence in governance and inability to effectively control many of the areas seized by their armies. Chiang’s military strategy was also a failure, with troops who had been hastily pushed north finding themselves surrounded by Communist territory through which they were unable to withdraw. In five months as 1948 turned into 1949 the Kuomintang lost, through death and injury, surrender, desertion and defection, over a million fighting men. Chiang first resigned as president of the Republic of China and then withdrew the remains of his forces to Taiwan, behind the impregnable barrier of the US Navy. From now on there would be two governments claiming to rule China, but over all the mainland Mao’s Communists would reign supreme.

Other topics covered by these files include:

  • Abolition of extraterritoriality
  • The administration of Hong Kong after its surrender to the Japanese
  • Air training facilities
  • Japanese-British negotiations over Tientsin
  • Anti-British propaganda in China
  • British investments in China
  • British naval facilities at Weihaiwei
  • Shipping and railways
  • Discussion of China’s post-war economic prospects and policies
  • Customs administration
  • Foreign exchange
  • The ‘Open Door’ policy
  • Treaties with China
  • Evacuation of British subjects
  • Mongolia
  • The North China Incident (1938)
  • Post-war relations between Communist China and Hong Kong
  • Religious missions and missionaries
  • Scientific and technical liaison
  • British policy towards Tibet
  • The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) 


1949-1956: The Communist revolution

From the final seizure of power by Communist forces, the fall of Nanking, the fate of HMS Amethyst on the Yangtze River and the repercussions for international companies with a strong presence in China, through to Mao Zedong’s first attempts to implement a Soviet-style command economy with the emphasis on heavy industry, the material in these files provides extensive coverage of major events, with regular analyses by British officials.

Key topics covered include:

  • In-depth analyses of the Communist revolution and all the major figures involved
  • The Korean War
  • The economic situation in China, industrialisation and modernisation
  • HMS Amethyst and the blockade of the Yangtze River
  • Differences between British and American domestic policy towards China
  • The Chinese Communist threat to British-ruled Hong Kong
  • Land reform and redistribution
  • American military support and financial aid for the Kuomintang government in Taiwan
  • Chinese military machinations and the Cold War

The years after 1949 can also be seen as a period of disengagement. Britain’s formal recognition of the new People's Republic on 6th January 1950 brought few tangible gains for foreign firms. Within five years tax measures and labour problems had led most British enterprises to extricate themselves to the relative safety of Hong Kong. Missionaries also came under pressure from the new regime and they were targeted as “agents of imperialism”. The China Inland Mission pulled out in December 1950 (see FO 371/92334) and foreign business personnel often needed help in the protracted procedure of obtaining exit permits. Many files examine the difficulties faced by British subjects in China after 1950. Mao Zedong adopted a very strong ‘anti-American’ and ‘anti-imperialist’ outlook which became even further entrenched during the Korean War.

Each year a series of files provides extensive detail on the internal political situation in China. From the beginning of 1949, the tone set by British officials in these documents paints a pessimistic picture of Nationalist fortunes, accepting that it is only a matter of time before the Communists triumph.  The erosion of Nationalist authority and power is portrayed in vivid detail as town after town and city after city falls to the steady advance of the Communists, the British Consulate-General at Tsingtao providing a particularly graphic and compelling account of the CCP takeover of that city (see FO 371/75764).

The Western powers had hoped that it might take the Communists a year or more to establish a central government with authority extending over all China, thus giving them a breathing space in which to avoid the thorny issue of recognition. The establishment of the People's Republic in the autumn of 1949 and the subsequent recognition by the Soviet Union meant that the issue could no longer be dodged, and the debates which resulted in Britain's recognition of the Beijing government in January 1950 are covered in detail. Washington's opposition to the new regime in Beijing, and its hostility to communism in general, meant that whilst the American government increasingly relied on British intelligence to find out about events inside China, they also showed increased interest in Britain's relationship with China and her new Communist rulers.

A total of 45 files for 1949 focus on the events leading to the formation of the People's Republic of China and record the progress of the Communist triumph over the Kuomintang. A large group of 21 files covers the recognition of the Communist government, in particular discussions between Britain and other governments on the question of recognition of the two rival states.

By early 1950 the China was firmly under communist control (apart from a few pockets of Kuomintang resistance) and the new government enjoyed “a wide measure of support from the great majority of the people” (see FO 371/92189).

Internationally, although China was not popular with Western countries, an increasing number were recognising the new regime at the expense of the Nationalist Government on Taiwan, and despite the hostility of the United States, the People’s Republic was not without friends. The Soviet Union and its satellites were quick to establish links with the Beijing government, and various treaties were signed to strengthen the growing body of countries that were joining the Communist camp. But China’s needs were so vast that even the Soviet Union, herself still suffering from the ravages of the Second World War, could offer only token material help to Mao. (For more details on Sino-Soviet relations in these years please see FO 371/83313-83318, 83381, 92293, 92301, 110221, 110244, 110283, 115006, 115100 and 120890. Sir John Hutchinson’s report on conditions in China, compiled during his eighteen months’ stay as HM chargé d’affaires in Beijing and filed in 1951, is to be found in FO 371/92220.)

The files for 1950 look at the numerous committees and conferences established in order to reorganise and modernise every aspect of Chinese life. These included a National Conference of Combat Heroes and Labour Models, a Press Conference, a Relief Workers Conference, a Customs Conference, a Co-operative Conference, Health, Judicial and Scientific Workers’ Conferences, a Higher Education Conference, and a Water Conservative Conference, to name but a few. In areas of local government there was also a radical reorganisation, with regional conferences and congresses held throughout the country to establish a systematic model of local administration. New national laws were passed to regulate taxation, trade unions, religion, and the treatment of China’s minorities. The most radical measures, however, were those relating to marriage and agrarian reform.

The Marriage Law was designed to end the traditional subservient role assigned to Chinese women and to ‘release the political energies of women for the benefit of the revolution’. The Agrarian Reform Law of June 1950 was equally radical in its attempt to bring benefit to the peasant classes who made up the bulk of Chinese society. Ambitious in its aims to reform the agricultural forces of over 100 million peasants, the law was designed to distribute land and collectivise agriculture.

Britain’s concern for its colonial interests is a prevalent theme of the files for the early 1950s. British trade with China was a principal concern for officials, with particular reference to shipping, British companies operating in China, trade with Macau and Hong Kong, events in the Shanghai region, and the trade agreement between China and the Soviet Union. Each year a series of files covers the situation of British and foreign commercial interests and individuals in China along with reports from chambers of commerce on the difficulties faced by foreign traders (see for instance the 1951 files FO 371/92259-92267 and the 1952 files FO 371/99282-99297; the US embargo on exports to China is discussed in FO 371/92272-92287 and the Chinese takeover of American companies is reported in FO 371/92294). With the lease of the New Territories of Hong Kong to the British not expiring until 1997, Hong Kong became the site of ideological conflict in the dawn of the Communist era. A cluster of files from 1952 provide detailed accounts of political activity in Hong Kong by both Communist and Nationalist supporters (see FO 371/99243-99246). The volatility of the situation there eventually caused the Foreign Office to grant the Hong Kong police permission to return fire should China endanger the safety of its residents (see FO 371/99275).

Reports on the Shanghai Water Works Company and the Shanghai Electric Construction Company (see FO 371/99302) as well as deliberations on the future of the Anglo-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and China’s expression of willingness to trade with the UK through the China National Import-Export Corporation (see FO 371/99303) are typical of this period.

China's involvement in the Korean War had a crippling effect on the economy and put pressures on the leadership as it tried to carry through land and industrial reform. Nationwide planning began in 1953 as soon as political control had been established in rural and urban areas. The first Five-Year Plan was introduced, with an emphasis on capital construction and heavy industry. Official pronouncements suggested a determination to build a powerful industrial economy based on the Soviet model. Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi were the key figures in pushing forward these policies under the leadership of Mao.

There are a good number of files on China's economy, industrial development and the introduction of collective agreements to fulfil the first Five-Year Plan (1953-1957): please see FO 371/105232-105236 and 115079-115081.

Other interesting files for the years 1949-56 include material on:

  • Developments in China’s agriculture: report on production in the years 1949-1952 and observations on annual harvests
  • The Quemoy and Matsu islands, the First Taiwan Straits Crisis and the involvement of the US Navy
  • The US-Republic of China Defence Treaty and proposed ceasefire in the Taiwan Strait
  • Textile mills in China and cotton production
  • Tea production
  • The Sino-Soviet Petroleum Company’s activities in Sinkiang
  • The oil, iron and steel industries in China
  • The fishing and sugar industries in Taiwan
  • Political and economic reports on Macau
  • The creation of the Chinese People's Construction Bank and National Economic Construction Bonds
  • Jardine, Matheson & Company
  • Railway and road construction
  • The flooding of the Yangtze River
  • Developments in the areas of education, housing and health
  • Debates on the question of representation of China at the United Nations
  • Civil disturbances in Hong Kong in 1956



1957-1966: The Great Leap Forward

With the documents spanning the period 1957-66 it is possible to look at how Mao Zedong rejected Stalinism in the late 1950s and began the process of hammering out a Chinese economic alternative. There are files on industrial and economic development under Mao’s leadership, including on the 'Great Leap Forward' campaign of 1958-62 – a highly ambitious plan to use the power of socialist economics to increase Chinese production of steel, coal and electricity – the collectivisation of agriculture, and the prosecution of a remorseless campaign of modernisation. These allow researchers to look at the social, political, economic and cultural changes that transformed mid-twentieth-century China. The grandiose aims were dashed in the face of reality, resulting in massive famine and a huge death toll, difficulties within the education system and a regression in the economic situation. The 1957-66 material provides lots of evidence for researchers to analyse the impact, successes and failures of the first Five-Year Plan (1953-57).

The mass of material gathered by British officials provides scholars with an interesting insight into the failures of the Great Leap. The files show that a return to rather more pragmatic measures after 1962 did not in any way dampen Mao’s enthusiasm for revolutionary renewal and ideological success, and that Soviet criticisms of his radicalism spurred him on rather than restraining him. These circumstances led directly into the Cultural Revolution, with its large-poster campaigns, newspaper attacks, cult of personality and ideological rhetoric, in which Mao used his own prestige to undermine important colleagues such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.

Along with the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the repudiation of orthodox Soviet-style economic measures, the 1960s also witnessed important changes in China’s foreign policy and increasing tensions in Sino-Soviet relations. These developments were scrutinised in detail by British officials in China and at the Foreign Office in London, and also form the subject of regular discussions with the United States and with Commonwealth partners.

This period was also characterised by continued US military and financial aid for the Republic of China in Taiwan. The US provided $1,929 million between 1958 and 1965, when US financial assistance was withdrawn. During this period, the ROC adopted an export-promotion strategy for economic growth with export-diversification as the dominant feature from 1963 onwards, when the creation of export-processing zones began to help private enterprise. The advantages of small and medium-sized concerns was their flexibility in adjusting to changing market needs and the ability to draw upon surplus labour from the declining agricultural sector. Major efforts were made to promote foreign investment and trade, and banks offered low-interest loans to exporters.

In mainland China, by contrast, a huge diminution in foreign business activity was in evidence during the 1950s. After 1957, Shell was the only British company left in Shanghai and its office was run by Chinese managers; all other firms had retreated to Hong Kong. Shell closed its Shanghai office in 1966. The return of major foreign investment had to await the early 1990s in the post-Tiananmen era of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and 'socialist market economy', which set China on the path of rapid economic growth.

Other key topics covered by files for 1957-66 include:

  • Fortnightly summaries for Beijing and Shanghai
  • The emphasis in industrial development on coal, steel and oil
  • A Twelve-Year Plan for agriculture
  • The three years of natural disasters, 1959-61
  • Rebellion in Tibet
  • The deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations from 1960 onwards
  • Reports on Macau
  • The political manoeuvrings of Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi, and increased conflict between Liu and Mao
  • The Socialist Education Movement, launched by Mao Zedong in 1963 in an attempt to restore his political base and eliminate opposition 
  • Initial phases of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s massive campaign of ideological renewal and the cult of personality (see also 1967-80 files below)
  • The question of the representation of China at the United Nations



1967-1980: The Cultural Revolution

The files for 1967-80 cover the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a further period of immense social and political upheaval that led to nationwide chaos and economic disarray. The resulting power struggles and political instability after 1969 culminated in the arrest, shortly after Mao's death in September 1976, of the Maoist 'Gang of Four': Jiang Qing, Mao's last wife and the leading figure of the group, and her close associates Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen. Material from the post-Mao period focuses on the policies of Deng Xiaoping.

Deng Xiaoping refused to take the supreme office himself, but by 1980 he had secured the appointment of Hu Yaobang as head of the CCP and of Zhao Ziyang as premier. Both were close associates of Deng and firm supporters of his policies. China now had a collective leadership. However, Deng, Hu and Zhao were balanced by more conservative figures such as Chen Yun, meaning that Deng’s economic reforms had to proceed slowly. He had to argue his case, but with perseverance, despite setbacks and problems, small changes led to significant progress.

In Taiwan, the phase of export promotion was followed by industrial consolidation in the period between 1973 and 1980. Competition from other low-cost manufacturing centres led to the development of capital-intensive industries. In 1980 Taiwan was expelled from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Despite this Taiwan was developing into a “strong Asian Tiger economy”, a leading exporter of textiles and inexpensive commercial goods.

Political change was also heralded in the ROC by the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975. His son, Chiang Ching-kuo, had been appointed as prime minister in 1972, and he took over as president in 1978. Martial law still continued, but the younger Chiang started a process of liberalisation and democratisation and played an important part in the economic development of the island, now wirthout US aid. Chiang Ching-kuo's 'Ten Major Construction Projects' during the 1970s served as a basis for heavy industrial development. Six schemes focused on the transport infrastructure; the others provided for an oil refinery, a shipyard, a steelworks and a nuclear power plant. His policies encouraged a strong export-driven economy and paved the way for further improvements and modernisation. These plans were implemented in a global climate hostile to the ROC: expulsion from the United Nations in 1971 and the change in American foreign policy to full recognition of the People's Republic, added to the 1973 oil crisis, and all had an adverse impact on Taiwan’s economy.

Important topics and events featured in these files include:

  • The radical 'January Revolution' in Shanghai in 1967
  • Increased conflict between Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, causing further political instability after 1966
  • Vitriolic policy debates, factional power struggles and student demonstrations
  • The dismissal and disgrace of Liu Shaoqi
  • the emergence of Lin Biao as Mao’s second in command
  • Sino-Soviet border conflict in 1969
  • Reduction of US military forces in Taiwan
  • Disagreements between Lin Biao and Mao Zedong at the Lushan Conference in September 1970: the former wished to fill the position of chairman of the PRC vacated by Liu Shaoqi, but Mao had expressly avoided reference to such a position in the version of the constitution being drafted at that time
  • Rapprochement by the United States and the decision to ease its trade embargo on the PRC
  • Discussion of China’s relations with the United States in the early 1970s, which brought the diplomatic skills of Zhou Enlai back into prominence
  • Improvements in China’s foreign trade
  • Lin Biao’s attempted coup in September 1971: having failed, he fled the country with several of his senior military associates, but was killed in an air crash in Mongolia the following day
  • The ongoing succession question
  • Red Guard factions, nationwide chaos and economic disarray
  • The 'Down to the Countryside' movement, which encouraged 'young intellectuals' to move from the cities to agricultural areas
  • Japanese resumption of full diplomatic relations with China in September 1971
  • The Fourth Five-Year Plan (1971-75)
  • US president Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in February 1972
  • The return of Deng Xiaoping as vice-premier in April 1973
  • Major changes in regional military command personnel in order to break up all remnants of Lin Biao’s network of support
  • The departure of all remaining US military forces from Taiwan in 1978 and the implementation by President Carter of the Taiwan Relations Act, which terminated any international obligations previously made between the USA and the ROC but allowed quasi-diplomatic relations to continue
  • The death of Zhou Enlai, and the suppression by force of demonstrations in Beijing in his memory
  • Hua Guofeng’s policies as the Communist Party’s new chairman, followed by the re-emergence of Deng Xiaoping and his brand of  'socialism with Chinese characteristics'.
  • The establishment of full diplomatic relations between the PRC and the United States on 1 January 1979, followed by Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Washington
  • Vietnamese aggression against Cambodia (Kampuchea), denounced by China, the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 and the withdrawal of Chinese economic aid for Vietnam
  • Chinese policies of economic retrenchment in an attempt to control inflation