Worldwide trade embargoes and other trade restrictions against China

Over the last 30 years, the tremendous sufferings and damages to the new China as a result of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution have become the staple food of Western narratives in their discourse about China. However, such narratives provide little real insight, being highly superficial and tremendously simplistic, but make good propaganda materials for mass consumptions. This lead to the popularity of semi-autobiographies written about the Cultural Revolution era by the likes of Jung Chang etc .

Recently I came across the writing of a certain Ms Boi Boi Huong, who was originally from Vietnam, and currently lives in Netherland. She is a far more serious and respectable writer though. Her writings, in my opinion is far more in-depth, balanced and refreshing than many books on China that can be found in book stores or libraries in the West . However, she had hard time getting her message through in her adopted country, because her message goes against the convention:

She wrote the following in her website at: :
For my bachelor study Chinese languages and Cultures at the University of Leiden I conducted research about the worldwide economic embargoes and trade restrictions that were implemented against China early in the fifties and were maintained for more than 20 years. What were their effects on China and its people?

Worldwide trade embargoes and other trade restrictions against China

Searching  for my roots, I started  reading Wild Swans written by Jung Chang. The historic novel was published in  1992, shortly after the Tiananmen incident, which paved the way for biographic literature  in which personal hardships under the Cultural Revolution and communist rule  were told. Wild Swans sold more than ten million  copies. After reading it I stopped searching for my  Chinese background. I didn’t need to know more than the fact Chang told.  According to her China’s former leader Mao Zedong would have caused the death of 70 million  Chinese, more than Hitler or Stalin did. More than half of them would have died because of a silly economic strategy that Mao adopted from 1958 and 1960, the  great leap forward.

Everyday life for common Chinese

Later I found out that the things she  wrote and said are not based on reality. In an interview I confronted her with  my findings. The interview was part of a radiodocumentary I made for the VPRO about  my search for China’s modern history. To write my thesis I researched the causes of the famines during the great leap forward.  The findings were quite shocking because things weren’t what they seemed to be.            In Holland there’s only one university where one can study sinology, the university of Leiden. There I learned a lot about China’s high traditional culture, the Confucian culture with it’s rites and  philosophy. But how was everyday life for common Chinese? Studying sinology I  searched for information about the accomplishments of the communist  government. And I digged it out of the depths of the sinological library. It  was a World Bank Country study published in 1983.  For the first time in my life I found out who the Chinese were. When the communist came to power in 1949, about 90 percent of  the population was a landless labourer or small peasant-farmer. Landproperty was the main source  of income but most  Chinese were landless labourers or almost landless labourers.  The rent to lease a piece of land amounted up to 90 percent of the main crops. Small peasants were forced to pay taxes to a thief who called himself general and to a second and third  person and sometimes they had to pay twenty years in advance.

Extreme poverty in China

Field-studies in the thirties  of the twentieth century showed that in all parts of China, large numbers off landless labourers lived in  tremendous poverty. And their situation had not changed since 1500. Most Chinese were landless labourers or almost landless farmers. The labourers could hardly keep  themselves alive as a porter or farmhand. None of them could afford a marriage and  they all died unnoticed, after a short and miserable life. The World Bank wrote  that in 1949 the average life expectancy is 36  years.  Small farmers were better of they had a small  piece of land which they tilted with their family, but they often  had to sell their children to prevent them from starving. Since there was a large  abundance of cheap labour, landlords didn’t mechanize the farmwork.  They even hardly invested in cattle. The salary they paid a day labourer was less than the food for a donkey costed and the animal had to be put in a stable while a labourer could be sent away when there wasn’t  any work to do.

Landreforms,  schooling, literacy rate

Beyond doubt this situation  needed a change. When the Chinese communist party united the country in 1949  one of their goals was to banish the worst forms of poverty. Early in the  fifties the Chinese communist conducted landreforms. Peasants took  the farmland from  “landlords” themselves. Forty  percent of the farmland was redistributed among the poorest peasants. According  to Spence, sixty percent of the Chinese population  must have profited from this campaign. He wrote that it gave the Chinese who lived in extreme  poverty, a chance to survive.               I discovered stunning facts in  the world bank study. In 1949 average life expectancy was 36 years.  Thirty years later it had already risen to 64 years.  I was amazed  that in such a short periode the Chinese government had raised life expectancy with 28 years. And  there was more to come. I learned that when the communist came to power at least eight out of ten people could not read and write .               Maoïst policy started  huge schooling programmes to tackle the mass illiteracy. This has taken enormous efforts also because to learn read and write Chinese, one needs to learn around 2000 characters by heart. For this cause in 1954 and 1964 the government  gave order to simplify the 2500 most used characters , characters that had been the same for  2000 years.               The efforts were rewarded. In 1949 less than two out of ten Chinese could read and write, in 1979 already  6.6 were literate. Chinese were literate. But more amazement was still to come. I have never heard this information during Chinese history colleges nor read it in collegebooks. These facts are hard  to find on the internet.

Improved standard of living

In the radiodocumentary  I made this year I stressed that the Chinese leadership improved the standard  of living of the majority of the population. I discussed the documentary with journalists,  sinologists and sinology students. Most of them reacted by neglecting the facts  I presented and hammered home communist misdeeds. Nobody actually seemed to  care that communist policies raised the  average life expectancy of Chinese  with 28 years and learned at least 300  million people to read and write, and taught them the national language. I was  annoyed because I discovered that in the image of communist China there was  only space for incidents: the great leap forward, the cultural  revolution, the Tian-anmen-incident. In between it’s blank. It is only about the clashing of the  capitalist and communist system, about intellectuals and the elite. In all kinds of sources from mass media, internet sources to English academic writings the terribly poor majority is hardly mentioned, as if they have never existed.

The great leap forward

Accepting and acknowledging the  good things that happened is difficult. On the internet, and in English academic  writings I am  slammed with crimes and disasters directly ascribed to communist rule. A major  one is the great leap forward strategy that I have researched for  one and a half year.   The academic view is that China focused too much of it’s  resources and labour force on an irrational industrialization programme. The  masses would have been urged to produce a lot of iron in backyard blast furnaces, that turned out to be of inferior quality. Wrong farm  methods in the communes, would have caused a drop of the grainproduction which was the  main farmproduct in China. The food availability for peasants  declined because  too much grain would have gone to the urban population, and would have been exported to buy capital  goods. When nature turned nasty in 1959 and 1960 with major droughts, tyfoons  and flooding, China encountered  a famine. It is estimated that 15 till 30 million  people died. In academic writing nature isn’t considered as the main cause, but the great  leap policies are.   Famines were actually a common phenomena in China.  Once every two years a large famine occured. Between 1877-1878 it is estimated  that between 9 and 13 million died, In 1907 and 1937 again large famines  occurred. The main reason was that people lived in such poverty that a little  wrinkle in the sea of life could drown them.

Death toll during great leap forward

Estimates of millions of  deaths caused by the Great Leap policies are  calculated using Chinese populations figures, that show an  increase of 130 million  people between the assumption in 1950 and the population census of 1957. The census of 1957  wasn’t a formal census.  At a UN meeting in november 1950 the  Chinese representative Wu Xiuquan said that the government  of the Peoples Republic of China represents a population of 470 million  people.             In current official records the Chinese population  of 1950 exists of 541 million people, 71 million more than Wu Xiuquan spoke of.  The official record in 1957, just before the Great Leap Forward counted a population of 600 million Chinese people (including 17 million Taiwanese residents). This census was just before the Great Leap forward.             The figure of 600 million is far too high according to the renown Chinese  demographer Chen Ta. Estimates of millions of death during the great leap are the result of using the highest unreliable population figures. According  to the late Dutch professor Wim F. Wertheim the tens of millions of deaths  during the Great Leap Forward probably have actually never existed.             This would  explain why in 1962 after  the famine years mortality dropped enormously while the average food consumption in the Chinese countryside had hardly increased. The countryside was said to be  hit hardest by the famines.

Worldwide economic embargoes against communist China

If it wasn’t for a China expert, who told me  years ago that there existed a worldwide trade embargo against China, l would still not know by now. The economic warfare against China and the communist  block is hardly mentioned nowadays, just as if it has never  happened. In academic researches for the causes of the Great  Leap Famine, the embargo’s and trade restrictions are not mentioned or said to  be of no influence. Is that the case?               In 1950 China fought alongside  North Korea against allied UN forces under the leadership of the US. The United  States implemented a complete embargo that forbade all financial transaction  with communist China.  After the Korean war, the embargo was not lifted. In 1950  Nato countries and Japan, adopted the cocom embargo ( coördinating committee) aimed against communist countries against China. At the height of the Korean  war, the cocom-embargo against communist countries  already forbade the export to communist countries of products from more than 400 product categories. But under American pressure   in 1952 these richest industrialized countries implemented an even stricter embargo against China, which is called the China embargo. For implementing and maintaining this embargo the coördinating committee set up a special China committee (chincom).               Untill the  seventies western governments have closed their markets for Chinese products by  levying importduties that were five, ten  times higher than duties for friendly countries. There was also a American  policy to push the communist China in  a diplomatic isolation. Until 1972 the nationalist government of Taiwan held the Chinese seat in the UN  general council and also in the UN security council, while the communist government on the mainland was  reconstruting the war torn country, fighting the mass poverty and trying hard to feed it’s people.

Breakdown of communist China

High American government sources have admitted that the objective  of the economic warfare was aimed at causing a breakdown of Communist China. Problems  in the Chinese economy could reduce the support of the people. To cause the collapse  of the communist Republic, the U.S. also tried to pose a constant military threat on the PRC from out of Asia.  It supported the Chinese nationalists on Taiwan with the most advanced  weapons and placed their missiles on the island. Already on mainland China in the 1920’s, the nationalist  main objective was to eliminate the  Chinese communists.               Steel was needed for farm  implements, and agricultural mechanization which was very urgent because of the great population pressure on the  land of which only one fifth is fit to be used for farming. So  China focused on producing steel, because capitalist countries all maintained an embargo on steel and other  industrial products against China.               The  steel was produced in large plants, in medium large plants and it was also done  by simple, indigenous methods.The Sovjet Union sold China plants to  build up it’s heavy industry, provided the technology, technical experts and some small longterm loans.  Because of three very strict embargo’s that  World Organisations maintained against China, the Soviet Union got a monopoly  on trade with China. The UN, the Coördinating Committee and the China  Committee, held embargo’s on trade with China.               Although all the embargo’s and  trade restrictions existed, the general academic view is that China didn’t want  to trade with capitalist countries because it strived for selfreliance. This  wasn’t the case. In the 1950’s China constantly pressed the US to lift the  embargo It increased trade with western-europe enormously since 1955 till 1958  when restrictions were eased.

Effects of worldwide economic war

The general view in the western academics is  that the embargo’s and trade restrictions  hardly influenced the Chinese economy because it is a large country and  thereforeself-sufficient. China could get all it needed from other communist countries.  That was also not the case. The whole communist block ran short of major  industrial raw materials like rubber and copper. Copper was needed to produce electricity. China was in want of longterm  credits which only the Soviet Union provided until 1954. The Chinese could only  buy capital by exporting grain, the only product that they could export on some  scale. In the fifties huge subsidized western farm surpluses, caused a drop of  he world grain price. After China received Taiwan’s seat in the United Nations in  1972, many countries established diplomatic relations with China. But it was not until the US resumed it’s diplomatic and trade relations with the Peoples Republic that China’s trade volume increased enormously in 1973. Trade with its major  trading partners, Japan, Macao and Hong Kong doubled. Chinese imports of  industrial products doubled and tripled in that year.  There was a  shortage of a lot of goods.               It wasn’t stupid that China  started to rely on the will and enthusiasm of uneducated masses to  industrialize, it ran short of capital, technology, foreign credits and raw materials. The huge production of iron with simple  methods in small furnaces was an expression of this. China exported grain  because it could hardly get foreign credits. During the Great Leap Forward  China was affected tremendously by natural disasters, just like it was in it’s  history which caused China to be called the land of famine.

The great leap forward and trade restrictions

When the Chinese leadership was aware  of the scale of the famines they stopped the great leap forward, cut investments in the industry, imported millions of tons of wheat. But worldwide trade  restrictions and embargo’s against the country in need were not eased. The  western economic warfare against the Peoples Republic of China was aimed at causing problems in its  economy, hoping for a collapse of communist China. Indeed China faced economic  problems, the famines. Although facts and figures show that the capitalist  economic warfare caused China tremendous hardships, the embargoes and trade  restrictions are nowadays not known of, and their effects denied. Anyhow, by waging the economic warfare against China, the west also turned their backs to one fifth  of world population, those who already were almost drowning. A realistic view on China needs the acknowledgement of the role of the capitalist world.

Boi Boi Huong



About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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