Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Real Risk of the China Select Committee

| Mar. 20, 2023

Why alienate the very people whose expertise and connections might help Congress understand the Chinese government?

There has been no shortage of think pieces comparing the current trajectory of U.S.-China relations to the Cold War conflict between Washington and Moscow. The historical analogy has become so omnipresent that some have begun to denounce it either as tired or else as dangerous. Yet, the validity of that analogy aside, as a new congressional committee vows to investigate China and root out a pervasive Communist Party conspiracy, another parallel comes to mind: the hearings on Capitol Hill that followed then-leader Mao Zedong's 1949 victory in the Chinese civil war. During those hearings, academics and foreign-policy experts who had come into contact with the Chinese Communist Party in the decades before 1949 became scapegoats for a historical event far outside their control. Were this scapegoating to happen to China specialists this time around, the consequences for U.S. foreign policy would be serious.

Following the establishment of the People's Republic of China in October 1949, the U.S. Senate held a series of hearings to determine "who lost China." These hearings attempted to sort out how the United States had failed to prevent a communist takeover in China and who exactly was responsible for the failure. Marking the start of high McCarthyism in American politics, the congressional investigation quickly devolved into a witch hunt for corrupt officials in the United States who had supposedly enabled Mao’s victory by subverting American support for Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party, the losing side of the civil war.

The stories of these persecuted individuals, particularly scholar Owen Lattimore and U.S. State Department official John Service, are well documented and reasonably well known within the annals of Cold War history. Yet the severity of the U.S. government's campaign against some of its own leading experts on China has gained less public traction.

In 1953, the U.S. Embassy in Taiwan contacted its Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ask whether the Nationalist Chinese government's secret police had collected any information on Lattimore, Service, and a host of other researchers who had spent time in China before the civil war, most notably Harvard University professor John King Fairbank. (This is according to documents in the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs archives at Academia Sinica.)

The U.S. State Department was interested in any information on these individuals' interactions with members of the Chinese Communist Party, particularly if it would demonstrate that they had perjured themselves before Congress. In the name of investigating China, the Senate enlisted the support of a foreign government's secret police to discredit some of the leading American experts on China and prove that they were untrustworthy because they had firsthand knowledge of the individuals who now ran the Chinese government....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Klass, Anatol.“The Real Risk of the China Select Committee.” Foreign Policy, March 20, 2023.

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