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"Mao's Smile" Revisited: Some Observations

The meeting at the Tiananmen rostrum of Mao Dzedong with Mr Brajesh Mishra, the then Indian Charge d’affaires in our Embassy in Peking (as it was called then) on May 1, 1970 is an important historical moment in Indian diplomatic history worthy of correct recollection and recording. The meeting came as the climax of a series of signals from India in the previous years which were being responded to, and was a deliberate and conscious move on the part of the Chinese.

I was working in the Embassy in Peking and was the only Chinese speaking Foreign Service officer of the mission from July 1968, when I succeeded Mr Vinod Khanna, till summer of 1970 when Mr Vijay Nambiar joined the mission — the receiving end of ‘the receiving end’ so to say. I had also accompanied Mr Mishra for some of the meetings with the Chinese Foreign Office in 1970 subsequent to the exchange on the Tiananmen rostrum. With this background, I believe I have some observations to offer on the history of this event.

Despite various signals from our side since 1967, as far as I can recall, there was not much of a chance for a dialogue between the Embassy and the Chinese Foreign Ministry in 1969. I can recollect only two calls by the Head of the Mission in 1969, the initial courtesy visit and the second to protest a particularly vicious attack on Mrs Indira Gandhi in the Xinhua bulletin. Further, in late April 1969, Mr Mishra walked out of a reception given by Zhou Enlai in honour of Air Marshal Nur Khan, the No. 2 in the ruling Pakistani military junta to protest the standard Chinese remark about supporting the people of Jammu and Kashmir in their ‘struggle for self-determination’. This was, in a way, a hardening of our line as these remarks were regularly uttered by the Chinese hosts at all receptions and dinners in honour of visiting Pakistani leaders and no Indian Head of Mission had walked out of any Chinese reception between 1962 and 1969 in response to such remarks. Perhaps they should have. The volume and shrillness of propaganda by the Chinese official media against India had only increased in 1969. Indira Gandhi whose name is written with Chinese characters Yingdila Gandi was lampooned in the People’s Daily as Meidila (‘pulled about by American imperialism’)! This was when we were one of the few governments to speak publicly against the Vietnam war even to our detriment. That was the year the centenary of the Mahatma’s birth was celebrated with solemnity and reverence globally. The only country that ignored that event entirely was China. The Chinese also made a wholesale boycott of the Gandhi Centenary function held in the Embassy on October 2, 1969, without even a token representation. (The Pakistani mission, which obviously knew what the Chinese planned to do sent a Third Secretary, their juniormost diplomat to the function, the only mission not represented by the Ambassador—surely a most disgraceful behaviour.) 1969 was also the year of the Naxalbari events which I will come back to later. Thus 1969 was a very bad year for India-China relations despite some serious efforts by us to get some movement.

A few days before the May Day of 1970, the Chinese Foreign Office called the Embassy to go over and collect the invitation cards for the event which was to take place in the evening. I went to pick up the invitations. In those days before China’s recklessly polluting industrialization, May Day could be very cold and the Foreign Office specifically asked us to bring overcoats while watching the function from the steps facing the Tiananmen! Two sets of cards were handed over to me, one for Mr. and Mrs. Mishra to go up the rostrum from where Mao and the other leaders would watch the show, and another for the other diplomats of the embassy to watch from the steps below.

Quite characteristically, the immediate question from Mr. Mishra on my handing over his card was when such an arrangement had occurred earlier. I had the answer ready. I replied promptly that it was on the May Day of 1967 when Mao and several other leaders walked down the ranks of Heads of Missions and shook hands with everybody. Therefore another handshaking was on the cards and both the Mission and Delhi knew what could be expected.

From our perch down below in the steps, we were watching the gradual progress of Mao down the line and noticed his pausing occasionally to talk to somebody or the other but could not make out who they were, even with the help of binoculars. But we knew that our Charge had a chance to meet Mao. Early the next day I knew it was more than that because Mr. Mishra had sent a report of the meeting to the Government on his return from the function. As soon as I reached the Embassy, he called me and gave me the report to read. It was a stunning moment for a young man barely four years into his profession to read the words spoken by one of the giants of that century about relations with his country. Here was Mao saying ‘We cannot go on quarrelling like this. We must become friends again. We will become friends again.’

There was much other matter of interest that day. China had launched a satellite a week earlier; and it was inevitable that every ambassador would say his word of congratulation to Mao. The British Charge stood to the right of Mr. Mishra and he too did his bit. Mao acknowledged the congratulations and responded, “We also wish Great Britain great technological successes”, a response which left Mr. Denson and his younger colleagues steaming and furious for many many days. They read it correctly as a dig at UK not being the only major power with no satellite program. Mao also conveyed his greetings to our ‘Prime Minister and President’ conscious of the relative importance of the two leaders in our system of politics. It also showed that Mao was alert and had his wit and capacity for repartee intact. Mao also talked at some length to the Soviet Charge. He held the hands of the Czechoslovak ambassador for an inordinately long time and shook it without saying anything, almost as if he was commiserating with the plight of that hapless country invaded by their allies only a few months earlier!

Mr. Mishra asked for instructions on follow up conversations, but even before they arrived, the story of the meeting was leaked to the Indian press in a twisted and trivialised way, that Mao smiled at Mishra during the May Day event. There was no need to leak that story at all, and if it was thought important to share it with the people of our country, an exact account was what our people were entitled to hear. Matters got only worse when a question was asked in the Parliament about the ‘smile’ and it was replied to from the government side that we will not be taken in by a mere smile. This distorted version was surely unfair both to the people of our country who our Government is answerable to and to China who valued and respected the fact that something very important was being conveyed at the level of their Chairman. We misled the Indian people and deeply offended and upset the Chinese government in one stroke – another remarkable action of shooting at our own feet in a bit of diplomatic and public relations hamhandedness of which we have more than enough examples in India.

The exchange between Mao and Brajesh Mishra was followed by some exploratory conversations with the Asia Department of the Chinese Foreign Office. The Director who received Mr. Mishra was Yang Kungsu who had then been resurrected from the wherever he was consigned during the Cultural Revolution. Though known as a Tibet expert, he was more than that and was the counterpart of Shri J.S.Mehta in the joint committee of officials which met in 1960 and agreed to disagree of the report to be submitted to the two governments on solving the border question. The point about his reemergence in the wake of the words of Mao was precisely that an expert on the border was brought in for the dialogue. The dialogue did go on through 1970 and, as with various other initiatives earlier and later, fell victim to non-bilateral developments, because the Chinese let it peter out after the arrest of Sheikh Mujib and the beginning of the liberation struggle in Bangladesh where the Chinese notoriously supported Pakistan and opposed self-determination of Bengali people.

What exactly did Mao say? He said, “We cannot go on quarrelling like this. We must become friends again. We will become friends again.” That these are the exact words can be confirmed because these were repeated by Yang Kungsu in Chinese in a meeting with Shri Mishra. I heard Yang Kungsu quote Mao because I was present in the meeting. There is no way anybody could quote Mao other than exactly. In any case, Yang would have been a party to the preparation of words to be spoken by Mao on that occasion. The Chinese words are, ‘Women puhui zheiyang chaoxiaqu. Women yingai yao zuo pengyu. Women yiding zuo pengyu’, confirming that it was an emphatic call to end the mutual distrust.

Some Chinese scholars have claimed recently that Mao also said “Indian nation is a great nation. Indian people are a great people” to Shri Mishra. I do not think so. Let me explain. These sentences came to our attention as a quote from Mao in 1969 in an article in the People’s Daily titled ‘Spring Thunder over India’ which was a review of the Naxalite movement, claiming how that movement was overwhelming the ‘reactionary Indian authorities under the inspiration of Chairman Mao’s teachings’. It was obligatory for all articles in newspapers to have a quote from Mao. This article concluded with the quote above and an exhortation to the ‘Indian people’ to seize power Maoist style. I made a diligent but unsuccessful search for the quote in the Collected Works of Chairman Mao. Several weeks later, while rummaging through old bound magazines in the embassy basement I discovered a report in an English publication on the celebration of our Republic Day by the embassy in 1951. Mao, who was the President of the country, broke protocol and attended the reception given by Ambassador Raghavan and personally replied to the toast with the words, ‘Indian nation is a great nation and Indian people are a great people’ and proceeded to drink to the health of President Rajendra Prasad and prosperity of India. Isn’t it remarkable that this lone reference to India to fall from the lips of Mao was preserved and quoted by the People’s Daily 18 years later to urge the overthrow of the constitutional government of the very republic Mao was originally toasting! It is even more remarkable that the words used in the context of a report on Naxalite violence are now quoted as a gesture from Mao!

It also shows beyond doubt that Mao did not use these words in his exchange with Brajesh Mishra. Mao really did not need to quote himself; a scholar, writer and poet of his calibre was not that wanting in words as to repeat himself. That is why I believe he did not say them to Shri Mishra in 1970. The Chinese scholars rewriting the quote should also make up their mind which context of the quote they wish to remember today and in the future.

Why the initiative from China at the level of Mao at that moment of time? By 1969, China was amply encircled and had the desperate need to break out of the situation in which they could only count on the ilks of Albania and Pakistan as friends. There was a skirmish along the Sino-Soviet border and there were ominous noises coming from Moscow about an attack on Chinese nuclear facilities, what the American media described then in the gruesome phrase, nuclear castration. We forget now that China was the archetypical destabilizing power then, verbally and materially supporting the overthrow of every established government in South East Asia and had grievously wounded by the failure of the attempted coup in Indonesia and the attack on the Chinese community in the aftermath. The Vietnam war was not ending, which meant they had to find a new way of coping with the USA, other than an open ended confrontation. In late 1969, the contacts between China and the USA resumed in Warsaw. The American table tennis team came to China in 1970, roughly at the same time Mao spoke to us. It was all parts of a plan to break the encirclement.

The arrest of Sheikh Mujib and the Chinese decision to go over to the side of Pakistan in violation of all their professed ideological principles ended forward movement in the initiative with India. On the other hand, the very same event helped US-China relations move forward. Could China have taken a different position on Bangladesh? That they did not do so despite the high level investment in improvement in relations with India an year earlier could be proof of both the weight of Pakistan in China’s subcontinent diplomacy and the limits of unorthodox initiatives when faced with entrenched habits of thought and behavior.

(The writer, Mr G.S.Iyer, Indian Foreign Service -Retired, was formerly India’s Ambassador to Morocco and Mexico. He also held senior positions in Indian missions in Beijing and Tokyo.Email:sankaran61@yahoo.com)

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