The 1949 Mukden Incident: Lessons of history from a previous U.S.-China hostage affair

April 9, 2001
China Business Intelligence

 Washington, D.C. April 9, 2001: A half century ago, Chinese communist troops held the staff and families of the U.S. Consulate General in Mukden (now Shenyang) hostage for over a year. Times were different then, but a look back into history gives insights into the mindset of China's present leaders. Internal politics paralyzed early decision-making in the Chinese leadership, while the State Department sought to downplay the issue in an effort to keep it from escalating. The Chinese apparently linked the detention with America's "attitude" toward the new government, while for Americans, the incident only hardened that "attitude." At first, the Chinese made patently false accusations of espionage against the American consular staff, but later said the Americans could leave China. Then the Chinese made excuses for delaying their departure, and finally they fabricated petty criminal charges against Americans and threw four of them in jail.

Given the slowness of communications and China's backward infrastructure, the mini-crisis festered for over a year. But in the end, U.S. threats to keep China out of the United Nations appear to have prompted the Chinese to release the Americans -- but the U.S. blocked China's membership anyway. In the end, China's entry into the Korean War -- not just the Mukden Incident -- convinced Americans that the new Chinese communist regime was the enemy. By playing-up the Mukden Incident, the communist leadership in Beijing was conditioning the Chinese population which had viewed the United States as its ally against the Japanese to see Americans now as their enemy.

In an era of instant communications, the present crisis has escalated in a matter of days, and instead of threatening to keep China out of the U.N., Washington could well threaten to withhold "Normal Trade Relations" status for Beijing. History should remind the Chinese leadership that by allowing their political infighting to spill over into a hostage-taking, they have already undermined China's economic growth once. The ongoing detention of U.S. service men and women by the Chinese military in Hainan Island has the potential to do so again.

The "Larger Question of U.S. Attitudes"

It happened suddenly but quietly on November 20, 1948. The American consulate in the Chinese Manchurian city of Mukden ceased all radio transmissions. 800 miles away to the south communications techs at the U.S. Embassy in Nanking thought the silence was odd, but their diplomatic colleagues assumed that the Chinese communists, who had just occupied Mukden after a six-month siege of Chiang Kai-shek's garrison there, would accord customary immunities to U.S. consular personnel in the city. Besides, in those days, telegraphic communications in China were spotty at best, so people at the Embassy in Nanking and at the State Department tried to keep the affair low-keyed to avoid aggravating the situation. No one really started to worry until January.

On January 5, 1949, the Americans became alarmed. Chinese communist representatives in Hong Kong reassured U.S. diplomats that "all personnel Mukden American Consulate General are well", but they ominously observed that "question of communications for Mukden Consulate General is part of larger question of US attitudes toward new [communist] government and toward [Chiang's Nationalists] government".

For the next six months, the U.S. Embassy in Nanking and the Consulate General in Peiping [Beijing] attempted to contact the consulate in Mukden, to no avail, and they tried continuously to engage Chinese communist liaison officials on the issue. But the communist interlocutors simply shrugged that it was "out of their jurisdiction" and offered no assistance.

Political Rivalries in the Chinese Leadership

Indeed, these protestations of "no jurisdiction" are now known to have been valid. The city of Mukden was then under the jurisdiction of the Soviet-influenced "Northeast People's Government" headed by Gao Gang – Mao Zedong's main rival in the Chinese Communist politburo and a man who was emphatically not subject to Mao's command. Gao and his Soviet overlords brooked little interference in their rule of Manchuria, and Mao generally left them alone.

On April 6, the British Consulate in Mukden managed to get a message to its Legation in Peiping which explained that occupying Chinese communist troops had confiscated the radio equipment from all foreign consulates in the city. The Americans -- alone of the foreign consuls in Mukden -- were being held "in house arrest", forbidden to leave their compound, and permitted only one visit a day between their rooms and their offices. Their identity cards were confiscated, their electricity cut, their cesspools went un-emptied. At this point, the fact of the Americans' detention became public knowledge -- at least in China. Intriguing signals came from Shanghai which had been occupied by the Communists on May 26. On June 7, the Shanghai Post published an editorial speculating that the Soviets may have been responsible for the arrest of the American consular staff in Mukden, "because of their special interest in Manchuria." Still, no one knew why the Americans were singled out for harassment. Indeed, at the time, an emissary from Mao's deputy Zhou Enlai was exploring the possibility of U.S. economic aid to China with the U.S. Consul General in Peiping, O. Edmund Clubb.

Then the second shoe dropped.

An American espionage organ

On June 19, 1949, following months of unceasing but fruitless American demarches to the provisional government in Peiping, the Communist Party's Xinhua news agency issued a lurid 3000-word account which reported in great detail spy activities at the U.S. Consulate in Mukden. While some of the accusations were grounded in slivers of truth – that a U.S. Army Liaison Group had been engaged in intelligence collection in Manchuria well after the end of the Japanese surrender – the charges that the Consulate was an American espionage organ were too fantastic to deserve comment, and in fact, there weren't even any Chinese-language officers at the Consulate, and there hadn't been for over a year.

Yet, the day after the Xinhua charges, the Chinese began to permit the Americans to send some uncoded messages over telegraph lines and via the mail. Four days later, the Chinese communist foreign affairs office in Mukden told American Consul General Angus I. Ward that the American staff and spouses "had been permitted to leave Mukden with movable property." The State Department was optimistic. Yet, nothing happened.

Six weeks passed. On August 5, the local Mukden press said exit permits were being issued to foreigners and the Americans immediately applied to leave the city. On August 12, the Consulate staff was "ready to leave" but by August 17, Consul General Ward telegraphed that "no permits have been issued" and the "conditions of our confinement unchanged."

On September 15, 1949, a full ten months after the Consulate staff was placed under house arrest, the State Department finally issued its first press release on the issue, but only said the "Department has instructed Consul General Ward to continue to make every effort to obtain from local authorities necessary permission" to leave China. Still nothing.

Then the Chinese began to get nasty. On September 28, a disgruntled former consular employee appeared at the American compound to demand back pay. The man started a fight with the Consul General and then attacked two other Americans. When the man was wrestled out the front gate of the American compound, he filed a complaint with the communist security guards, who subsequently arrested Consul General Ward and four other Americans. The Consulate managed to transmit an incident report out to the embassy in Nanking outlining what really had happened. But true to form, Xinhua news agency ran a lurid 700-word report alleging that the Chinese employee had been forced by the Americans into exhausting labor, and when he could no longer perform, they fired him. When the Chinese employee asked for his pay, the Americans beat him up. "The case of this violent act of Ward and American special agents was unearthed a short time ago in Mukden" the Xinhua report said. By October 27, Ward and the others had been charged formally with assault.

900 miles away, in communist-occupied Shanghai, U.S. Consul General Walter P. McConaughy read the two accounts of the fracas in Mukden. He cabled the State Department relating a similar incident that happened to him in July. A group of unpaid Chinese employees of the US Navy had staged a sit-down strike at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai. During the sit-in, they entered the Consul General's office. "One of them seized a letter knife from my desk, worked himself into a frenzy, brandished it about threatening me and then threatened to stab himself," the Consul General reported. "I stood with my arms folded through out this exhibition," but the communist press version was that "the deadlock lasted into the evening, which quite unexpectedly McConaughy revealed the countenance of an imperialist and drew out a knife to threaten his employees." Though not similarly harassed by the local officials in Shanghai, McConaughy said the incident "shows that the Communists will not scruple to fabricate charges and incidents out of whole cloth when it serves their purposes."

This, of course, was no consolation to Consul General Ward. Through October an into November, he languished in an unheated Manchurian jail on "six slices of bread and three ounces of hot water" a day. The other Americans fared no better, one suffered a complete nervous breakdown and another was "in danger of gangrene infection" from frostbite.

On November 10, the State Department advised warned that it would use all its efforts to block admission of the newly established People's Republic of China to the United Nations. Beginning on November 11 and continuing through November 16, scores of American newspapers ran non-stop editorial and opinion commentary lambasting China's "uncivilized" behavior, and calling for more muscular reaction from the State Department. By one count, over 10.6 million American newspaper readers were exposed to a steady diet of anti-Chinese (and not insignificantly, anti-State Department) sentiment. It was a turning point in United States public opinion. Public opinion, which had been lukewarm-to-positive on extending diplomatic recognition to the new Chinese government, soured on China, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson warned on November 16 that the United States would not consider diplomatic recognition of the Chinese Communist regime until Ward and the Americans were released.

The threats had the desired effect. On November 23, the Americans were tried, found guilty and after being sentenced to deportation they were released from jail and returned to their compound. They appeared at a second "trial" on November 27, where Chinese, Japanese and Koreans – all unknown to the Americans – were convicted of spy charges apparently related to the June Xinhua news report. At three a.m. on December 7, the 22 Americans were all escorted through the arctic Manchurian night to the city train station, and sent under guard on a 40-hour ride to the Chinese port of Tianjin where they were put on the British vessel S.S. Lakeland Victory bound for Yokohama.

The rest is history. For the next 22 years right up to the Nixon opening to China in July 1971, Americans generally regarded China as hostile, belligerent, mendacious and irrational. The United States withheld diplomatic recognition from China and for those 22 years, the United States effectively froze China out of the United Nations. The United States fought a major war with the Chinese in Korea, interposed the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait, and supported Taiwan in two Taiwan Straits Crises (1954 and 1958). China's trade with the West was curtailed by American embargoes. This is an experience that America's leaders would do well to consider.

For the Chinese, the lessons must be that hostage (or "detainee") incidents against the United States have the potential to poison American goodwill for a very, very, very long time. China should consider that, as in 1949, America in 2001 can get along very well without China – but not vice versa. And that China's obsession with face-saving and internal political struggles have never, never resulted in long-term political stability or economic prosperity for the Chinese people.

John Tkacik is a retired foreign service officer with over twenty-five years of experience in the China field. In 1979, he was the first U.S. Consul in Beijing since the departure of O. Edmund Clubb in 1950.


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