Written by Ko-Hang Liao.
On 23 August 2018, the Taiwan government commemorated the 60th anniversary of the 823 Artillery Bombardment of 1958. This is also called the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) shelled the Kinmen islands along the east coast of China. Since the Chinese Nationalist/Kuomintang (KMT) regime retreated to Taiwan upon their total defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, both the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), representing the Republic of China (ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), respectively, endeavoured to unify China under their rule and meanwhile compete for diplomatic recognition of being the legitimate ‘one China’ by various means including military, economic, cultural and ideological aspects.
This paper argues that one must not overlook the influence of the First Taiwan Strait Crisis (1954–1955) on Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek when interpreting the former’s reason for bombing Kinmen in 1958 and the latter’s reaction to the crisis. It also aims to link and analyse the crisis with the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) launched by Mao, who attempted to achieve the PRC’s socialist revolution through the campaign. Considering the return to mainland China as his unfinished revolution and the Nationalist regime’s raison d’etre, this essay will also introduce the Project National Glory (1961–1972), initiated by Chiang for this purpose. This paper attempts to help understand Mao’s initiation of the bombardment of Kinmen in 1958 in five points.
First, the reduction of the PLA’s number of soldiers and annual budget in early 1958 already revealed that Mao had deviated from the plan of taking the remaining Nationalist-held offshore islands, as was originally designed after the Nationalist evacuation of Dachen in 1955. The reason was that for Mao, the priority for China was to engage in the Great Leap Forward by boosting agricultural and industrial production to rapidly shrink the gap with the West and the Soviet Union and transform China into a socialist nation. However, to mobilise and militarise the Chinese people, Mao needed to duplicate the experience of the War of Resistance against Japan in the 1930s and the Chinese Civil War against the KMT in the 1940s. Elevating tensions to a level just short of an all-out war with the Nationalists and the US would serve the interests of Mao to facilitate the campaign. This helps explain why in 1958 Mao chose to conduct large-scale shelling instead of taking over Kinmen.
Second, the report of the inspection of Kinmen islands made by the leader of Chiang’s secret Japanese military advisory group, Tomita Naosuke, on 12 February 1959 could objectively answer concerns over whether the ROC Air Force and ROC Navy had really obtained air and naval superiority during the crisis. The report explicitly stressed that the key for the Nationalist troops in sustaining the war in Kinmen was to ‘continue to maintain the air and naval superiority’. Though this might vary in extent, it echoes with the records from the ROC Ministry of National Defence. This could also help explain Mao’s rather conservative approach to warfare in Kinmen, which was heavy shelling instead of landing and taking over the islands.
Third, the Nationalist withdrawal from Dachen in 1955 was not expected by Mao. However, it greatly affected his decision-making as he expected the same outcome in any subsequent conflicts. Heavy shelling of Kinmen served to place psychological pressure on both Chiang and the US, which might potentially widen their divergence on the defence of the offshore islands. Mao had nothing to lose by elevating tensions short of war, as long as the US did not become involved in a war with the PRC.
Fourth, as early as 1954 with Chiang’s strong opposition to the UN-ceasefire (codenamed Oracle, brokered by New Zealand and which might have led to two Chinas), Mao realised that nationalism and maintaining one China was the consensus they shared. There were secret envoys conveying related messages across the Strait.
Finally, a CIA report titled ‘Probable Development in the Taiwan Strait Crisis’ made on 28 October 1958 clearly mentioned that the US did not believe that ‘Beijing’s leaders were committed to the immediate capture of the islands at all costs’. This report echoes the previous four points in that Mao’s initiation of bombing Kinmen served as a political weapon. The conservative approach to dispatching the air force for offensive action, and discontinuation of the bombardment between 6 and 20 October, gave rise to the question of whether Mao was intending to seize Kinmen or deliberately leave the islands in Chiang’s hands to keep the ‘linkage’ between Taiwan and mainland China. These questions are still open to debate. However, it is clear that Mao did not plan to initiate an all-out war against the ROC Armed Forces, which allowed him to have room to cater for contingencies on each of his decisions made throughout the crisis.
It was understandable that Chiang refused to retreat from the offshore islands not only to preserve his regime’s last connection to the mainland but also to protect his plan of retaking China. Chiang’s strong nationalist stance on maintaining one China eventually backfired on the ROC as his Nationalist regime was expelled from the UN in 1971 and derecognised by the US in 1979 given that it could no longer acquire majority support from other countries and avoid Washington’s rapprochement with Beijing to contain the Soviet Union.
Mao could be considered the final winner in the diplomatic arena as the PRC eventually won the competition to be recognised as the legitimate China. However, one thing that was outside of his expectation was that the current status quo across the Taiwan Strait was established after the crisis – after more than 60 years it remains the last large-scale military confrontation between both sides. Additionally, the US, being the biggest threat and obstacle for Mao’s plan of liberating Taiwan, is still the main external nation that plays the key role in maintaining the status quo across the Strait.
This paper stresses the importance of the influence of the first crisis on Mao’s decision on the second crisis, and Chiang’s subsequent reaction. It also links both leaders’ competition for recognition by using the Great Leap Forward and the Project National Glory to analyse their notions of revolution. This could help better understand Mao’s initiation of the second crisis of Kinmen (in 1958), which unlike the first crisis, is still open to debate.
Ko-Hang Liao is a PhD candidate, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. This paper is part of the EATS 2019 conference special issue. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons.