Gregory Clark - Communism in Asia
(Reprinted from "Australian," 22nd and 23rd December, 1965)


The ancient Chinese had a saying: "Know your opponent and yourself and in a hundred battles you will have a hundred victories."

Throughout the 20 years since the war, the West has actively campaigned against communism in Asia. During that period half the population of Asia has passed under communist control, and there has been a steady growth of communist influence in the remaining half. Perhaps it is time we had a harder look at what the ancient Chinese had to say.

The West has been, and continues to be, unsuccessful in its efforts to counter communism in Asia; firstly, because it has consistently misjudged the nature and strength of its opponent, and, secondly, because it has never clearly defined the ultimate goals its activities are meant to achieve.

For 20 years the West has obstinately clung to the belief that the Asian communists are no more than a small, alien, ruthless, power-hungry clique seeking to force the basically anti-communist Asian masses into reluctant submission. The very terms used to describe communist activities-banditry, terrorism, subversion, agita- tion, infiltration-reflect Western refusal to recognise the Asian' as a legitimate, albeit misguided, element in the internal political life of their own countries, a recognition which the Western communists at least receive.

The fact that the Chinese "bandits," relying entirely on peasant support and captured weapons, routed the U.S.-equipped three million-man army of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, that the French after killing 750,000 Vietnamese finally admitted defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese "terrorists," or that the Malayan "subversives" could only be checked by the intervention of Western Armies and hastily promised political reforms, makes little impression on the strength of Western self-delusion.

A recent statement by Mr. Hasluck, prominently displayed on the cover of the External Affairs pamphlet on Vietnam, epitomises Western doublethink on the subject of communism in Asia. Mr. Hasluck said:

"What we have to ask ourselves is whether we can stand by and watch still another country brought under communist domination by force against its will by a minority supported from an external communist centre of power."

Each of the four points in this exposé of communist takeover techniques deserves close analysis.

Point 1: The communists gain power contrary to the popular will.    

Since the war three Asian countries have passed under communist control-North Korea, China and North Vietnam. North Korea passed directly from Japanese to communist control and, as in the South, where the U.S. supported Syngman Rhee, there was little opportunity to test the popular will.

In China before 1949 there was also little opportunity to test the popular will since communists were banned from elections. However, the U.S. Secretary of State did say in August, 1949, that the Chinese communist regime "has been able to persuade large numbers of Chinese that it is serving their interests," and that the rival Nationalist Government "has lost the confidence of the people." The U.S. Secretary of State is not normally a man given to making pro-communist statements.

In Vietnam before 1954 no nation-wide elections were ever held. We do, however, have President Eisenhower's assurance that, according to his advisers, "had elections been held ... probably 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the communist Ho Chi Minh." Few Western leaders could do as well.

In South Vietnam today communists are banned from elections so we cannot be sure of the extent of their popular support. However, the failure of any anti-communist government to gain popular support, the high rate of desertion from the South Vietnamese Army, and the ability of the Viet Cong to increase their indigenous strength as well as replace casualties, all suggest that there is at least an element of doubt as to whether the communists are in fact opposed by the majority of the population.

In other areas of Asia it is difficult to gauge actual or potential support for the communists since they are either banned or else their electoral successes (Laos 1958, Indonesia 1961) have discouraged the holding of further free elections.

Point 2: The communists rely on force to gain power.

The use of force in the pursuit of power can be considered immoral when other, non-violent means of effecting political change are available. Few would subscribe to the view that use of force is immoral when undemocratic (both communist and anticommunist), or colonial regimes, suppress all legitimate attempts to bring about political change.

Almost without exception, the Asian communists have resorted to force in circumstances where they had good reason to believe that there was no other way in which they could achieve their goals. In several cases where the communists may have preferred to seek power by non-violent means, they have had to use force simply to remain alive, quite apart from achieving their goals.


For the first six years of its existence, the Chinese Communist Party actively co-operated with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party in an effort to establish a coalition National Government. In 1927 Chiang suddenly decided to round up every communist in sight. Thousands were executed. After some debate the communists then decided to follow the advice of a young communist leader called Mao Tse-tung and left the cities to organise guerrilla bases in the mountains.

Likewise in Vietnam. Before 1946 the only occasion the Vietnamese communists had used force was against the Japanese (with whom the French had been co-operating). In February, 1946, the French signed an agreement with Ho Chi Minh under which Ho,, "Republic of Vietnam" was to become a free State. The French broke the agreement three months later while Ho Chi Minh was on his way to Paris for negotiations. Six months later the French bombarded the port of Haiphong, killing 6,000 Vietnamese. The communists launched an armed struggle for power shortly afterwards. The struggle ended eight years later when Vietnam was divided under the Geneva Agreements of 1954.


In the southern half of Vietnam, the communists hoped to come to power through elections promised for 1956 under the Geneva Agreements. The elections were not held. Instead, Ngo Dinh Diem, whom the U.S. had installed as leader in South Vietnam, set out to imprison and execute all the communists he could lay his hands on. In 1959, communist guerrilla operations began.

None of this is to deny that communists are capable of taking the initiative in using limited violence to achieve limited ends. They do-if anything, more effectively than their opponents. Executions of anti-communist landlords did more for the communist cause in the Chinese countryside than murders of pro-communist professors and students by Chiang Kai-shek's secret police did for the anti communist cause among the Chinese intellectuals.

At the same time, the communists realise that violence is a two edged sword, that its effects can easily be counter-productive. It has usually been their policy to avoid indiscriminate violence, even when seriously provoked. They realise in particular that in recruiting people to fight efficiently in the jungle or the mountains for years on end, they will not get very far simply by using terror.

Point 3: The communists rely on external support.

Once again there is a problem of definition, since support can range from the gently expressed advice and moral support which Australia is prepared to give the Rhodesian natives, to full-scale military, economic and political support such as the U.S. is giving the South Vietnamese anti-communists.

It can safely be said that, with one exception, the external material aid received by the Asian communists has never been more than a fraction that received by their opponents. The exception is North Korea, where a communist regime was installed in the wake of the advancing Soviet Army.

The Western mistake has been to assume that all communist takeovers in Asia have followed the East European pattern of unpopular regimes imposed from outside. Solemn warnings by U.S. leaders in 1949 that the "Chinese communist puppets" were prepared to sacrifice China's sovereignty to their "Soviet masters" would make amusing reading today if the myth of Chinese subjugation to Moscow had not for so long destroyed any hope of an intelligent Western policy towards China.

Likewise the belief that the Vietnamese communists were the agents for Chinese expansionism (despite clear indications of Ho Chi Minh's independence and his continued efforts to play Moscow off against Peking) has constantly shackled Western policy in Vietnam.

Contrary to Western folklore, the Asian communist movements have been successful largely to the extent they have avoided becoming dependent on aid and advice from external centres of power. The ill-advised and unsuccessful communist uprisings in Asia during 1948 would almost certainly not have occurred but for the inspiration from Moscow. Moscow's ill-judged advice to the Chinese communists in the late 1920s would, if accepted, have crippled them almost as effectively as it did the German communists in the 1930s.

For a communist movement even to appear to be dependent on an external centre of power can be a severe handicap. If the Chinese communists had become identified as dependent on Moscow, if the Vietnamese and Indonesian communists were similarly to become identified with Peking, they would lose popular support in the same way as many Western communist parties have been reduced to impotence through projecting an image of subservience to Moscow.

Conversely, the communists have been able to gain popular support whenever they could portray their opponents as subservient to a Western power.

Point 4: The communists are a minority.

The same point has been made elsewhere by Mr. Hasluck when he pointed out that the Viet Cong were only 160,000 strong in a country of 14 million. To describe the Viet Cong as a minority is about as relevant as saying that the Liberal Party is a minority because its members total only some 10,000 out of a population of 11 million. The Liberal Party, like the Viet Cong or any other political group, seeks power on the basis of support from those outside its ranks.


Whether we like it or not, the fact is that the Asian communists are not dependent on force and terror to gain support from outside their ranks.

The bulk of communist support comes from the peasantry. The communists get this support because they frequently are the only political grouping to take an interest in the grievances of the peasants, to offer a clear-cut programme of land reform.

Equally important is the support the communists receive from the educated classes, since it is from here that the leadership of Asian communist movements is drawn. Educated Asians are acutely aware of the serious problems facing their developing societies. Many of them are attracted to the doctrine which promises the comprehensive solution of these problems.

Even though the educated Asian with a social conscience may not be prepared to enter the communist fold, the communists often do not have to try very hard to win his sympathy.

On the one hand they can point to the genuine social reforms carried out by the existing Asian communist regimes, such as campaigns against illiteracy, public health and mass education programmes, the drive against corruption and vice.

On the other hand they can count on the more reactionary of their opponents to brand as communist-inspired such elementary reforms as equality for women, trade unionism and the removal of glaring inequalities in wealth.

The following example may show the way in which blind anti- communism turns educated Asians towards the communists. Almost all the worthwhile Chinese literature of this century was written before 1949 by left-wing authors, who subsequently supported the Chinese communists.

As a result, their writings are banned in the anti-communist Asian countries, even though they often contain no mention of communism. China publishes for sale abroad cheap editions of the works of these authors. Thus, any South-East Asian Chinese who wishes to read a good book in his own languge is obliged to turn to the communists. It is as if the British communists were given a complete monopoly on the writings of G. B. Shaw or Grahame Greene.


But, it may be asked, surely the refugees from Asian communist regimes prove that communism is no more attractive to Asians than it is, say, to East Germans? How about the 800,000 refugees from North to South Vietnam in 1954?

It is true that some of those who left China or North Vietnam did so out of a genuine dislike of communism or because they believed there would be no place for them in a communist society. An even larger number may have wished to leave later but could not. The majority, however, left from fear of the retaliations which are generally wreaked on the losing side of a bloody civil war.

If the Viet Cong were defeated tomorrow there would probably be as many Viet Cong sympathisers anxious to move from the South to the North as there were Catholics who moved South in 1954. The only difference is that people who come our way are "refugees"; those who go the other way are "repatriated."

Thus, the several hundred thousand Southern Chinese who have moved into Hong Kong since 1949 are called "refugees," despite the fact that before 1949 millions migrated annually from the over- populated South Chinese villages to South-East Asia. The 60,000 Chinese who left Indonesia for China in 1960 are called "re- patriates."

(The sight of Hong Kong "refugees" flocking to see communist propaganda films and patronising communist bookstores suggests that the "refugee" question is not as simple as it seems. Very few of the "refugees" accepted offers of jobs and free transport to Taiwan.)

Where Asians have had a free choice between living in the com- munist or non-communist portions of their divided countries, they have mostly chosen the former.


Koreans repatriated from Japan in recent years have almost all chosen to go to North rather than South Korea. Vietnamese re- patriated from New Caledonia and Thailand have likewise preferred to go to North rather than South Vietnam. (The Japanese and New Caledonian repatriations were carried out over the violent protests of the South Korean and South Vietnamese governments.) The small trickle of overseas Chinese migrating to China exceeds the even smaller trickle migrating to Taiwan.

The support which the Asian communist countries can attract from their nationals abroad is difficult to explain. Part of the reason may be that the contrast between individual freedoms and living standards in communist and non-communist Asia is far less unfavourable to the communist than in Europe. And to the extent that the Asian communist regimes are more independent of foreign support than their rivals, they can make a strong appeal to nationalist sentiment.


While the strength of the Asian communists and their regimes cannot be denied, it is by no means clear-cut that communism represents the wave of the future in Asia. Communist promises of social reform may be attractive to Asians, their discipline and drive may give them an edge over their opponents, but they still have many obstacles to overcome.

In the first place, the communists have to contend with the deep-rooted religious conservatism of many Asian societies. They find it difficult to win over the large middle class of small- property owners, shopkeepers, etc., who are not unaware of the fate of their opposite numbers elsewhere under communism.

The communists have to propagate, and to a certain extent be themselves guided by an outdated ideology designed for the European proletariat. And, finally, they are just as likely to make mistakes as their opponents, as recent events in Indonesia have shown.


In every instance where the communists have gained sufficient popular support to make a bid for power, they have had to rely heavily on the assistance of non-communists, in particular the middle-of-the-road progressives. In every case the middle-of-the- road elements have thrown in their lot with the communists only because there existed no alternative, because the internal political situation had been reduced to an unpopular regime on the right and the communists on the left.

Wherever there exist active reform-minded, non-communist political groupings prepared to compete with the communists and to come to grips with the problems of Asian society, communist growth has been checked. Japan, India under Nehru and present- day Singapore are good examples.

The West has contributed substantially to the left-wing/right- wing polarisation of Asian politics. In the belief that the communists succeed only through force and terror, the West has generally preferred to throw its support behind right-wing groups whose only answer to communism is repression and counter-terror.

Middle-of-the-road or left-wing, non-communist groups which advocate a more intelligent approach in dealing with the communists are either dismissed as being ineffective or opposed as being fronts for an eventual communist take-over.

For example: In China in 1947, the U.S. Government remained silent when the U.S.-backed Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-shek, banned the middle-of-the-road Democratic League. The leaders of the league then went over to the communists.

French refusal to treat with the non-communist Vietnamese National Union Front allowed the communist-led Viet Minh to take over leadership of the nationalist movement in 1946. In Korea the U.S. gave formal recognition to Syngman Rhee's government a month after he had suppressed the Labor Party.

In South Vietnam, the U.S. backers of Ngo Dinh Diem made no protest when Ngo in 1956 summarily rounded up moderate and left-wing members of the Revolutionary Committee which had earlier legitimised his rule. In Laos in 1958 the U.S. backed a right- wing group which forced the moderate Souvanna Phouma out of office. Only when the right-wing had almost lost the country to the communists was Souvanna allowed back into office. In Taiwan the U.S. made no move to prevent the fledgling middle-of-the-road Democratic Party from being suppressed in 1961.


Alternatively, we can take the example of Singapore where, for once, the Western-backed right-wing did not prevail. In the elections of 1959 Lee Kuan Yew's left-wing People's Action Party cam- paigned on a platform of radical reforms and restrictions of Western influence. The West worked strongly for the success of Lim Yew Hock's right-wing party.

The then Australian Minister for External Affairs revealed his concern that Lee's victory could lead to a communist takeover. The result? Lee's party was overwhelmingly elected and it is now clear that he was the only man who could cope with the powerful Singa- pore communists without resort to Western troops or full-scale repression.

Compare Singapore with Sarawak, where the communists were initially much weaker and the West has always had a free hand to implement its own anti-communist recipes. In Singapore the com- munists remain strong but the danger of a communist takeover has passed. In Sarawak only the presence of British troops has so far prevented the outbreak of a communist insurrection.


Compare Japan with the U.S-controlled Japanese territory of Okinawa. In Japan the communists are treated as a legitimate opposition movement. The communists gain no more than about 5 per cent of the Japanese vote.

In Okinawa, the U.S. authorities have sought to ban the communists and did everything possible to restrict the pro-communists. The communists and pro-communists subsequently gained several im- portant electoral victories.

In Singapore, it was fortunate that Lee's resentment over the clumsy efforts by the West to prevent his election did not drive him into an alliance with the communists. Elsewhere the West has not been so fortunate. In Indonesia, ill-concealed Western support for the unsuccessful right-wing during the rebellion of 1958 pro- vided President Sukarno with the impetus (or the excuse) for his subsequent alliance with the communists, an alliance which very nearly brought the communists to power.

The West has in fact manoeuvered itself into a "heads-you-win, tails-I-lose" position. When it backs the right-wing and the left- wing wins it is immediately faced with the full blast of left-wing antagonism. A right-wing victory in most cases leads to a full-scale right-wing/left-wing showdown at a later date from which the com- munists are the usual gainers.

Right-wing repression may for a time immobilise the communists, particularly if they are weak and disorganised as in Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand during the 1950s. The usual result, however, is simply to drive them underground and encourage them to work through left-wing organisations.

The right-wing then turns on the left-wing as being a front for the communists. The left-wing, lacking its own underground organisation, is forced into alliance with the communists in order to survive.

Meanwhile the right-wing government becomes increasingly authoritarian. Elections are manipulated or banned altogether. Censorship is established. The judiciary is weakened. One right- wing ally of the West has gone so far as to copy such communist dictatorship techniques as compulsory examinations in the State ideology, "re-education" camps for its opponents, and secret police with its network of informers.


Authoritarianism by itself is not necessarily harmful to the strength of a regime. (Communist regimes thrive on it.) Combined with corruption and a failure to carry out reforms, however, it is fatal. Public discontent is denied the safety valve of elections and a free Press and becomes increasingly directed towards the government. The government is generally not strong enough to suppress such discontent.

When public discontent reaches a certain level, the communist/ left-wing alliance launches a "national front" movement. The move- ment aims to embrace all who oppose the government, particularly the discontented middle-of-the-road factions.

Tensions mount as the government seeks to suppress the "national front." The "front" announces the formation of a fighting arm to resist the government. Western strategists proclaim knowingly that Peking (or Moscow) has "unleashed" a campaign of subversion. A crash programme of military aid gets under way.

At about this stage the first signs of political and social dis- integration appear. The government resorts more and more to arbi- trary measures, moderate opposition groups are suppressed, in- flationary pressure and profiteering increases, abundant aid monies swell official corruption, control over the countryside weakens, military leaders compete for political influence, politicians intrigue. The weakening of government authority causes more of the population to look towards the communist-led "national front." A vicious circle of increasing communist strength and declining government authority develops.


The process of political and social disintegration is an essential precondition for a communist takeover. Even where the communists command greater popular support than the government, they are powerless against the Western-equipped government armies. Only when disintegration is well advanced can the communists be sure of winning preliminary small-scale clashes with the demoralised government forces and capturing the weapons needed for future large-scale actions.

Eventually full-scale warfare breaks out. The armies of the government collapse despite further massive military aid and advice from the West. Western strategists announce anxiously that Peking (or Moscow) has embarked on direct military intervention.

The West has then to decide whether to intervene directly on behalf of the by-now-discredited government. If it is a big country like China, i.e. if the cost of continued Western involvement would be too great, intervention is decided against. "Intervention would have been resented by the mass of the Chinese people," the U.S. Secretary of State said in 1949. If it is a small country like Laos or Vietnam, the resentment of the people presumably matters less.

The chain of events leading from right-wing suppression of the communists to the final communist takeover is, as the communists say, "protracted and tortuous." It may even be halted at some particular stage as, for example, in the Philippines where elections and a Free Press have been preserved, or in Taiwan where public discontent has so far been effectively controlled.

In most of the Western-backed Asian countries, however, the various stages continue to be enacted. In Vietnam the process of disintegration has gone even further than in China on the eve of communist victory. As late as 1948, the Chinese Nationalist Govern- ment still maintained a framework of control over most of the country and its authority had not been destroyed by successive coups.

If Western involvement in Asian affairs has served only to encourage the Asian anti-communists to follow policies which ulti- mately strengthen rather than weaken the communists, would it not be better for the West to withdraw from Asia and leave the Asian countries to work out their own destinies?

Remarkably enough, every Asian country which has avoided becoming involved with the West has so far had reasonable success in coping with internal communist opposition and maintaining a degree of popular support. Indonesian opposition to Western presence in Asia, Burmese and Cambodian rejection of U.S. aid, and growing anti-Americanism in almost every Asian country all suggest that Western involvement in Asia is becoming increasingly counter-productive.


When Indonesian generals feel it necessary to warn us that open Western support for them in their present anti-communist campaign would cause more harm than good, we need to examine whether the West has any role whatsoever to play in Asian affairs.

Unfortunately, the West cannot simply pull out of Asia overnight. Many Western-backed regimes would falter or collapse if left to stand on their own. The claim that the West must demonstrate in Vietnam the credibility of its commitment is in itself an admission that even the possibility of a Western withdrawal from Asia would seriously weaken other Western-backed regimes.

In the majority of countries with Western-backed regimes there is no viable, non-communist opposition capable of organising an alternative government if the present regime were to collapse. The field would be left open to the communists.

But if the communists command popular support, is the West entitled to prop up the existing regime simply to prevent com- munists coming to power? A case for continued Western involve- ment could conceivably be made on the ground that:


(i) Popular support for the communists is no more relevant than the fact that 90 per cent of Germans voted for Hitler. Communists supporters often do not fully realise the extent to which individual freedoms (including the freedom to resign from government service and write articles critical of government policy) will be suppressed once the communists come to power. In other words, the West has a moral obligation to save the pro-communist Asians from them- selves.

(ii) So long as the possibility of an East/West showdown exists, our national interest compels us to prevent territory from passing to the camp of our potential enemy. (This view rests largely, but not entirely, on the assumption that China is the ultimate enemy and that she seeks control over territory beyond her borders. Space is not sufficient to examine this assumption, but there is considerable evidence that it is not accurate.)

While admittedly both these arguments in reverse could have been used by the Russians to justify their behaviour in Hungary, they do at least have the merit of being realistic. They are considerably more realistic than the transparent clichés such as "support for the forces of freedom and democracy," "defence against external aggression," etc., with which the West usually justifies its behaviour.

At the same time they impose on the West the obligation to ensure that the regimes it backs do something to win popular sup- port (in much the same way as the Russians realised they had to move for liberalisation in Hungary after 1956). If the existing regime is unable or unwilling to carry out reforms, the West must insist that it grant freedoms to others who are prepared to do so, in the hope that the basis for an alternative, non-communist regime can develop.


The standard plea that the West cannot interfere in the affairs of a sovereign government ceases to be valid when only Western sup- port maintains an unpopular regime in power. Failure to interfere at an early stage leads to much more blatant interference (such as the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem) at a later stage.

What happens, though, if reforms are not implemented, full-scale communist insurrection breaks out, and the regime is unable to cope with the situation? At this late stage the only solution is tonegotiate a settlement between the regime and the left-wing rebels whereby the rebels participate in the government. Admittedly, such a solution carries the risk of a communist takeover from within the government. It was tried in Laos in 1962, however, and so far at least has prevented any further deterioration in the situation there.

If for one reason or another the West is not prepared to negotiatea compromise settlement, and the communist rebels gain such strength that the country has to be devastated and the populationdecimated in order to prevent a communist victory, can further Western intervention be justified?

Clearly there comes a point where the misery and destruction caused by Western military intervention far exceeds anything that a communist takeover could cause; where in the process of preserving territory under the pretext of keeping some Asian country"safe for democracy" we mock the principles on which our claimedmoral superiority over communism is based, and in so doing make much of the rest of the world "safer for communism."

That point has been reached in Vietnam.