Interview with Sei Jeong Chin

This interview is with Sei Jeong Chin, the author of “The Korean War, Anti-US Propaganda, and the Marginalization of Dissent in China, 1950–1953,” which appears in the January 2023 issue of Twentieth-Century China. Sei Jeong Chin is a professor in the Division of International Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Korea. Read her article here

Before we start into the article and your research, could you tell us a bit about your academic background?

I am a historian of modern China specializing in media history and a professor in the Division of International Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Korea. After receiving my BA and MA in history at Ewha Womans University, I earned my PhD degree in modern Chinese history at Harvard University. Growing up in Korea during the authoritarian regime, I became interested in the issue of media censorship, the role of intellectuals, and authoritarianism in general. Influenced by the new cultural history, I examined the print culture of the late Ming for my MA thesis. And then I switched to media history in modern China for my PhD dissertation. I have been working on a book manuscript based on my dissertation on the rise of a media censorship regime and the making of dissent from the Nationalist period to the early PRC era, from 1927 to 1958. In a new project, I have been studying the Cold War culture in China and more broadly in East Asia.

Your article focuses on anti-US propaganda during the Korean War and CCP propaganda strategies at the grassroots level. How did you come to focus on this propaganda campaign?

I became interested in Cold War culture while teaching a course on international relations and Cold War politics in the Division of International Studies at Ewha. Since coming back to Korea in 2009, I have noticed the legacy of the Cold War discourse in everyday speech in Korea and the contestation between the anti-Communist speech promoted by the conservatives and the leftist discourse. I recognized that, even after the end of the Cold War, the speech of the Cold War is still alive and is used either consciously or unconsciously in political, social, and cultural realms in Korea and more broadly in East Asia. Thus, I thought it would be interesting to learn the historical origins of the Cold War rhetoric and speech that can be traced back to the Korean War period and its impact on the social control of dissent at the grassroots in China.

In some ways, this study also grew out of my own study of the media history of the 1950s. My study of the media censorship regime and the role of the media in the political campaigns of the 1950s focuses on the media’s role in national politics by analyzing political campaigns, such as the Anti-Rightist campaigns. For this article, I wanted to learn more about the propaganda at the grassroots, by examining how the propagandists mediated the dissemination of the propaganda/media content and messages and how the people responded to the propaganda at the grassroots during the Mao era.

In your article, you argue that this propaganda campaign was neither a top-down campaign from the party nor a bottom-up campaign from the masses. Would you apply this description to other CCP campaigns in the Mao era?

It will be difficult to generalize this thesis for the whole Mao era, but at least in the 1950s, when the CCP was still working on the consolidation of the state, it seems that the propagandists at the grassroots were encouraged to tailor propaganda to the local circumstances for the sake of efficacy. In the manual for propagandists of the early 1950s, propagandists were urged to investigate and study the targets of propaganda and local circumstances and to tailor the propaganda content to the particular locality and particular groups to enhance the efficacy of the propaganda. Thus, it is safe to assume that propaganda activities for other CCP campaigns were ideally supposed to be shaped by both top-down and bottom-up processes. And, of course, the results of the campaigns might vary depending on the local circumstances.

You argue that the CCP appropriated previous traumatic war memories to foment hatred toward the United States and legitimize the suppression of dissent during the Korean War. How did varying popular expressions of hatred impact the unfolding of the propaganda campaign?

People’s responses to the anti-US propaganda were diverse, depending on region, class, gender, educational background, social status, war experience, and so on. Some people actively participated in the articulation of anti-Japanese or anti-US sentiments in the public realm. Some people remained indifferent, or even resistant. Because of the diverse responses, propagandists were encouraged to investigate the preexisting sentiments and adjust the propaganda strategies to a particular group or local circumstances. In other words, the varying popular expressions of hatred led to the compromises and adaptation of the propagandists and, consequently, to the influence of ordinary people in shaping propaganda strategies in the unfolding of the campaign.

Despite the varying results of the propaganda, it is still important to recognize the role of propagandists in signaling the correct speech in the public realm and legitimizing the suppression of dissent by labeling it as connected to China’s deadly enemy, the United States. Notably, in the case of accusation meetings, if the propagandists staged the meeting by adjusting to the local circumstances, they could more effectively arouse the public to articulate hatred against the United States.

Your article is a fascinating grassroots study of anti-US propaganda during the Korean War. Can you tell us more about your grassroots sources? How did you conduct this research?

I was able to collect archival material on anti-US propaganda activities during the Korean War in the Shanghai Municipal Archives and the Beijing Municipal Archives. District-level archives from the Shanghai Municipal Archives were valuable windows for understanding the infrastructure and mechanisms of grassroots-level propaganda activities and people’s responses. I also used the Internal Reference (Neibu cankao) housed in the Universities Service Centre of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which helped me to understand the people’s responses from various regions. Most importantly, as a library research fellow at the Harvard-Yenching Institute in 2013, I was able to collect numerous booklets on the anti-US campaigns and manuals for propagandists, which allowed me to explore the CCP’s propaganda strategies and the expected role of the propagandists at the grassroots.

As a grassroots study with national implications, how do you account for regional variations?

As I mentioned in the introduction to my article, I do not intend to present my work as representing the regional variations at the national level. My study, however, demonstrates that the CCP instructed propagandists to deploy different propaganda strategies in different regions, and people’s experience with the US military, the Japanese military, and others varied according to the history of each region. Thus, we can, at least, get a glimpse of how the CCP dealt with regional variations in appropriating war memories for anti-US propaganda activities at the grassroots. For future studies, it will be interesting to examine the regional variations by considering the urban/rural divide or differing experiences with the Japanese and American militaries.

You examine local propaganda strategies and popular reactions to propaganda in the campaign. What does your study unveil about the social and political climate of the era?

My study reveals that the CCP, with limited state power, still struggled to consolidate its state power by accommodating social forces and adapting to local circumstances. At the same time, this work also shows the CCP’s unprecedented attempt to penetrate deep into the grassroots level of the society by deploying state agents, such as propagandists, to intervene even in the reception of the propaganda message. Furthermore, people in the early 1950s were suffering from anxiety, war trauma, fear of war and atomic bombs, and the uncertainty of the revolution in the confluence of the postwar, the Cold War, hot war, and the revolution. And the CCP capitalized on these public sentiments to mobilize the population for the war effort, to effectively control dissenting voices, and to consolidate state power.

China’s participation in the Korean War and simultaneous campaigns have been the focus of numerous works of scholarship from Chen Jian to Julia Strauss. How does your work complicate our understanding of this crucial era?

Scholarly works by Chen Jian, Julia Strauss, and others contributed greatly to our understanding of the interplay among China’s entrance into the Korean War, domestic revolutionary processes, and regime consolidation. Their works show that China’s entrance into the Korean War and an eruption of patriotism helped the CCP to carry out revolution and regime consolidation. Building upon these studies, my work demonstrates that the eruption of patriotism during the Korean War was not necessarily spontaneous or natural: rather, it was carefully manipulated and coordinated by the party propaganda at the grassroots. At the same time, ordinary people also played an important role in shaping the propaganda content and messages. My research thus reveals that the process of regime consolidation during the Korean War was shaped by both the state agents and the ordinary people.

Ultimately, you conclude that the conflicting views of China as both a victim state and a strong state emerged through this campaign, contrary to the present popular opinion that casts these views as a recent phenomenon. How could this conclusion impact historical and political understandings as China emerges as a global military power today?

Popular nationalism formulated through the collective memories of war and imperialist encroachment is often perceived as having been formulated through top-down education of nationalism in the post-Mao period. However, this study demonstrates that the efficacy of state propaganda appropriating national identity as both victim state and strong state in recent years is partially derived from the deep-seated collective war memories reinforced in the process of anti-US propaganda during the Korean War.

Can you give us a bit of background on this project? Is it part of a wider research project?

I have been working on both domestic propaganda and international propaganda during the Korean War as part of my project on the Cold War culture of China and East Asia. For the international propaganda component, I have been conducting research on China’s international propaganda regarding the allegation of US bacteriological warfare during the Korean War. This was one of the earlier cases of China’s success in mobilizing international public opinion by gaining support from Western leftist scientists and intellectuals. The work will help us to understand China’s Cold War culture in the transnational and global context. I have already collected archival material from the National Archives in Washington, DC, the Joseph Needham papers housed in the Imperial War Museum in London, and the United Nations Archives in New York.

In what ways would you like your research to change the field of Chinese history as a whole?

When I started this research, I focused on the issue of the Cold War culture. However, in the process of revising the manuscript, I began to pay more attention to the mechanism of propaganda and peoples’ responses at the grassroots. My study recognizing both state and social agencies in shaping the propaganda processes could complicate our understanding of the CCP’s propaganda at the grassroots during the Mao era.

Where do you see your research going in the future?

As I mentioned earlier, I plan to write a research paper on China’s international propaganda alleging US bacteriological warfare during the Korean War. The direction of further research has not been decided yet, but comparative studies of Korea’s propaganda during the Korean War would be one possible direction.

What historiography shaped this project? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?

This study was originally inspired by studies of the new Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis and the cultural turn of the history of the Cold War. An article written by Patrick Major and Rana Mitter, which I cite in my article, was an important starting point for me. Odd Arne Westad’s work led me to recognize the important role China and third-world countries played in shaping the global Cold War. The first draft of this article was written in 2013 for an AAS conference, so I only read Masuda’s Cold War Crucible much later, after its publication in 2015. Masuda’s work really pushed me to reframe my manuscript to focus on the propaganda mechanism and people’s responses at the grassroots. Theoretical works on new censorship theory by Judith Butler and Pierre Bourdieu also helped me to broaden the understanding of censorship and think about structural censorship.

Do you have any closing comments for our readers?

I feel grateful that I had chance to talk about my research article. I hope our readers will find some useful ideas in my article.