H-Diplo Article Review 1059- "Experiencing the Cold War at Shanghai’s Secret Military Industrial Complex"

George Fujii's picture

H-Diplo Article Review 1059

4 August 2021

Covell Meyskens.  “Experiencing the Cold War at Shanghai’s Secret Military Industrial Complex.”  Cold War History (2020).  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2020.1842876.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Seth Offenbach | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Xiaobing Li, University of Central Oklahoma

What’s new in historical research on Cold War China?  More historians moved away from the conventional Cold War political and military topics like Chairman Mao Zedong’s 1958 decision to bombard the Jinmen (Quemoy) Islands in the Taiwan Strait[1] or Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s diplomatic efforts before the Sino-Indian Border War in 1962.[2] Instead, the younger generation of China historians began focusing on Chinese society, women’s status, cultural changes, and industrial development from the 1950s to 1970s, when the Cold War changed millions of Chinese people in a multitude of ways.[3] Covell Meyskens offers a new perspective on Cold War China through a case study of Shanghai’s defense industry factories from 1965-1980.

Meyskens begins his article by explaining Mao’s strategic thinking about China’s three-front defense lines in 1964.  The First Front included southern and eastern coastal regions, which, from the 1950s, had faced threats from both the U.S. and Taiwan, including air raids and possible amphibious landings.  After the 1960 Sino-Soviet split, Manchuria and northwestern China were integrated into the First Front against the Soviet Union.  Mao considered central China the Third Front as the strategic rear and economic base for the country’s industrial development in the Cold War.  The areas between belonged to the Second Front, or “the Small Third Front” (5).  Meyskens’s case study focuses on “the military industrial complex established to safeguard Shanghai” along the Second Front (2).

In the first part, “Preparing for protracted warfare,” the author describes how the local governments at the provincial, county, and city levels carried out Beijing’s construction policy in 1965-1966 and mobilized their resources to build secret weapon manufacturing and ammunition factories.  Part two, “Recruitment practices,” examines new employment requirements, methods, and benefits.  In many cases, the newly hired workers left their families behind and traveled more than a hundred miles to factory construction sites in 1966-1968.  Part three, “Responses to recruitment,” continues with the workers’ sad stories, detailing the confusion and mixed feelings they experienced from 1967-1971.  Ironically, some felt better for their manufacturing jobs compared to those who were sent to “the Big Third Front” factories (9) more than a thousand miles away.  In part four, “Life on a construction site,” the author investigates their hard work as manual labors at construction sites in the mountainous and forested areas of Anhui and Zhejiang provinces.  These workers built roads, bridges, their own living quarters, and factories by themselves without enough food, housing, construction machines, and supplies (11-12). Part five, “The everyday at a military industrial complex,” describes the manufacturing workers’ daily routine after they completed the construction of these weapon and ammunition factories in the early 1970s.

Few Cold War histories paid full attention to the Third Front construction projects of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) because of their geostrategic positions and distance from major Cold War events.  Having explored archival materials of Shanghai, official documents from Anhui and Zhejiang, memoirs, and recollections from the military factory workers, Meyskens shed new light on Cold War China’s local history from the 1960s-1980s.  Any Asia specialist, Cold War historian, and graduate student of China Studies will find this article’s previously unpublished sources of great interest and will appreciate the author’s attention to previously ignored questions.

First, Meyskens examines Chinese social life through Cold War spectacles.  His central theme is how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tried to “socially engineer a population that performed practices coded as socialist” (18) during the Cold War era.  The party was able to control both state and society by rhetorically employing foreign threats or even possible war with the Soviet Union and the U.S. to justify its radical policy and manipulate the Chinese people to “defend” their hometowns.  The party-state government considered both “imperialist” foreign powers and domestic “bad elements,” including landlords and rich people (6), as threats to the Communist revolution as well as to the social and political stability of China.  According to Meyskens, the Chinese government employed similar methods of “class struggle” to fight back both imperialist aggression globally and domestic instability at home.  Beijing’s interventionism in the Cold War domesticated its international issues like China’s war efforts in Vietnam against the U.S., border security concerns with the Soviet Union, and tension between Mao and Republic of China President Jiang Jieshi in the Taiwan Strait.  Chinese leaders wanted their “people to think and feel about national security” in the CCP’s way (18).

Second, Meyskens’s research shows that the party-state bureaucracy worked, even during this most difficult period in PRC history.  In 1966, the Cultural Revolution became a nation-wide political struggle with extensive purges.  Mao used mass organizations such as the Red Guard youth to publicly attack the CCP and PRC hierarchy, including PRC President Liu Shaoqi and Party Secretary General Deng Xiaoping.  Starting in early 1967, the situation worsened across the country as the Cultural Revolution entered a phase of the “total taking-over” of the authorities (Duoquan).  The Red Guards gained control over government offices at all levels, jailed officials, and administrated provincial and local affairs.  But various factions within the Red Guards had contradictory political orientations and different plans, leading to violent, internal conflicts in many places that often resembled a civil war.  Nevertheless, Meyskens’s article indicates continued efforts and progress made by the provincial, prefectural, metropolitan, and county governments during this chaotic period.  They recruited tens of thousands of workers, employed administrators, engineers, technicians, and college graduates, and mobilized their local resources.  As the Cultural Revolution witnessed many factories ceasing production and manufacturing, the Shanghai’s military industrial complex completed the construction and became operational.

Although the article’s focus attempts to “turn toward the social history of Cold War China” (2), it does not provide ample coverage of Chinese society, families, and individuals.  There are only four Chinese mentioned in these stories, including a college physics professor, a steel factory engineer, and a technical school graduate.  Scholars need to read and access more stories about workers’ families, marriages, children, relations, and most importantly, their reflections, reactions, and experience in the construction and productivity of the Shanghai’s secret military complex.  Deeper and more detailed research may also address other important social issues like gender relations, economic inequality, child labor, human rights, labor relations, and urban development.  A social history could explore the inner lifecycle of the complex workers, family members, factory administrators, party leaders, and local officials, which shaped the unique characteristics of military industrial culture and changed Chinese society in many different ways.  Local archival materials and personal interviews are vital for historians who study Cold War China, not simply for filling in factual gaps, but also to serve as the main source for discovering both new themes and topics in the field.  As these stories certainly provide new research opportunities, they also require Cold War historians take greater care in the treatment of sources and innovate in the construction of new conceptual and analytical frameworks.

It is also worth noting that China became militarized in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  In 1967, in order to stop the national turmoil, Mao ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to control the situation by “three supports and two militarizations” (support Leftist masses, manufacturing production, and agricultural production; and martial laws with military administration and training of civilians, Sanzhi liangjun). Mao employed the PLA to restore social and political order and to prevent a possible civil war in the country.  On March 19, the CCP Central Military Commission (CMC) ordered all PLA units fully engaged in the “three supports and two militaries” task to stop the armed conflicts and stabilize social order across the country.[4]

Thereafter, tasking headquarters were established at regional and provincial commands, and tasking offices were opened at the army and divisional levels.  Moving to center stage, the Chinese military replaced civilian governments at the provincial, district, county, and city levels through its military administration, or the “Military Administrative Committee,” from 1967 to 1972.  The PLA used its officers as administrators for schools, factories, companies, villages, and farms.  More than 2.8 million officers and soldiers participated in these tasks.  By February 1967, the military administration took control of nearly 7,000 mass media, defense industry, law enforcement, foreign affairs, transportation, and finance enterprises.  By September 1968, each of the 29 provinces across the country established a provincial revolutionary committee to replace the governor’s office, provincial congress, and provincial court.  The majority of the provincial committee members were from the military: about 98 percent in Hubei, 97 percent in Yunnan, 95 percent in Shanxi, 84 percent in Liaoning, 81 percent in Guangdong, and 78 percent in Beijing.[5] The militarization of the country made the Shanghai military industrial complex manageable.

In terms of China’s national security and defense, while the period between 1964 and 1974 was the most controversial, it was also the most crucial decade in the PRC’s defense and military history.  In 1964, China tested its first nuclear bomb, and followed with a test of its hydrogen bomb in 1967.  China became a nuclear power in the world.  From 1965-1970, China sent 430,000 troops to Indochina to support North Vietnam against the U.S. in the Vietnam War.  The PLA support included surface-to-air missiles (SAM), anti-aircraft artillery, railroad and highway construction, combat engineering, minesweeping, and logistics units.  In 1969-1971, the Chinese army clashed with Soviet forces along the Sino-Soviet border.  As a result, the Soviet Union replaced the U.S. as the PRC’s leading security concern and motivated Beijing to pursue rapprochement with the United States.  All of this paved the way for U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.  Covell Meyskens’s research certainly provides us with a better understanding of this important era.


Dr. Xiaobing Li is professor of History and Don Betz Endowed Chair in International Studies at the University of Central Oklahoma.  He is also the Executive Editor of the Journal of Chinese Historical Review and Editorial Board Advisor of the Journal of Military History.  His recent books include The Dragon in the Jungle: The Chinese Army in the Vietnam War (Oxford University Press, 2020), Attack at Chosin: The Chinese Second Offensive in Korea (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020), China’s War in Korea: Strategic Culture and Geopolitics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), and Building Ho’s Army: Chinese Military Assistance to North Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 2019).


[1] Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); Thomas J. Christensen, Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947-1958 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996); Thomas E. Stolper, China, Taiwan, and the Offshore Islands (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1985); Michael Szonyi, Cold War Island: Quemoy on the Front Line (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[2] Alastair Lamb, The China-India Border: The Origins of the Disputed Boundaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964); Robert S. Ross and Jiang Changbin, eds., Re-examining the Cold War: U.S.-China Diplomacy, 1954-1973 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); Allen S. Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence: India and Indochina (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975).

[3] Felix Wemheuer, A Social History of Maoist China: Conflict and Change, 1949-1976 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019); Tyrene White, China’s Longest Campaign: Birth Planning in the People’s Republic, 1949-2005 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006); Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War against Nature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Susan Mann, Gender and Sexuality in Modern Chinese History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[4] Zhou Baoshan, “China’s Crouching Dragon,” in Voices from the Korean War: Personal Stories of American, Korean, and Chinese Soldiers, eds. Richard Peters and Xiaobing Li (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2004), 93.

[5] Li Ke and Hao Shengzhang, Wenhua dageming zhong de renmin jiefangjun [The PLA during the Cultural Revolution] (Beijing: CCP Central Committee’s Party Historical Document Press, 1989), 161-63.