In the annuals of Modern Chinese diplomacy it was a blip in the deportment and operation of the embassy – Chinese staff in clash with police and pressmen outside the Chinese legation in London. Tension erupted into violence and bloodshed at the Chinese Legation in Portland Place, London, when according to British media, a chanting mob of Chinese diplomats attacked the police and press photographers. The Chinese, wielding iron bars, bottles, clubs and an axe, charged the police who were guarding the rear entrance. Several people were reported injured during the attack.
August 1967 saw a brief explosion of some of the passion and intensity that had been generated throughout the Cultural Revolution upon the back streets of London. It was in a wider context of the struggles within the Foreign Ministry in Beijing that events spiralled outside of the normal diplomatic niceties into violent confrontation.
29th August 1967: A Chinese who was one of a mob of Chinese diplomats who attacked police and press outside the Chinese Legation in Portland Place, London. His face is splattered with blood and he is being held down on the pavement by a policeman. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
As reported at the time in Peking Review (September 8th 1967)
“BRITISH imperialism, which is rabidly opposing China, in Hong Kong, has recently adopted a series of illegal measures and committed savage acts against the Office of the Chinese Charge d’Affaires and Chinese news and commercial agencies in Britain. Apart from unwarranted restrictions on the freedom of movement in and exit from Britain of Chinese diplomatic personnel and functionaries, and their attempt to cut off normal diplomatic telecommunications of the Chinese legation, the British authorities have called out large numbers of police and special agents for round the clock cordoning off the Chinese diplomatic mission and other agencies in Britain. They have carried out repeated outrageous provocations against the Chinese personnel.”
It had been a tense summer in Anglo-Chinese relations with conflict points in Beijing, Hong Kong and London.
June 1967 saw Red Guards break into the British Legation in Beijing and assault three diplomats and a secretary. British officials in Shanghai were attacked in a separate incident, as the PRC authorities attempted to close the office there.
Throughout June–August 1967 there were mass protests in Hong Kong, and during riots in July People’s Liberation Army troops fire on British Hong Kong Police, killing 5 of them. The commander of the Guangzhou Military Region, Huang Yongsheng, secretly suggests invading Hong Kong, but his plan was vetoed by Zhou Enlai.
On 23rd August 1967, a Red Guards sacks the British Legation in Beijing, slightly injuring the chargé d’affaires and other staff, in response to British arrests of Communist agents in Hong Kong. A Reuters correspondent, Anthony Grey, was also imprisoned by the Chinese authorities regarded as retaliation for the earlier imprisonment of communist journalists by the British in Hong Kong.
In reporting the violent incident outside the Chinese Embassy in Portland Place on 29th August 1967, the British press reports wrote of members of the Chinese Legation threatening the police with assorted utensils, of Chinese diplomats armed with iron bars and bottles attacking the police and members of the press who were waiting at the rear entrance of the embassy, in a confrontation histrionically (and briefly) labelled “The Battle Of Devonshire Close”. Pictures captured staff members of the Chinese Legation standing in front of a large portrait of Chairman Mao Tse Tung shouting anti British slogans outside the Legation in Weymouth Street. Others showed members of the Chinese legation surround a police Special Branch car in Portland Place during a violent dispute over its presence outside the legation’s offices. Some of the officials are holding copies of ‘Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong’.
“In the face of the brutality by the British police and special agents, Chinese legation personnel fought back in self-defence, fully displaying the courage of our Red soldiers in the diplomatic service, who are armed with Mao Tse-tung’s thought.”
Peking Review (September 8th 1967)
The clash in Devonshire Close lasted five minutes, the static stand-off all-day. An earlier fifteen minute battle, broken up by the police, had been fought in the front of the Chinese Legation between “ruffians” and Chinese officials.
An Aberrant Episode:
Red Diplomats Armed With Mao Tse-tung’s Thought Are Dauntless
Visitors would come for badges and copies of Mao’s Quotations – the Little Red Book- and talks with Chinese officials. Gaining “recognition” was a time-consuming vanity project for some activists seduced by the euphoria of revolutionary opposition. Good relationships with the office of the Charge d’Affaires and the Hsinhua News provided access to material, prestige and a reflective political vindication. There was another side to the relationship as Muriel Seltman’s memoirs observed:
Like others in the so-called Anti-Revisionist Movement, we regularly visited the Chinese Legation for talks on the progress of the ‘struggle’ in England. There was an element of competitiveness in this, each small group vying for the honour of ‘recognition.’ Again, we did not realise that the personnel at the legation were using us for their own advancement and their political fortunes and jobs depended upon the degree to which they could convince their superiors they were recruiting support in England for the Chinese Party. They were probably assessing the likeliest “winners” in the stakes for a new Communist Party. Everybody behaved correctly, of course, but at this time we had no idea that claiming support from abroad was part of the power struggle in China.” What’s Left? What’s Right? by Muriel Seltman
Accusations and mistrust in pro-China anti-revisionism in Britain was very evident with the MLOB explaining events through a conspiracy prism as a result of intrigues against them and in favour of all the elements seeking to disrupt the developing Marxist-Leninist Organisation. As far as this minor English group were concerned, they saw themselves as the victims of “the Foreign Ministry and diplomatic service of the People’s Republic of China [that] were already dominated by counter-revolutionary agents of the Chinese capitalist class long before the “cultural revolution” began.” See: Report of the Central Committee of the M.L.O.B. On the Situation in the People’s Republic of China. London: Red Front Special edition, January 1968
After all, no mention was made in the ‘publication of recognition’, the daily bulletins of the Hsinhua News Agency, of the Action Centre for Marxist-Leninist Unity, nor of the Conference of Marxist-Leninist Unity held in September 1967, nor of the Marxist-Leninist Organisation of Britain set up by that Conference! Except on one occasion, no invitations to receptions and film-shows at the Office of the Chinese Charge d’Affaires were extended to leading members of the group, and people who had long been on the official invitation list of the Chinese Charge d’Affaires office were dropped from it as soon as their membership in the M.L.O.B. became known. “It is clearly no accident” claimed the MLOB that an expelled member was closely associated with “the representatives of the People’s Republic of China in London”. Furthermore, “Certain diplomatic representatives of the People’s Republic of China in London went so far as to disseminate verbally slanderous attacks against certain of the leading members of the A.C.M.L.U. and later of the M.L.O.B…. In general, the office of the Charge d’Affaires and the Hsinhua News Agency gave support and publicity respectively to “broad organisations” of friendship with China, such as the “Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, Ltd.” and the “Friends of China”…. an organisation of friendship with China as one to foster support for the faction headed by Mao Tse-tung; it functions, therefore, as a propaganda arm of the Chinese capitalist class in Britain, and also, through its “leftist”, “revolutionary” pronouncements, as a net to catch anti-revisionists and divert them from the developing Marxist-Leninist Organisation of Britain.” – Red Front, January 1968
Drawn from, Sam Richards The Rise & Fall of Maoism: the English Experience (2013)
Source: Peking Review
…….Meanwhile, back in China
The convulsive moment in London had domestic roots in Mao’s ambiguous call to “revolutionise” foreign affairs. Like much of the Cultural Revolution experience, spontaneity rather than a planned programme lay at the heart of the confusion that ensued. It is easy to inject here a quotation from Mao that “revolution is not a dinner party”, that mass movements have their own dynamics and that, as Mao acknowledged, things develop unexpectedly and beyond any individual’s control. Behind this incident was the fervour of what had arisen from the mass struggle for supervision that characterised the Cultural Revolution. It is tempting to judge the clash in London as a by-product of the Cultural Revolution on the mainland given the timing and context of the event. However one should question the superficial attribution by cold war warrior, Arthur Cohen when he argued that central was Mao’s craving, an egotistical desire to disseminate to foreign countries “Mao’s cult” (in his 1968 CIA study, on Red Guard Diplomacy). There was a purpose to the propaganda activities of Chinese missions abroad seeking to demonstrate their loyalty to Mao Zedong Thought [see earlier posting, Reaching Out: Global Maoism].
Mao Zedong / Mao TseTung, on 9 September 1966, declared that in all foreign affairs offices abroad there should be a ” revolutionization” ~ The immediate consequence of Mao’s ambiguous instruction was an increase in study sessions , concealment of signs ‘ of “luxury” living , and according to Cohen, more anti – social behaviour during diplomatic functions for personal of all Chinese Oversea mission.
For a year, from the summer of 1966 until September 1967, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Peking headed by Chen Yi had come under verbal and physical challenges by local Red Guard organisations, identified later by Zhou Enlai /Chou En-lai as the Foreign Language Rebel regiment determined to carry the Cultural Revolution into the foreign affairs system
In December 1966, China had begun recalling ambassadors and senior embassy staff members back home; by late spring of 1967, only Ambassador Huang Hua in Cairo remained at his post; other embassies were left in the control of charges d’affaires. Consequently this raised questions about the morale and effectiveness of the foreign service.
In response to Mao’s call to “revolutionise” there was a ready-made target in China’s foreign minister, Chen Yi .In his self-criticism of January 24, 1967, Chen said:
“At the inception of the Great Cultural Revolution movement, I did not comprehend this Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. At that time the impact of the mass movement was overwhelming, and I did not have the proper ideological preparation for it. . . . I was apprehensive about the impact of the mass movement, fearing that it might jeopardize order and affect foreign affairs work.”
The self-criticism was first published in Huna-Wei-Pao (Red Guard Newspaper), February 8, 1967; translated in “Ch’en Yi’s Self-Criticism,” Chinese Law and Government, Vol. I, No. 1, Spring 1968, p. 54.
The ultra-left Red Guard contention in the dispute with Chen was his firm hostility to carrying the Cultural Revolution into foreign affairs circles. Chen’s intent was to maintain a relatively moderate course in foreign affairs, which in particular meant that embassies were not to become centres for ‘making [cultural] revolution” in foreign countries, and continued adherence to the principle of non-interference in others affairs.
The guidelines for struggle distinguish between foreign relations and foreign policy. In interventions to stabilise the situation and deflect the attacks on Chen Yi, Chou En-lai was tireless in his efforts to minimise the disruption and damage to the foreign ministry, maintaining in meetings with Rebels the Central leadership’s position endorsed by Mao that that the Red Guards could oversee the Ministry’s work and criticize Chen Yi, but could neither take over operation of the ministry nor “overthrow” its head.
Red Guards’ response was a violent one. On May 29 about 300 of them representing one of two rebel groups raided the Ministry, forcibly removed classified material from safes. The Red Guard posters containing this information indicated that Chen Boda / Ch’en Po-ta had to intervene to demand the return of the classified state materials.
The radicals reached the peak of their power in August 1967 when they apparently gained control of the Foreign Ministry when Yao Teng-shan, the last Chinese charge d’affaires in Djakarta, who returned to Peking in April 1967 , apparently took over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for two weeks in August. Yao Teng-shan, until late April 1967, had been the ranking CPR official in Indonesia as charge’ d’affaires ad interim. On April 28, he and Hsu Jen, the consul general in Djakarta, were declared personae non gratae by the Indonesian Government and ordered to leave the country. They were declared “red diplomat fighters” and given heroes’ welcomes. Virtually every leading member of the government (except Mao), including the entire hierarchy of the Foreign Ministry, was reportedly present to greet them at the airport.
Before Yao Teng-shan brief reign ended, apparently coincident with the sacking of the British chancery in Peking, he had “wrested power from the Foreign Ministry’s Party Centre” and had “sent cables to the [Chinese] embassies in foreign countries without the permission of Chairman Mao and Premier Chou.”
The practical consideration reinforced the argument that Yao Teng-shan interim had violated China’s guiding foreign policy principles and that extremist influence in the Foreign Ministry and in the Foreign Service was doing irreparable harm to China’s image abroad as when the British embassy was occupied by Red Guards.. The mission, first been besieged on June 9, was on August 22, was set on by Red Guard and completely gutted it. The British charge d’affaires and several of his staff were reportedly beaten when they rushed out of the building.
Yao Teng-Shan was not heard from again after the August 22 Red Guard assault on the British chancery. Unofficial channels in Hong Kong subsequently related that these acts were conceived by Yao Teng-Shan, not the Peking leadership, and were responsible for his being labelled soon after as a man of mad personal ambitions. Subsequently, (June 21, 1971) The New York Times reported, on Yao Teng-Shan fate:
PEKING, June 20—A prominent Chinese diplomat accused of having been responsible for violence against foreign embassies committed during the Cultural Revolution has been imprisoned, according to reports circulating in Peking.
The diplomat, Yao Teng shan, was a member of a revolutionary group that was in control of the Foreign Ministry in August, 1967, when the office of the British charge d’affaires was burned and attacks were made on the Indonesian and Burmese embassies.
Mr. Yao, according to the reports, was taken June 11 to a mass trial in an indoor stadium in Peking, attended by 4,000 people, and denounced, He was said to have been accused of plotting in 1967 to do personal injury to Premier Chou En‐lai and of holding Chen Yi, then Foreign Minister, as a prisoner for several days.
The mass denunciation has not been mentioned in the press. However, foreign diplomats have become aware of the trial through a number of Africans and Asians who said they had been invited to attend.
The extraordinary proceedings were seen as an effort to relieve the Government of responsibility for excesses com mitted during the most convulsive stage of the Cultural Revolution, which have been a source of embarrassment. Premier Chou, who is pursuing a new pragmatic foreign policy, has been at pains to portray China as a responsible member of the world community.
Peking is seeking to strengthen its diplomatic ties in its efforts to isolate the Chiang Kai‐ shek government on Taiwan and also to gain admission into the United Nations as the sole delegation of China. Recently diplomats of non‐Communist governments have been shown new courtesies in Peking, such as being taken on more tours of the country. And in the last week army guards stationed at embassy gates have begun saluting chiefs of mission.
It was understood that Premier Chou had privately expressed his regrets to John D. Denson, the British chargé d’affaires, about the 1967 attack on the British office. Donald C. Hopson, who was then chargé d’affaires, was injured in scuffles with extremist Red Guards.
The way now seems open for an exchange of ambassadors between Britain and the People’s Republic if London closes its consulate at Tamsui, in northern Taiwan, and gives full backing to United Nations membership for Peking. At pre sent, the British and Chinese are represented in each other’s capitals at the charge d’affaires level.
In a further move to absolve the present Government of any responsibility for violations of diplomatic immunity during the Cultural Revolution, articles in the Chinese press in recent weeks have attacked leftist extremists as plotters against the Communist party and the, government.
In December, in a conversation With Edgar Snow, the American writer, Chairman Mao Tse‐tung said he was not in control of the Foreign Ministry in 1967 and 1968.
Liu Shao‐chi, the chief of state, was deposed in 1967 after Red Guards denounced him and his supporters in the government and the party.
Mr. Yao became a leading member of an extreme lefist faction that took over the Foreign Ministry after he re turned from Indonesia, where he had been charge d’affaires.
According to some reports, Chen Yi, former foreign Minister who disappeared for a number of years, attended the mass meeting, Mr. Chen, who is still a vice chairman of the influential military affairs commission of the party, showed up for the Mat time in many months at May Day celebrations this year. Chi Peng‐Fei, who is now identified as acting foreign minister, was also said to have been present at the denunciation
Zhou Enlai was quoted by a Red Guard newspaper as explaining the circumstance :
I supported the Foreign Ministry in the Central Committee [in August]. When the Foreign Ministry went to the brink, I held a meeting … I was directly responsible for running the Foreign Ministry and as a result they seized power from me. They sent telegrams directly to foreign embassies. As a result they were sent back. Yao Teng-shan went everywhere making reports and creating trouble. He went to the Ministry of Foreign Trade once. His report to the Ministry of Foreign Trade was incorrect,and was very provocative. I criticized him on the spot. The Central Committee- put forward the slogan of “Down with Liu, Teng, T’ao.” He put forward the slogan “Down with Liu, Teng, Ch’en.” How can you as a cadre at the head of department level [Yao may have become deputy head of the General Service Department of the Foreign Ministry upon his return from Indonesia] put forward such a slogan? Who gave you permission? As for sending telegrams to embassies, no one understood this. You [rebels] always want to do everything in such an absolute fashion. ~ Huing-Wei-Pao, September 15, 1967
The general judgement is that before a semblance of order was restored to the Foreign Ministry in the autumn of 1967, its operations had been disrupted, the Foreign Minister had been subjected to unprecedented abuse and humiliation, and China’s diplomatic presence abroad had been tarnished. The aftermath reported in western intelligence briefing:
Chen Yi emerged from the prolonged encounter with his position intact defended, not only by Chou Enlai but also Comrade Chiang Ch’ing (Jiang Qing, often referred to in western publication as Madame Mao).
“Chen Yi has carried out the Chairman’s line. He has fought some good battle, and fought extremely well in the c a p t u r e of Shanghai. All the same, he has said some incorrect things. He is not, however, a plotter, and when he has made mistakes, he has corrected them a bit.” (Jiang Qing ‘s speech to Red Guards on 10 January 1967)
This episode is explored in “The Foreign Ministry and Foreign Affairs during the Cultural Revolution” by Melvin Gurtov (a re-working of his work for the Rand Corporation) published in The China Quarterly No. 40 (Oct. – Dec., 1969), pp. 65-10. Further investigated in the 1998 Routledge publication, Chinese Foreign Policy During the Cultural Revolution by Barbara Barnouin and Yu Changgen, which deals, in part, with the internal effects of the Cultural Revolution upon the Ministry of Foreign Affairs based largely upon interviews with former Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff and rebel leaders that were conducted in Beijing between 1991 and 1993. An interesting foreign policy overview can be found in Chinese Foreign Policy during the Maoist Era and its Lessons for Today by the MLM Revolutionary Study Group in the U.S. (January 2007)