April 1949: Trapped in Nanking

K.M. Pannikar

In his memoir In Two Chinas, Kavalam Madhava Panikkar, the Indian ambassador to the Republic of China, gives an account of the Communist takeover of Nanking in April 1949.

William Sima, Associate Guest Editor

On the 22nd of April 1949, Nanking presented a strange scene. The civil authorities having fled the town, the mob took charge. They looted systematically the houses of Kuomintang leaders and officials, but otherwise there was no hooliganism. From my chancery I could see the official residence of the mayor being plundered by the inhabitants of the locality. It was done in a civilized and orderly manner, old women being helped by younger people to carry what they had collected! The mob did not destroy anything; they broke only such things as had to be broken, like doors, window frames, etc., which some people carried away quietly as if they were withdrawing a deposit from a bank. The army headquarters, the offices of the youth organisazation, etc. suffered badly, but on the whole the mob behaved in an orderly and quiet manner. By the afternoon the Committee of Public Order had gained control and issued various proclamations and orders to the people.

Early next morning everyone knew that the advance party of the communists had entered Nanking and that the main force was being ferried across without any opposition. I went out into the streets to see the troops coming into Nanking. It was a strange sight. The streets were crowded with sightseers. I did not think that there was much enthusiasm, but neither was there any hostility. We drove about everywhere, watching the endless procession of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) marching through the famous Chung Shan Street. Except ourselves and the Burmese (and of course the Soviets) the other diplomats remained indoors, apprehensive lest their presence might lead to some untoward incidents. By the evening the crossing was completed and the Kuomintang capital effectively occupied. General Liu Po-cheng, the one-eyed dragon, as he was known, was proclaimed mayor of the city. We of the diplomatic colony were anxious and uncertain. We decided to wait on events and kept to our embassies, expecting the communists to make the first move. No such move was made; they just ignored us.

For the next three or four days there was a lull, with minor incidents which strained our nerves. A few PLA soldiers had strayed into the American Embassy and walked up to the bedroom where the ambassador was lying ill with fever. They, however, left quietly after a short conversation. A few had attempted to enter the garden of the British Embassy but were dissuaded from doing so. The French, it would appear, had a bad time, for the Embassy was isolated for three days: but generally speaking, apart from the uncertainty of things, there was nothing very much for us to complain about. Provisions which had disappeared from the market became plentiful. For the time, the silver dollars of Yuan Shih-kai became the accepted currency. Everyone watched and waited.

There were two broad lines of opinion in the diplomatic body: one, which was expounded with vigour by Keith Officer, the distinguished Australian Ambassador, was that the communists would be anxious to gain the good opinion of foreign powers by treating the diplomats well. On the other hand, the Dutch Ambassador, Baron Van Arsen, produced and circulated a memorandum based on the experiences of a colleague of his in Moscow during the revolution arguing that the communists would want to be tough with us and there was no use depending on international law and usage in this matter. We did not have long to wait to find out what they intended to do. A day or two after the occupation we were politely but firmly informed that we would be given no diplomatic privileges and would be treated only as distinguished foreigners. We were alluded to as ex-ambassadors. There was no Foreign Office to deal with us, but only a Foreign Personnel Bureau where our secretaries had to present themselves with an interpreter since all business was transacted in Chinese. No communication in any other language was accepted. All conversations were in the presence of shorthand writers who took down every word that was spoken. We were not allowed the use of cypher or the privilege of using couriers. In fact we had technically ceased to be diplomatists.

We were also subjected to a number of restrictions which in the circumstances were perhaps not unreasonable. We were not allowed to go outside the city walls, even for picnics to the beautiful Lotus lake, or to Purple Mountain. The reason given was that the area had not been cleared of Kuomintang bandits and the PLA could not take responsibility for the lives of foreigners outside the city. The number of motor vehicles used by the embassies was strictly limited. The American Embassy had, it would seem, no less than 110 cars; it was cut down to five. The same number was allowed to Britain and France and the USSR. Italy, Holland, and Belgium were permitted three; India, Iran, etc., two: and others, one. No doubt this was necessitated by the shortage of petrol.

Apart from these inconveniences, there was no interference whatever with our life. The embassies and legations, after the minor incidents of the first few days, were left inviolate. No soldiers or policemen ever stepped into an embassy compound on any pretext whatever, and the staff and personnel were never molested, unless they broke some law in the street or elsewhere. Even the Foreign Personnel Bureau, in spite of al its tight-lipped formalism and refusal to recognise us as diplomatists, gave us in practice all the facilities we required. In one or two cases it even advanced money required for the expenditure of the mission, since exchange regulations had not come into effect. Our movements were restricted; our diplomatic activities were made impossible; but otherwise we were left to ourselves with no interence of any kind. Also, living conditions in Nanking improved after the first two weeks. Prices were stabilized and currency was steady. Life was therefore not uncomfortable. …

The diplomatic corps became more and more jittery as time when on. Apart from the fact that we had been unceremoniously deprived of our immunities and privileges, it became clear, as weeks passed by, that getting out of China was not going to be easy. Originally it was thought that once Shanghai was occupied communications with the outside world would be re-opened, and such of us as desired to go would be able to do so. Within a month of the fall of Nanking, Shanghai was also occupied, the Kuomintang as usual making but a poor show when it came to actual fighting. The western diplomats, by and large, believed that the communists would learn their lesson in Shanghai. Their favourite argument was that Shanghai had rice only for three weeks, and that the public utility serves, water works, electricity, etc., depended upon imported coal, which would no longer be available. It was also fondly hoped that the spirit of Shanghai — its night clubs, its dope dens, etc — would corrupt the communist leaders as it had corrupted the Kuomintang when the young nationalist came first into contact with the Eastern Babylon. They waited patiently for the appointed three weeks. Instead of the much-hoped-for breakdown and the pleasantly-anticipated weakening of the revolutionary spirit, the diplomatic corps in Nanking was shocked to hear the treatment meted out to an American Vice-Consul, who had been arrested and imprisoned for not obeying the orders of the military authorities. He was made to apologise and denounce his own imperialist actions. Also the prospect of leaving conveniently seemed to vanish. The Kuomintang had mined the Whampoa river, and soon the proclaimed a blockade and prohibited foreign ships from entering Shanghai. The greatest port in the East lay idle. But the expected breakdown did not take place. Food was more plentiful than before. Coal for public utilities was transported from mines in the north. The communists seemed on the whole not to worry that foreign shipping was not coming to Shanghai.

To add to our discomforts, Kuomintang planes began to appear regularly over Nanking in day-time. Their object was said to be to bomb and destroy the electrically-operated ferry across the Yangtse, which carried the troop trains from the north. The power-house and the waterworks were also their targets. Though their bombing was poor and nothing of military value was ever achieved, it was sufficient to cause us intense discomfort.

My own instructions were to stay on to the last: but I know most of the western diplomats were anxious to get out. Every day, the only topic of discussion was how to organise our departure honourably. The British Ambassador, Sir Ralph Stevenson, was in a different position. He was determined not to move from Nanking till HMS Amethyst which had been disabled and was lying in the Yangtse moved out with or without permission. He was trying every method he knew to negotiate some kind of a settlement. As a matter affecting the honour and prestige of the Royal Navy there was considerable feeling in Britain about the incident which disabled this ship and damaged others which tried to come to her rescue. It was important that the Amethyst should not be left where she was. So Stevenson and his staff never talked of leaving.

The American Embassy Club, housed in the palace of the pro-Japanese President, Wang Ching Wei, had been thrown open to all the diplomatic missions. In its cool shades the diplomatic corps daily met and discussed their woes under the illusory protection of a tank, which was drawn up in front of the gate. To conceal their alarm the ladies generally played bridge but the men collected together in groups at the bar or near the swimming pool, discussed endlessly whether it was right for them to stay and whether it was not more dignified to beat a retreat. But the problem was how to leave. No ships were calling in Shanghai. It was impossible to reach Tientsin where, it was rumoured, ships were still calling. More than this, the communist authorities had resuscitated the old Chinese system of asking for two ‘shop guarantees’ before any foreigner could leave. Shop guarantee meant that two Chinese businessmen should come forward to guarantee any continuing, contingent or future liabilities that the departing foreigner might be adjudged as being responsible for. As we were class as ‘former diplomats’ not entitled to any privileges, it was made clear that if we desired to leave, we also had to provide ‘shop guarantees’. Our expert in international law, Baron Van Arsen, the Dutch Ambassador, searched for precedents and declared that the claim was irregular. But regular or otherwise the Chinese insisted on enforcing it. As I made up my mind to stay, till the situation cleared up, the decision did not affect me, though I agreed to join in any protest that the diplomatic corps was prepared to make. Then arose another difficulty. The communists had not claimed to be a government. They had no Foreign Office and no Ministry to which we could protest. The occupied areas were under the People’s Liberation Army, and all foreigners including diplomats were dealt with by the head of the Foreign Personnel Bureau, Huang Huai. Later I came to know Huang Huai rather well when he was the official representative of the Foreign Office in Shanghai. But at this time he was not available to anyone. I dealt with him through my third secretary, Dr Virendra Kumar, whose fluency in Chinese was of the greatest help to me at this time.

By the end of June, the patience of the diplomatic corps had practically come to an end. The summer that year was unbearably hot in Nanking and there was no way of getting out to Shanghai or to any cooler place. In the circumstances some of us decided to make an approach to the Foreign Personnel Bureau to permit us to go to Shanghai for a short visit. The permits were issued without much trouble, but we were warned that the customs authorities would insist on opening our luggage. I was, however, privately assured that the police would be instructed both in Nanking and in Shanghai to let my luggage pass without interference. That was what happened. Except for the delay in taking down the names in Chinese, we were subjected to no inconvenience, though some of the representatives of the ‘imperialist powers’ were treated rather unceremoniously. …

As most of us anticipated, the Central Government of the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed from the square of the Tien An-men, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, on the 1st of October 1949. Mao Tse-tung was of course Chairman. Among the Vice-Chairmen appeared the names of Madame Sun Yat-sen, Chang Lan, and General Li Chi-shen. It was significant of the state of our knowledge on China that even professed experts on Chinese communism did not know whether Kao Kang was a communist or democratic leader. Not one of the diplomatists in Nanking, including those who had the most widespread intelligence services, had heard of Kao Kang. As for Liu Shao-chi, only those of us who had been trying to follow the theoretical writings of Chinese communism knew he was a very important person. Chou En-lai was Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and the first thing he did on the proclamation of the People’s Republic was to summon the foreign representatives in Peking and hand over to them a communication inviting the establishment of diplomatic relations. Letters addressed by name were sent to the head of the Foreign Personnel Bureau at Nanking, Huang Huai, to be handed over to the representatives of powers stationed there. …

The question of our withdrawal had thus become an immediate one. Delhi was anxious that I should stay on in Nanking but I pointed out that while I was prepared to stay on I would have no official position and could not carry on any work till the regime was officially recognised. Recognition was bound to take time as the Kuomintang was still in occupation not only of Canton, but of vast areas in the south-east, including Szechuan, Yunnan, and Sikang, and the civil war was unlikely to end on the mainland for another two or three months. On my representing this the Prime Minister agreed to my withdrawing with the other diplomatists.

The arrangements for withdrawal were in British hands. They arranged for two boats, one belonging to Butterfield and Swire and the other to Jardine Mathesons, and accommodation was provided for all the diplomatic staff who desired to use British good offices. Besides the British ships, the French and the Americans had also requisitioned boats for their nationals and friends. Most of the European and Asian representatives preferred however to go by the British ships.

One major issue which worried everyone but about which very little was spoken was in respect of our treatment by the Customs officials. AK Sen, who had been carrying on the work of the Consul-General in Shanghai, had succeeded in establishing fairly friendly relations with the Foreign Bureau there, and he assured me that so far as our luggage was concerned there would be no difficulty and that it would be allowed to go through without examination. He said that he believed the same courtesy would be shown to the Burmese also. And it actually happened that way. But their treatment of European diplomats varied. The British and Australian Ambassadors’ luggage was opened only formally — just to emphasize the right. In some other cases they searched the packages carefully, in every case insisting that they did not recognise any diplomatic privileges for ‘former diplomatists’.

Anyway, it could not be described as an honourable exit and most of the diplomats regretted that they had stayed behind at all. They had hoped that the communists would appreciate the fact that they had not followed the Kuomintang Government in its wanderings on the mainland; that the communist authorities would interpret their stay as a demonstration of practical sympathy. It did not take many weeks before disillusionment came. The Chinese communists were not standing any patronage from the West: and it was as sadder and wider men that most of them embarked on British ships, which evacuated the last survival of imperialist domination from the mainland of China.

— from In Two Chinas: Memoirs of a Diplomat, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1955, pp.49-63.