CHINA / POLITICS
"The Governments and Armies are Genuinely of the People" — Things Heard and Seen by the US Army Observer Section in Yan'an
Published: May 27, 2021 03:39 PM
On July 22, 1944, David D. Barrett, John S. Service and other members of the US Army Observer Section of the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI) arrived in Yan'an. It was the first US official organization to contact the highest leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Colonel David D. Barrett (middle) introduces Chief of Staff Ye Jianying to the Observer Section

Colonel David D. Barrett (middle) introduces Chief of Staff Ye Jianying to the Observer Section

Previously, members of the Observer Section had conflicting impressions of Yan'an. It was portrayed as "progressive" in the reports of Edgar Snow and other progressive US journalists, and as "reactionary" in years of propaganda by the Kuomintang (KMT) government. What was Yan'an really like? The Section would find the answer firsthand.

With the support of the CPC, the Section began its work swiftly with in-depth studies in the anti-Japanese resistance base. Colonel Barrett spoke highly of CPC's wholehearted cooperation with the Section, including its generous provision of various conveniences, assistance in all the Communist-controlled areas, and full permission for Americans to travel wherever possible.

The Section was impressed by the CPC's commitment to equality, democracy and efficiency. What surprised them most was a new type of interpersonal relations. The CPC liaison told the Section members that when they wanted something, they should not use the word "Huo Ji" (similar to "errand boy") to request help as most foreigners did. The proper word was "Zhao Dai Yuan" ("receptionist") spoken in a proper tone. They realized that "Huo Ji" was a pejorative term.

In terms of efficiency, there was a world of difference between the CPC and the KMT. The Section found that if it wanted to get something done in Yan'an, the only approval needed was one from the Chief of Staff. Once approved, things would proceed very quickly. Some soldiers recalled that the Section members gave them the thumbs-up on multiple occasions to show approval to the Communists, and pointed their pinkies down to express contempt for the KMT.

After living together with the soldiers and civilians in Yan'an, Carter, a member of the Section, recognized that simplicity was the chief charm of the CPC. Its dedication to hard work and a simple life, and energy, vitality, and sincerity, made them a refreshing contrast to the corrupt KMT.

Colonel Barrett with Chairman Mao Zedong and Commander-in-Chief Zhu De in November 1944

Colonel Barrett with Chairman Mao Zedong and Commander-in-Chief Zhu De in November 1944

The Section was most impressed by the CPC leadership. Mao Zedong had multiple long talks with John Service. They met twice or three times a week, and had over 50 conversations of various forms. Mao shared with Service the CPC's policies on the war against Japanese aggression, attitude towards the United States and post-war plans for industrialization and betterment of people's living standards. The conversations had great influence over the reports of the Section. Many years later, Service still vividly remembered what a frank, sincere and approachable person Mao was. 

The CPC armies' organization and unity with the people was also a source of admiration for the Section. Colonel Barrett saw civilians strapped and tied with strings for conscription in the KMT-controlled area. This never happened in the CPC-led border region. In his eyes, the CPC armies were well-trained and battle-tested, with strong intelligence capability and high morale. He witnessed soldiers and civilians in the resistance base rescuing an American pilot forced down by the Japanese army, showing the superb organization and mobilization power of the CPC. "The Communist governments and armies were the first in modern Chinese history to have positive popular support. They have this support because the governments and armies were genuinely of the people," according to the Section.

The Section was deeply inspired by the vibrancy and strength of the CPC. With a faithful record of the political, economic and military situation of the resistance base in Yan'an, its reports broke years of KMT's news blockade and denigration campaign against the CPC, and provided a snapshot of what the CPC truly was to the world.

Colonel Barrett in conversation with Zhou Enlai

Colonel Barrett in conversation with Zhou Enlai

The Section concluded that the CPC would be the dominant force in China within a comparatively few years, based on their deep and wide-spread popular support. China's destiny was not Chiang Kai-shek's but the CPC's. It was advisable for the US government to provide assistance to the CPC. 

Unfortunately, these recommendations were not properly heeded. As the US policy shifted, the core members of the Section had no choice but to leave China. Nevertheless, their reports and footage from Yan'an presented the vision and wisdom of the CPC and its leaders from a fresh perspective. It was an endeavor to bridge ideological divide, overcome biases, and promote better understanding and communication.  


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