Focus topics

How Chairman Mao once turned China’s diplomats into sacrificial lambs

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

Today, China’s ambassadors wield increasingly overbearing influence over their host countries as lobbyists for the interests of a future superpower. Beijing’s foreign ministry has been breathing down their necks with its wolf-warrior mentality since President Xi Jinping ordered diplomats in November 2014 to stop holding back: From now on, they are to represent “the special foreign policy of a great power”.

Once upon a time, envoys from the People’s Republic were living under a different kind of pressure. Because they allegedly fraternized with capitalist foreign countries and let themselves be infected by their bourgeois lifestyle, Mao Zedong forced them to self-criticism and prescribed proletarian re-education. He made them his cultural revolutionary sacrificial lambs. For their diplomatic service, he demanded that “Revolutionary changes must come. Otherwise, things will get very dangerous. We should start it in Vienna first.” (来一个革命化,否则很危险。可以先从维也纳做起).

On September 9, 1966, Mao ordered all Chinese embassies to clean up in a revolutionary way.

The Chairman’s note – later shortened to “Mao’s Directive of 9. September” – petrified China’s ambassadors around the world. Mao scribbled it on the evening of September 9, 1966, on a letter sent to him the same day by Foreign Minister Chen Yi.

The senders of the letter, which has rested in Beijing’s party archives for 55 years, were “comrades” from the group of the “Rote Fahne,” the mouthpiece of the Austrian Marxist-Leninists (MLÖ). At the time, they were one of the first pro-Maoist groups in Western Europe to support the Cultural Revolution. The Salon Revolutionists complained about the bourgeois lifestyle they had witnessed in the Chinese trade mission in Vienna (there was no embassy until after 1971). Beijing’s representatives, they complained, had betrayed the “progressive working class,” wearing the finest white silk shirts and expensive suits. “They can’t be distinguished from the Taiwanese chain dogs of Chiang Kai-shek and drive two Mercedes cars at once.” The Viennese population would “whisper and poke fun at it. It pains us to hear this (…) we emphatically demand that this bourgeois behavior be reported to the responsible parties and that measures be taken against it.”

Now Wolf warriors, once sacrificial lambs: Mao’s banner slogan for his cultural revolutionary campaign against China’s diplomats. “Revolutionary change must come. Otherwise, things get very dangerous.”

The letter comes in handy for Mao’s campaign

The letter of complaint was sent to the Beijing CC Institute for the Publication of the Works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. It was translated, then forwarded to the Foreign Ministry, and then by Minister Chen to Mao.

The letter was of great convenience to the chairman, right after he had shaken the government bureaucracy he hated with his call to “bomb the headquarters” on August 5. Now he could pour further fuel onto the fire of his Cultural Revolution. “This criticism is very well written,” Mao praised the Austrians. “All our foreign missions must heed it.” The new campaign should, therefore, “start in Vienna first.”

The former Chinese ambassador to Vienna, Wang Shu, told me about it when I asked him if he also had unpleasant memories of his time in Austria: “Only indirectly,” he replied. Because of the letter from the MLÖ. Mao’s directive was not only directed against diplomats, but also affected journalists like him who were working abroad for the news agency Xinhua at the time. “We all had to criticize ourselves.”

I came across reprints of the letter and Mao’s directive in newspapers from the period of the Cultural Revolution. The letter from the MLÖ was received almost simultaneously with a letter of complaint sent on August 29, 1966, by an African Mao sympathizer from Tanzania to Beijing’s Foreign Ministry. He also denounced the “luxurious life” of diplomats at the Chinese embassy and enclosed photographs of the ambassador’s wife with his letter. At receptions, she wore a traditional Qipao silk dress. West German luxury cars were among the embassy’s fleet, and at receptions, only the most expensive delicacies, whiskey, cognac, and imported beer were served.

One day after Mao’s intervention on September 9, Foreign Minister Chen Yi called for an emergency meeting. Mao’s directive was sent to all of China’s missions in the world with the call, “Destroy the old. Build the new.” The shocked Viennese trade delegate and his representatives vowed immediate improvement: they telegraphed Beijing that they would no longer use their official cars, and would travel only second class by train. They offered to halve their daily expenses from 20 shillings at the time to 10 shillings.

Only cultural revolutionary photos and books about Mao

Diplomats worldwide pledged to revolutionize all their activities, including their private lives, to display only cultural revolutionary photos and books about Mao in embassies, and to remove Chinese antiques, porcelains or handicrafts. On September 24, Beijing cut pay for all diplomats. Ma Jisen, once a staff member in the Foreign Ministry’s Western Europe Department, wrote in her 2003 Hong Kong book “Cultural Revolutionary Events in the Foreign Ministry” (马继森, 外交部文革纪实) that one-third of all diplomatic service staff were ordered back to China at that time. They had to participate in the Cultural Revolution, face criticism and self-criticism.

It took half a year for Mao to shut down his angry campaign on February 7, 1967, so that the embassies could resume operations. China’s diplomats, however, were distraught and continued for a long time – as the foreign official Li Jiazhong recalls – to only wear Sun Yatsen suits (the famous Mao clothing) and walked around in shoes made of cloth instead of leather. The women trashed their qipao robes and only wore trousers or skirts.

Only years later, the Viennese MLÖ learned of the impact of their letter. As other European Maoist groups of the time, few critically examined why they had once glorified the Great Chairman and his cruel Cultural Revolution. China’s historiography of today also tends to ignore how dictator Mao humiliated his diplomats in a Cultural Revolutionary manner and made the crawl before him. Now a new generation of diplomats is to lecture the world of the superiority of Chinese socialism – and this time on Xi’s behalf as his wolf warriors.


    Tank Man, prostitutes, rich monks and Biden’s menu
    The crusade of an unbowed man
    Financial sector back in the party’s grip
    The planned China strategy is the wrong approach