In his book “In Two Chinas: Memoirs of a Diplomat“, Kavalam Madhava Panikkar (1895 – 1963), an Indian intellectual, journalist, historian and ambassador, born in the Kingdom of Travancore, then part of the British Indian Empire, recounted his impressions of the transition between the Guomindang-led Republic of China (ROC) and the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Shortly after India had obtained its independence from Britain, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru appointed Panikkar as India’s first ambassador to China (then ROC). During the following two years, Panikkar would experience the chaos and turmoil of the Chinese Civil War, which ended with the complete collapse of the Guomindang regime and its retreat to Taiwan. Panikkar remained in China until 1953.
What was my general impression of New China? I had spent over two years in Peking in close contact with the leaders of the Central People’s Government. I had also lived in Nanking when the Kuomintang regime was still powerful and had witnessed its tragic disintegration and final downfall. I had passed a tiresome period of five months, without any recognized official position, but with freedom to observe the growth of a new society. It was a profoundly interesting experience, full of drama, to witness alike the end of an epoch and the beginning of another, the tragic end of the hopes of a great movement, with the inevitable concomitants of national chaos, personal tragedies, sordid betrayals and confusion all round, and the enthusiastic beginning of a new period, hailed as the dawn of a great era, with new ambitions, great hopes and a widespread sense of optimism.
Three impressions of New China stand out clearly in my mind. One is its undoubted aspect as the culminating event of Asian resurgence. In the controversy aroused by the communist character of its revolution, people, more especially in Europe, have been inclined to overlook this basic fact. This resurgence began with the Kuomintang, and in its early and liberal days it represented the great forward movement of Asian peoples in the intermediate period between the two wars. It was not merely the corruption and the political and military weakness of the Kuomintang regime and its utter dependence on America that had deprived “nationalist” China of its position in the vanguard of Asian awakening, but also the fact that it had ceased to represent the new spirit of Asia. The communist leaders, not because of their communism but because they had a greater appreciation of the change that had come over the Asian mind, showed from the beginning a profound realization of the problems of Asia in relation to the West and to America and were therefore more in sympathy with their neighbours.
Secondly, the new Government in China appeared to me the fulfilment of a hundred years of evolution — the movement towards a strong central government which the great mandarins of the later Manchu period had themselves initiated. The Kuomintang had carried the movement forward to some extent; had established a Government whose authority extended over a large area of China. External circumstances, the intervention of Japan, the attitude of the great powers, the alliance of the Chinese capitalist classes who had also come to wield great political authority with the capitalists of the West, and the strength of the local war lords in outlying areas had prevented its consummation. With the establishment of the communist régime, there came into existence in China for the first time in history a strong unified central government having authority over the entire area of the old Celestial Empire, from the borders of Siberia to Indo China and from the Pacific to the Pamirs. In the old imperial times, under the Hans, the Tangs, the Yuans, the Mings, and the Manchus, no doubt the Empire had been united under a central authority, but the character of that authority, dependent on the mystique of a Son of Heaven with a divine mandate exercising his control through great viceroys, was different from the all pervasiveness of the Central People’s Government with the whole paraphernalia of rail and air communications, telegraph and wireless and, above all, a powerful national army and an indoctrinated and disciplined party spread all over the country. This centralization may or may not be a good thing, but it is a fact of supreme importance as it has converted what was an inchoate mass into a united nation, capable of organizing and bringing into use the immense resources of China. By this process China had become in fact, what it had always claimed to be, a Great Power … China had become a Great Power and was insisting on being recognized as such.
The adjustments outcome of this contradiction. This could be seen in every aspect of the life of New China, in its assertiveness, in its belligerence, in its defiance of those who deny her rights, no less than in the enthusiasm of the people, in the great release of energy which can be seen everywhere, in the determination to catch up with other nations, not only in power, but in industrial and other greatness. It is in fact one of the main motive forces of whatever is good and bad in New China.
The third characteristic which impressed me was China’s desire to maintain the continuity of her life and culture, while destroying ruthlessly what the leaders of new thought described as feudal and reactionary excrescence. The Chinese have shown no desire to be anything other than Chinese. Their admiration of the achievements of the Soviet Union has not led them either to give up their clothes, their food, their courtesies, or their ways of life. Determined enemies of Confucianism, with its five obediences and its rituals, its canonical texts, and its artificial ways of writing and speaking, the leaders of New China have been able to relate their present to their past by a re-interpretation of their history. The veneration and care with which they preserve their ancient monuments, the new life they have given to old forms of artistic expression, the enthusiasm for research into the earlier periods of Chinese history — all these are evidences of the same spirit.
The desire for education, for rapid advancement in all fields, a determination to quicken the tempo of things generally, were evident everywhere. No doubt the driving force came from the communist party, but large sections of people seemed to me to have been infected by this enthusiasm. They showed little tolerance for those who hung back, and were ruthless with people who opposed all this activity. That strange phenomenon the “San Fan” movement, which was organized as a great national struggle against “bureaucratism,” complacency and general sliding back, was but one aspect of this determined drive towards advancement. Among the cadres even of the communist party, in the universities, among business circles, from top to bottom there was, for a period of six months, a vigorous campaign organized on a national scale which involved public accusations, confessions, and strange procedures amounting to what appeared to me as psychological torture, the sole object of which was to ensure purity in public conduct and greater efficiency in work. The objects were no doubt excellent but the means somehow made me think of the Inquisition and other earlier attempts to purify the human mind by force.
In general I may summarize my impression of New China as a tremendous upheaval which has transformed what was a highly civilized but unorganized mass of people into a great modern State. It has released great energies, given the Chinese people a new hope, and a new vision of things. It has brought forth great enthusiasm and an irresistible desire to move forward, but the means employed to achieve these very desirable ends are in many cases of a kind which revolts the free mind. Compared to the State the individual has lost all value and this is the strange thing in China which adds a tinge of sorrow even when one appreciates and admires what the revolution has done for China and Asia generally.
(quoted in: K. M. Panikkar: In Two Chinas: Memoirs of a Diplomat, 1955, pp. 175-179)