Peking Calling: American Journalists’ Encounters with “People’s China” during the Early Cold War

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:50 AM
Centennial Ballroom G (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Matthew Johnson, Grinnell College
This paper examines encounters between American journalists and the new government of the People’s Republic of China during the latter’s first decade of rule. The perspective taken is that of information regimes: however, while much of that emerging body of scholarship focuses on technology and markets, this paper examines political news as it traveled through human networks (“circuits”) associated with the early 1950s American and international left. By permitting communication across the Cold War-era blocs, journalists and their audiences represented an important conduit of information concerning revolution in Asia. Building on earlier work concerning the travel of African Americans to the People’s Republic of China during the 1950s and 1960s, I seek to reconstruct—using unexamined, and now unavailable, materials from the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs archive—how individuals negotiated geopolitical barriers established between the capitalist and communist poles of the Cold War global order.

The major empirical contribution of this paper is its description of the travel, expulsions, and impediments experienced by American journalists in the course of their professional activity. It links this narrative to production of news concerning the People’s Republic of China and looks for patterns in how this information did, or did not, circulate more widely. Finally, it considers how the models derived from these patterns might allow us to consider media and information during the Cold War apart from the dominant paradigm of propaganda. The contributions made thus include both a reconstruction of sub-national U.S. media circuits and an empirically grounded challenge to more recent scholarship emphasizing the uniformity of Maoism as a global, unidirectional phenomenon.