Chinese Intellectuals, the CIA, and Defector Memoirs in the 1960s

By | January 18, 2024 | No Comments

Robert Loh shakes hands with Mao Zedong, as illustrated by the 1963 Reader’s Digest condensed version of Loh’s memoir, Escape from Red China.

In December 2022, the United States government released over 13,000 documents categorized as JFK Assassination Records. A handful of these records deal with China in some fashion, including US intelligence community readings of PRC media responses to the Kennedy assassination.

As I went through the related files, I found a description of CIA interest in a Chinese target for defection. This person was none other than Liang Sicheng (梁思成), the famous architect whose career spanned the Republican period and the Mao years in the PRC. The author of the newly-declassified files was John McCone, who served as Central Intelligence Agency director from November 1961 – April 1965; he is pictured below with the man who appointed him.

John McCone with John F. Kennedy, April 1963. Photo by Robert Knudsen, in White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

The full story involves a quadrangle between Mexico City, Havana, Seattle and Beijing. It is told in my essay for the Sources and Methods blog at the Wilson Center, and the related documents have now been filed with the Cold War International History Project.

Here is an excerpt:

In 1963, the CIA was monitoring architect Liang Sicheng, exploring the potential for a defection during his trip to Mexico City that autumn. Liang is today a very famous figure among Chinese artists and architects as well as foreign art collectors and urban planners, celebrated as a patriotic  intellectual who combined sensitivity to traditional Chinese architecture with foreign modernism. He had studied at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1920s and had interactions with Mao Zedong in the early 1950s, when the Chinese Communist Party was bulldozing all sorts of ancient walls, gates, and towers – to Liang’s disappointment and probably real depression. However, he and his wife stayed in China and worked with the CCP in the end, jointly designing the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square.

Liang Zicheng, image from Tsinghua University 2021 exhibition in Beijing, via Xinhua News Agency.

In 1963, Liang was part of a PRC delegation at an international architecture congress which took place partly in Havana and partly in Mexico City operating within a “mediating niche” in the Cold War. At this congress, Liang would have heard speeches by Che Guevara and seen Fidel Castro, and rubbed shoulders with other socialist planners. The US government tried to prevent the congress from happening at all, with George Bundy menacing the planners and the State Department also intervening, pressing for Havana to be dropped altogether.

The topic of Chinese intellectual defectors takes on a new focus in another new essay, published at the PRC History Review.

While the efforts to cultivate Liang Sicheng as a possible defector achieved no visible results, the defection of Lu Tseng-yu (known by his pen name of Robert Loh) was more consequential. A Shanghai university professor and managerial capitalist, Robert Loh defected from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1957, and then on to the US in 1960. His memoir, Escape from Red China, brought tangible wins for US intelligence as well as advancing American efforts in the growing “cultural Cold War” with Mao’s China. The above essay assesses how credible Loh’s assertions were with respect to Mao. It also works through Loh’s influence down to the present day in the works of historian Frank Dikötter, picking up an existing thread on Sino-NK delving into Dikötter’s successful popular history of the early PRC, entitled The Tragedy of Liberation.    

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