Foreign Policy Blogs

Kang Shen and the CCP from an IR Perspective


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. Among the well-known figures who took part in this political upheaval, Kang Sheng is, in the author’s opinion, the most interesting. Kang is regarded as the first generation of international relations specialists in communist China and the designer of the “China–USSR Grand Debate”.

Kang had been an adviser to the Central Cultural Revolution Group. Before his death in late-1975, he had been a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and vice-president of the People’s Republic of China. He ranked fourth in terms of political power, and was only inferior to Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Wang Hongwen (at that time, Wang was regarded as the successor to Mao). Kang had been a party member since about 1925 and was an experienced party cadre. He had become a member of the Politburo after The Fifth Plenum of the 6th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in 1934. He was in charge of intelligence and famous for his interrogation techniques.

When he died towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, he was accused of being the spiritual leader of the Gang of Four. The new CCP leader criticized Kang, suggesting that the only reason he had held high political power was because he had been able to gain Mao’s trust. However, this argument is not valid. Kang’s success in acquiring political power can be attributed to structural reasons, reasons which are also applicable in the Communist Party today.

The discursive power of identifying “external threats”

Kang’s greatest capital asset was his overwhelming discursive power in the field of international relations. Currently, one of China’s major concerns is the interference of foreign forces. Whether this is of real concern or not, officials at every level have been busily formulating policy in accordance with such doctrine. Thus, those who dominate the discursive power by defining the potential threat of such foreign forces are able to legitimize their subsequent actions.

In Mao’s era, the major external threat was not posed by the US, but by a revisionist USSR. Among the CCP’s high-ranking officials, there were only a few who understood Russian, and the number of those who had worked in USSR but were still loyal to Chinese Communist Party was extremely limited. Kang was one of the few. He had been assigned to work in Moscow in 1933, and was the vice representative of China in the Communist International. He thus gained experience of the USSR and was a capable Russian speaker. Kang spent 5 years in the USSR, but despite this he remained loyal to the CCP. His name “Kang Sheng” is a Chinese translation of his Russian name. His profile, even in the eyes of USSR officials, was impressive.

In 1960, Kang had represented China in the Warsaw Pact conference. As Sino-USSR relations had become frozen, Kang prepared a sarcastic speech targeting Khrushchev. Khrushchev had then criticized Kang as not being qualified to challenge him in debate. In response, Kang calmly defended himself by pointing out that Khrushchev’s qualifications didn’t match his, since Kang was already in 1935 the alternate member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI), whereas at that time Khrushchev had not even been a member of the Central Committee. A Soviet representative recalled later that Kang had used his advantage to selectively transmit information to China and played a major role in the worsening of Sino-USSR relations. 9 Points to Criticize USSR was one of Kang’s a major contributions.

A talented artist

Another talent on which Kang could capitalize was his classical education and artistic ability. Although there were many intellectuals among high-ranking officials in the CCP, the qualifications of these intellectuals were highly inflated. The average educational level of the CCP was in fact even lower than that of the Khmer Rouge, whose ranks included a number of professors.

However, Kang, in addition to holding enormous political power, was one of the few whose abilities had not been exaggerated. His artist talent may not have been useful in Mao’s eyes, but Kang’s ideological manipulability allowed him to merge artwork with politics. He was generally seen as a specialist, and his persuasiveness is not in doubt. Kang had been born into a literate family and was raised with an awareness of the Chinese classics. He was also a very fine calligrapher and could use both hands simultaneously. Yu Qiaqing, the backer of Chiang Kai-shek and a Shanghai billionaire, had been attracted by Kang’s calligraphy.

As a consequence, Kang managed to gain employment with Yu as his personal secretary, a position he used as a cover for spying. It was during that time that Kang began to appreciate cultural relics and became a specialist in the field, familiarizing himself with all kinds of skills and techniques regarding the arts. He went under the name “Lu Chishui” and believed that his talent was greater than that of Qi Baishi. It has been suggested that Kang created the term “Shilin” for the scenic stone forest of Yunnan (although the word was erased after the Cultural Revolution for the sake of political correctness). What is undoubtedly true is that Kang is responsible for almost the entire collection of calligraphy that has been handed down from that period. The collection is referred to as “Kang Style”.

Kang had also learned Kung Fu when he was young and the use of assorted weaponry, and when he was in the USSR, he took up wrestling. In addition to this, he was trained to use a gun; he was a sharpshooter, and would execute traitors himself. As he had grown up in Shandong, which retained a strong German influence, he could speak German as well as Russian. His learning attracted many supporters, including the wife of Mao, Jiang Qing. Kang was the only person whom Jiang Qing would identify as her teacher.

The father of spying in the CCP

Though it is impossible for us to find much information about the policy that Kang formulated as one of the fathers of espionage, several characteristics can be gleaned from officially disclosed information. Unlike ordinary secret service agents, Kang was capable of quantitative management. He provided a number of quantified indicators to assess the loyalty of each CCP Central Representative. This data would then be processed by Jiang Qing. The assessment method was applied to all units and officials of all ranks.

Although false judgments and unjust cases were a common result, the method allowed an efficient reshaping of the ideology of the state, at least from the perspective of its leaders. It is widely acknowledged that “On Contradiction” proposed by Mao has been the guiding principle of class struggle. Actually, the principle originally adopted by Kang had been more orthodox, since Kang had been directly influenced the by USSR’s socialist theory. Kang had been in Moscow during the Soviet era of the Great Terror led by Stalin. As Kang had lived through both the Kirov and Trotsky cases, he understood how to manage through the “terror of quantification”. Mao might have had a superficial knowledge of and ability to integrate Chinese traditional emperor-style governance and the scientific management style of the USSR, but it was Kang who executed both styles competently.

Readers may well ask what value there is in considering Kang now, since he passed away so long ago. The significance of Kang’s case is that his rise was not only the result of individual effort, but also created by sociopolitical structure. If the Communist Party demands a change regarding the mode of governance, it is necessary to fine-tune its management style of the elite class and reassert the adoption of Mass Line. To justify the transformation, Kang’s three instruments of “identification of external threats”, “artistic soft power” and “quantified management style” are the necessities for power acquisition.

War on paper may seem easy. However, the reality is a lot tougher. To acquire all the instruments describe above, the individual needs to have relevant expertise, life experience, organizational skills, a certain level of political sensitivity and loyalty. Individuals possessing all these characteristics are rare. However, once such an individual shows up and holds power, how far he will go should not be underestimated.



Simon Shen
Simon Shen

Dr. Simon Shen is an Associate Professor & Director of Global Studies Program, Faculty of Social Science and Co-Director of International Affairs Research Center, Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the chairman of Hong Kong International Relations Research Association (HKIRRA). He also serves as the lead writer of a Chinese newspaper called Hong Kong Economic Journal (Global). He is a graduate of Oxford and Yale University.