China’s security fears and the Cold War economy

Now that the US and China are widely, if perhaps inaccurately, said to be entering into a new “Cold War,” stories of the original Cold War can feel particularly relevant. The timing for Covell Meyskens’ new book Mao’s Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China is thus pretty good: its central subject matter is how geopolitical tensions and fears of conflict affect countries’ economic strategies.

The Third Front was a nationwide campaign, running from roughly 1964 to 1973, to prepare China to fend off military invasion and aerial attack. It was essentially a crash program to build industrial and transportation infrastructure in remote parts of the nation’s interior. Mao feared that China was too reliant on industrial capacity scattered along the coast, where it could be easily targeted by bombers and nuclear missiles. The facilities necessary for China’s military to survive a protracted war therefore had to be built in locations that were “mountainous, dispersed and hidden.” Coastal areas were also the most likely to be first occupied in any invasion of China. Leaders recognized that China’s poorly-equipped military would be outmatched in a direct confrontation with either the US or the USSR. China’s military doctrine thus called for making the interior serve as a “rear defense area” in the event of an invasion: their forces would fall back and regroup in the interior, much as the Communist guerrillas had during the Japanese invasion of the 1930s.

The Third Front was kept entirely secret until the 1980s, and has received limited attention from scholars even in more recent years. Barry Naughton wrote a classic article about it in 1988, but it has never really become part of the standard historical narratives of the Mao era. One of the very best books on Maoist China, Andrew Walder’s China Under Mao, does not even mention the Third Front. This is an oversight, as Meyskens makes clear that the Third Front was the main industrial policy of China for at least a decade. The great virtue of his book is to bring this hidden history to light in comprehensive fashion: it covers everything from the deliberations of Mao’s high councils to the shortages of baby formula on Third Front construction sites.

The Third Front definitely changed the shape of China: before and after the Third Front campaign, the targeted provinces accounted for 30% or less of nationwide investment spending; during the campaign, that share rose to around 50% (see chart). The remnants of the numerous Third Front projects scattered around the country can still be seen today; there are some striking photo collections on Meyskens’ website of old Third Front facilities in Sichuan, Hubei and Shaanxi. It’s not all a legacy of decay, though: some industrial sites that were launched during the Third Front are still going strong today, such as the Panzhihua Steel factory in Sichuan.

In official Chinese accounts, the Third Front is now considered the first in the long lineage of the regional development campaigns the Communist Party has mounted to bring prosperity to China’s poor interior provinces. One recent example is a retrospective of the first 70 years of the People’s Republic published by the National Bureau of Statistics in 2019. Because of the Third Front, it says, “a number of railway, oil, machinery, electricity and other projects were built in the central and western regions, effectively improving the weak development foundation in the central and western regions.” That kind of focused investment in infrastructure and industrial projects was also characteristic of the Great Western Development campaign that Jiang Zemin launched in 1999.

But to recast the Third Front as just a regional aid program wrapped up in some Maoist slogans is to miss its real driver: fear. The Third Front was not an economic development program with some security benefits. It was a crash program to put the Chinese economy on a war footing and prepare for what was believed to be imminent attack. At the time the Third Front was launched, Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward was still fresh memory, and most of the government was focused on trying to get the civilian economy back to normal. Other leaders had little appetite for signing up for another one of Mao’s crash industrialization programs. What changed their mind was the stepped-up US intervention in Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. Suddenly, a US-led invasion of China from the south seemed like a realistic possibility; and Mao’s falling-out with Stalin had made a Soviet-led invasion from the north also seem a real risk.

Building Third Front projects was hard: it required mobilizing hundreds of thousands of workers and scarce resources to build things that were technically difficult, in inaccessible locations, at impossible speeds. There were easier, better and more efficient ways to develop the economy, and every analysis of the Third Front has concluded that it led to many failures and enormous waste (even an official government review in 1984 found that only 48% of projects were successful). The only possible justification for such a waste of resources was that it was necessary for the survival of the nation.

The Third Front helps make clear just how central security fears were to the organization of the Maoist economy–as they were also to the Soviet economy. In his review essay “Foundations of the Soviet Command Economy 1917-1941,” the historian Mark Harrison remarks that “Economists have tended to describe the Soviet economy as a developmental state that provided civilian public goods and pursued civilian economic growth, although inefficiently.” This perspective is fundamentally misleading, he argues, because Stalin was not really pursuing consumer welfare or economic development. The Soviet command economy was in essence a war economy: state ownership of industry, collectivization of agriculture, political purges and the all-pervasive security state were all necessary because the economy “had to be organized for defense against internal and external enemies acting together.”

That phrase also describes China in the 1960s quite well. A big reason why China under Mao systematically failed to develop the economy was because Mao was, mostly, not really trying to develop the economy. He was instead obsessed with political campaigns against real and imagined enemies inside and outside the country. And although Mao was paranoid, he did have enemies. Meyskens reminds us that the Cold War was only really cold from the perspective of the US, which carefully avoided direct conflict with the Soviet Union; from China’s perspective, it was pretty hot:

Similar to Moscow, Beijing also did not think of the Cold War in John Lewis Gaddis’s famous phrase as a period of “great power peace.” They considered the postwar world to be in a period of ongoing conflict in which China had directly fought against America in the Korean War, the capitalist camp constantly besieged socialist states, and the United States and European countries regularly interfered militarily in decolonization and the affairs of postcolonial states.

It is therefore impossible to separate China’s later successful economic development from changes in the international environment. If China’s leaders had continued to feel threatened militarily by both the US and Soviet Union, they may not have been able to focus on civilian economic development rather than military preparations. Meyskens suggests that the turning point for China’s economic development came with Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972, and the subsequent commitment by both sides to avoid military conflict. Soon after, the Third Front campaign was downgraded in importance, and planners began to direct more resources to light industry and consumption rather than defense and heavy industry.

Of course, it took many more years, and Mao’s death, for the leadership to settle on a coherent and successful program for developing the civilian economy. But, as Deng Xiaoping saw clearly, they would not have been able to de-militarize the economy without confidence that China’s borders were secure. Deng’s project of enlisting the US as a de facto partner of China against the Soviet Union was thus the necessary international condition for domestic economic reform and the opening to foreign trade. Meyskens’ essay on “the profound national consequences of international military tensions” makes for fascinating reading, but it is hard not to find its lessons troubling at a time when the US and China appear stuck in an escalating geopolitical rivalry.


  1. Thanks, rather interesting.
    how would you say “the third front” in Chinese?
    would it be 第三線?


  2. Thank you for wonderful blog, I could not wait during the previous month for new post. Just when I think that I found some obscure gold, Adam Tooze.posts about it and excludes me from the secret club…


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