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Negotiating the Return of Civilians: Chinese Perception, Tactics and Objectives at the First Fourteen Meetings of the Sino-American Ambassadorial Talks

Chinese negotiators at the Sino-American Ambassadorial talks in Geneva in 1955.
Chinese negotiators at the Sino-American Ambassadorial talks in Geneva in 1955.

CWIHP Working Paper 95

Negotiating the Return of Civilians: Chinese Perception, Tactics and Objectives at the First Fourteen Meetings of the Sino-American Ambassadorial Talks

Article and Translations by Yafeng Xia

February 2021


In the immediate aftermath of the Korean War armistice, both Beijing and Washington seemed inclined to further ease tensions that had thus far alienated the United States and the People’s Republic of China.  On 7 July 1954, at an expanded meeting of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee (CC) Politburo, Mao Zedong, the CCP chairman, observed that the United States was quite isolated and faced difficulties both at home and abroad. He declared that “we are no longer able to shut our door against outsiders even if we want to. Now, things are moving in our favor. We must reach out [to the international arena].”[1]

Although China was still considered to be a “major threat” to US (United States) security interests in East and Southeast Asia, Washington was under pressure to prioritize Europe, its vital interest in the Cold War. Nonetheless, the Eisenhower administration felt compelled to deal with Communist China in a de factodiplomatic arrangement to settle unresolved disputes, including the retrieval of US citizens detained in China. Without formal diplomatic relations, the two countries agreed to maintain communications through a special mechanism: the Sino-American ambassadorial talks, which lasted from August 1955 to February 1970.[2]

China imprisoned approximately 40 US citizens for espionage and economic crimes during the last days of the Chinese Civil War and the subsequent conflict in Korea.[3] The US chose to restrict roughly 175 Chinese scientists and students, who were then studying in the United States, from leaving the country because they could possess knowledge that might damage American national security interests, especially after the outbreak of the Korean War.[4] At Geneva, on 19 May 1954, American officials asked Humphrey Trevelyan, the British chargé d'affaires in Beijing, to approach China’s delegates at the conference and inquire about the release of those Americans held in China [Document #1].

Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier and foreign minister who was then heading the Chinese delegation at the Geneva Conference, immediately called a meeting to discuss how to exploit the opportunity. Although Sino-American relations were tense, he made it clear that Washington’s interest in obtaining the release of imprisoned Americans could facilitate greater contact between their two countries. Accordingly, the Chinese delegation informed Trevelyan that they could work with the US delegation at Geneva to resolve Sino-American issues directly [Document #2].Huang Hua, the spokesman for the Chinese delegation, then took the initiative and mentioned the “unreasonable detention of Chinese residents and students” by the US government at a press conference on 27 May. Nevertheless, he declared that China was willing to hold direct talks with the United States on this issue, implying that China might consider releasing the detained Americans.[5]

The Chinese hoped this venture would lead to the establishment of a direct channel of contact with the United States and de facto recognition of the People’s Republic of China. To prepare for such a possibility, the Chinese delegation held a meeting to assess U.S. objectives and discuss problems that might arise during the talks. On 3 June, Zhou Enlai cabled Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, and the CCP CC, reporting that the Chinese delegation had already told the British that China and the United States could meet and use British officials as go-betweens.[6] “If the United States agreed to the talks,” Zhou stated, “we should meet them in accordance with our established policy and then decide where to hold talks in light of the meeting.” During the talks, the Chinese side should “first raise the question of the Chinese students who were prohibited from leaving the United States.” At the same time, China should also inform the US side that its management of the cases of Americans who had violated Chinese laws would differ from its approach to other Americans (residing) in China [Document #3].[7] The CCP CC approved both Zhou’s analysis and his suggested procedures for addressing the issue [Document #4].

Both sides seemed anxious to talk. U. Alexis Johnson, the American delegation coordinator, met with his PRC counterpart Wang Bingnan four times in June. Focused on the issue of the detained citizens, these talks achieved little except discussions of the status of each other’s nationals in the other’s country. On 21 June, when Wang suggested a joint communiqué asserting the right of the “‘law-abiding’ nationals and students” of their respective countries to leave and noted that Beijing would designate a “third party” to represent its interests in the United States, the American side broke off the talks.[8] Even after these talks ended, the PRC and the US held numerous talks at the consular level through July 1955.[9] The Chinese “tried stringently to prevent the situation of using convicted Americans in China to exchange for the return of the Chinese students in the United States” [Document #5].Meanwhile, the UN General Assembly empowered Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold to seek the release of the Americans. In January 1955, Hammarskjold traveled to Beijing and held extensive talks with Zhou Enlai to no avail. [10]

In July 1954, the CCP CC decided that China must “liberate” Taiwan but did not call for immediate action. At a Politburo meeting on 5 August 1954, Mao proposed to launch a propaganda campaign for the liberation of Taiwan, the first such campaign in the history of the People’s Republic. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) artillery bombardment of Jinmen (Quemoy) on 3 September inaugurated the beginning of the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1954-55.[11]

The shelling of Jinmen did not mean that Mao had given up hope for improving relations with the United States.  Instead, China was practicing “tension” diplomacy: by increasing pressure on Taiwan, Mao hoped that Washington might reconsider its hostile policy toward the PRC. Mao had no intention of engaging directly in an armed conflict with the US over offshore islands at that time. After the successful capture of the island group of Dachen (in Zhejiang Province) in February 1955, he decided to halt the PLA attack on Jinmen.[12] Having demonstrated its determination to reunify the country, the Chinese government adjusted its policy to reduce tensions. At the Bandung Conference in April 1955, the top CCP leadership instructed Zhou Enlai to declare that “the Chinese government is willing to sit down and talk with the United States regarding the relaxation of tensions in the Far East, and especially in the Taiwan area.”[13] Neutral Asian countries welcomed Zhou’s comment, and the US government also appeared to understand the message.

On 26 May, Zhou Enlai met with Trevelyan in Beijing. During their meeting, Zhou elaborated on China’s policy toward negotiations with the United States, claiming that they aimed to reduce and eliminate tension in the Taiwan Strait. As to the specific format of the negotiation, however, the Chinese leaders had not reached a final decision. On the one hand, China could support a ten-country conference such as the one proposed by the Soviet Union. On the other hand, China and the US could also conduct direct negotiations sponsored by other countries. Under no circumstances, however, would Beijing permit the Taiwan authorities to attend such an international conference. That is not to say that the Chinese government would refuse to conduct direct negotiations with the Taiwan authorities; on the contrary, it was willing to do so. Zhou stressed that there were two ways to solve the Taiwan problem, through peaceful means or war. If possible, China would try to liberate Taiwan peacefully. The Chinese leaders sought to conduct both international and domestic negotiations, either simultaneously or in some sort of sequence. Zhou also explained that “the two kinds of negotiations were related to each other but should not be lumped together” [Document #6].

The US government seemed to realize that neither the consular level talks at Geneva nor UN mediation would resolve the issue of US prisoners in China. The State Department reluctantly agreed to hold talks with Beijing at the ambassadorial level in July. On 13 July, the British charge d’affaires Con O’Neill transmitted US government’s verbal message to Zhou Enlai, suggesting talks at the ambassadorial level[Document #7].In his capacity as a broker, O’Neill soon met with Zhou Enlai twice to agree on a date for the first meeting of Sino-American ambassadorial talks and finalize the text of a joint Sino-US news announcement [Document #8 andDocument #9]. Beijing believed that it had conveyed all the possible signals of its flexibility to the United States.

Beijing attached much greater importance to the forthcoming talks than Washington. Zhou Enlai not only gave detailed instructions for each meeting, but he made many corrections and additions to materials prepared by the Foreign Ministry as well. The top leadership, including Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi, remained informed about China’s negotiation strategies and development as well. Under instructions from Zhou, the Foreign Ministry set up a “special supervisory group,” headed by Zhang Hanfu, vice foreign minister, and Qiao Guanhua, assistant foreign minister to provide guidance to the Chinese negotiators. Zhang served as director of the group and Qiao was in charge of daily operations.[14] The Chinese Foreign Ministry archives additionally reveal that the Chinese had notified the Soviet Union of its plan and strategies for Sino-American ambassadorial talks two weeks before the first meeting on 1 August 1955. A copy of the Chinese negotiation plan was marked top secret and delivered to the Soviet embassy in Beijing on 18 July 1955 [Document #10]. Wang Bingnan, by then China’s ambassador to Poland, was appointed chief negotiator. Wang had been a close assistant of Zhou Enlai since the late 1930s. He participated in the talks with General George Marshall in the 1940s and the Geneva Conferences on Korea and Indochina in 1954. Moreover, he directed the Foreign Ministry’s General Office from October 1949 to early 1955 and played an important role in running the institution. Wang was selected over several other candidates for the job because, as he later recalled, he “had experience in maintaining contacts with different types of Americans” and “Premier Zhou knew me and trusted me very much.”[15]

The PRC government made efforts to render the talks constructive. In its instructions to the Chinese negotiators, the Foreign Ministry indicated that China’s policy at the ambassadorial meetings [at the outset] would be to take initiative to announce that “China had released eleven convicted American military personnel” before the beginning of the ambassadorial talks. The purpose was to liquidate a US pretext, pressure the Americans to solve some concrete issues, and lay a foundation for higher-level Sino-American talks. This would also create an isolated and passive situation for the United States on the issue of Taiwan. To achieve this aim, the Foreign Ministry instructed the Chinese negotiators to “take a conciliatory attitude … respect each other and give attention to courtesy.” The document shows that Beijing anticipated that the higher-level meetings would be forthcoming by entering into talks with the United States at Geneva. It planned to propose holding the higher-level talks at the foreign ministers’ level in November of that year. The goal would be “to relax and eliminate the Sino-American tension in the Taiwan Strait area.” The PRC would prefer to hold the foreign ministers’ meeting in New Delhi, but it would concede to Geneva if necessary [Document #11 andDocument #14].

The first session of the Sino-American ambassadorial talks began at 4:00 pm on 1 August 1955 at the President’s Room of the Palais des Nations in Geneva. In order to create a positive atmosphere for the talks, Ambassador Wang first announced that Beijing had released 11 convicted US military personnel on 31 July before their sentences expired.[16] The US representative, Ambassador Alexis Johnson, welcomed this gesture. The two sides soon reached an agreement on the discussion of two agenda items: the return of civilians of both sides to their respective countries, and other practical matters at issue between the two sides, such as the establishment of diplomatic relations, the withdrawal of US forces from Taiwan, development of trade and cultural relations, and PRC membership at the UN.[17]

This proved to be a good start, but it did not last long. Wang Bingnan later explained that significant differences in agenda setting and policy objectives existed from the very beginning. The Chinese held that the talks had to focus on some substantial problems such as the Taiwan issue, arrangements for direct talks between US Secretary of State John F. Dulles and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, and the establishment of cultural ties between the two countries. In the words of Robert Ekvall, the US interpreter, the Chinese “wish to gain the maximum advantage from an accumulation of quasi-diplomatic contacts and exchanges … and finally arriving at a meeting at the foreign ministers level which, inferentially, could only result in de jure as well as de facto recognition.”[18]

The United States, on the other hand, insisted on repatriating Americans detained in China and demanded that China not resort to force over Taiwan. As Ekvall observed that the Americans “wished to…move forward as slowly as possible – always talking, however, rather than risking war – in negotiation and agreement on whatever else might be comprehended within the term ‘other practical matters as issue’.”[19] In the hope of facilitating an amicable and productive session, the Chinese agreed to discuss the question of the return of the civilians first and then move to other substantial matters.[20] It took another 13 meetings before the two sides could reach an agreement on the repatriation of civilians on 10 September 1955.

Many of the documents translated here are cable communications between the Foreign Ministry in Beijing and the Chinese negotiators in Geneva, in particular, the Foreign Ministry’s instructions to the Chinese negotiators during the first 14 talks. These sources add texture to our understanding of the Chinese perception of, tactics and objectives in dealing with the United States.

From Beijing’s perspective, China could not agree to an immediate release or to set a date for the release of the prisoners in response to the U.S. demand, as this was regarded as an issue of national sovereignty and dignity.[21] The PRC also insisted on equal treatment for Chinese aliens in the United States and the right, as their international protector, “to entrust [a] third country of [the PRC’s] own choice [to] take charge of affairs of nationals [of] each country.”[22] This seemed to be the PRC strategy: “play up issue of Chinese nationals in the US” in order “to steer the talks away from Johnson’s objective, the American prisoners.”[23] As Kenneth Young suggested, “Peking’s [Beijing’s] opening negotiating tactic was an aggressive move to put Washington on the defensive and shift the emphasis away from the Americans’ real target in China: the prisoners.”[24]

Chinese Foreign Ministry documents demonstrate how the PRC utilized this tactic at the first 14 talks. For example, on 3 August, the Foreign Ministry instructed, “At present, our target of struggle is to win U.S. concessions on the return of our nationals and students. The focus of this issue is to have India taking care of the affairs of our nationals and students” [Document #16]. These documents also show that the PRC’s overarching objective at the talks was to gain US diplomatic recognition. For instance, on 10 August, the Foreign Ministry stated, “If the US walks one step further, agreeing to provide a complete list of Chinese nationals in the United States and agrees that India looks after Chinese nationals in the United States, it is equal to the recognition of the PRC” [Document #19]. On 18 August, in his report on the Sino-American ambassadorial talks to the CCP Central Committee, Zhou Enlai reiterated this view, “The proposed US amendment is basically in our favor. It, in fact, admits our legal jurisdiction over Chinese nationals in the US. Its publication would deal a severe blow to Jiang Jieshi’s bandit clique” [Document #23]. The PRC leaders also feared they would lose a valuable bargaining chip if they released all US prisoners because the Americans might end the talks at the ambassadorial level. On various occasions, Wang Bingnan was instructed to inform the US negotiators that, “The cases of US nationals have been reviewed on a case by case basis … but it depends on the conduct of each convict and the improvement in Sino-American relations” for their earlier release [Document #28].


What can we learn from the study of these Chinese diplomatic documents?

First, they reveal the inner workings of the Chinese foreign policymaking establishment in its formative years. Much of the current scholarship emphasizes a Mao-Zhou system in the PRC’s foreign policymaking. According to this line of interpretation, when the PRC was founded in 1949, Mao Zedong, as head of state, retained the power of setting foreign policy orientation and guidelines for the new regime. He consigned Zhou Enlai to the role of a manager to overlook the day-to-day operation of foreign affairs. The five-man CCP Secretariat, and later the Standing Committee of the Politburo, would then accord legitimacy to Mao’s major policy decisions. The Politburo meetings would also help him weigh the pros and cons of a major foreign policy decision. Moreover, these meetings enabled Mao to overcome opposition and build consensus.[25]

These Chinese Foreign Ministry documents suggest that Zhou Enlai’s soft approach to international issues seems to have prevailed between 1954 and 1958. Mao, who believed in the international class struggle in conducting China’s diplomacy, seemed to have acquiesced to Zhou’s appeal for participating in the Geneva Conference, the Bandung Conference and starting talks with the United States. Within the Foreign Ministry, Zhou dominated the decision-making and policy-implementing process. His chief associates, deputy foreign minister Zhang Wentian, vice foreign minister Zhang Hanfu and assistant foreign minister Qiao Guanhua followed his orders and carried out his decisions [Document #10].But by 1958, Mao became impatient with the Sino-American ambassadorial talks due to the lack of progress. In early 1958, Mao told Marshal Chen Yi (soon to be Zhou Enlai’s replacement as foreign minister) that he had instructed Chinese diplomats to make contacts with the Americans during the Geneva Conference. Mao said that this was not consistent with his usual line of thinking, and China should reverse to struggle with the Americans with no attempt to develop relations with the US government. [26] It was in 1958 that Zhou Enlai lost his post as foreign minister and China’s diplomatic posture became more militant and confrontational.

Second, Zhou frequently told the Chinese diplomats that, “as there is no small issue in diplomacy, a diplomat should have only limited authorization. The final decision-making power is vested in the Party Center.”[27] Chinese diplomats were forbidden from making decisions regarding a diplomatic issue before receiving authorization from their superiors. The purpose of these rules was to form a centralized foreign service, which would stick closely to the Party line. We learn from these documents that the Sino-American ambassadorial talks were conducted under the strict guidance and control of the home office: “the special supervisory group” on the Chinese side. The Chinese chief negotiator Wang Bingnan was ordered to report all his speeches for prior authorization and to send minutes of the meetings to the home office for its review. Nonetheless, Wang Bingnan was not over-cautious, acting in a way much closer to a negotiator than a messenger. This might have been due to his senior standing within the Foreign Ministry and his close relationship with Zhou Enlai. Alexis Johnson regarded Wang as a professional diplomat. Early on in the negotiations, Johnson noted that “he [Wang] is acting much more in tradition of old time Chinese bargainer than communist diplomat.”[28] But the Foreign Ministry was not hesitant to reproach Wang when they believed that Wang had made spontaneous remarks or was not effective in representing China’s position [Document #15, Document #17, and Document #35].

Third, when Mao issued his “leaning to one side” statement in his article “On People’s Democratic Dictatorship” on 30 June 1949, he announced that new China would support the Soviet Union in international affairs.[29] These documents reveal that the PRC developed its policy toward the United States for this period through close coordination with the Soviet Union. The Chinese Foreign Ministry kept the Soviet Embassy in Beijing informed of its upcoming talks with the United States and shared top-secret negotiation strategies with them well before the beginning of the talks [Document #10]. These sources prove that the Sino-Soviet relationship was indeed in its honeymoon period in 1955.

To view the Document Appendix, please download the full Working Paper by clicking here.

The author thanks Steven Levine and Nick Parlato for reading earlier versions of the manuscript.


[1] Mao Zedong, “Unite and consolidate with any peace-loving country,” 7 July 1954, Mao Zedong wenji [A Collection of Mao Zedong’s Papers] (Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 1999), 6: 333.

[2] For a comprehensive treatment of the Sino-American ambassadorial talks, see Yafeng Xia, Negotiating with the Enemy: U.S.-China Talks during the Cold War, 1949-1972 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), chapters 4 & 5. The Chinese and U.S. chief negotiators, Wang Bingnan and Alexis Johnson respectively, published their memoirs on their roles during these talks, see Wang Bingnan, ZhongMei huitan jiunian huigu [Nine Years of Sino-Soviet Talks -- A Retrospect] (Beijing: Shijie Zhishi Chubanshe, 1985, hereafter cited as ZHJH); U. Alexis Johnson with Jef Olivarius McAllister, The Right Hand of Power (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1984); Kenneth Young, Negotiating with the Chinese Communists: The United States Experience, 1953-1967 (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968). Colonel Robert B. Ekvall, the U.S. interpreter, also published memoirs on his role in negotiating with the Chinese, see Ekvall, The Faithful Echo (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1960), especially 86-95. Archival records of these talks on the U.S. side could be found in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States (hereafter cited as FRUS), 1955-57, vol. 2, China; and 1955-1957, China, vol. 3, Supplement.

[3] On 31 July 1955, the Chinese government set free eleven convicted US air force personnel.  Thus, when the first session of the Ambassadorial Talks on 1 August 1955, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the total number of US nationals in China is eighty-seven classified in four categories. See Document # 14.

[4] Johnson, The Right Hand of Power, 235.  Alexis Johnson, the chief US negotiator, estimated the number of Chinese scientists and students was less than 175.

[5]ZHJH, 23-24.

[6] Liu Shaoqi was vice-chairman of the Central People’s government of China and China’s No. 2 leader.

[7] Li Ping, et al. Zhou Enlai nianpu, 1949-1976 [A Chronology of Zhou Enlai] (hereafter cited as ZEN49), 1: 375.

[8] According to State Department minutes, “Johnson stated Wang raised issues beyond the scope of these discussions which he not prepared discuss… [and] indicated his belief that further discussions between himself and Wang no longer necessary … [Johnson] suggested staff officers might be designated by each side for purpose passing on information. ” FRUS, 1952-54, China and Japan, 14: 478.

[9] Memorandum of Conversation, Department of State, Washington, 6 July 1955, FRUS, 1955-57, vol. 2 China: 632. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archives, from 29 July 1954 to 15 July 1955, the U.S. and the PRC held 16 consul-level talks in Geneva. These meetings were either between staff members of each Consulate-general or between Acting Chinese Consul-General Shen Ping and U.S. Consul-general Franklyn Gowen.

[10] Young, Negotiating with the Chinese Communists, 40-41; ZEN49, 1: 438-39.

[11] Pei Jianzhang, Zhonghua renmin gongheguo waijiaoshi, 1949-1956 [A Diplomatic History of the People’s Republic of China] (Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, 1994), 336-38.

[12] Gordon H. Chang and He Di, “The Absence of War in the U.S.-China Confrontation over Quemoy and Matsu in 1954-1955: Contingency, Luck, Deterrence?” American Historical Review 98 (December 1993), 1514.

[13]Zhou Enlai waijiao wenxuan [Selected Diplomatic Papers of Zhou Enlai] (Beijing: Zhongyang Wenxian Chubanshe, 1990), 134.

[14]ZHJH, 32.

[15]ZHJH, 40-41.

[16]ZHJH, 48-49. These eleven pilots were freed and left China on 31 July 1955.

[17]ZHJH, 48-49, and “A Résumé of the Warsaw Talks, 1955-1970,” box 2187, Pol Chicom U. S. 1970-73, RG 59, National Archives II, p. 2.

[18] Ekvall, The Faithful Echo, 88.

[19]Ibid., 87.

[20]ZHJH, 47.

[21] Wang Bingnan insisted, “American nationals [would be] treated like all other aliens in China and accorded protection as long as they respect Chinese law. If they breach Chinese law [they would be] treated as the law provides.” Johnson to Secretary of State, 2 August 1955; and Johnson to Secretary of State, 18 August 1955, in FRUS,1955-57, 3: Supplement. See also FRUS, 1955-57, 3: 40.

[22] Johnson to Secretary of State, 2 August 1955, FRUS,1955-57, 3: Supplement.

[23] “A Résumé of the Warsaw Talks,” box 2187, RG 59, p. 6.

[24] Young, Negotiating with the Chinese Communists, 67.

[25] Lu Ning, The Dynamics of Foreign-policy Decisionmaking in China, 2nd ed. (Boulder, Colo: Westview, 2000), 161-62.

[26] See Xia, Negotiating with the Enemy, 97.

[27] Yang Qinghua, “Recollections of Premier Zhou’s Achievement on Building New China’s Diplomatic Contingent,” in  Tian Zengpei and Wang Taiping,  eds., Lao waijiaoguan huiyi Zhou Enlai [Senior Diplomats’ Remembrance of Zhou Enlai] (Beijing: Shijie Zhishi Chubanshe, 1998), 423-30; Pei Monong, Zhou Enlai waijiaoxue [A Study of Zhou Enlai’s Diplomacy] (Beijing: Zhongyang Dangxiao Chubanshe, 1997), 93-102.

[28] Johnson to Secretary of State, 12 August 1955, FRUS,1955-57,vol. 3, Supplement.

[29] Pei, chief ed., Zhonghua renmin gongheguo waijiaoshi, 1949-1956, 3.

About the Author

Yafeng Xia

Yafeng Xia

Former Public Policy Scholar;
Professor of History, Long Island University

Yafeng Xia is a senior professor of social sciences at Long Island University in New York.

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