Comments by Roland Berger about the early history of SACU

Comments on the history of SACU in the report to the AGM 1982

Roland Berger

The first page hardly reflects the realities of the first year of SACU. The launching was a phenomenal success. No less than 250 people, leaders in various cultural, scientific and other circles agreed to be sponsors - see leaflet. It is however true that the sponsorship was over-weighted with academics. The document under-estimates or ignores earlier attempts to bring the China story to the British public despite official opposition. Some scraps from the history of Anglo-Chinese relations suggests that the 250 sponsors had their predecessors.

Disraeli attacked Palmerston's China policy at the time of the Opium wars "which begun in outrage and which, if pursued, will end in ruin". An anti-imperialist British merchant sailor, Augustus Frederick Lindley, operating under the name of Lin Li supported the Taiping rebellion and, in his own vessel, carried guns, rice and other supplies to the rebels in Nanjing. He fought alongside the rebels and organised a volunteer force in Shanghai to give support to the fighters in Suzhou. Charles Curwen writes that Lindley's "passionate anti-imperialist attitude reflected a body of opinion in Britain against the idea of Empire". On his marriage certificate Lindley described himself as "Gentleman, Late Colonel in the Taiping Forces."

Coming nearer to our time, as Arthur Clegg has informed us, during the anti-Japanese war, the China Campaign Committee supported mainly by the Labour movement, held meetings up and down the country proclaiming support for the Chinese resistance and calling on the British government to stop the export of strategic supplies to Japan.

Controlled by the Communist Party, the British China Friendship Association helped to establish links between the two countries from 1949 (Derek will know the exact date) sent people on delegations to China and brought to Britain numerous cultural and other groups. But when the Sino-Soviet dispute flared into the open, the constraints imposed by the Communist Party on the activities of the BCFA made it essential to create a new organisation democratically run, untrammelled by manipulations by any outside political body and representative of the broadest sections interested in promoting understanding and more friendly relations between the peoples of the two countries; an organisation, as Joseph Needham remarked on 15th May 1865 "for fostering friendship and mutual respect between the British and Chinese people on a far broader basis than hitherto" (see SACU News No. 1 pages 1 and 2). If the support of the 250 sponsors was in the tradition of the positive attitude of private people, the Government's attitude in 1965 was of a very different order.

Under pressure from business interests in Hong Kong and Britain who did not wish to give up the China market, Britain partially recognised the PRC in January 1950 although Ambassadors were not exchanged.


With the onset of the Korean War and the entry of Chinese volunteers into Korea when McArthur approaching the Yalu River became a threat to China, Britain followed the American lead to brand China an "aggressor" (U.N. January 1951) and in the years following either voted against China taking her rightful seat in the U.N. or abstained. At the time of the launching of SACU the British Government either ignored China in its foreign policy statements or took up a hostile posture. Britain was one of the last industrial countries to establish full diplomatic relations with China (1972). With a growing awareness of the Soviet menace, official attitudes have significantly changed and there are today a number of official or semi official agreements under which cultural, scientific and other exchanges between the two countries are taking place.

The early years

This needs some revising. For example the passage "the Chinese were developing their country in a self-reliant, self-sufficient way", self-reliant - yes, self-sufficient - no. Self-sufficiency or autarchy was the philosophy of Dr Schacht Hitler's Minister of Economics, (see Mao's definition of self-reliance, Selected Works Vol IV page 20).

"The early years were hard ones". In terms of much slogging effort by members this is true but so far as successes are concerned not so.

In the first year, four residential week-end schools were over-subscribed. Range of speakers quite broad - Isaac Deutscher, Owen Lattimore, Dodds Parker Con MP for Cheltenham, Rev Ian Thomson, Chaplain to St. Paul's, Kurt Mendelsohn FRS Mark Rutherford (Spectator) Evan Luard, Labour MP, Dick Wilson and many others.

"Requests from interested and friendly-intentioned members to visit China were either ignored or rejected" "I wonder where this came from?"

Four SACU sponsors (one definitely not well-intentioned) were invited and visited China in September 1965.

Three tours to China were advertised in SACU News in January and March 1966 and one for teachers in August 1966. In August 1967 eight members visited China and reported in SACU News (Oct 1967 page 7).

The Camden Branch organised a China Month (6 May to 4 June) in 1966 formally inaugurated by the Mayor and a Teach-in at Cheltenham was attended by 500. "The door opens" is misleading for reasons already given.

"The high tide"

Not true to say that in the first half of the 70's China gradually opened up. No statistics were published from 1959 and it was not until after the demise of the Gang of Four that a reasonable coverage of economic figures was available. However, Peking Review had started in May 1958 and in its early years provided useful information. Collective enterprises, Commune administration and a health-care network did not start with the Cultural Revolution.


"Sigh of relief rippled etc" through parts of China. Does this mean areas or provinces, in which case what is the evidence that there were any areas which did not explode with relief. I visited five different provinces within two weeks of the fall of Gang of Four and there was no mistaking the mood. This is not to say that there were some, mostly cadres, who hankered after the days of the C.R. But was it that they found it hard to forget the ideals of the C.R.?

Four Modernisations - first mooted by Mao and Zhou Enlai in 1956.

“The more progressive British people” the term “progressive” in this context is a loaded, judgmental word, and too simplistic. Progressive for some is reactionary for others. SACU is not a political body and its criteria for membership are not whether people are progressive which means different things to different people, but whether they support the work of understanding of and friendship with China. For the same reason we should omit the word "political" on a later page. Our task is to organise meetings and debates on all aspects of China, which are not necessarily "political" in the sense used here.

No mention is made of the ACEI booklets, China in the News and the Noted Persons tours.

Exhibitions were not confined to Essex - Nottingham, Hackney, Manchester and several others staged exhibitions opened by the Ambassador and running for two or three weeks. Peter Thiele should provide a list.

The document should address the question of SACU's specific role in a period when information on China is more readily available and the Government's attitude less unfriendly than in earlier times.


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