The Central Intelligence Agency went to new lengths Tuesday to clarify its role in a botched 1952 spying mission in China by allowing at least one reporter, from the Associated Press, access to the screening of the internal “documentary,” which agency leaders hope will be used as a teaching tool for its next generation of operatives.
While the AP’s report on the film did not immediately seem to stir significant discussion among Internet users in China, the film is an interesting reminder of a time when the U.S. actively worked to bring down the country’s ruling party.
Directed by Paul Wimmer, the hourlong movie is a first-of-its-kind for the highly secretive agency, the AP reported. It focuses on the stories of young operatives John Downey and Richard Fecteau. The men, both fresh paramilitary recruits, were part of a larger mission known as the “Third Force,” which supported antigovernment activists in China – unrelated to the Nationalist Kuomintang – in the early years of the Cold War. Americans hoped that politically destabilizing China would cause a draw-down in the numbers of Chinese troops fighting against them in Korea.
The film is not the first time the CIA has tried to clarify what happened to Downey and Fecteau. A 9,000-word entry on the agency’s website from 2007, for example, details the failed mission from the agency’s perspective. A number of books and magazine articles in the U.S. about the case have appeared over the years, but the CIA prefers its version of events, calling outside works “short and generally flawed.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, the CIA’s website also refers readers to Wikipedia entries on the men, while the Wikipedia entries refer readers to the CIA’s website.
In November 1952, the operatives were on board a cargo plane with covert plans to help pick up an ethnic-Chinese spy, whom the CIA smuggled into the country months before. Downey and Fecteau, along with pilots Robert Snoddy and Norman Schwartz, weren’t aware the Chinese had uncovered the American’s mission. The Chinese shot down the plane: Both pilots were killed while Downey and Fecteau were captured and interrogated before being imprisoned for roughly the next twenty years.
After they were released in the 1970s, the pair said relatively little about the experience, true to the agency’s demands of secrecy.
“Their commitment and dedication are a powerful source of inspiration,” CIA spokesman George Little told the AP. “That should have been apparent to everyone.”
To be sure, the Chinese media have discussed the matter over the years, but surprisingly, recent reminders of the CIA’s past efforts to destabilize the Party haven’t seemed to stir the same anti-American backlash that other cases have
The 2001 mid-air collision between a U.S. Navy plane and a Chinese fighter jet is one example. The Chinese pilot died in the incident while U.S. crewmembers were detained on southern China’s Hainan Island. While subsequent tensions over the incident fizzled relatively quickly, the crash remains an active topic in the domestic press and on popular public message boards. As recently as April of this year, Chinese media were publishing magazine-length pieces to “recall” the incident.
The 1999 U.S. bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade is another example. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Beijing in the aftermath, trapping the U.S. ambassador and his staff inside the embassy for several days. While Internet discussions of that issue appear comparatively tempered — likely a result of deliberate efforts by China’s government to quell the anti-American sentiment, which it worried at the time could spiral out of control – news articles published on the incident appeared as recently as last week.
So, why don’t reminders of the CIA’s efforts with the “Third Force” spark similar populist backlash? After all, unlike the Belgrade bombing or the 2001 mid-air collision where the US has denied intentional harm, the “Third Force” seems a case where many details of the CIA’s operations are now easily accessed online.
One possible explanation: The Internet-using public’s scope of history is relatively short.
Youths aged 10-19 are the single largest demographic of Internet users in China today, according to research by the Nanjing Marketing Group, a domestic research and marketing firm. Why would Internet “patriots” in China today want to base their arguments for China’s moral superiority in the context of the 1950s and ‘60s? After all, it’s a period most Chinese citizens have come to regard as deeply troubling.
Then again, with Chinese Internet behavior today proving unpredictable, it could be only a matter of time (this blog post could be the tipping point) before the newly released CIA account of the 1952 incident becomes wood in the fire for China’s legions of online America critics.
– Brian Spegele
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