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Sino-Soviet split

"All people of the world unite, to overthrow American imperialism, to overthrow Soviet revisionism, to overthrow the reactionaries of all nations!" (Chinese poster, 1969)

The Sino-Soviet split was a conflict between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, beginning in the late 1950s, reaching a peak in 1969 and continuing in various ways until the late 1980s. It led to a parallel split in the international Communist movement, although it was as much about Chinese and Soviet national interests as it was about Communist ideology.


The roots of the split went back to the 1930s, when the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong were simultaneously conducting a war of resistance against the Japanese and a civil war against Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Party. Mao largely ignored advice and instructions from Stalin and the Comintern on how to conduct the revolution in China. Traditional Leninist theory, by this time raised to the level of unquestioned dogma, based revolutionary struggle on the urban working class, a class which barely existed in China. Mao ignored the traditional doctrine and sought to mobilise the peasantry, just as downtrodden and with equal zeal and desire for change.

During World War II, Stalin urged Mao to form a coalition with Chiang to fight the Japanese. Even after the war Stalin advised Mao not to attempt to seize power, but to negotiate with Chiang, Stalin signed a Treaty of Friendship and Alliance with Chiang in mid-1945. Mao politely accepted all of Stalin's advice, and ignored it in practice, driving Chiang off the Chinese mainland and proclaiming the People's Republic in October 1949. In December 1949 he went to Moscow and remained there for two months, culminating in a treaty of alliance with the Soviet Union. The treaty did not create a monolithic bloc, it pledged mutual support and aid in the event of Japanese led aggression, but not for an attack from other nations.

During the 1950s China, guided by an army of Soviet advisors, followed the orthodox Soviet model of socialist development, with its emphasis on heavy industry funded by surpluses extracted from the peasantry and holding down living standards. But by the late 1950s Mao had begun to develop new ideas about how China could advance directly to Communism (in the Marxist sense of the word) through a mobilisation of China's massive labour force - these ideas led to the Great Leap Forward.

Mao Zedong and J V Stalin

Meanwhile, Stalin's death in 1953 had created a new situation in the Communist world. Although Mao ignored Stalin's directives, he acknowledged the Soviet ruler's status as the leader of the Communist movement. When Stalin died, Mao felt that he was now the senior leader, and he became increasingly resentful when the new Soviet leaders, Malenkov and Khrushchev, did not accord him the status he desired. He was mollified by an official visit to China by Khrushchev in 1954, which formalised the return of the former Russian territory of Port Arthur to China, and was also the occasion to agree on closer economic co-operation.

Mao did not openly dissent when Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Party in 1956, or when he restored relations with Tito's regime in Yugoslavia, which Stalin had denounced in 1947. Khrushchev had, in a series of public and private speeches, deliberately rejected the authoritarian regime of Stalin, announced the end of Cominform, and also down-played the core Marxist-Leninist thesis of inevitable armed conflict between capitalism and socialism. Mao disagreed with these actions, and increasingly felt that the Soviet leadership were retreating from Marxist-Leninist purity and the struggle for the worldwide triumph of Communism. By 1959 the stage was set for a rupture between the two Communist powers.

The onset of the split

In 1959 the Soviets, alarmed at the economic chaos in mainland China resulting from the Great Leap Foward, reneged on their earlier commitment to help China develop nuclear weapons. In the same year Khrushchev held a summit meeting with President Eisenhower, and refused to support the PRC in its border dispute with India, a country friendly to the Soviet Union. Mao also saw Khrushchev as too conciliatory to the West.

These slights offended Mao and the other Chinese Communist leaders. From the Soviet point of view, however, they were prudent measures in the light of the international situation. By the late 1950s both the United States and the Soviet Union had massive nuclear arsenals, and the Soviet leadership was engaged in a strategy that balanced confrontations over issues such as Berlin with negotiations to avoid an outbreak of war. The Soviets viewed Mao's militancy as a dangerous complication. They were not prepared to give him nuclear weapons which he might use to start a new war in Korea or over Taiwan. They also saw the Great Leap Forward as evidence that Mao was not a real Marxist.

The split also arose from Chinese domestic politics. The Great Leap Forward had been a disastrous failure, resulting in a famine which killed millions, and Mao's rivals in the Communist Party, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, blamed Mao for this catastrophe and plotted to remove him from office. The fomenting of a split with the Soviets allowed Mao to portray his rivals as agents of a foreign power, and to mobilise Chinese nationalist sentiment behind his leadership.

For a time the polemics between the two parties remained indirect, with the Chinese denouncing Tito and the Soviets denouncing China's ally, Enver Hoxha of Albania, in a war of words by proxy. But in June 1960 the split became public, at the congress of the Romanian Communist Party, when Khrushchev and China's Peng Zhen openly clashed. Khrushchev called Mao a nationalist, an adventurist and a deviationist. The Chinese called Khrushchev a revisionist and criticised his "patriarchal, arbitrary and tyrannical" behaviour. Khrushchev followed his attack by delivering a eighty-page letter to the conference, denouncing China.

At a meeting of 81 Communist parties in Moscow in November 1960, the Chinese delegation clashed heatedly with the Soviets and with most of the other party delegations, but eventually a compromise resolution was agreed on which prevented a formal rupture. At the 22nd Congress of the Soviet Party in October 1961, however, polemics flared again. In December the Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations with Albania, showing that the dispute was moving from one between parties to one between states.

Nikita Khrushchev in 1962

During 1962 international events caused a final rupture between the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China. Mao criticised Khrushchev for backing down in the Cuban missile crisis ("[Khrushchev has moved] from adventurism to capitulationism"), to which Khrushchev responded that Mao's policies would lead to a nuclear war. At the same time the PRC and India fought a brief war over their disputed border, in which the Soviets openly supported India. These events were followed by formal statements of each side's ideological positions: the Chinese published The Chinese Communist Party's Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement in June 1963. The Soviets responded with Open Letter of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was the last formal communication between the two parties.

By 1964 Mao was asserting that there had been a counter-revolution in the Soviet Union, that the dictatorship of the proletariat had been overthrown and that capitalism had been restored. These assertions bore no connection to actual events in the Soviet Union, where apart from the ending of purges and mass terror, the economic and political systems were exactly as they had been in Stalin's day, but they served as a pretext for a complete severing of relations between the two countries. The Soviet satellite states and most of the non-ruling Communist Parties also broke off relations.

There was a brief pause in the polemics after the fall of Khrushchev in October 1964. In November the Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, went to Moscow to speak with the new leaders, Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin, but he returned to report that the Soviets had no intention of changing their position. Mao denounced "Khrushchevism without Khruschchev" and the war of words went on.

From split to confrontation

From 1965 onwards, the Sino-Soviet split was an accomplished fact, and the onset of Mao's Cultural Revolution cut off all contact between the two countries, and indeed between mainland China and most of the rest of the world. The only exception to the freeze was that the Chinese permitted Soviet arms and supplies to be freighted across China to Communist North Vietnam, which was engaged in an actual war with the United States "imperialists" and both the Soviets and the Chinese felt obliged to assist the Vietnamese.

After 1967 China descended into chaos, while Mao used the Cultural Revolution as a pretext to remove all his rivals from power and overthrow the existing structures of state and party. This cost the PRC whatever remaining support it had in the mainstream international Communist movement. The only significant party apart from the Albanians to support the Chinese line was the Communist Party of Indonesia, which was destroyed during the 1965 military coup in Indonesia. Small Maoist parties were formed in many countries but they had little real influence.

The Sino-Soviet confrontation had now become a conflict between states. In January 1967 Red Guards besieged the Soviet Embassy in Beijing. Diplomatic relations were never formally broken, but they went into a deep freeze. The Chinese also chose to raise the issue of the Soviet-Chinese border, which was the result of 19th century treaties imposed on the weakened Qing Dynasty by Czarist Russia. China did not make specific territorial demands, but insisted that the Soviets acknowledge that the treaties were unjust. The Soviets flatly refused to discuss this issue.

The following year saw China reach the depths of the Cultural Revolution, with civil war breaking out in some parts of the country, a situation only partly stabilised in August when Mao ordered the Army to restore order. Thereafter the worst excesses were gradually wound back. One reason for this was Mao's realisation that China was now strategically isolated and very vulnerable. During 1968 the Soviets massively increased their troop deployments along the Chinese border, particularly the border with Xinjiang where a Turkic separatist movement could easily be fostered. In 1961 the Soviet's had around twelve half-strength divisions on the border and 200 aircraft, by the end of 1968 there were 25 divisions, 1,200 aircraft and 120 medium-range missiles. Although the PRC had exploded its first nuclear device in 1964 at Lop Nor, it was no match for the military power of the Soviet Union. Tensions along the border escalated until March 1969, when armed clashes broke out along the Ussuri River. There were more clashes on the Xinjiang border in August.

Many observers predicted war: the veteran American journalist Harrison Salisbury published a book called The Coming War Between Russia and China and in August 1969 Soviet sources hinted at a strike on Lop Nor with nuclear weapons. But after the 1969 clashes both sides seem to have drawn back from the brink. In September, Kosygin made a secret visit to Beijing and held talks with Zhou Enlai. In October talks on the border issue were begun. No agreement was reached, but the meetings showed that neither side was actively seeking war.

By 1970 Mao seems to have realised that he could not confront both the Soviet Union and the United States, and conduct an internal revolution in China, all at once. During the year, despite the fact that the Vietnam War was at its height and China's anti-American rhetoric at its peak, Mao decided that since the Soviets were the greater threat, he should seek an accommodation with the United States.

Mao Zedong meets Richard Nixon, 1972

In July 1971 Henry Kissinger secretly visited Beijing and laid the groundwork for President Richard Nixon's visit to China in February 1972. Although the Soviets were initially furious, they soon held a summit of their own with Nixon, thus creating a triangular relationship between Washington, Beijing and Moscow. This ended the worst period of confrontation between the Soviets and China.

Sino-Soviet rivalry also spread to Africa and the Middle East, where each Communist power supported and funded different parties, movements and states. This helped fuel the war between Ethiopia and Somalia, the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique and the rivalry between various groups of radical Palestinians. Unlike the Soviets, the Chinese did not actually send troops to any of these trouble spots, but their competitive intervention helped create and maintain instability.

Return to normalcy

The fall from power of Lin Biao in 1971 marked the end of the most radical phase of the Cultural Revolution, and from then until Mao's death in 1976 there was a gradual return to Communist "normality" in China. This led to an end to the state of armed confrontation with the Soviet Union, but not to any thawing in political relations. However, the Soviet military build-up on the border was very slow to decline, in 1973 there were almost double the number of Soviet troops present as in 1969. The Chinese continued to denounce "Soviet social imperialism" and to accuse the Soviets of being the enemies of the world revolution. This was despite the fact that after 1972 China itself ended direct support for revolutionary groups in other countries, and in 1973 supported a negotiated end to the Vietnam War.

This trend accelerated after Mao's death, with the removal from power of the radical "Gang of Four and the beginning of sweeping economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping, who completely reversed Mao's policies and began a transition to a market economy in China. By the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping's policies of "seeking truth from facts" and emphasising the "Chinese road to socialism," which in practice meant the restoration of a market economy in China, meant that China had largely lost interest in Communist polemics, and denunciations of Soviet revisionism took on an increasingly ritualist tone and eventually faded away. China could hardly go on (falsely) accusing the Soviet Union of restoring capitalism when it was (actually) doing so itself.

After Mao's death, rivalry between the Soviet Union and China expressed itself less in polemics about the internal politics of either country and more in the international field, where the national interests of the two states frequently clashed.

The first major confrontation was in Indo-China. The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 left pro-Soviet regimes in power in Vietnam and Laos, and a pro-Chinese regime in Cambodia. The Vietnamese were prepared to ignore the murderous domestic policies of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, but when this led to persecution of ethnic Vietnamese communities and clashes along the border, they took action, invading the country in 1978 and removing Pol Pot's regime. The Chinese furiously denounced this and launched a "punitive" invasion of northern Vietnam. The Soviet Union in turn denounced China, but nevertheless took no military action.

In 1979 the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan when the Communist regime there was in danger of being overthrown. China saw this as part of a Soviet plot to encircle her, and formed an alliance with the United States and Pakistan to support the resistance movements in Afghanistan and thwart the Soviet invasion. In this they were highly successful, and the interminable war in Afghanistan did much to weaken the Soviet system in its later years.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, he set out to restore normal relations with the PRC. Soviet military forces along the border were greatly reduced, normal economic relations were resumed, and the border issue was quietly forgotten. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan removed the major bone of contention between the two states. The ideological issues of the 1960s were not resolved, and political relations between the two Communist parties were not resumed. The Chinese never revised their official verdict about the Soviet Union, they simply decided that this no longer mattered. To cement improving relations, Gorbachev visited China in May 1989. This summit had the unintended consequence of insuring that the Tiananmen Protests of 1989 and the ensuing crackdown on 4 June were very well covered by the foreign media.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping

The Chinese thus took an ambivalent view of Gorbachev's reform program, which led ultimately to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Communist Party rule in 1991. Since they officially did not recognise that the Soviet Union was a socialist state, they had no official opinion on how Gorbachev should go about reforming Soviet socialism. In private they expressed the view that Gorbachev was foolish to embark on political reform before carrying through economic reform, whereas Deng Xiaoping had carried through economic reforms without weakening Communist Party rule. History would seem to have proved them right on this, since the Chinese Communist Party is still in power while the Soviet Union is now but a memory.

The main consequence of the Sino-Soviet split was the exposure of the myths of international Communist solidarity and the world Communist movement. Both the Soviet Union and China were shown to be acting largely out of national self-interest, or in response to internal power struggles. The great irony of the split was that the Chinese Communists, after spending 20 years accusing the Soviets of restoring capitalism, proceeded to carry out an economic reform that restored a market economy (while maintaining that this was but a detour on the road to socialism), while the Soviet party clung to socialist orthodoxy and refused to countenance any kind of market reform, and as a result lost power.

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