Sino-Soviet split

Sino-Soviet split

The Sino-Soviet split was a gradual divergence of diplomatic ties between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during the Cold War. The split began 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 the split had as much to do with Chinese and Soviet national interests as with the two countries' respective communist ideologies. To this day, for instance, there are two Communist parties in India---Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist), which owe allegiance to Russia and China, respectively.


The roots of the split lie in the 1930s when the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong conducted a war of resistance against the Japanese while simultaneously fighting Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang in civil war. Mao largely ignored advice and instructions from Stalin and the Comintern on how to conduct the revolution in China. Traditional Leninist theory — an unquestionable dogma in the USSR — was difficult to apply in China as, unlike the Russians, China did not have an urban working class. Demographically speaking, the most potent force to utilize were the peasants and farmers in outlying areas. This was the force Mao focused on organizing for his revolution.

During World War II Stalin urged Mao to form a coalition with Chiang to fight Japan. 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 accepted Stalin's advice and called him "the only leader of our party". Since Chiang insisted that the Soviet occupation of Tannu Uriankhai was illegal, Stalin broke the treaty that required the Soviet troops to withdraw from Manchuria three months after the surrender of Japan and gave it to Mao. Besides Manchuria, Stalin gave Mao almost $1bn military aid to support him driving Chiang off the Chinese mainland and proclaiming the People's Republic of China in October 1949 (of course without Tannu Uriankhai). Soon after, however, a two-month visit to Moscow by Mao culminated in the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance (1950), which comprised a low-interest Soviet loan of $300m and a 30-year military alliance.

At the same time, however, Beijing had begun to try to supplant Moscow's role as the ideological leader of the world communist movement. Mao and his supporters had been actively promoting the idea that communist movements in Asia, and the rest of the world, should follow China's model of revolution, not Russia's. In 1947, for example, Mao gave American journalist Anna Louise Strong documents and instructed her to "show them to Party leaders in the United States and Europe" but did not think it was "necessary to take them to Moscow." Strong had also written an article, "The Thought of Mao Tse-tung," and a book, "Dawn Out of China", which included claims that Mao's great accomplishment was "to change Marxism from a European to an Asiatic form... in ways of which neither Marx nor Lenin could dream." The Soviet government banned the book. Several years later, at the first international Communist gathering in Beijing, Liu Shaoqi, a prominent supporter of Mao, delivered a speech praising the "Mao Tse-tung road" as the correct road to communist revolution and warned that it would be wrong to follow any other path. Liu Shaoqi did not praise Stalin or the Soviet model. Yet with tensions brewing on the Korean Peninsula and a looming fear of American military intervention there, geopolitical circumstances dictated that the two nations could not afford an ideological rupture, and so their alliance endured.

During the 1950s, China, guided by a large number of Soviet advisers, followed the Soviet model of development, with its emphasis on heavy industry funded by surpluses extracted from the peasantry, while making consumer goods a secondary priority. By the late 1950s, however, Mao had begun to develop new ideas about how China should advance directly to Communism (in the Marxist sense of the word) through a mobilization of China's massive labor force. These ideas led to the Great Leap Forward.

Stalin's death in 1953 left a vacuum of power in the Communist world. Mao clearly realized that the leader of a group of countries is not a person but a country. But since Mao said many times that Stalin was his "boss", he knew the consequences. He cared about his position in Chinese history. Chinese historians did not like a leader to call a foreigner "boss", like Mao did. However, this period had seen a short-lived revival of Sino-Soviet friendship. Mao was pacified by an official visit to China by Khrushchev in 1954, which formalized the return of the naval base of Lüshun to China. The Soviets had offered technical support in 156 different key industries in China's first five-year plan, along with loans totaling about 520 million rubles. The two countries also cooperated at the Geneva Conference of 1954 in persuading the Vietnamese communists to accept the temporary division of Vietnam along the 17th parallel.

Khrushchev's policies began to irritate Mao. Mao did not openly dissent when Khrushchev denounced Stalin in his Secret Speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 or when he restored relations with Tito's government in Yugoslavia, which Stalin had renounced in 1947. Mao had supported Stalin both ideologically and politically, and Khrushchev had dismantled that support in a series of public and private speeches, deliberately rejecting virtually all of Stalin's leadership, announcing the end of the Cominform, and, most troublingly to Mao, downplaying the core Marxist-Leninist thesis of inevitable armed conflict between capitalism and socialism. As a result, Khrushchev had been championing the idea of "peaceful coexistence" between communist and capitalist nations. This, however, posed a direct challenge to the "lean-to-one-side" foreign policy Mao had adopted after the Chinese Civil War, when there was fear of direct American or Japanese military involvement in China which had made an alliance with the Soviet Union vital. Khrushchev attempted to dissolve the very condition which had made the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship so attractive to Mao in the first place. Mao, infuriated at these actions, increasingly felt that the Soviet leadership retreating not only on the ideological front, from Marxism-Leninism, and from the struggle for the worldwide triumph of communism, but on the military front by no longer appearing to guarantee support to China should it ever find itself at war with the United States. By 1959, the stage was set for a rupture between the two Communist powers.

Onset of the split

In 1959, Khrushchev held a summit meeting with United States President Dwight Eisenhower. The Soviets were alarmed by China's Great Leap Forward, and Khrushchev sought to decrease Cold War tensions with the West. The Soviets reneged on their earlier commitment to help China develop nuclear weapons. They also refused to support China in the Sino-Indian War in 1962, maintaining a moderately friendly stance towards India.

These events greatly offended Mao and the other Chinese Communist leaders. Mao saw Khrushchev as too conciliatory to the West. From the Soviet point of view, however, they were taking prudent measures in light of the existing international situation and the threat of nuclear war. 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.

Also contributing to the split was Chinese domestic politics. The Great Leap Forward had failed to meet its objectives and resulted in millions of deaths. For this, Mao's rivals in the Communist Party, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, who held the positions of State Chairman and Communist Party General Secretary, respectively, plotted to remove him from a position of power. The opportunity of a split with the Soviets allowed Mao to portray his rivals as agents of a foreign power, mobilising 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 criticized his "patriarchal, arbitrary and tyrannical" behavior. Khrushchev followed his verbal attack by delivering an 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, preventing a formal rupture. At the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in October 1961, however, disagreement flared again. In December, the Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations with Albania, expanding the dispute from one between parties to one between states.

During 1962, international events caused a final rupture between the Soviet Union and China. Mao criticized 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 Soviets openly supported India in its brief war with China. 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, and that capitalism had been restored. Relations between the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union broke off, as did relations with the Communist parties of the Warsaw Pact countries.

There was a brief pause in polemics after the fall of Khrushchev in October 1964. Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai went to Moscow in November 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 Khrushchev" and the war of words went on.

From split to confrontation

By the early 1960s, the Sino-Soviet split was a permanently established fact, cracking the bipolar system with which the Cold War began as China now saw itself competing with the Soviet Union for leadership in the Communist movement. The onset of Mao's Cultural Revolution in 1966 worsened relations between the two countries and severed ties, and also between mainland China and most of the rest of the world. The only exception to the freeze was Chinese permission for the transport of Soviet arms and supplies across China to support Communist North Vietnam in its conflict against the South and the United States in the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, both countries competed to win Vietnam to their respective sides.

After 1967, the Cultural Revolution overthrew the existing structures of state and party in China. The only significant party apart from the Albanians to support the Chinese line was the Communist Party of Indonesia, which was destroyed during a military coup d'état in 1965. Maoist parties were formed in many countries.

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 Sino-Soviet border, which was the result of nineteenth century treaties imposed on the weakened Qing Dynasty by Tsarist 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 the issue.

In the following year, China reached the depths of the Cultural Revolution, with near civil war in some parts of the country, a situation only partly stabilized in August when Mao ordered the Army to restore order. Thereafter, the worst excesses gradually declined. One reason for this was Mao's realization that China was now strategically isolated and 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 Union had around twelve half-strength divisions and 200 aircraft on the border; by the end of 1968 there were 25 divisions, 1,200 aircraft and 120 medium-range missiles. Although China had detonated its first nuclear device in 1964 at Lop Nor, its military power could not compare to that of the Soviet Union. Tensions along the border escalated until March 1969, when armed clashes broke out along the Ussuri River on Damansky Island, followed by more in August.

Many observers predicted war: 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. Soviet documents from the summer of 1969 show that the USSR had more detailed plans for a nuclear attack on China than for a nuclear attack on the United States. [Mueller, Jason: "Evolution of the First Strike Doctrine in the Nuclear Era, Volume 3: 1965-1972"]

Aware of the possibility of a nuclear war, Chinese leadership ordered large-scale construction of underground shelters. Beijing's Underground City was meant to protect a large portion of the city's population in the case of a nuclear strike; tunnels for an underground command center for the military were excavated in Hubei.

But after the 1969 clashes, it appeared that both sides had 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 commenced. No agreement was reached, but the meetings restored a minimum of diplomatic communication.

By 1970, Mao had realized that he could not simultaneously confront both the Soviet Union and the United States and suppress internal disorder. During the year, despite the fact that the Vietnam War was at its height and China's anti-American rhetoric at their peak, Mao decided that since the Soviets were the greater threat because of their geographical proximity to China, he should seek an accommodation with the United States to confront the USSR.

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 Soviet Union and China.

In the 1970s, 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 Rhodesian Bush War and the Gukurahundi, the Angolan Civil War, the Mozambican Civil War, and various Palestinian factions.

Return to normality

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 ended the state of armed confrontation with the Soviet Union, but did not lead to any thawing in political relations. However, the Soviet military build-up on the Chinese border continued: in 1973, there were almost double the number of Soviet troops present as in 1969. The Chinese continued to denounce "Soviet social imperialism" and accuse the Soviets of being the enemies of the world revolution. This was despite China's cessation of direct support for revolutionary groups in other countries after 1972, and its support in 1973 for 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 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 emphasizing 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 a fading, ritualist tone.

After Mao's death, rivalry between the Soviet Union and China surfaced 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 at first prepared to ignore the murderous domestic policies of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, but as it led to persecution of ethnic Vietnamese communities and clashes along the border, they invaded the country in 1978, removing Pol Pot's regime. The Chinese furiously denounced this and launched a "punitive" invasion of northern Vietnam, resulting in the Sino-Vietnamese War. The Soviet Union in turn denounced China, but took no military action.

In 1979, the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan when the Communist regime there was in danger of being overthrown. The Chinese government, viewing this as part of a Soviet plot to encircle them, formed an alliance with the United States and Pakistan to support the Islamist resistance movements in Afghanistan and thwart the Soviet invasion. This was highly successful; the interminable war in Afghanistan did much to weaken the Soviet system in its later years. China was also involved in secretly supplying aid to the Contras fighting the Soviet-backed Sandinista government in Nicaragua [] . In 1982, shortly before his death, Leonid Brezhnev delivered a speech in Tashkent that was somewhat conciliatory toward China. This opened the way for Chinese ministerial representation at his funeral later that year, and low-key efforts at reducing tensions.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, he endeavored to restore normal relations with China. 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 contention between the two states. However, the ideological issues of the 1960s were not resolved, and official relations between the two Communist parties were not resumed. The still frosty relations between the Soviet Union and China prompted many in the United States government under Ronald Reagan to consider China a natural counterbalance against the Soviet Union, resulting in American military aid to the People's Liberation Army.

Gorbachev visited China in May 1989 to cement improving relations. An unintended consequence of this summit was the high coverage by foreign media of the Tiananmen Protests of 1989 and the ensuing crackdown.

The Chinese government 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 the Chinese government did not officially recognize the Soviet Union as a fellow "socialist state," it had no official opinion on how Gorbachev should reform Soviet socialism. In private, Chinese leadership expressed the opinion that Gorbachev was foolish to embark on political reform before implementing economic reform, whereas Deng Xiaoping had implemented economic reform without weakening Communist Party rule.


*Ford, Harold P., " [ Calling the Sino-Soviet Split] ", "Studies in Intelligence", Winter 1998-99.
*Chang, Jung, and Jon Halliday. "". New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
*Jian, Chen. "Mao’s China & the Cold War." Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

ee also

*History of the Soviet Union (1953-1985)
*History of the People's Republic of China
*Sino-Albanian split
*Sino-American relations
*Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance

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