Sino-Soviet split

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Sino–Soviet split
Part of Cold War and Sino-Soviet relations
Mao Tsé-toung, portrait en buste, assis, faisant face à Nikita Khrouchtchev, pendant la visite du chef russe 1958 à Pékin.jpg
Chairman Mao Zedong of the PRC and Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR demonstrate solidarity among Communists. (People's Republic of China, 1958)
Date 1956–1966[1]
Caused by De-Stalinization, revisionism, Maoism
Methods Proxy war, propaganda, Sino-Soviet border conflict
Resulted in A tri-polar cold war and competition for Communist allies

The Sino–Soviet split (1956–1966) was the breaking of political relations between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), caused by doctrinal divergences that arose from their different interpretations and practical applications of Marxism–Leninism, as influenced by their respective geopolitics during the Cold War (1945–1991).[2] In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Sino-Soviet debates about the interpretation of Orthodox Marxism became specific disputes about the Soviet Union's policies of national de-Stalinization and of international peaceful coexistence with the Western world. Against that political background, the international relations of the PRC featured official belligerence towards the West, an initial, public rejection of the Soviet Union's policy of peaceful coexistence between the Eastern bloc and the Western bloc, which Mao Zedong said was Marxist revisionism by the Russian Communists.[2]

Beginning in 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and Stalinism in the speech On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences (25 February 1956), the PRC and the USSR had progressively divergent interpretations of Marxist ideology; by 1961, their intractable differences of ideologic interpretation and praxis provoked the PRC's formal denunciation of Soviet communism as the work of "revisionist traitors" in the USSR.[2] Among the Eastern bloc countries, the Sino-Soviet split was about who would lead the revolution for world communism, to whom — to China or to Russia — would the vanguard parties of the world turn for political advice, financial aid, and military assistance?[3] In that vein, the USSR and the PRC competed for ideological leadership through the communist parties native to the countries in their spheres of influence.[4]

In the Western world, the Sino–Soviet split transformed the geopolitics of the bi-polar cold war into a tri-polar cold war; as important as the erection of the Berlin Wall (1961), the defusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), and the end of the Vietnam War (1945–1975), because the rivalry, between Chinese Stalinism and Russian coexistence, facilitated and realised Mao's Sino–American rapprochement, by way of the 1972 Nixon visit to China. Ideologically, the Sino-Soviet split voided the political myth that "monolithic communism" (the Eastern bloc) was a unitary actor in geopolitics, especially during the 1947–1950 period in Vietnam, which led to US military intervention.[5] Historically, the ideological Sino-Soviet split facilitated the Marxist–Leninist Realpolitik by which Mao established the tri-polar geopolitics (PRC-USA-USSR) of the late-period Cold War.[6]


Reluctant co-belligerents

Reluctant co-belligerents: In the Asian theatre of WWII, the anti-communist Chiang Kai-shek of the KMT allied himself with the communist Mao Zedong of the CPC in the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) to expel Imperial Japan from continental China; afterwards, the KMT and the CPC resumed their Chinese Civil War (1927–49).

In the course of the Second World War (1939–1945), the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the nationalist Kuomintang party (KMT) set aside their civil war (1927–1949) in order to fight, defeat, and expel Imperial Japan from China. To that end, Stalin of the USSR ordered Mao Zedong, leader of the CPC, to co-operate with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the KMT, in fighting the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) and expelling the Japanese; afterwards, the communists and the anti-communists renewed their civil war for China in the Chinese Communist Revolution (1945–50).[7]

At war's end, Stalin advised Mao to not seize political power at that time, and, instead, to collaborate with Chiang, because of the USSR–KMT Treaty of Friendship and Alliance (1945); in communist solidarity, Mao abided Stalin.[8] Yet, when Gen. Chiang Kai-shek opposed the annexation of Tannu Uriankhai (Mongolia) to the USSR three months after the Japanese surrender (15 August 1945), Stalin broke the treaty requiring the Red Army's withdrawal from Manchuria (giving Mao control of the region) and ordered Gen. Rodion Malinovsky to give to the Chinese Communists the spoils of war captured from the Imperial Japanese Army.[9]

In the post-war 1945–1950 period, the US had fully financed Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the KMT, his nationalist political party, and the National Revolutionary Army, his armed forces, in the Chinese Civil War; and, despite having lost the war to the Communists, the US sent General George Marshall to broker peace between the communist and anti-communist belligerents; Mao Zedong was willing to compromise and co-operate with Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, who refused to compromise and co-operate with the Chinese Communists. In the concluding period of the Chinese civil war, the Chinese Communist Revolution expelled the Kuomintang from China, who then fled to Formosa island, where they established the US-sponsored Republic of China, in 1950.[10]

Chinese communist revolution

PRC leader Mao Zedong and the journalist Anna Louise Strong in 1967
A PRC postage stamp commemorating the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance (1950)

As a theoretician of Communism seeking to realise a socialist state in China, Mao Zedong developed and adapted the urban ideology of Orthodox Marxism for practical application to the conditions of pre-industrial China and the Chinese peoples. Mao's Sinification of Marxism established political pragmatism as the first priority for realising the accelerated modernisation of a country and a people; and ideological orthodoxy as the secondary priority to that goal, because Orthodox Marxism originated for practical application to the conditions of the industrialised countries of western Europe.[11]

In 1947, whilst fighting the Chinese Civil War against the Kuomintang nationalists, the Communist guerrilla-leader Mao despatched the American journalist Anna Louise Strong to the West, bearing political documents explaining China's socialist future, and that she "show them to Party leaders in the United States and Europe" for their better understanding of the Chinese Communist Revolution, but that it was not "necessary to take them to Moscow." Mao trusted Strong because of her positive reportage about him, in the article "The Thought of Mao Tse-Tung", and about the CPC's communist revolution, in the book Dawn Comes Up Like Thunder Out of China: An Intimate Account of the Liberated Areas in China (1948), which reports that the intellectual feat of Mao Zedong was “to change Marxism from a European [form] to an Asiatic form . . . in ways of which neither Marx nor Lenin could dream.”

In late 1949, as head-of-state of the People's Republic of China, at Moscow (December 1949–February 1950) Mao agreed to the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship (1950), which included a $300 million loan, the return of the Chinese Eastern Railway, and a 30-year military alliance. Guided by soviet economists, the PRC applied the soviet model of planned economy, which featured centralised control that gave first priority to the development of heavy industry, and second priority to the production of consumer goods. Transcending the technical guidance of soviet political advisors, Mao developed the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) to transform agrarian China into the industrial People's Republic of China.

After Stalin

Relations repaired

In 1954, Premier Nikita Khrushchev improved international relations between the USSR and the PRC with trade agreements, formal acknowledgement of Stalin's economic unfairness to China, fifteen industrial-development projects, and exchanges of technicians (ca. 10,000) and political advisors (ca. 1,500), whilst China sent manual labourers to fill shortages of workers in Siberia. Despite such economic relations between socialist nations, Mao of the PRC and Khrushchev of the Soviet Union disliked each other personally and ideologically.[12] In 1954, as members of the Eastern bloc, the PRC and the USSR collaborated in peace-treaty rapprochement between the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the southern Republic of Vietnam. Consequent to Khrushchev's having repaired relations with Mao and the Chinese, by 1955, 60 per cent of the PRC's exports went to the Soviet Union, by way of the Five-year plans of China, begun in 1953.[13]

Discontents of de-Stalinization

In early 1956, Sino-Soviet relations began deteriorating consequent to Khrushchev's de–Stalinization of the USSR, which he initiated with the speech On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences that criticised Stalin and Stalinism, especially the Great Purge (1936–38) of Soviet society, the rank-and-file of the armed forces, and the CPSU. In light of de–Stalinization, the CPSU's changed ideological orientation — from Stalin's confrontation of the West to Khrushchev's coexistence with the West — posed serious problems of ideological credibility and political authority for Mao, who had emulated Stalin's style of leadership and practical application of Marxism–Leninism in the development of Chinese Communism and the People's Republic of China.[14]

In late 1956, the anti-Soviet Hungarian Revolution (23 October–10 November 1956) against the rule of Moscow was a serious political concern for Mao, because it had required military intervention to suppress, and its occurrence denied the political legitimacy of the communist party to be in government. In response to that discontent among the European members of the Eastern bloc, the CPC denounced the USSR's de–Stalinization as Marxist revisionism, and reaffirmed the Stalinist ideology, policies, and practices of Mao's government as the correct course for achieving socialism in China. In the event, such Sino-Soviet divergences of Marxist–Leninist praxis and interpretation began fracturing monolithic communism — the Western misperception of absolute ideological unity in the Eastern bloc.[15]

From Mao's perspective, the success of the Soviet Union's foreign policy of peaceful coexistence with the West would geopolitically isolate the PRC;[16] whilst the occurrence of Hungarian revolution in Soviet Europe indicated the possibility of anti-communist revolt in the PRC, and in the Chinese sphere of influence. To thwart such discontent, Mao launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956) of political liberalization — the freedom of speech to publicly criticise the Chinese government, the bureaucracy, and the CPC; but the campaign proved too-successful when it featured blunt criticism of Mao Zedong as the Chinese head-of-state and as the chairman of the communist party.[17] Consequent to the relative freedoms of the de-Stalinized Soviet Union, Mao retained the Stalinist model of Marxist–Leninist economy, government, and society for China.[18]

Conflicting national interests

The strait of Taiwan

In July 1958, at Beijing, Khrushchev and Mao were negotiating joint Sino-Soviet naval bases in China, from which nuclear-armed Soviet submarines would deter US intervention to that region of eastern Asia. The naval-base agreement failed when Mao accused Khrushchev of trying to establish Soviet control of the PRC's coast.[19] At the end of August, Mao sought the PRC's sovereignty upon Taiwan island (the Republic of China), and launched the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis (23 August – 22 September 1958) by first attacking the Matsu islands and Kinmen island.

In launching that regional war against the KMT nationalists, the Chinese head of state, Mao Zedong, did not inform the Russian head of state, Nikita Khrushchev, that the People's Republic of China would attack Taiwan. Formal, ideologic response to such a geopolitical contingency compelled Khrushchev's revision of the USSR's policy of peaceful coexistence to include regional wars, like Mao's second war-crisis in the strait of Taiwan. Mao's withholding of information from Khrushchev worsened their personal-political relations, especially because the US threatened nuclear war upon China and Russia, if the PRC invaded Taiwan; thus did Mao's continual shoot-outs with Chiang Kai-shek impel Khrushchev into Sino-American quarrels about a long-lost civil war.[20] In context of the tri-polar Cold War, as premier of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev doubted the mental sanity of Chairman Mao, as head of the PRC, because his unrealistic policies of geopolitical confrontation might provoke nuclear war between the capitalist and the communist ideological blocs; so, to thwart Mao's warmongering, Khrushchev cancelled foreign-aid agreements and the delivery of Soviet atomic bombs to the PRC.[21]

Two Chinas

Throughout the 1950s, Premier Khrushchev maintained positive Sino-Soviet relations with foreign aid (especially Soviet technology for the Chicom atomic bomb) but the political tensions perdured, because the economic benefits of the USSR's peaceful-coexistence policy voided the belligerent PRC's geopolitical credibility among the nations under Chinese hegemony, especially after a failed PRC–US rapprochement. In the Chinese sphere of influence, that Sino-American diplomatic failure and the presence of US atomic bombs in Taiwan justified Mao's confrontational foreign policies — such as the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis (23 August – 22 September 1958) with the US, the foreign sponsor of Taiwan, a second republic of China, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, whom the US officially claimed and recognised as the leader of the two Chinas.[22]

In late 1958, the CPC revived Mao's guerrilla-period cult of personality to portray Chairman Mao as the charismatic, omniscient leader solely qualified to control the policy, the administration, and the popular mobilisation required to realise the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) to industrialise China.[23] Moreover, to the Eastern bloc, Mao portrayed the PRC's warfare with Chiang's nationalist Republic of China and the accelerated modernisation of the Great Leap Forward as Stalinist examples of Marxism—Leninism adapted to Chinese conditions. Those circumstances allowed ideologic Sino-Soviet competition, and Chairman Mao publicly criticised Premier Khrushchev's economic and foreign policies as deviations from Marxism–Leninism in the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, to the pragmatic Khrushchev of the USSR, the PRC's Stalinist worldview remained the destabilising threat to peaceful coexistence in the tri-polar Cold War, and, to protect that East–West rapprochement, Khrushchev undermined Mao's belligerence by reducing the USSR's foreign aid to the PRC.[24]


To Mao Zedong, the events of the 1958–1959 period indicated that Khrushchev of the Soviet Union was politically untrustworthy as an orthodox Marxist.[25] In 1959, Soviet Premier Khrushchev met with US President Dwight Eisenhower (r. 1953–1961) to decrease geopolitical tensions with the US; to that end, the USSR (i) reneged an agreement for technical aid to develop a Chicom atomic bomb, and (ii) sided with India in the Sino-Indian War (20 October – 21 November 1962). Each Russo-American collaboration offended Mao's sensibilities as a Marxist–Leninist; thereafter, Mao perceived Khrushchev as a Marxist who had become too-tolerant of the West, despite the USSR sometimes confronting the Western powers, as in the Berlin blockade, in 1948, in Eastern Germany. The Communist Party of China believed that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union concentrated too much on "Soviet–US co-operation for the domination of the world", with geopolitical actions that contradicted Marxism–Leninism.[26]

Khrushchev, Mao, and the Balkans

The Sino-Soviet split (1956–66) began with Premier Khrushchev of the USSR insulting Mao's Chinese Communism.
Stalinist solidarity: Mao Zedong of the PRC and Enver Hoxha of Socialist Albania

In the 1950s, the looming Sino-Soviet split was manifested in public denunciation and criticism of the allied countries of China and Russia. The PRC denounced the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945–1992) as not socialist for having a mixed economy, and attacked Marshal Tito (Josip Broz) as an ideological deviationist for pursuing a politically non-aligned foreign policy that was separate and apart from the geopolitics of the USSR and the PRC, whilst remaining in the Eastern bloc. The USSR criticized the People's Socialist Republic of Albania as a politically-backward socialist state, and the Albanian leader, Enver Hoxha, for not transcending Stalinism and for allying with the PRC, from which followed the Soviet–Albanian split (1955–1961). Moreover, to further thwart the Chinese Communists, the USSR publicly gave moral support to the anti–PRC rebels of the Tibetan uprising (10–23 March 1959).

Mao, Khrushchev, and the US

In 1960, Mao expected Khrushchev to aggressively deal with Eisenhower, by holding him accountable for the USSR having shot down a U-2 spy plane (1 May 1960) that was photographing Soviet military bases for the CIA; aerial espionage that the US said had been discontinued. In Paris, at the Four Powers Summit meeting (15–16 May 1960), Premier Khrushchev demanded, but did not receive from President Eisenhower an official US apology for the CIA's continuing aerial espionage of the USSR.

In China, Chairman Mao and the CPC interpreted Eisenhower's refusal to apologise to the USSR as disrespectful of the national sovereignty (aerial and terrestrial) of socialist countries, and held political rallies aggressively demanding Khrushchev's military confrontation with the American aggressors; without such decisive action, as a Communist national-leader Khrushchev lost face with the PRC. In the Socialist Republic of Romania, at the International Meeting of Communist and Workers Parties (November 1960), in Bucharest, Mao and Khrushchev respectively attacked the Russian and the Chinese interpretations of Orthodox Marxism and Leninism as the wrong road to world socialism in Russia and China. Mao said that Khrushchev's emphases on consumer goods and material plenty would make the Soviet people ideologically soft and un-revolutionary; Khrushchev replied that: “If we could promise the people nothing, except revolution, they would scratch their heads and say: ‘Isn’t it better to have good goulash?"[27]

Personal attacks

Sino-Soviet split
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 中蘇交惡
Simplified Chinese 中苏交恶
Russian name
Russian Советско–китайский раскол
Romanization Sovetsko–kitayskiy raskol

In the 1960s, the Sino-Soviet split featured public displays of acrimonious intramural quarrels between Stalinist Chinese and anti-Stalinist Russian communists. At the Romanian Communist Party Congress. Peng Zhen of the CPC quarrelled with Khrushchev, after the latter had insulted Chairman Mao as a Chinese nationalist, a geopolitical adventurist, and an ideological deviationist from Orthodox Marxism. In turn, Peng Zhen insulted Khrushchev as a Marxist revisionist whose political régime as premier of the USSR showed him to be a "patriarchal, arbitrary, and tyrannical" ruler.[28] In the event, Khrushchev denounced the People's Republic of China with eighty pages of critical complaints to the congress of the Romanian Communist Party. In June 1960, at the zenith of national de-Stalinisation, the USSR denounced Socialist Albania as a politically backward country for retaining Stalinism, as government and model of socialism. In turn, Bao Sansan said that the CPC's message to the cadres in China was: “When Khrushchev stopped Russian aid to Albania, Hoxha said to his people: ‘Even if we have to eat the roots of grass to live, we won’t take anything from Russia.’ China is not guilty of chauvinism, and immediately sent food to our brother country.”[29]

In response to the insults, Premier Khrushchev withdrew 1,400 soviet technicians from the PRC, which cancelled some 200 joint-scientific-projects meant to foster Sino-Russian amity and co-operation between the socialist nations. To Chairman Mao, that withdrawal of technicians justified his belief that Khrushchev had, somehow, caused China's great economic failures, and the famines occurred in the period of the Great Leap Forward; nonetheless, the PRC and the USSR remained pragmatic allies, which allowed Mao to alleviate famine in China and to resolve Sino-Indian border disputes. As premier of the USSR, to Mao, Khrushchev had lost a measure of political authority and ideologic credibility, because his Russo-American policy of geopolitical détente resulted in successful military (aerial) espionage against the USSR, and public confrontation with an unapologetic capitalist enemy; that miscalculation of person and circumstance voided diplomacy between the US and the USSR at the Four Powers Summit.[30]

Monolithic communism fractured

In late 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis (17–20 April 1961) concluded when the US and the USSR respectively agreed to remove intermediate-range PGM-19 Jupiter nuclear missiles (pictured) from Italy and Turkey, and to remove intermediate-range R-12 Dvina and R-14 Chusovaya nuclear missiles from Socialist Cuba. In the context of the Sino-Soviet split, Chairman Mao Zedong of the PRC said that the USSR's military stand-down was Premier Khrushchev's betrayal of Marxist–Leninist geopolitics.

In 1961, at the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (17–31 October 1961), the PRC and the USSR revisited their doctrinal disputes about the orthodox interpretation and practical application of Marxism–Leninism.[31] In December 1961, the USSR broke diplomatic relations with Socialist Albania, a Stalinist ally of the PRC, which escalated the Sino-Soviet disputes from the political-party-level to the national-government-level. In that vein, the USSR publicly approved of the Indian annexation of Portuguese India (18–19 December 1961), an anti-colonial action of the Indian government, which the PRC publicly minimised by saying that: "India's apparent contribution to anti-imperialist struggle consists of taking on the world's smallest imperialist power."

In late 1962, the PRC broke relations with the Soviet Union, because Premier Khrushchev did not go to war with the US over the Cuban Missile Crisis (6–28 October 1962). Regarding that Soviet loss-of-face, Mao said that "Khrushchev has moved from adventurism to capitulationism" with a negotiated, bilateral military stand-down; Khrushchev replied that Mao's belligerent foreign policies would lead to an East–West nuclear war.[32] In the Western world, the Cuban Missile Crisis made nuclear disarmament the political priority of the Cold War; thus the US, the UK, and the USSR agreed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty (5 August 1963) that formally forbade nuclear-detonation tests in the Earth's atmosphere, in outer space, and under water, yet did allow underground nuclear-detonation tests. In that time the PRC's nuclear weapons programme was nascent, and Mao perceived the Limited Test Ban Treaty as the nuclear powers' attempt to thwart China's becoming a nuclear superpower.[33]

As a Marxist–Leninist, Chairman Mao of the PRC was much angered that Premier Khrushchev of the USSR did not militarily confront the US over their failed Bay of Pigs Invasion (17–20 April 1961) and their continual interference with the internal politics of Socialist Cuba, with the United States embargo against Cuba, such as agricultural sabotage, economic embargo, and aerial espionage. For the Eastern bloc, Mao addressed those matters in Nine Letters (September 1963–July 1964) critical of Premier Khrushchev and his leadership of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the break with the USSR allowed Mao to reorient the development of China with formal relations (diplomatic, economic, political) with the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.[34]

Formal statements

The Sino-Soviet split allowed only written communications between the quarreling socialist counties; thus, the PRC and the USSR supported their geopolitical actions with formal statements of ideology concerning the true road to world communism, that is the general line of the party. In June 1963, the PRC published The Chinese Communist Party's Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement,[35] to which the USSR replied with the Open Letter of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[36] In 1964, as a theoretician of Communism, Chairman Mao said that, in light of their differences of interpretation of Orthodox Marxism, a counter-revolution in the USSR had re-established capitalism; consequently, the USSR and then the Warsaw Pact countries broke relations with the People's Republic of China .

In late 1964, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai of the PRC went to the USSR, and met Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin, the new leaders of the USSR. Their meeting went poorly, and the disappointed Zhou returned to China and reported to Mao that the Soviets remained in the ideological stance that Mao denounced as "Khrushchevism without Khrushchev"; Mao's dismissal of Soviet conditions continued the Sino-Soviet split.

The PRC accused the Soviet Union of colluding with the US at the Glassboro Summit Conference (June 1967) between Kosygin and US President Lyndon B. Johnson. The propaganda interpretation of the Glassboro Summit Conference published byRadio Peking reported that the Soviet and American politicians discussed "a great conspiracy, on a worldwide basis . . . criminally selling the rights of the revolution of [the] Vietnam people, Arabs, as well as Asian, African, and Latin-American peoples, to U.S. imperialists."[37]


Cultural Revolution

As chairman of the CPC, Mao Zedong launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) to counter the Russian-style bureaucracies of personal-power-centres established in education, agriculture, and industrial management. Abiding Mao's proclamations for universal ideological orthodoxy, schools and universities closed throughout China when students organised themselves into politically radical Red Guards. Lacking a leader, political purpose, and social function, the ideologically discrete units of Red Guards soon degenerated into political factions, each of whom claimed to be ideologically truer to the socialist philosophy of Chairman Mao than were the other factions.[38]

In establishing the universal orthodoxy of ideology presented in the Little Red Book (Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung), the political violence of the Red Guards provoked civil war in parts of China, which Mao suppressed with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) imprisoning the fractious Red Guards. Moreover, when red-guard factionalism occurred in the PLA, Mao's power-base, he dissolved the Red Guards, and then reconstituted the Communist Party of China with the Maoist comrades who had perdured through and survived the Cultural Revolution that purged anti-communist enemies of the people from China and the Party.[39]

As social engineering, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution reasserted the political primacy of the Thought of Mao Zedong, but also stressed, strained, and broke the PRC's relations (political and economic) with the USSR and with the Western world.[40] Geopolitically, despite their querulous "Maoism vs. Marxism–Leninism" disputes about interpretations and practical applications of Orthodox Marxism, as socialist countries of the Eastern bloc, the USSR and the PRC advised, aided, and supplied the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) to fight of the thirty-year Vietnam War (1945–1975),[41] which Maoism defined as a peasant revolution against foreign imperialism. In socialist solidarity, the PRC allowed safe passage for the Soviet Union's matériel to the north of Vietnam to prosecute the war against the US-sponsored Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).[42]

Conflicting national interests

The Sino–Soviet split allowed minor border disputes to escalate to firefights for areas of the Argun and Amur rivers. (Damansky–Zhenbao is southeast, north of the lake. (2 March – 11 September 1969)
The door to the anti-bomb shelter in the tunnels of Underground Project 131, in Hubei, China

Since 1956, the Sino-Soviet ideological split, between Communist political parties, had escalated to small-scale warfare between Russia and China; thereby, in January 1967, Red Guards attacked the Soviet embassy in Beijing. Earlier, in 1966, the Chinese had revived the matter of the Russo-Chinese border that was demarcated in the 19th-century, and imposed upon the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) monarchy by means of unequal treaties that virtually annexed Chinese territory to the Russian Empire.

Despite not asking the return of territory, the Chinese did ask the USSR to formally (publicly) acknowledge that said border, established with the Treaty of Aigun (1858) and the Convention of Peking (1860), was a historic Russian injustice against China; the Soviet government ignored the matter. Then, in 1968, the Red Guard purges meant to restore doctrinal orthodoxy to China had provoked civil war in parts of the country, which Mao resolved with the People's Liberation Army suppressing the pertinent cohorts of the Red Guard; the excesses of the Red Guard and of the Cultural Revolution declined. Mao required internal political equilibrium in order to protect China from the strategic and military vulnerabilities that resulted from its political isolation from the community of nations.

Border war

Meanwhile, during 1968, the Soviet Army had massed along the 4,380 km (2,738 mi.) border with China — especially at the Xinjiang frontier, in north-west China, where the Soviets might readily induce a Turkic separatist insurrection. In 1961, the USSR had 12 divisions of soldiers and 200 airplanes at that border; by 1968, there were 25 divisions, 1,200 airplanes, and 120 medium-range missiles; by March 1969, the border confrontations had become the Sino-Soviet border conflict, with fighting at the Ussuri River and on Damansky–Zhenbao Island; more small-scale warfare occurred at Tielieketi in August.

Nuclear China

In the 1960–64 period, US presidents Kennedy and Johnson had considered destroying the Chinese program for nuclear weapons before fruition, but the USSR had refused to co-operate in a unilateral first-strike nuclear war.[43] In 1969, the US warned the USSR that a unilateral first-strike nuclear attack against the PRC would provoke the Third World War.[44] Aware of the Soviet Union's nuclear threat, the PRC built large-scale underground shelters, such as the Underground City in Beijing, and military bomb shelters, such as the Underground Project 131 command center in Hubei, and the 816 Nuclear Military Plant, in the Fuling District of Chongqing city.

Geopolitical pragmatism

To counter the USSR, Chairman Mao met U.S President Richard Nixon in order to establish a Sino-American rapprochement. (China, 1972)

After the Sino-Soviet border conflict (2 Mar. – 11 Sept., 1969), Soviet Prime minister Alexei Kosygin secretly went to Beijing to confer with Premier Zhou Enlai, and by October, the PRC and the USSR began determining the demarcation of their national borders. Despite not resolving the border demarcation, the meetings restored Sino-Soviet diplomatic communications, and, by 1970, Mao understood that the People's Republic of China could not simultaneously fight the USSR and the USA, whilst suppressing internal disorder. In July 1971, Nixon's National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, went to Beijing to arrange the Nixon visit to China (February 1972). Kissinger's actions offended the USSR, who then convoked a summit meeting with President Nixon; that action re-cast the Cold War as tri-polar relation among Moscow and Washington and Beijing.

Concerning the 4,380 km (2,738 mi.) Sino-Soviet border, Soviet propaganda agitated against the PRC's complaint about the unequal Treaty of Aigun (1858) and the Convention of Peking (1860), which cheated China of territory and natural resources. To that effect, in the 1972–73 period, the USSR deleted the Chinese and Manchu place-names—Iman (伊曼, Yiman), Tetyukhe (野猪河, yĕzhūhé), and Suchan—from the map of the Soviet Far East, and replaced them with the Russian place-names Dalnerechensk, Dalnegorsk, and Partizansk, respectively.[45][46] To facilitate social acceptance of such cultural revision, the Soviet press misrepresented the historical presence of Chinese people—in lands gained by Tsarist Russia—which provoked Russian violence against the local Chinese populaces; moreover, politically inconvenient exhibits were removed from museums,[45] and vandals covered with cement the Jurchen-script stele, about the Jin Dynasty, in the Khabarovsk Museum.[47]

Competing front groups

The Communist bloc in 1980: pro-Soviet (red), pro–Chinese (yellow), the non-aligned (black) Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Socialist Yugoslavia.

After breaking relations with the USSR, Mao and Khrushchev entered into a Sino-Soviet rivalry to be the leader of world communism.[48] In the countries of the Chinese sphere of influence, Mao established a network of pro–Chinese political-front organisations that challenged pro–Soviet organisations in orienting local communists to the PRC's variety of communist revolution.[49][50]

By 1970, Sino–Soviet rivalry had extended to Africa and the Middle East, where the Soviet Union and China funded opposed political parties, militias, and states, notably in the Ogaden War (1977–1978) between Ethiopia and Somalia; the Rhodesian Bush War (1964–1979) between white colonists and anti-colonial natives; and the Bush War's aftermath, the Zimbabwean Gukurahundi (1980–1987) massacres; the Angolan Civil War (1975–2002) between competing liberation movements was a Soviet-American proxy war; the Mozambican Civil War (1977–1992), and Palestinian guerrilla factions. In Thailand, the pro–Chinese front organisations were based upon the local Chinese minority populations, and thus were politically ineffective.[51]


The transition

The elimination of Marshal Lin Biao in 1971 ameliorated the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).

In 1971, the politically-radical phase of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) concluded with the failure of Project 571, a coup d'état to depose Chairman Mao, and the death of Marshal Lin Biao, Mao's executive officer. Afterwards, China resumed political normalcy, until the death of Mao Zedong (9 September 1976), and the emergence of the politically radical Gang of Four.

The re-establishment of Chinese domestic tranquility ended armed confrontation with the USSR, but it did not improve Sino-Soviet diplomatic relations, because, in 1973, the Soviet Army garrisons at the Russo-Chinese border were twice as large as the garrisons in 1969. That continued military threat prompted the PRC to denounce "Soviet social-imperialism", by accusing the USSR of being an enemy of world revolution.

Transcending Mao

After thwarting the 1976 coup d'état by the radical Gang of Four, who argued for ideologic orthodoxy at the expense of internal development, the Chinese Communist Party politically rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping and appointed him head of the internal modernization programs in 1977. With the reversal of Mao's policies (without politically attacking him), the politically moderate Deng's political and economic reforms began the PRC's transition from a planned economy to a semi-capitalist mixed economy, which he furthered with strengthened commercial and diplomatic relations with the West.[52][53]

In 1979, on the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the PRC, the government of Deng Xiaoping denounced the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution as a national failure; and, in the 1980s, pursued Realpolitik policies, such as "seeking truth from facts" and the "Chinese road to socialism", which withdrew the PRC from the high-level abstractions of ideology, polemic, and the Marxist revisionism of the Soviet Union; the Sino–Soviet split had lost some political importance.[52][53]

Conflicting hegemonies

After the death of Mao Zedong, the ideological Sino-Soviet split became domestic politics, but remained useful geopolitics when the national interests of Russian and Chinese hegemonies conflicted. The initial Sino–Soviet proxy war occurred in 1975, when the military victory of the NVA and the Viet Cong (National Liberation Front) in the thirty-year Vietnam War (1945–75) produced a post-colonial south-east Asia that featured socialist countries, such as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, and Democratic Kampuchea.

In 1979, the Vietnamese deposed the government of Pol Pot in Kampuchea, during the Cambodian–Vietnamese War (1975–1979).

Vietnam initially ignored the Khmer Rouge domestic re-organisation of Cambodia, by the Pol Pot government (1975–1979), as an internal matter, until the Khmer Rouge attacked the ethnic Vietnamese populace of Cambodia, and the border with Vietnam; the counter-attack precipitated the Cambodian–Vietnamese War (1975–1979), which deposed Pol Pot in 1978. In response, the PRC denounced the Vietnamese and retaliated by invading northern Vietnam in the Sino-Vietnamese War (1979); in turn, the USSR denounced the PRC's invasion of Vietnam.

In December 1979, the USSR invaded the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to maintain the Afghan Communist government in power. The PRC viewed the Soviet invasion as a local feint, within Soviet's greater, geopolitical encirclement of China. In response, the PRC entered a tri-partite alliance with the U.S. and Pakistan to sponsor Islamist Afghan armed resistance to the Soviet Occupation (cf. Operation Storm-333). Meanwhile, the Sino-Soviet split became manifest when Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader of China, required the removal of "three obstacles" so that Sino-Soviet relations might improve:

  1. The massed Soviet Army at the Sino-Soviet border and in Mongolia.
  2. Soviet support of the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea (Cambodia).
  3. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

In 1981–82, Sino-American relations were strained by geopolitical disagreements over wars such as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the Falklands War. At the CCP's 12th Congress in September 1982, Deng Xiaoping revived the revisionist "Three Worlds" idea that characterized China as a neutral player in a world divided by conflict between the superpowers. Meanwhile, in March 1982 in Tashkent, Soviet Secretary Brezhnev gave a speech that was conciliatory towards the PRC, and Deng took advantage of Brezhnev's proffered conciliation; in autumn of 1982, Sino-Soviet relations resumed (semi-annually) at the vice-ministerial level.

When Brezhnev died in November 1982, a Chinese delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Huang Hua, attended the funeral, where Huang praised Brezhnev as "an outstanding champion of world peace" and expressed hope for normal relations with Moscow. However, Huang's actions at Brezhnev's funeral led to his dismissal from office after he returned to the PRC.

Three years later, in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became President of the USSR, he worked to restore political relations with the PRC; he reduced the Soviet Army garrisons at the Sino-Soviet border and in Mongolia, resumed trade, and dropped the matter of the 1969 border-demarcation dispute. Nonetheless, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan remained unresolved, and Sino-Soviet diplomacy remained cool, which circumstance allowed the Reagan government to sell American weapons to China and so counter the geopolitics of the USSR in the Russo-American aspect of the tri-polar Cold War.

Diplomatic relations between China and Afghanistan were neutral during the reign of the Afghan king; yet, when pro-Soviet Afghan communists seized power in 1978, relations between China and the Afghan communists quickly worsened and then became hostile. Although the Afghan communists supported China's enemies in Vietnam, and blamed China for supporting militant Afghan anti–Communists, China responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by supporting the Afghan Mujahidin with aid, small arms, and matériel, delivered by the Pakistani military and intelligence and the CIA, and likewise increased their military presence in Xinjiang, near Afghanistan. China acquired American military equipment to defend from Soviet attack.[54]

The Chinese People's Liberation Army trained and supported the Afghan Mujahidin during the Soviet–Afghan War. China moved training camps for the Mujahideen from Pakistan into China proper, which were supported with military advisors and soldiers; afterwards, the Mujahidin were provided anti-aircraft missiles, rocket launchers, and machine guns.[55]

Throughout the 1980s, Sino-Soviet political relations improved, by trade agreements and cultural exchanges, however ideological relations between the Communist parties of Russia and China remained unchanged, because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) refused to accept the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) as their Marxist equals.


Paramount Leader of China, Deng Xiaoping (center), with U.S. President Gerald Ford (left), China, 1975

In May 1989, Soviet President Gorbachev visited the People's Republic of China, where the government doubted the practical efficacy of perestroika and glasnost. Since the PRC did not officially recognize the USSR as a socialist state, there was no official opinion about Gorbachev's reformation of Soviet socialism. Privately, the Chinese Communists thought that the USSR was unprepared for such political and social reforms without first reforming the economy of the USSR.

The Chinese perspective derived from how the paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, effected economic reform with a semi-capitalist mixed economy, while the political power remained with the Chinese Communist Party. Ultimately, Gorbachev's reformation of Russian society ended Soviet-Communist government and provoked the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

See also


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Further reading

  • Chang, Jung, and Jon Halliday. Mao: The Unknown Story. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
  • Ellison, Herbert J., ed. The Sino-Soviet Conflict: A Global Perspective (1982) online
  • Ford, Harold P., "Calling the Sino-Soviet Split", Studies in Intelligence, Winter 1998-99.
  • Friedman, Jeremy. "Soviet policy in the developing world and the Chinese challenge in the 1960s." Cold War History (2010) 10#2 pp: 247-272.
  • Friedman, Jeremy. Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World (UNC Press Books, 2015).
  • Goh, Evelyn. Constructing the US Rapprochement with China, 1961-1974: From "Red Menace" to "Tacit Ally" (Cambridge University Press, 2005)
  • Jian, Chen. Mao's China & the Cold War. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
  • Kochavi, Noam. "The Sino-Soviet Split." in A Companion to John F. Kennedy (2014) pp: 366-383.
  • Li, Hua-Yu et al., eds China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949-Present (The Harvard Cold War Studies Book Series) (2011) excerpt and text search
  • Lüthi, Lorenz M. (2010). The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World. Princeton UP. ISBN 978-1400837625.
  • Mark, Chi-Kwan. China and the world since 1945: an international history (Routledge, 2011)
  • Olsen, Mari. Soviet-Vietnam Relations and the Role of China 1949-64: Changing Alliances (Routledge, 2007)
  • Ross, Robert S., ed. China, the United States, and the Soviet Union: Tripolarity and Policy Making in the Cold War (1993) online
  • Scalapino, Robert A (1964). "Sino-Soviet Competition in Africa". Foreign Affairs. 42 (4): 640–654. doi:10.2307/20029719. JSTOR 20029719.
  • Westad, Odd Arne, ed. Brothers in arms: the rise and fall of the Sino-Soviet alliance, 1945-1963 (Stanford University Press, 1998)

Primary sources

  • Luthi, Lorenz M. (2008). "Twenty-Four Soviet-Bloc Documents on Vietnam and the Sino-Soviet Split, 1964–1966". Cold War International History Project Bulletin. 16: 367–398.
  • [Bao] Sansan and Bette Bao Lord (1964/1966), Eighth Moon: The True Story of a Young Girl's Life in Communist China, reprint, New York: Scholastic, Ch. 9, pp. 120–124 [summary of lectures to cadres on Sino-Soviet split].
  • Prozumenshchikov, Mikhail Yu. "The Sino-Indian Conflict, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Sino-Soviet Split, October 1962: New Evidence from the Russian Archives." Cold War International History Project Bulletin (1996) 8#9 pp: 1996-7. online

External links

  • The CWIHP Document Collection on the Sino-Soviet Split
  • The Great Debate: Documents of the Sino-Soviet Split at Marxists Internet Archive

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