Book Excerpt


The Sino/Soviet Dispute

In Fear of China
The Background to the Dispute – Summary
When the Chinese Communist armies defeated their Nationalist opponents in 1949 only two things stood between them and final victory – the island of Taiwan still occupied by the fleeing Nationalist armies and a scattering of islands close to the coast of China – the Offshore Islands – which the communist armies were poised to occupy.  
The US, disgusted with the corruption and incompetence of Chiang’s Nationalist armies, had already made clear it was under no commitment to rescue them from the almost inevitable attack across the Taiwan Straits from the mainland by the Communist armies. On January 5, 1950, US president Truman formally announced that the US would not intervene if Communist China attacked Taiwan.
Chinese Communist armies were already assembling in southern China in preparation for the final attack on Taiwan.
But that left Korea. By any impartial judgement, if Taiwan was to be left free to organise its own government after expulsion of the Japanese colonial government, then the same should apply to Korea.  A proud nation it had suffered the worst aspects of Japanese colonial domination.
After 1948 it already had a government in place in the northern half of the country, controlled by men who for years had been fighting guerrilla war against the Japanese.
If any one should have been entitled to take over it was they.
But the US had decided otherwise. Anti-communist sentiment in the US dictated no further concessions to Asian communism. The US preferred to recognise the government installed in 1948 in the southern half of the peninsula, and made up mainly by radically anti-communist elements. 
It was headed by a US-installed elderly rightist, Syngman Rhee, who had spent many of the war years in Shanghai and the US. His announced aim was to unify Korea under the rule of his anti-communist government. 
Moderate opposition forces and personalities were crushed. Leftwing and educated elements in the south who favoured or were suspected of being likely to favour the rival pro-communist government in the north were hunted down.  Some dreadful massacres occurred, with the massacre on Jeju island estimated to have 100,000 victims.
In June 1950 the northern government decided to put an end to this situation and attacked. The weak, badly motivated armies of the south were quickly pushed back into a small perimeter around the south-eastern city of Busan. 
They were saved by a massive US military intervention which pushed the pro-communist forces out of south Korea and back to the north, close to the Chinese border. The attack included extensive B52 carpet bombing of northern towns and villages. As one of the Australian airmen involved described it to me over a beer in 1958 when I was starting to learn Chinese at the Australian Air Force Point Cook language school. ‘We started with the towns.  When we had no more towns to bomb we bombed the villages. And when there were no more villages we bombed the haystacks.”
(I mention this as a possible explanation of the paranoia still found in North Korea.) 
Beijing’s decision to intervene meant it had to bring up its armies from south to north China and across the Yalu River into North Korea.  The planned 1950 occupation of Taiwan and the Offshore Islands had to be postponed.
With a Korean War armistice signed in 1953, the first Chinese move against the Offshore islands came quickly, in 1954-5. It was halted by a threat of US nuclear intervention. Beijing realised that without a nuclear retaliation ability it would gain neither the islands or Taiwan.
Beijing turned to Moscow for help. In 1957 in exchange for rescuing Khrushchev from his political enemies it gained a Soviet promise of nuclear support against the US, and a promise to help in the development of a nuclear weapon. 
In 1958 Beijing felt safe to risk another attack on the Offshore islands.  Once again the US threatened nuclear retaliation. But by this time Moscow had already begun a policy of attempted peaceful coexistence towards the US. It was in no mood to face nuclear confrontation with the US and sacrifice detente chances with the US for the sake of Beijing. China was forced to back down once again.
The 13 year Sino-Soviet dispute was the result.
The above is a summary of my analysis into the dispute’s background published in my 1968 ‘In Fear of China’ book.  New and confirming material has since come to hand. According to one active policy participant at the time  – Daniel Ellsberg – over China’s Offshore Islands disputes in 1954-5 and 1958 the world was much closer to nuclear war than we realised 
If China had not stood down over the 1958 dispute – and it only had hours to decide –  the US would have begun tactical nuclear bombings of military airports in southern China.
At the time in Canberra we had rumours of a nuclear showdown.  But few realised the danger was so imminent and so great. Later in Moscow in 1964 I began to sense the danger of the dispute and to research its origins. Now with the Ellsberg revelations we can finally understand one of the reasons for China’s attitudes over those years. 
I had planned subsequently to spend some time in Beijing and do more research using Chinese materials. But that plan was frustrated by Australia’s turf-protecting, pro-China clique.
However on occasional private visits to China I did manage to find one or two items of Sino-Soviet interest. One was the importance the Chinese place on Edgar’s Snow’s 1994 book ‘Red Star over China.’ They see it as forcing US scholars to take China’s progress seriously. 
Other items include the gross, criminal even, Western distortion of Tiananmen events in 1989 which further delayed China’s opening to the outside world.
Chinese sources have also made me more aware of the seriousness of the 1969 Damansky-island clash which could easily have escalated to full-scale Sino-Soviet war.  It may have triggered Zhou Enlai’s anxiousness to open China to the outside world via the 1971 pingpong diplomacy in which I played small role. 
Finally, there is the harm caused by bad scholarship. From the beginning, it was clear that the Chinese ideological position in the dispute was not set in stone, that underlying factors were involved. Something serious had caused Beijing to swing from moderation to full recognition of Soviet leadership to bitter enmity.
China’s heated attacks on Moscow were the result of some foreign policy dispute rather than some Chinese plan to attack the world.Unfortunately somme ugly people in the West had a vested interest having the world believe China wanted to attack the world.
The key to the dispute was Khrushchev’s detente policies requiring him to back away from his nuclear promises to China in the wake of the failed 1954 and 1958 Offshore Islands attacks. This, rather than some inherent militarism, underlay Beijing’s policies at the time.
For me, personally,  there has been one further serious regret in all this. 
The dominating Zagoria thesis at the time said that the Sino-Soviet dispute was due to Soviet moderation in the face of an alleged Chinese militarism towards Moscow and along the Sino-Indian border. The wide acceptance of this thesis led to a decade of Western anti-China hysteria, the Vietnam War in particular. Three million deaths among a brave people and ten years of international tension was a large price to pay for that breakdown in Western academic understanding of China.
I tried to set the record straight. Being in Moscow in 1964 and on the China-India desk in Canberra in1962 helped me to write my 1968 book ‘In Fear of China’ exposing some of the distortions involved. But there was little one could do in the face of hostility and the problems of everyday existence.   I have already mentioned one problem -the petty biases and turf-protection jealousies of a pro-China clique with little experience of foreign affairs other than China. Then there was the anti-China media hysteria and the US-UK hegemony over academic books. And last but certainly not least, the Australian apathy to foreign affairs.
The enormous amount of my research needed to explain the Sino-Soviet dispute was largely in vain.* 
This POSTSCRIPT is a very belated effort to set the record straight, before it is too late. I was born in 1936.
The only Australian academic I know who has ever made mention of this research was Peter King, then of Sydney University
The Sino-Soviet Dispute

Chinese/Russian Communist Relations – From the Beginning

To understand what the Sino/Soviet alliance was about, we need to know something of the history of relations between the Chinese and Soviet Communist governments. 

When Mao came to power in October 1949, he owed almost nothing to Moscow. By its faulty advice to the struggling Chinese Communist Party of the 1920’s it had greatly handicapped the Party’s growth. It had backed Mao’s opponents in the struggle for Party leadership of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s it tried to maintain normal relations with Chiang Kaishek’s Government, and had done virtually nothing to assist the struggling Yenan-based communists. 

Indeed, its only substantial gesture of support for the Chinese communist movement prior to 1949 had been to assist the latter take possession of arms surrendered in 1945 in Manchuria by the defeated Japanese Army.*

*In his book Conversations with Stalin, the former Yugoslav communist leader Djilas has told how Stalin admitted having tried to discourage the Communist Chinese leaders from making their bid for power after 1945.

Soviet behaviour in handing over the Manchurian cities to Chiang Kaishek’s forces in 1946, and even proposing a long-term agreement with Chiang for economic co-operation in Manchuria, confirms Djilas’s conclusion that Stalin had decided that the Soviet interest lay in a continuation of Chiang’s Government in China, rather than a long-drawn-out civil war with Mao’s forces which carried the risk of U.S. intervention.


Mao would probably have shared the mixed feelings of his countrymen towards the Russians. On the one hand, Moscow had given the Chinese Government (under Chiang) valuable military assistance in the early days of the war against Japan when the other Western powers were refusing to become involved. 

On the other hand, there was the memory of Tsarist territorial acquisitions from China in the nineteenth century, the record of Russian (both Tsarist and Communist) penetration in Mongolia and Xinjiang, and the looting of some $2 billion worth of equipment from Manchurian factories in 1945.

It is possible that Mao for these various reasons harboured some resentment or dislike of the Russians. We do not know. But in December 1949, he visited Moscow, and after ten weeks of negotiations, a Sino/Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance was signed. 

Under the Treaty the Soviet Union gave the Chinese certain defence guarantees, as well as a $300 million loan with which to begin the painful task of restoring their economy and expanding their industries.


Was there any obvious reason, however, apart from shared communist ideology, why the Chinese should have chosen to ally themselves with Moscow? What were the options? Alliance with the West was practically and ideologically, out of the question. But was there any obstacle to the Chinese taking a Yugoslav-type position in which they retained independence within the Communist Bloc, and at the same time sought to have normal relations with the West?

Towards the end of 1949 a number of Western countries were moving towards recognition of Beijing as the legitimate government of China. The U.S.had, in January 1950, announced its decision not to defend the Nationalists in Taiwan, leaving the way open for establishment of relations with Beijing. The U.S. had every incentive to encourage China in a Yugoslav direction. 

That some Chinese had advocated that China should take an independent line was suggested by Mao’s rejection of the “third road” between the path of imperialism and socialism. But the fact that he publicly opposed the third-roaders does not mean that he himself was not attracted by the idea of at least some independence in foreign relations. 

Everything we know about the pragmatism and flexibility with which he handled relations with Chiang Kaishek suggests that he could have been equally flexible in his relations with Moscow and the West if he felt was in the Chinese interest to be so. But in the ideological atmosphere of the time, with Stalin still fulminating over Yugoslavia’s 1948 bid for independence, it would have been heretical to suggest, in public statements at least, that China could have done anything else except “lean to the side of the socialist camp”.

Even so, Stalin may still have felt uneasy about the depth of Chinese allegiance. Mao, like Tito, had come to power through his own efforts, and could be expected to harbour independent views.*

*Djilas suggests that one of the reasons why Stalin opposed Mao’s bid for power was his fears that he would be unable to control Mao and that a rival centre of communist power would emerge. (Conversations with Stalin).

But whatever unease Stalin may have felt would quickly have been terminated by the outbreak of the Korean War. The U.S. position over Taiwan was immediately reversed. Moves by other Western countries towards recognition of China were halted. If, in fact, Stalin was deeply involved in the decision to launch the North Korean attack of June 1950, it is not inconceivable that he was influenced by the likelihood of the West’s reacting against China in the way it did.


But regardless of whether or not Mao had Titoist ambitions, by the end of the Korean War in 1953 it must have been clear to him that Beijing had no choice but to ally itself closely with the Soviet Union. The economic embargo imposed by the West on China following its intervention in that war meant there was little hope of obtaining needed technology from that direction.

It was also clear that China’s trade would have to be conducted primarily with the countries of the Communist Bloc. And to the extent the Chinese leaders saw the unleashing of Chiang Kaishek and the U.S. military build-up in the Pacific as an indication of U.S. intentions to overthrow their regime, they would also have felt dependent on the Soviet alliance for security. It was thus clearly in the Chinese interest to maintain a close alliance with Moscow.

Resentment over demands believed to have been made by Moscow that the Chinese pay in full for weapons supplied during the Korean War, and any other resentments which may have existed at that time, were sublimated for the sake of Sino/Soviet accord.


This was the situation in 1953. By 1956, however, it seems likely that the Chinese view of the advantages they gained from the Soviet alliance may have altered. Already the recovery of the Chinese economy was well advanced.

Economic contacts with Western countries were beginning to develop, and it would have been becoming clear to the Chinese then, if not before, that economic ties with the Soviet Union were not the gold-mine they might have expected. 

Disputes had arisen over unfavourable prices charged by the Russians. Economic aid was limited. Technical aid in the form of experts, technology etc., while provided generously, had to be paid for in full by the Chinese who would have realised that in many cases Western technology was as good as, if not superior to, what was available from the Soviet Union.(1)

From the ideological point of view, the alliance had also lost a great deal of its attraction. 

True, so long as Stalin sought to maintain firm control over the Communist Bloc, the alliance was tacit recognition of China’s special position in the Bloc. But his death in 1953 saw the gradual relaxation of Moscow control, culminating in Khrushchev’s speech of February, 1956, denouncing Stalin, and the subsequent troubles in Hungary and Poland.

The Chinese would have seen Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign as an opportunity to assert a degree of ideological independence. They would have had no reason to oppose the campaign.

Some have suggested that Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization moves generated the Sino-Soviet dispute, that they preferred Stalin’s iron fist approach.  But in April 1956, the Chinese published their own analysis of Stalin’s faults, in which they sought to explain Stalin’s behaviour in terms of “non-antagonistic contradictions” inevitably developing within a socialist society.(2) 

In effect, the Chinese had contradicted Khrushchev’s attempt to explain Stalin’s behaviour simply as a personal aberration. This theory of contradictions was later developed at some length by Mao, and it was clear that the Chinese saw it as an original contribution to communist ideology.

At the same time, the Chinese moved to establish their independence within the Bloc; far from any iron fist they sided with the Poles in their dispute with the Soviet Union. At a crucial stage in October 1956, they were reported to have restrained the Soviets from using force to overthrow Gomulka’s regime.(3)

In December 1956, they appeared to adopt a middle position in the developing split between the Soviets and the Yugoslavs, publishing without comment the statements of both sides.

At the end of December 1956, the Chinese published a follow-up to their April article on contradictions, in which they expanded the theory of “non-antagonistic contradictions” to cover relations between socialist states.(4)

Early in 1957, Chou En-lai toured the Soviet union, Poland and Hungary, and the constant theme of his speeches throughout the tour was the need to correct the mistakes of the past in Bloc relations. 

The culmination of these moves towards independence was the launching of the Hundred Flowers campaign in early 1957— an ideological innovation remarkable in communist history both for its seeming liberalism and novelty.

In the light of subsequent Sino/Soviet developments, a significant feature of Chinese behaviour in 1956-7 was not simply the fact the Chinese were asserting an independent line, but that the Chinese line was in almost every respect more liberal than that of the Soviets. So much so that Polish intellectuals, at the vanguard of the liberalization movement in their own country, looked to China as an ideological ally against Soviet doctrinal rigidity. 

Some observers have identified the events of 1956-7 as the genesis of the ideological dispute between the Chinese and the Soviets.They argue that the Chinese during this period developed a taste for ideological independence, and the seeds of the subsequent differences were sown.

But such a view, while it receives some support from what the Chinese themselves say about the origin of the dispute (5), contradicts the popular view of the dispute as one between moderate, liberalizing Soviets and hard-line doctrinaire Chinese. 

Hardline doctrinaire Chinese would hardly have wanted to support liberalising Poles.   

China’s Pro-Moscow Move

But the main flaw in the argument that the Chinese move towards ideological independence in 1956-7 generated a Sino/Soviet ideological split is that these moves were terminated in the latter half of 1957 by the Chinese themselves taking the initiative in moving closer to Moscow.

Before this date they had warned of the dangers of “dogmatism” within the communist movement. Now they began to warn of the dangers of “revisionism”. Relations with the Poles cooled. The Yugoslavs were directly criticized. Critics of the Soviet Union during the Hundred Flowers period were punished.*Adulation of the Soviet Union, which had always been a regular feature of Chinese propaganda, reached new heights.

And, as a climax, the Chinese, who previously had pressed the theme of equality within the Communist Bloc to the point where the Soviets began to talk of the Bloc as a “commonwealth”(sodruzhestvo) and appeared willing to drop their claim to Bloc leadership, suddenly performed a complete about-face and insisted that the Soviets consider themselves as leaders of the Bloc.

Mao Tsetung, in a speech made during his visit to Moscow to attend the November 1957 conference of world communist parties, stated: “The socialist camp must have a leader and this leader is the Soviet Union. In the same way there must be a leader among the communist and workers’ parties of all countries, and this leader is the C.P.S.U. [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]”.(6)

Two questions need to be answered: Firstly, why did the Chinese maintain their interest in the Soviet alliance throughout 1956-7 when in many respects  – economic, ideological and even defensive – the alliance had lost much of its original value? Secondly, why the sudden hardening of the Chinese attitude in the latter half of 1957?  Some background involving Taiwan is needed.

*One of the critics, a former Yunnan warlord, Lung Yun, objected to the Soviets charging interest on aid to China, and asked when the Soviet Union would compensate China for equipment looted in Manchuria. Another critic, Huang Ch’i-hsiang, a former Nationalist general and member of Peking’s National Defence Council, claimed to see little difference between the Tsars and the Soviets in their imperialistic attitude towards China.(7)

The Taiwan Issue

The period 1954-5 marks China’s emergence on to the international scene. During the Korean War Beijing’s international diplomacy had been necessarily restricted. At the Bandung Conference of April 1955, China established herself as a leader among the Afro/ Asian nations. However, the Taiwan issue prevented her from gaining world recognition, as shown by her failure to gain admission to the U.N.

China’s first moves to solve the Taiwan problem were the 1953-4 attacks on several Offshore islands  near Shanghai and still held by Chiang’s force’s as bases for guerrilla attacks into the mainland. These moves met with a determined U.S. response, which included the warning that nuclear weapons would be used if necessary. The Chinese relaxed their military pressure and made their unsuccessful bid to negotiate the problem with the Americans.

The lesson of this failure was obvious. China could not hope to realize her goals over Taiwan unless she could counter the U.S. nuclear threat.*

** The Chinese had had their first experience of the U.S. nuclear threat early in 1953.To break the deadlock in negotiations for a Korean truce, Eisenhower had in February of that year hinted openly at extension of the war into China and the use of atomic weapons.

Only the Soviets could provide the needed counter-balance, either by assisting China develop her own nuclear capacity or else by a firm commitment to defend China with nuclear weapons if necessary. In either case the Soviet alliance was the only answer.

Throughout the 1956-7 period, therefore, the Chinese, while willing to take advantage of Khrushchev’s problems to promote their independence and prestige with the Communist Bloc, were at the same time careful not to go too far and jeopardise their relations with the Soviet Union. They gave the impression of seeking to mediate between the Soviet Union and other communist countries in order to preserve Bloc unity.

Why then the apparent move to the Left in the latter half of 1957, away from a position of moderation and independence established in 1956? Some observers see the change in policy as prompted by the failure of the Hundred Flowers campaign. They describe it as a rejection of the policies advocated by the moderate faction in the Chinese leadership. In other words, the move to the Left in Bloc relations was a hardening of external policy to reflect the hardening of internal policy.

It is possible to regard mid-1957 and the Hundred Flowers failure as a watershed in the development of Chinese internal policies, with greater emphasis subsequently being placed on the “mass revolutionary” line.

With the launch of the Leap Forward in mid-1958, it was also clear that moderate elements within the Chinese leadership had suffered a decline in authority. 

Some observers say this change in the direction of internal policy was basic to the Sino/Soviet dispute. But 1957 saw China move closer to the Soviet Union leadership and not further away. And for a good reason.

The Anti-Party Group

In June, 1957, a group of Khrushchev’s opponents within the C.P.S.U. Presidium ( the so-called anti-Party group) united in an attempt to remove him from power.

The group was headed by the conservative Molotov who favoured a hard line in ideological matters. The majority of the group’s members shared Molotov’s views, in that they resented the manner in which Khrushchev was using the de-Stalinization theme to boost his own prestige.

At a crucial moment in the struggle, the Chinese appear to have come out behind Khrushchev, who subsequently was able to rally the numbers within the C.P.S.U. Central Committee to out-vote his hardline opponents.(8) 

Khrushchev’s behaviour in the period immediately after June 1957 suggests strongly that he saw himself as being under some obligation to the Chinese. In July, he stated publicly that China “especially” had the right to build socialism in accordance with her national characteristics.(9)

At the same time, Pravda declared that Mao’s theory of non-antagonistic contradictions contained points of significance for Marxist/Leninist theory – the first time the Soviets had made such an admission.

For the Chinese, however, the most important thing to emerge in the months following Khrushchev’s confrontation with the anti-Party group was an agreement “on new technology for nuclear defence” concluded on October 15, 1957, under which the Chinese have since claimed they were to be provided with “a sample of an atomic bomb and the technical data concerning its manufacture”.(10)

The Origins of the Dispute

The October,1957, agreement clearly marks a high-water point in Sino/Soviet relations. Its existence seriously weakens any theory claiming events prior to October,1957, as the basis of the Sino/Soviet dispute. A gesture of this nature by the Soviets could only have been made in an atmosphere of close co-operation, or else in order to gain close co-operation.

The behaviour of the Chinese at the time shows that they were either providing, or were prepared to provide, such co-operation.The October,1957, agreement was for them an important step towards achieving the nuclear capacity they needed to counter the U.S. over Taiwan.

So when, and why, did the break in Sino/Soviet relations occur?

On June, 20, 1959, the nuclear assistance agreement signed less than two years before was cancelled by the Soviets. Clearly, therefore, if the signing of this agreement on October 15, 1957, was the high-water-point in Sino/Soviet relations, then its cancellation on June 20, 1959, represents a severe turning of the tide. 

Something must have occurred between these two dates to cause the Soviets to want to change their  relations with the Chinese. 

Major events involving Sino/Soviet relations between October,1957, and June,1959, were: the November,1957, Moscow Conference of World Communist Parties; the launching of the Great Leap Forward campaign in mid-1958; and the second Offshore islands crisis of August,1958.

The November, 1957, Moscow Conference?

The first two events touched on Sino/Soviet ideological rather than state relations. For the reasons already given, the possibility of ideological differences being the primary factor in the dispute needs to be viewed with caution.

There are, moreover, particular reasons which suggest that neither event was responsible for a break in Sino/Soviet relations. The Chinese, it is true, have claimed, and other sources have confirmed, that the November,1957, Moscow Conference was the scene of much wrangling over ideological issues.The main issues appear to have been the questions of the transition from capitalism to communism (peaceful or non-peaceful), and the extent of U.S. imperialistic wickedness.

Nevertheless, compromises on all important questions were reached and were embedded in the final declaration of the conference. Both sides have repeatedly affirmed their support for the final declaration. And most important, both sides knew of these differences ever since the Twentieth C.P.S.U. Congress in 1956 and had not allowed them to influence their apparently close relationship.

The Great Leap Forward?

The Great Leap Forward was more significant, since it was both a deviation from the Soviet example as well as a break from Chinese pre-October,1957, behavior. Some also see it as a cause of the dispute. 

But its main elements of ideological novelty – emphasis on communal living in particular – were quickly amended as soon as excesses became apparent.  By early 1959, the commune system had been watered down to something resembling the district Party agriculture committees, which Khrushchev himself subsequently sought to promote in the Soviet Union.

True, while the Russians seemed somewhat unhappy about the challenge implicit in the Chinese claim to be able to advance directly to communism via the communes, it is difficult to believe that this in itself could have led to a break in Sino/Soviet relations.

If Moscow had been really concerned about this Chinese “deviation”, they would (a) have made it more obvious than they did, and (b) have moved to stop others such as the Bulgarians and North Koreans from imitating the Chinese with their own versions of Leap Forward policies.Throughout the summer of 1958, when the first moves towards the communes were being made, the Soviet Press continued to carry lavish praise of Chinese internal policies.

It was not until after August,1958, that the Soviet line began to shift, and even then not significantly. As late as June 2,1959, the authoritative Soviet journal Kommunist could still make favourable reference to the communes.(11) 

Significantly, Khrushchev’s public attack on the commune system was not launched until July 18,1959, in a speech delivered in Poland; that is, close to the cancellation of the nuclear agreement on June 20,1959.

The second Offshore Islands crisis?

This leaves us with the second Offshore islands crisis of August,1958. The Offshore islands crisis of 1953-4, it has been suggested, was China’s first move towards recovery of Taiwan. It was quickly terminated when the strength of U.S. nuclear intentions was made clear. Why then a second move, when the U.S. still showed no sign of relaxing its implied threat to use nuclear weapons and China  still lacked nuclear capacity?

The answer is probably to be found in the events of 1957.

In 1957, the Soviet Union had launched the first sputniks and had demonstrated their missile superiority over the U.S. Communist Bloc nuclear. Military superiority over the U.S. had at last become a real possibility. For the Chinese, this meant that a firm Soviet commitment to defend China could cancel out the U.S. nuclear threat over the offshore islands and Taiwan. Their enthusiasm over this turn of events was reflected in the extensive press coverage given every nuclear and rocket advance of the Soviets.

It was the best summed up by Mao Tse-tung: “I consider that the present world situation has reached a new turning-point. There are now two winds in the world: the east wind and the west wind…I think the characteristic of the present situation is that the east wind prevails over the west wind: that is, the strength of socialism exceeds the strength of imperialism.(12

During the months preceding August,1958, the theme of Soviet strength and U.S. weakness ran constantly through Chinese statements and propaganda. According to Chou Enlai, “When the Soviet Union outstripped the United States in some important fields in science and technology and came into possession of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the U.S. …myth about its ‘strength’ and ‘advantageous position’ went bankrupt”.(13) Use of the slogan “U.S. imperialism is a paper tiger”, extensively employed during the first Offshore islands crisis and revived by Mao in his November 1957 Moscow speech, reached a crescendo by mid-1958.

On August, 23, 1958 the Chinese began an intensive bombardment of the main Offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu to the south of Shanghai. For a while it seemed that difficulties in transporting supplies to Quemoy might lead to the Nationalist garrisons on the island being overwhelmed.

On September 4, Dulles hinted that the U.S. would, if necessary, use nuclear weapons to come to the assistance of the Nationalists in defending the islands. On September 6, Chou En-lai proposed ambassadorial-level talks with the U.S. On September 7, Khrushchev wrote to Eisenhower protesting against U.S. atomic blackmail of China and stating that “an attack on the People’s Republic of China… is an attack on the Soviet Union”.

Soviet delay in formally committing itself to support China until after the crisis-point had passed – that is, until after China’s offer of talks with the U.S. – has been widely interpreted as an indication of Soviet reluctance to become involved in a nuclear confrontation with the U.S. 

Nor was this the only evidence. At the end of July, Khrushchev travelled to Beijing for talks with Mao, and it is almost certain that the impending attack on Quemoy and Matsu  was discussed. Nevertheless, the final communique made no mention of Taiwan, an unlikely situation if both sides had been able to agree on joint strategy.

The Chinese, moreover, have since claimed that “it was only when they were clear that this was the situation [that nuclear war would not break out] that the Soviet leaders expressed their support for China,”(14)

And that “in 1958 the C.P.S.U. leadership put forward unreasonable demands designed to bring China under Soviet military control”(15)*

*In publications a claimed Moscow demand for military control is often mentioned by Chinese commentators. In my visit to China in 2023, even every-day Chinese would make these accusations against Moscow to explain the 1959-1971 breakdown in relations.

Looked at from the Soviet point of view, Khrushchev’s reluctance to give the Chinese an unconditional nuclear commitment over the offshore islands was not surprising. Such a commitment meant the risk of nuclear war with the U.S. over an issue which had little relevance to the Soviet interest. A possible reconstruction of events is that Khrushchev travelled to Beijing to dissuade the Chinese from launching the attack on the islands.

It seems likely that the Chinese presented the issue not so much in terms of furthering their own national interest through the capture of the islands, but rather in terms of the whole exercise being a vital link in overall Bloc strategy vis-à-vis the U.S.: that a defeat for the U.S. over the Offshore islands would prove to the world the reality of communist military superiority and U.S. weakness.

In response, the Soviets could only argue that there were more effective strategies for dealing with the U.S. (The Soviets at about this time began to give increased emphasis to the theme of communist superiority being finally demonstrated through economic competition with the West.)

When the Chinese decided to go ahead with the exercise regardless, hoping to force a Soviet commitment under the terms of the Sino/Soviet alliance, Khrushchev warned that the Soviet Union could not commit itself to an exercise which threatened nuclear war with the U.S. unless it had some say in deciding Chinese military policy. Hence the Chinese charge that the Soviets had sought “military control”.

 While much of this is speculation, it does seem safe to assume that the Chinese were greatly disappointed by Soviet failure to provide prompt nuclear backing during the crisis.* In my visit to China in 2023, even every-day Chinese would make these accusations against Moscow to explain the 1959-1971 breakdown in relations.

At the same time they would have become even more determined than previously to develop their own nuclear deterrent, and for this purpose Soviet assistance continued to be essential.**

**A New York Times report of August 7, 1958, based on Polish sources confirms that Khrushchev tried to restrain the Chinese from attacking the offshore islands

The Chinese, therefore, remained silent about their disappointment, and tried to play down the significance of the offshore island bombardment, claiming that it was simply an exercise to demonstrate the continuation of civil war with the Nationalists and so frustrate would-be “Two-Chinas” plotters. (16)***

***A frequent theme in subsequent China polemics, with free flow of trade and people to the Offshore islands emphasised.

They avoided direct criticism of Soviet policies, and reported in some detail Khrushchev’s speech to the Twenty-First C.P.S.U. Congress of January 1959, in which a detailed timetable for Soviet economic victory over the U.S. was outlined.

They even went so far as to repeat Mao’s assertion of November 1957 that the Soviet Union must be the leader of the communist world.(17)

Khrushchev appears to have been uninfluenced by this show of solidarity. The events of August must have made him realize more clearly than ever before the implication of his alliance with the Chinese: that the Chinese saw the alliance in terms of their own interests, and that there was no guarantee that these interests would coincide with those of the U.S.S.R. 

Khrushchev by 1958 had, moreover, consolidated his position both at home and within the Bloc, and was less in need of Chinese backing. He would have been less inclined to make concessions to the Chinese. It might be safe to conclude, therefore, that after August,1958, he began to regard in a new light his alliance with the Chinese, and in particular his promise to help them develop a nuclear capacity.

Soviet Detente with the US?

Khrushchev also found himself having to take into account a new and important factor – the possibility of a detente in U.S./U.S.S.R. relations.

As early as 1956, at the Twentieth C.P.S.U. Congress, he had made the first move in this direction with his call for large-scale disarmament coupled with policies of peaceful co-existence and economic competition with the West. From late 1957 onwards, he had sought a Summit meeting with Western leaders. By September,1959, Soviet/U.S. contacts had matured to the point where Khrushchev was able to visit Eisenhower in the U.S. at Camp David and come away describing his host as a ‘man of peace’.

Three months earlier, in June 1959, the Soviets had cancelled the October, 1957, nuclear agreement with the Chinese.

Viewed in retrospect, it seems highly likely that if the cancellation of the agreement was prompted by the August,1958, Offshore islands crisis, it was confirmed by the developing Soviet/U.S. détente.

Such a détente promised substantial benefits to the Soviets: a stabilization of the status quo in Central Europe, the main area of Soviet interest, and, in particular, the possibility of a U.S. commitment to withhold nuclear weapons from the West Germans. There was little hope, however, of extracting a promise from the U.S. over West Germany if at the same time the Soviets were helping the Chinese equip themselves with a nuclear capability for possible use against the U.S. in the Taiwan Straits. 

As the Soviet Government in its statement of September 21, 1963, subsequently pointed out, “What would have happened if the Soviet Union had, on the one hand, started arming its allies with atom bombs and on the other poured forth declarations against similar actions in the past of the U.S.?” 

(It could even be suggested that the 1958 Offshore islands crisis itself was intended primarily as a challenge to Khrushchev’s policy of détente.

(While the Chinese throughout 1958 were careful to endorse Khrushchev’s call for a Summit meeting, they may well have been uneasy about the direction of his policies. They may have reasoned that a confrontation with the U.S. over the islands, forcing the Soviet Union to become involved on the side of China against the U.S., would greatly embarrass Khrushchev’s efforts to secure the détente he wanted. 

Following the Camp David meeting, Khrushchev travelled directly to Beijing and informed the Chinese that Eisenhower “understands the need to relax tension”.

He warned that “war must be excluded as a means of settling disputed questions”.

He added that there was no alternative to peaceful co-existence. The implication of his remarks was that a Soviet/U.S. détente had become a real possibility and the Chinese must not do anything to upset this possibility.

A further implication (suggested strongly by the Soviets in the course of the post-Test Ban debate of 1963 with the Chinese) may well have been that the détente would have been jeopardised by Chinese acquisition of nuclear weapons.*

 *“Common sense indicates that in the interests of peace it is necessary to refrain from increasing the number of nuclear powers…Unfortunately common sense is far from being the strong point of the Chinese leaders. Otherwise they would have been grateful to the Soviet Union for shouldering the difficult task of manufacturing nuclear weapons for the defence needs of the whole socialist camp. It is known that China does not have surplus resources, and it takes enormous resources to produce nuclear weapons”.(18) 

Such a détente did not, however, promise the return of Taiwan. Khrushchev received a frigid reception in Beijing, and it was clear that the Chinese were concerned over the implications of Soviet policy. They would have realized that their chief purpose in maintaining the Soviet alliance—to force a U.S. concession over Taiwan – was no longer a reality.

As far as the Soviets were concerned, however, the die had been cast and there was little chance of their changing their minds. Khrushchev returned to Moscow, and in numerous speeches throughout the Soviet Union, sought to justify and win support for his détente policy by reiterating the theme of peaceful co-existence. “Only an unreasonable person can be fearless of war in our days”.(19)

“Peaceful co-existence…means the continuation of the struggle between the two socialsystems, but a struggle by peaceful means, without war”.(20)

Peaceful co-existence is an objective necessity”, he claimed, since both sides “possess weapons which could cause perilous consequences if put into action”.(21)

Throughout the latter half of 1959, the Chinese gradually developed their side of the debate in a series of articles emphasising the danger of “imperialist threat” and the danger of excessive dependence on peaceful co-existence. While they did not directly accuse the Soviets of having fallen into error, the meaning of these articles would have been clear to Khrushchev.

In December 1959, he publicly warned: “ If the leadership of this or that country becomes conceited, this can only play into the hands of the enemy…and this cannot be allowed”.

.The Formal Chinese Response

The Chinese response came in February 1960. A Warsaw Pact conference, held in Moscow, was attended by the leading Chinese ideologist, K’ang Sheng, as an “observer”. K’ang delivered a violently anti-U.S. speech in direct opposition to the conference declarations which embodied current Soviet thinking on the possibilities of peaceful co-existence with the U.S. (The Soviet newspaper, Pravda carried no mention of K’ang’s speech.)

K’ang’s outburst was significant since it represented the first occasion the Soviets and Chinese had publicly confronted each other over their differences.  His visit to Moscow can, in fact, be interpreted as a move by the Chinese to give the Communist Bloc countries formal notice of the dispute with the Soviets.

In April 1960, the Chinese published a series of articles to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of Lenin’s birth. The articles were in effect a follow-up to the February conference, only this time the whole world was to be put on notice about the dispute.

The theme of these articles was the continued validity of Lenin’s teachings on war and revolution. Their ostensible purpose was to attack the revisionist views of the Yugoslavs.

The following passage made it clear, however, that they were equally directed against Khrushchev: ‘There are also some people who are not revisionists, but well-intentioned persons who sincerely want to be Marxists, but get confused in the face of certain new historical phenomena and thus have some incorrect ideas. For example some of them say that the failure of the U.S. imperialists’ policy of atomic blackmail marks the end of violence.’

They then listed numerous instances of alleged aggression by the U.S. in preceding years and asked rhetorically: ‘Can it be said that the imperialists are no longer addicted to violence or that there has been a lessening in the degree of their addiction? Is there tranquillity in our Taiwan Straits when the U.S. imperialists are still occupying our country’s Taiwan?’ From this it followed that ‘The U.S. holds nothing but venom for the present efforts of the socialist camp… It openly proclaims a policy of hostility to the People’s Republic of China…The Chinese people have made a timely exposure of the fact that the U.S. Government headed by Eisenhower has since the Camp David talks…been continuing actively to carry out arms expansion and war preparations. Imperialists will not readily accept any agreement favourable to peace’.

The Chinese were, in effect, directly contradicting the basis on which Khrushchev’s policy of detente was established by denying the possibility of reaching with the U.S. an “agreement favourable to peace”. 

The U2 Incident

The sending of a U2 spy plane across the USSR in May 1960 on the eve of planned US, USSR, France, UK  summit talks with Moscow was a turnung point in the dispute.  It was also a very successful CIA plan to disrupt the talks.*

My own sources say that since Soviet rockets could not reach U2 flight altitudes the CIA planted a bomb in the rear of the plane to make sure it would be destroyed over Soviet territory. But that did not stop Khrushchev from boasting that it had been brought down by the Soviets.

According to Wikipedia “It resulted in the cancellation of the Paris Summit scheduled to discuss the ongoing situation in divided Germany, the possibility of an arms control or test ban treaty, and the relaxation of tensions between the USSR and the United States.” 

Following the incident, Chinese delight at Khrushchev’s public embarrassment was unrestrained. Article followed article warning against the folly of believing in the “peaceful intentions” of the imperialists headed by the U.S.

 Khrushchev demanded Eisenhower give an apology which would allow him to go ahead with a planned conference.   The story of how the Washington hawks killed that request is a condensed version of how the hawks created the Cold War.

Sino-Soviet Showdown

These events appeared to set the scene for a showdown in Sino/Soviet relations. 

In June 1960, Khrushchev ordered the withdrawal of Soviet experts from China and the cancellation of contracts for economic aid. At a conference of Communist Bloc leaders in Bucharest in the same month, he moved to line up the participants against China. 

These moves, amounting to a breakdown of both state and party relations between the two countries, were also the signal for the abandonment of the restraints which had previously prevented the world from realising the extent of Sino/Soviet differences. **

** The Soviet position: “Common sense indicates that in the interests of peace it is necessary to refrain from increasing the number of nuclear powers…Unfortunately common sense is far from being the strong point of the Chinese leaders. Otherwise they would have been grateful to the Soviet Union for shouldering the difficult task of manufacturing nuclear weapons for the defence needs of the whole socialist camp. It is known that China does not have surplus resources, and it takes enormous resources to produce nuclear weapons”.(18) 

The Role of Ideology 

The May 1960 U2 incident and the Eisenhower apology refusal was a clear and deliberate US-imposed setback for Khrushchev’s detente hopes. But in the communist world such events have to be argued out in ideological terns. This debate in turn has obsessed Western watchers seemingly unaware of the events that caused it.  

In effect, the Chinese have been trying to argue their case against the Soviets on the same ideological plane as that on which Khrushchev had mounted his attack against them.

Thus, if Khrushchev was to justify his policy of détente with the U.S. and refusal of nuclear assistance to China in terms of the need for peaceful co-existence, the obvious reply was that the doctrine of peaceful co-existence could not justify détente with an imperialist power guilty of “aggression” over Taiwan and elsewhere.  

It is in this way the dispute between the Chinese and Soviets has been given an ideological orientation.

That the Chinese have no ideological objection to normal relations with the U.S. provided the necessary concession is made over Taiwan has already been suggested in the earlier account of Sino/U.S. relations.

A further reason for arguing the dispute in ideological terms was that it soon developed leadership implications. 

The problem for the Chinese ever since 1959 has been how to change Soviet policy in a direction more favourable to Chinese interests.  It must have been clear to them that Khrushchev was not prepared to make such a change, and this, combined with personal antagonism which appears to have developed between the two, would have persuaded the Chinese to work for Khrushchev’s overthrow. Similarly, Khrushchev must have realized that his only course was to try to change the Chinese leadership.*

*The Soviets may have been the first to move in this direction. At a meeting of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in August 1959, the Chinese Minister of Defence, P’eng Te-huai, was dismissed for having advocated a “Rightist” line in opposition to Mao’s policies. P’eng’s move was subsequently attributed to his having come under Soviet influence. (22)

Ideology has always been the traditional means of arguing and justifying leadership changes (or any policy change for that matter) in communist societies, with the victor portraying himself as the defender of the true doctrine. The Chinese had the added incentive of having already seen Khrushchev’s vulnerability to attack from conservatives in the Soviet Union.

Armed with Chinese ideological criticism, potential opponents of Khrushchev were in a stronger position to work for his overthrow – at least so the Chinese might have reasoned. This in turn came to involve the search for allies within the communist world, with both sides seeking to discredit the ideology of the other to win leadership.

None of this is to deny that differences do exist between the Chinese and Soviet approach to the theory and practice of communism. Some of these differences have been explored in an earlier chapter.

But these differences existed well before June 1959, when it had apparently been a relatively simple matter to sublimate them in the greater interest of the Sino/Soviet nuclear alliance. Moreover, both sides before the outbreak of the dispute had taken—at least on paper – quite different positions over issues subsequently debated with such heat.

Mirror Image Slogans

Indeed, the Russians in 1964 were able to produce the following quotations from Chinese sources to show the extent to which the Chinese had changed positions:

Up to and before 1959:

The Soviet people under the correct leadership of the C.P.S.U. Central Committee headed by Comrade Khrushchev have achieved numerous imported successes in communist construction and has made an important contribution to the cause of uniting peace-loving states and peoples of all the world in the joint struggle for peace and prevention of war. [Greetings from Mao  Tse-tung to 21st C.P.S.U. Congress, January 1959.]

The Soviet Union, like a light-house, lights the path for exploited and oppressed peoples. [P’eng Chen in telegram to Moscow Soviet, November 1957.]


Complete disarmament is the insistent demand of peace-loving peoples of the whole world, it is an irresistible trend in the current international situation. [“People’s Daily” editorial, November 1959.]


The C.P.S.U. and Soviet people have made unceasing efforts and have achieved great successes in strengthening the unity of the world communist movement. [Chou En-lai, speech of January 1959.]

The struggle against the cult of personality launched at the 20th C.P.S.U. Congress is in truth a great and heroic struggle of the Soviet communists and Soviet people sweeping away ideological obstacles from the path forward. [“On the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, April 1956.]
That was before 1960.  After 1960 there was major shift:
The policy followed by the Soviet Government is a policy of union with the forces of war in a struggle against the forces of peace, of union with imperialism in a struggle against socialism, of union with the reactionaries of different countries in a struggle against the peoples of all the world. [Statement of Chinese Government, July 1963.]


The C.P.S.U. leadership tries as hard as possible to belittle the national liberation movement. [“People’s Daily” editorial, October 1963.]


Some consider that disarmament proposals can be realized while imperialism exists. This is an illusion which does not accord with reality. [Speech by Liu Ch’ang-Sheng, C.C.P. Central Committee member, June 1960.]


The C.P.S.U. leadership violates the norms of mutual relations between fraternal parties … and seeks to establish a feudal-patriarchal rule over the world communist movement.[“People’s Daily” editorial, February 1964.]

The so-called “struggle against the cult of personality” launched by the C.P.S.U. leadership had in no way as its aim the restoration of “Leninist norms of party life and leadership principles”. On the contrary, this “struggle” signifies a departure from the teachings of Lenin… [“People’s Daily” editorial, November 1963.]



The Chinese could, if they wished, produce a similar set of contradictory quotations.

For example:

The Communist Parties wage a constant struggle against revisionism and dogmatism. In this struggle the Communist Parties naturally direct their main fire against the revisionists as scouts of the imperialist camp.[[Khrushchev’s speech of June 1958, at the 7th Congress of the Bulgarian Communist Party.] 

The Communist and workers’ parties vigilantly guard the purity of the principles of Marxism / Leninism…[ibid]

[They] are very attentive to questions of theory and are irreconcilable to any attempts to revise Marxism/Leninism.[ibid]

We consider that our Chinese comrades, as also those of the other fraternal parties, are offering completely correct and profound criticism of the revisionist tenets of the Yugoslav draft programme. [ibid]

But then after 1960 all changes.

Unless a constant struggle is conducted against dogmatism and sectarianism, they can become the main danger at one stage or another in the development of different parties. [Khrushchev’s speech of December 1962 to U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet.]

The fraternal parties strive collectively to make new appraisals and conclusions through the creative adaptation of Marxist/Leninist principles to the conditions of our era. [C.P.S.U. Central Committee decision of February 15, 1964.]

In 1955, the Chinese leaders had no doubts as to the nature of the socialist system in Yugoslavia… Why have the Chinese comrades so drastically changed their position on the Yugoslav question? It is hard to find an explanation other than that they saw in this one of the pretexts advantageous for discrediting the policy of the C.P.S.U. [C.P.S.U. Open Letter, July 15, 1963.]

The War and Peace Debate

The main focus of the ideological debate has been the question of war and peace, with the Chinese claiming the Soviets want peace at any price. However, if we look at what each side says its own position to be, rather than what the other side says it to be, it is difficult to believe that a genuine disagreement exists.

And while the details of debate differences seem trivial in retrospect they were crucial in the Western debate over alleged Chinese militarism versus alleged Soviet moderation.

That debate in turn had an enormous influence on Western foreign policy.

The Chinese first outlined their position on war and peace in the Lenin Anniversary articles of April 1960. On the question of war the Chinese stated:

“War is an inevitable outcome of systems of exploitation. Until the exploiting classes come to an end, wars of one kind or another will always occur”.

From this they went on to say:

We oppose the launching of criminal wars by imperialism because imperialist war would impose enormous sacrifices on the peoples of various countries… But should the imperialists impose such sacrifices, we believe… these sacrifices would not be in vain. On the debris of a dead imperialism, the victorious people would create very swiftly a civilization thousands of times higher than the capitalist system and a truly beautiful future for themselves.

To emphasise their point about such a war being launched by the other side they stated: “The socialist system determines that we do not need war and absolutely would not start a war”.

From 1963 onwards the Chinese and Soviets openly debated their alleged differences on war and peace in a series of letters and statements from both sides. A major contribution to the debate was the Chinese letter of June 14, 1963, setting out in detail Peking’s position on a number of points. The Soviets replied with an Open Letter published on July 14, 1963. If we take the Soviet letter first, and compare it with the Chinese letter of a month earlier, some points of interest emerge.

In their Open Letter the Soviets claimed that “cardinal differences based on principle exist between the Chinese leadership and us on questions of war and peace. The essence of these differences lies in a diametrically opposite approach to such vital questions as the possibility of avoiding thermonuclear war and peaceful co-existence”. On the question of war, they went on to state: “They [the Chinese leadership] do not believe in the possibility of preventing a new world war…”

From which it followed that:

It is generally known that under present conditions a world war would be a thermo-nuclear war… We would like to ask the Chinese comrades who suggest building a bright future on the ruins of the old world destroyed by a thermo-nuclear war whether they have consulted the working class of the countries where imperialism dominates?… We are also in favour of socialism, but we want to gain it… not by unleashing a thermo-nuclear world war.

This was the first, and probably the most serious, of the subsequent catalogue of distortions and counter-distortions produced by both sides. Starting with the Chinese statement that “wars of one kind or another will always occur”, the Soviets had jumped to the conclusion that the Chinese believed world war to be inevitable.

The Chinese had, in their letter of June 14, stated: “No Marxist/Leninist has ever held or ever will hold that revolution must be made through world war”, and “it is possible to prevent a new world war”. They added that “wars of national liberation or revolutionary civil wars” would continue to occur. Even here, however, it is impossible to distinguish between the Chinese and Soviet positions, since the Soviet Open letter stated: “There will be wars of liberation as long as imperialism exists, as long as colonialism exists”.

The Chinese response came in a statement of September 1, 1963, when they spelt out their position in the clearest possible terms:

  1. China wants peace, and not war.
  2. It is the imperialists, and not we, who want to fight.
  3. A world war can be prevented.
  4. Even in the eventuality that imperialism should impose wars on the peoples of the world … it is the imperialist system which would perish and the future of mankind would still be bright.

By this stage the Soviets appear to have realised that they had gone too far in representing the Chinese as seeking world war. In a statement of September 21, 1963, they claimed: “The Chinese theoreticians deliberately make a hotch-potch of a multitude of different questions: world wars, local wars, national liberation and civil wars, popular uprisings, peaceful and non-peaceful ways of revolution. They needed to do this so as to distort the position of the C.P.S.U.” 

The Soviet statement went on to say that the C.P.S.U. “resolutely opposed world war”, considered it necessary “to display maximum vigilance with regard to local wars” (defined as wars such as the 1956 Suez conflict) because such wars could escalate to nuclear wars, but “welcomed and supported national liberation civil wars – popular uprisings”. Once again, the Soviets were saying almost exactly the same as the Chinese had said in their June letter. Even the terminology used to define the various types of war which should or should not be welcomed was the same, with the addition of ‘local wars’. (The only Chinese reference to local wars was that neither Suez or Korea had in fact escalated to nuclear wars.)

At this stage, the Chinese appear to have decided it was their turn to gain whatever mileage they could from the war/ world war confusion. On November 18, 1963, they claimed: “Khrushchev has willfully interpreted the possibility of preventing a new world war as the possibility of preventing all wars.”

“The possibility of preventing a new world war is one thing; the possibility of preventing all wars, including revolutionary wars, is another”. This in turn provided fuel for further polemics, with the Soviets accusing the Chinese of seeking Trotskyite global revolutionary wars and the Chinese claiming that Soviet objections to revolutionary wars provided further evidence of their opposition to national liberation wars and revolutionary civil wars.

The Nuclear War Debate

The question of nuclear war provided a particularly fertile field for mutual distortion. The Chinese, who had already been the recipients of U.S. nuclear threats and whose ambitions over Taiwan carried the risk of further threats, had come to the same conclusion as the nuclear powers anxious to maintain the credibility of their nuclear deterrent: that unless you make it quite clear to potential enemies that you are confident of success in any nuclear exchange, they will be encouraged to pursue their goals simply by threatening you with nuclear force. 

Such thinking underlies the publicity the U.S. has given its estimates of “acceptable” casualties (50-60 million) in a nuclear war and its ability to withstand a Soviet “first strike.”  It also underlies the Soviet statement in their July, 1963 letter:

“It stands to reason that if the imperialist madmen unleash a war the people will sweep away capitalism and bury it”.

The Chinese, not having fully developed nuclear weapons, had little choice but to take the line that their large numbers guaranteed their success in a nuclear conflict. Hence Mao’s remarks in his November 18, 1957, speech in Moscow and elsewhere to the effect that China could lose half her population in a nuclear war and still emerge victorious. Hence the quotation given above about the “beautiful future” to be built by the “victorious peoples” on the “debris of a dead imperialism”. On both occasions the Chinese made it clear that they were speaking of a war launched by the other side.

None of this appears to have impressed the Soviets. In their July letter they not only accused the Chinese of seeking thermonuclear war, but also warned the Chinese that “the nuclear bomb does not distinguish between the imperialists and the working people… and millions of workers would be destroyed for one monopolist”. (This warning, incidentally, appeared to contradict their statement in the same letter that the “people” would sweep away capitalism if the “imperialist madmen” unleashed a war.) To compound the confusion, the Soviet letter went on to state, having already spoken of the inevitability and desirability of national liberation wars, that “any sort of war… is likely to develop into a destructive nuclear missile conflagration”. 

The Chinese, with the Taiwan problem possibly uppermost in their minds, then claimed: “The C.P.S.U. leaders hold that the socialist countries must not resist but must yield to imperialist nuclear blackmail and threats”.

Finally, as an example of the unreality with which Sino/Soviet polemics have been conducted, compare the following:

The Chinese Communist Party has consistently held that nuclear weapons have unprecedented destructive power, and that it would be an unprecedented calamity for mankind if nuclear war should break out. [“More on the Differences between Comrade Togliatti and Us”, People’s Daily, February 1962.]  


The Chinese leaders boast that they are prepared to sacrifice half mankind [ through nuclear war ] for the sake of revolution. [M.Suslov, Member of C.P.S.U. Presidium, February 1964.]

The Peaceful Coexistence Debate

In the debate over peace and peaceful co-existence, the same confusion and distortion is to be found. The Chinese position, as set out in the Lenin Anniversary articles, was that: “We Communists stand right in the forefront in defending world peace… in advocating peaceful co-existence… For peaceful co-existence of countries with different social systems, flexibility and patience and certain understandings and compromises are necessary”.

They added, confusingly, that: “Peaceful co-existence of nations, and people’s revolutions in various countries are two different things”.

The Soviets in their July 1963 letter bluntly accused the Chinese of believing that “peaceful co-existence is an illusion”.They themselves, on the other hand, would “strive to pursue the Leninist policy of peaceful co-existence between states with different social systems”

( The Chinese in their June 1963 letter had stated: “It was Lenin who advanced the thesis that it was possible for the socialist countries to practice peaceful co-existence with the capitalist countries”.

The Soviet letter also claimed: “Marxist/Leninists strive to ensure an enduring peace not by begging for it from imperialism but by rallying the revolutionary Marxist/Leninist parties”. 

Subsequently, in an article of November 18, 1963, the Chinese claimed:  “World peace can be won only through struggle by the people and not by begging the imperialists for it … The C.P.S.U. leaders assert that [ this struggle ] against imperialism will lead to international tension”.

Khrushchev had himself stated only a few months earlier that “Peaceful co-existence does not at all mean that any slackening in the class struggle in the field of ideology is impossible”(23)

And so the record of assertion and counter-assertion, distortion and counter-distortion, could be continued ad nauseam.

It should be clear that on the question of war the positions of both sides were almost identical, with both sides claiming not to want world war or nuclear war and with both sides approving national liberation or revolutionary wars. 

On the question of peaceful co-existence, the closest either side has come to a genuine difference of opinion was contained in the following statement taken from the Chinese letter of June 1963: “It is wrong to make peaceful co-existence the general  line of the foreign policy of the socialist countries”. (Khrushchev, as early as February 1956, in his address to the Twentieth C.P.S.U. Congress had said: “The Leninist principle of peaceful co-existence between states with different social systems has always been and remains the general line of our country’s foreign policy”.) 

The Chinese went on to state:  In our view, the general line of the foreign policy of the socialist countries should have the following content: to develop relations of friendship, mutual assistance and co-operation among the countries in the socialist camp in accordance with the principle of proletarian internationalism; to strive for peaceful co-existence, on the basis of the five principles, with countries having different social systems and oppose the imperialist policies of aggression and war; and to support and assist the revolutionary struggles of all the oppressed peoples and nations.

These three aspects are inter-related and indivisible, and not a single one can be omitted.

Translated into non-ideological language what the Chinese were saying was this: The Soviets had made a détente with the U.S. ( peaceful co-existence ) the principal goal of their foreign policy. In so doing they were prepared to turn their back on promises to assist China over Taiwan (proletarian internationalism). The latter was no less important than the former, and, moreover, if peaceful co-existence involved acceptance of the Taiwan situation ( imperialist aggression ), then there was no doubt as to where the priority should lie.

The Sino/Soviet Dispute and the Soviet National Interest

The clearest indication as to the true nature of the Sino/Soviet dispute came in October 1964 following Khrushchev’s replacement by Kosygin and Brezhnev.

 Kosygin could not possibly have been less “revisionist” than Khrushchev. He had been largely responsible for the pre-1964 relaxation of economic controls, and one of his first moves on coming to power was to make it clear that the relaxation would continue.

Neither he nor Brezhnev had been identified with the anti-Khrushchev conservatives.

Yet, with the change in Soviet leadership, the Chinese dropped their ideological attacks and sent their Premier Chou Enlai to Moscow for talks with the new leaders. It is inconceivable that Chou could have set out in the hope of converting the Soviet leaders out of their “revisionist” ways. That his mission was in fact connected with what has been argued to be the basis of the Sino/Soviet dispute – the priority given to détente with the U.S. by Soviet foreign policy-makers – was confirmed six months later. In a speech delivered in Djakarta on May 25, 1965, a senior Chinese leader, P’eng Chen, stated:

Since 1959, we have repeatedly advised the Khrushchev revisionists not to regard enemies as friends and vice versa. They categorically refused to listen. After the fall of Khrushchev, we advised them to discard his legacy and to put right their perverse attitude towards enemies and friends. They again refused to listen. They declared to our delegation’s face that there was not a shade of difference between them and Khrushchev in their attitude towards enemies and friends.

They still refuse to treat U.S. imperialism as the main enemy…

In other words the Chinese had once more confronted the Russians with the choice: either détente with the U.S. or alliance with China. The new Soviet leaders, despite their differences with Khrushchev on many other matters, had come to the same conclusion as Khrushchev five years earlier: that détente with the U.S. was more in the Soviet interest.

 Some of the reasons why the Soviets might attach importance to détente with the U.S. have already been suggested: acceptance of the Soviet position in Eastern Europe, a non-nuclear Germany. 

Personality factors may also have been involved. Both the Soviets and the Americans are preoccupied with their scientific and economic competition, and a certain mutual admiration for each other’s achievements has developed. 

To many Russians the prospect of finally being accepted as equals by the U.S. and the possibility of being able to negotiate directly with the U.S. on matters of international significance, must have seemed an attractive and fitting conclusion to the years of revolution, deprivation, suffering and hard work which had gone before.

By comparison, an alliance with the Chinese would have seemed much less attractive, particularly after the events of 1958 had brought home to the Soviets exactly what such an alliance implied. 

China was still weak, both militarily and economically. There was no guarantee that after she had developed her industrial and nuclear capacity she would not emerge as a rival to the Soviet Union. And it was already apparent that at best she would be a highly independent partner in any future alliance.

This is not to say that the Soviets had no interest in an alliance with China. Her vast numbers, added to the military and industrial strength of the Soviet Union, created in the minds of many the image of a powerful monolith for which Moscow was the spokesman. None of this did any harm to Soviet prestige abroad. Besides, it was more in the Soviet interest to have a friend rather than an enemy situated along their 10,000-mile Asian frontier.

Maintaining Relations with China

The ideal situation from the Soviet point of view would have been to maintain a foot in both camps – to develop their détente with the U.S. and maintain the alliance with Chinese.This, it seems likely, was Khrushchev’s aim in his attempt to improve relations with the U.S. following the Twentieth C.P.S.U. Congress in 1956 while promising nuclear aid to the Chinese. Only when forced to choose did he opt in favour of détente with the U.S.

Kosygin and Brezhnev, it seems, would also have preferred to keep on good terms with both the U.S. and China. Immediately after Khrushchev’s removal in October 1964, the Soviet Press ceased publishing criticisms of the Chinese, and for the first time in years occasional items of internal news from China were reported.

Several articles appeared hinting at the possibility of resuming economic aid to China. Observers in Moscow at the time were able to detect a marked reluctance on the part of the new Soviet leaders to endorse, even privately, criticism of the Chinese. An attempt was clearly being made to explore the ground for improved relations with the Chinese.

The Chinese, it has already been argued, could not accept such a situation. Soviet/U.S. détente meant mutual concessions. One such concession – the cancellation of the nuclear assistance agreement – had harmed the Chinese interest. Further concessions might well involve the status of Taiwan.* From the Chinese point of view it had to be one thing or the other.

There was no middle way – to quote Mao from another occasion.

*The Chinese have in fact claimed ( in their Government Statement of September 1, 1963) that Khrushchev came to Beijing after his Camp David talks with Eisenhower in 1959 in a bid to persuade them (the Chinese) to accept a “Two-Chinas” situation on the ground that “Taiwan was an incendiary factor in the international situation”.

If Khrushchev did make such an attempt, then it seems likely he was inspired to do so by his talks with Eisenhower. The Chinese could be excused for assuming that Taiwan was a bargaining counter in the Soviet/U.S. détente.

The Soviets, in their statement of September 21, 1963, claimed Khrushchev simply spoke of “peaceful ways“ to solve the Taiwan issue. But they added that: “No doubt remains now that one of the reasons for the attack by the Chinese leaders was the easing of international tension which took place in 1959 due to the relaxation in the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States, especially after Comrade Khrushchev’s visit to the U.S.A.”

US – Soviet Colllusion?

Subsequently, the emphasis of Chinese propaganda has moved increasingly away from the theme of Soviet ideological heresy, and towards the theme of Soviet/U.S. collusion against China.  The Chinese have thus, in terms of the previous analysis, moved towards a more accurate portrayal of what the dispute is believed to be about. Interestingly, this switch of emphasis became prominent after November 1964 – after it had become apparent that there was little possibility of altering the direction of Soviet policy and after China had tested a nuclear device.

Chinese accusations that the Soviets were in collusion with the U.S. are believed by many observers to be exaggerated for propaganda purposes. This need not be the case, at least not if we take into account the probable Chinese view of the role they should play in world affairs. 

The Chinese, it can be safely assumed, regard themselves as the only world power with the potential to match the two major world powers – the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. From this it would follow that, in a world where these two major powers were evenly balanced against each other, a third power such as China should be able to take advantage of the power balance to further her own interests. This has not happened. China’s efforts to persuade the Soviet Union to act with her against the U.S. over Taiwan were shown in 1958-9 to be in vain.

Her efforts in 1955-6, and again after 1959, to reach a direct settlement with the U.S. over Taiwan were equally unsuccessful. And in 1964 she received yet another rebuff, this time from the new Soviet leaders.

At the same time, China has seen the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. gradually moderate their mutual hostility as they search for areas of agreement and in particular as they seek to preserve the present world nuclear status quo.

In the process the U.S. has maintained its anti-China posture, and the U.S.S.R. has become increasingly unwilling to promote the Chinese interest. Confronted with such a situation, it would not be surprising if the Chinese concluded that their position as odd-man-out in the world power triangle was more than bad luck: that the other two sides of the triangle were in collusion against the third.!

China’s Bid for Friends to claim World Leadership

Complaints about the injustice they believe they have suffered was one thing; what the Chinese did to remedy the situation was another.

During the years of the Soviet alliance, China had been prepared to sublimate whatever ambitions she may have had to assert an independent voice in world affairs. Even within the communist world, she had in general been prepared to play second fiddle to the Soviet Union. That many of the more nationalist-minded Chinese outside the Party leadership were unhappy over this situation was apparent from the occasional criticisms they dared to voice.

With the breakdown of the alliance it was natural that these long-suppressed ambitions should emerge: that China should make a claim to independent world power status. In addition, the breakdown of the alliance had taught the Chinese that they could only assert themselves against the U.S. and U.S.S.R. from a position of equal world power. Since 1959 the Chinese leaders have made every effort to gain the power and status to which they believe China is entitled.

China’s efforts to acquire power, in the sense of the military and economic strength needed to rival her competitors, have already been described. These efforts, which may have begun as early as the 1958 Great Leap Forward, have been slow to produce results. In the meantime China has had to make the most of her main resource – a hard-working and in some cases highly motivated work-force*. 

In the meantime the Chinese have set out to acquire the world status which they had previously forgone. Their efforts in this direction have embraced three widely different objectives: the communist world; the under-developed countries; and the capitalist countries of the West.

They have involved China in an intense competition with the Soviet Union, in the course of which the bitterness of the Sino/Soviet dispute has been greatly intensified and the ideological issues involved in the dispute have been further confused.

*  perhaps one of the reasons for the constant emphasis on man rather than weapons or technology as being the decisive factor in military or economic matters.

Hardline Communist Friends?

China’s ambition to gain a following within the communist world became apparent during repeated confrontations with the Soviets at a number of communist conferences during the early 1960’s. It explained her abnormal emphasis on relations with Albania: to show that China’s leadership could extend even to European communists.

It explained her willingness to force a split in Party relations with the Soviets: to reinforce China’s claim to be a separate centre of communist authority and leadership. The fact that the Chinese, in the course of their dispute with the Soviets, found themselves espousing the hard line in communist/capitalist relations has enabled them to identify themselves as defenders of “traditional” Marxist/Leninist revolutionary doctrine. They have sought ideological allies on this basis.

Even so, the Chinese have not hesitated to welcome as allies communist countries and parties which follow highly “revisionist” policies. Rumania was perhaps the best example, and here it was clear that the main criterion, as far as the Chinese were concerned, was that the Rumanians were anti-Soviet.The Indonesian Communist Party, which before its suppression in 1965 followed an extremely flexible nationalist line, was another example.

Revisionist Friends?

In seeking allies amongst communist and other Left-Wing movements in non-communist countries, China has had to encourage breakaway or splinter groups from established pro-Soviet movements. In some cases, where the break is made for personal or factional reasons, these splinter groups find it easier to justify their action as a move towards the more traditional revolutionary ideology emanating from Beijing.

It occasionally happens that the break goes the other way, and the Chinese find themselves backing the less radical of the two groups. Japan is an example. When the Japanese Communist Party in 1966 switched allegiance from Beijing to Moscow, the Chinese found themselves backing the Japanese Socialists.

In Iraq, after the mildly socialist Baathist Government in 1963 moved against the Soviet-backed Iraqi communists, the Chinese were supporting a Government described by Moscow as a tool of Western oil interests.

Third World Friends?

China’s efforts to gain leadership among the under-developed countries have required even greater ideological flexibility. The Chinese have sensed the striving in these countries for a formula guaranteeing social and economic progress, together with their intense nationalism and, in many cases, anti-European feeling.

They have sought to win the sympathy of these countries by portraying themselves as an Asian nation which is solving its development problems and championing the interests of underdeveloped countries against the European powers, both communist and non-communist, as well as the interests of the various liberation movements in the remaining European colonial territories.

In the process, the Chinese have had to undertake a wholesale revision of traditional communist doctrine, in particular doctrine concerning the role of the under-developed countries in the world communist movement. According to traditional doctrine laid down in the 1920’s at a time when most of the under-developed countries were colonies or semi-colonies, there exist three forces working for the spread of communism throughout the world, listed in the following order of priority: the efforts of the existing communist countries; the efforts of workers’ movements in advanced capitalist countries; and the anti-colonial struggle in the under-developed countries. 

The Soviets have amended this doctrine to the extent of replacing “anti-colonial struggle” with “struggle of Afro/Asian/Latin American countries to obtain and preserve their independence”, but retain the original order of priority.

The Chinese insist that this order of priority be reversed: that the developments in Africa, Asia and Latin America be formally recognized as the main force in the drive towards the establishment of world communism.

 The Soviets have attacked the Chinese for this ideological heresy: “The theory about a certain ‘special’ community of interests of the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America … completely contradicts Marxism/Leninism… Arguments about the ‘special place’ of the national liberation movement… are simply attempts to earn cheap popularity among the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America”.(24)

They have been even more indignant over the underlying implication of the Chinese approach: that the European countries are of secondary or even less importance in world communist strategy. This, they claim, indicates a racist attitude on the part of the Chinese, who, they say, are “playing upon the national even racial prejudices of the Asian and African peoples”, and are “replacing the class approach with the racial approach”.*

Whatever the reasons, the fact is that the Chinese, in their backing for the Africans, Asians and Latin Americans, have drastically revised traditional communist strategy, while the Soviets appear as its staunch defenders. Indeed, the Chinese went one stage further with their endorsement of the “new-emerging-forces” concept. According to this concept (which, incidentally, was first developed by the Chinese and only later taken over by Sukarno), the world can be divided into two groups: the new emerging countries and the old established countries. The former included all the “progressive” countries of the under-developed world, and in the Chinese view at least, excluded the countries of the West and the revisionist countries of communist Europe.

*Soviet allegations of Chinese racism have also taken a more direct form. In 1963 the Soviet Press began to carry articles reminding the Soviet public of the thirteenth century depredations of Genghis Khan. The Chinese were rebuked for eulogizing Genghis Khan. The Chinese replied (People’s Daily article, October 21, 1963) pointing out that Genghis Khan was a Mongolian whose invasion of China caused no less suffering to the Chinese than was caused to the Russians during his subsequent invasion of Russia.

The Chinese have denied that their attitude is racist (look at Albania). Instead, they suggest, the problem lies in the corrupting influence of material progress in the European societies.

Hence the revisionism of the European communist countries. Hence the ineffectiveness of the communist parties in Western capitalist countries (the workers’ movements referred to above), whose leaderships the Chinese refer to contemptuously as “labour aristocracies”.

Capitalist Friends?

The third target in the Chinese search for a following has been the capitalist West.

Clearly, the Chinese effort in this direction has been hindered to the extent that they seek to champion the cause of the new emerging countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Nevertheless, they apparently feel that they cannot afford to ignore the Western countries, since to do so leaves these countries by default within the U.S. and even Soviet sphere of influence. They seem fully aware of the importance of gaining defections such as France.  Mao himself is reported to have told a visiting French delegation: “France, Germany, Italy, Britain (if she can cease being the agent of the U.S.), Japan and ourselves – that is the third force”.(25)

Suslov’s remarks about the Chinese seeking “feverishly” to improve relations with Western countries suggest Soviet concern on this score.

The Chinese appear to have realized that they need some ideological basis on which to justify their efforts to win Western allies. In the early 1960’s their theorists came up with what they described as the doctrine of “the intermediate zone”. 

The intermediate zone consists of all those countries which lie between the U.S. and its satellites on the extreme Right, and the communist countries on the Left.  The zone is divided into two sub-zones: one on the Right consisting mainly of Western capitalist countries which are said to be “subjected to U.S. control, interference and bullying”,(26) from which they are struggling to free themselves (Japan, Canada and Australia have been specifically mentioned); and a sub-zone on the Left formed by countries which have shaken off U.S. domination and now follow the path of national independence (this latter group would coincide generally with the new emerging countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America).

The Chinese claim that the first category of countries should be encouraged in their struggles to detach themselves from the U.S., with the implication that they are prepared to assist in this process.

 China and Communist Revolution

The efforts of the Chinese to establish their country as a world leader may not have been as successful as they may have wished. For our purposes, however, they are a further demonstration of the “flexibility” (some might say the “opportunism”) of the Chinese in defending and furthering their interests.This flexibility should make us extremely wary of any attempt to portray the Sino/Soviet dispute as one between “dogmatic” Chinese and “pragmatic” Russian.

What, then, are we to conclude? That China in her attitude towards the outside world behaves much the same way as any other world power? What are we to make of the various indications (Chinese attacks on Soviet revisionism etc.) that the Chinese adopt a more “revolutionary” attitude towards the world than the Soviets?

In their description of the “general line of foreign policy of the socialist countries”, the Chinese included as a third component, indivisible from “proletarian internationalism” and “peaceful co-existence,” namely assistance to the “revolutionary struggles of all oppressed peoples”. The implication was – and indeed the Chinese have on many other occasions made the same point in a much more direct manner – that the Soviet Union placed a higher priority on peaceful co-existence (détente with the U.S.) than support for revolutions.

The Soviets themselves claim to be ardent supporters of revolutionary causes. Before 1959, as the earlier quotations indicate, the Chinese endorsed this claim. However, in one respect there appears to have been a genuine difference of views between the Chinese and Soviets. This was on the question of peaceful versus non-peaceful means in the transition to communism. As mentioned earlier, it appeared to be the main point of ideological difference between the Chinese and Soviets at the November 1957 Conference of World Communist Parties.

In September, 1963, the Chinese published a document ( which they claimed to have presented at the November, 1957, conference) in which they argued against the likelihood of any non-communist Government being replaced by a communist Government without force being used at some stage. Given their own bitter 1920 experience in the matter they had every right to have an opinion.

The questions which need to be asked, therefore, are: 

What is involved in this difference of views over peaceful versus non-peaceful transition? and Does this difference of views mean that the Chinese are more “revolutionary-minded” than the Soviets, and, if so, what are the practical consequences?

Reduced to its essentials, the problem is as follows: Communist ideologists see the non-communist world as inhabited by two kinds of Governments: “pro-imperialist” ( or rather pro-Western) and “progressive” (defined as those which follow “progressive” policies, but in reality the main criterion is that the Government should be either anti-Western or non-aligned).

Pro-imperialist governments can be further sub-divided into “reactionary” and “democratic” Governments, the criterion here being whether or not they forcibly suppress their communist opposition.

In theory, therefore, three different situations have to be considered. (In practice, however, the possible permutations and combinations are much greater. Some “pro-imperialist” Governments, e.g., Sweden, are in fact far more progressive than many “progressive” Governments. And a large number of “progressive” Governments engage in forcible suppression of local communists, e.g., Cambodia, the U.A.R.. Communist theory does not allow for these deviations, and in practice when such anomalies are encountered the circumstances of each particular situation decide the attitude adopted.

(In the case of the U.A.R., for example, Nasser’s anti-Western attitudes more than compensated for his brutal treatment of Egyptian communists in determining the Chinese and Soviet attitude toward his regime.)

In each of these three situations, the programme for the establishment of communism is likely to be quite different.

1.Where a “pro-imperialist” Government suppresses its communist opposition, it is clear that the establishment of a communist Government can only come about through force.   

2.Where a “pro-imperialist” Government tolerates its communist opposition, it is likely, though not absolutely certain, that ultimately force will have to be used to replace the Government. But to advocate the use of force will lead the Government to suppress pro-communist force and in this way time will be lost in building up communist strength in preparation for an eventual bid to gain power. At the same time, the pro-communist opposition should be prepared to use force if the Government at any stage reverses its policy towards them.

3.Where a “progressive” government holds power, it would clearly be counter-productive to resort to force, since this will drive the Government in an anti-communist and, more importantly, in a pro-Western direction.

These three strategies for the establishment of communism have been approved by both the Chinese and the Soviets. In other words, both approve the use of force, where necessary, and both approve the use of peaceful means where necessary or desirable. With regard to the first and second situations out-lined above, both have spoken as follows:


  1. Revolutionary wars are unavoidable, since it is only through struggle, including armed struggle, that the peoples can win their freedom and independence.[C.P.S.U. Open Letter, July 14, 1963.]
  2. The working class endeavours to carry out socialist revolutions in a peaceful way without civil war… If the exploiting classes resort to violence against the people, the working class will be forced to use non-peaceful means of seizing power. [C.P.S.U. Letter of March 30, 1963.]


  1. The proletarian party… must defeat counter-revolutionary armed force with revolutionary armed force wherever imperialism and its lackeys resort to armed suppression. [Chinese Letter of June 14, 1963.]
  2. The proletarian party must prepare itself for two eventualities: while preparing for the peaceful development of the revolution, it must also fully prepare for a non-peaceful development. [ibid.]

In the third situation – where a “progressive” non-communist Government holds power – a complex body of theory has evolved in recent years, in the course of which certain differences between the Chinese and Soviet positions have developed. The situation appears generally to be as follows:

At the 1960 Moscow Conference of World Communist Parties, the question of how communism was to be established in the under-developed and newly independent countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America received attention.

Previously this question had been generally considered under the heading of “the anti-colonial struggle”. It was felt that something more sophisticated was needed to describe the situation in countries already independent. The concept of the “national democratic state” was the answer.

The national democratic state was said to be the form in which non-capitalist (i.e. under-developed) countries could make the transition to socialism (i.e. communism) without passing through the capitalist stage.

It was defined as a state in which the representatives of the nation’s “progressive forces” were in power and were acting to defend the nation’s political and economic independence against the incursions of Western capitalists, as well as working for social progress and a degree of state ownership in the economy.The “progressive forces” were drawn from four classes: the workers, the peasantry, the intelligentsia and progressive elements within the bourgeoisie.

The Chinese in 1960 appeared happy enough with the national democratic state concept. Since 1960 their ideologists have made occasional reference to it. And, as far as is known, they still accept the concept.

In so doing they have tended to emphasise the need for “revolutionary struggle” to break Western influence over the politics and economy of the under-developed countries. They have also tended to emphasise that the national democratic state is only a transitional form of Government and that eventually the proletariat must move to establish a socialist Government.

They do not, however, stipulate that this transition must take place through revolution in the sense of an armed uprising.*

While they are no doubt calling for the overthrow of “reactionary” Governments as defined above, they are also referring to the social changes which they believe or hope are taking place in countries ruled by “progressive” Governments.

Western observers have often preferred to assume that the Chinese do in fact mean armed uprisings whenever they speak of revolution. One result of this was the startling conclusion that when Chou En-lai, during a good-will visit to a number of African Governments in 1964, spoke of all Africa being “ripe for revolution”, he was in fact calling for the violent overthrow of the Governments he was visiting.

*In Chinese, revolution – ko ming – is used widely in the political sense, in much the same way as we use it in the technical or social sense, e.g., the computer revolution, the sexual revolution.

The National Democratic State

Many Western observers believe that the “national democratic state” concept must be opposed by the Chinese on the ground that the bourgeoisie is included amongst the “progressive forces”. But there is no reason why this should be so. 

Long before the national democratic state was heard of, Chinese ideologists had written at length on the subject of the bourgeoisie and had sub-divided it into three categories: the petty bourgeoisie (shop-keepers, civil servants, small businessmen), the national bourgeoisie (larger businessmen and intellectuals sufficiently imbued with patriotic spirit to oppose Western capitalist influence), and finally the big or comprador bourgeoisie ( which is reactionary and co-operates with the Western capitalists).

The Chinese have always spoken of the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie as showing progressive tendencies, though subject to occasional “vacillation”.(27)

The Chinese leaders had themselves, on coming to power in 1949, declared their regime to be transitional prior to the establishment of socialism: to be a “new democracy” based on the “People’s United Front”, which was defined to include the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie.Their thinking was much influenced by their pre-1949 success in gaining the support or acquiescence of the intellectuals and many in the middle classes.

Indeed, the Chinese, in their endorsement of the national democratic state, went as far as to suggest that in certain circumstanced even members of the aristocracy and monarchy could be included amongst the “progressive forces”.*

This deviation was quickly seized upon by the Soviets: “The Chinese comrades want to amend Lenin and prove that it is not even the working class but the petty bourgeoisie or the national bourgeoisie or even ‘certain patriotically minded kings, princes and aristocrats’ who must be leaders of the world struggle against imperialism”.(28)

In an attempt possibly to pre-empt the Chinese claim to a monopoly over revolutionary causes, or possibly even out of a genuine dislike for having to give ideological endorsement to monarchies and other bourgeois elements, the Soviets in 1964 moved to replace the concept of the national democratic state with the concept of the “revolutionary democratic state”.The ”revolutionary democrats”, though not themselves communist, were said to be strongly influenced by the communist example and were “fighting for the socialist development of their Government”.(29)

This was a rather obvious attempt to provide ideological justification for the good relations they sought with the Cambodian and Nepalese monarchies.

The Revolutionary Democratic State

The “revolutionary-democratic-state” concept appeared to represent a tightening-up of the Soviet ideological approach to the under-developed countries. One example of this was the exclusion of India and Sukarno’s Indonesia (both of which were formerly described as national democracies) from the list of revolutionary democracies.

The latter consisted exclusively of countries with radically orientated Governments, such as the U.A.R., Burma, Nkrumah’s Ghana, Guinea, Mali and Brazzaville Congo and Ben Bella’s Algeria. Countries not included among the revolutionary democracies began to be described simply as “fighting to consolidate their national independence”.

In one important respect, however, the Soviets appeared to have moderated their ideological approach.They seemed to imply that the revolutionary democratic state could make the transition to socialism without the “revolutionary democrats” being replaced by the “proletarian party”. (The fact that in most of these countries there was either no communist movement, or that it was suppressed, was no doubt an important consideration.)

The Chinese quickly seized on this ideological flaw, and in November 1965 stated: “The new leaders of the C.P.S.U…. are openly spreading the fallacy that socialism can be achieved without the leadership of the proletariat.[They] are giving an ideological weapon to the reactionaries … trying to confuse those nations and peoples in the stage of national democratic revolution”.(30)

Even allowing for such hair-splitting, it seems clear that in theory at least Chinese and Soviet ideologists do not seriously disagree in their definition of the circumstances in which non-peaceful rather than peaceful means should be used by communists seeking power in non-communist countries.Where the Soviets and Chinese do disagree, again in theory, is on the likelihood of the circumstances arising in which peaceful means can be used.

The Chinese point out that nowhere have communists been able to come to power through peaceful means, and that it is unlikely that this situation will alter. The Soviets do not deny this. They simply point out that the possibility of communist movements being able to come to power by peaceful means should not be overlooked.

In understanding this difference in viewpoint, we need to take account of the different environments in which the Chinese and Soviets find themselves. Soviet attention is focused on the European countries.

Europe has seen since 1917 the failure of one communist-inspired revolution after another, starting with the Hungarian revolution of 1918 and ending with the communist uprising in Greece in 1946-8. It has seen the establishment of stable parliamentary democracies, most of which allow communist parties to operate legally. And, as the post-war example of France and Italy shows, there are real possibilities of communists being able to reach positions of power through participation in the parliamentary democratic machine.

In Asia the situation is quite different. In most Asian countries, communists are suppressed and there is little opportunity of their ever being able to come to power except by force. And, where they are not suppressed, experience has shown that on almost every occasion an Asian communist movement has gained sufficient electoral support to make a bid for power, elections have either been suspended or other moves made to prevent it from reaching or holding power.*

Even allowing that the Chinese are more pessimistic than the Soviets about the possibility of communist victory without resort to force, this difference of views would seem to be of little practical significance.The Chinese discount the possibility of communist parties in the capitalist countries coming to power by peaceful means. But since they have written off these parties as impotent, they do not expect them to come to power by force either.

Turning to the Afro/ Asian / Latin American world, we find that the bulk of material support provided the various revolutionary or liberation movements is supplied by the Soviet Union. This applies particularly to Africa, where Soviet arms have for years been channelled through the U.A.R. and Algeria to almost any left-wing African organisation which sought assistance. During Laotian hostilities in 1961-2, the bulk of the aid received by the Pathet Lao was Soviet-supplied, flown in with great difficulty and expense across China. Soviet aid to Vietnam also greatly exceeded Chinese aid.**

*For example: unexpected communist success in the Laotian elections of 1958 (13 out of 20 seats won by communist or pro-communist candidates) has persuaded non-communist Laotian leaders to either manipulate or suspend subsequent elections.Communist success in the 1961 elections in Java ( the P.K.I. polled ahead of any other party) may have helped to persuade Sukarno in the direction of “guided democracy” and abandonment of elections.The Communist Government elected in the Indian province of Kerala in 1957 was in 1959 removed from power by the Central Government in Delhi. Communists and pro-communists repeatedly elected to office in Okinawa have been removed from office by the controlling U.S. authorities.

**In November 1964 I was witness to an incredible Kremlin scene.  An Australian foreign minister, Paul Hasluck, had travelled to Moscow to persuade the new Soviet leadership they should join us in Vietnam to restrain the expansionist Chinese. Gromyko growled there was no way Moscow would abandon aid to the brave Vietnamese people struggling against US imperialism….and he wished the Chinese would do a lot more to help.

Even in Latin America, where most communist movements are split into a moderate pro-Soviet faction and an extreme revolutionary pro-Chinese faction, Soviet assistance to revolutionary movements channelled via Cuba has not been insignificant.

All this would seem to make nonsense out of accusations by the Chinese that the Soviets “not only demand that the oppressed nations should abandon their revolutionary struggle for liberation… but even side with imperialism and use a variety of methods to extinguish the sparks of revolution in Asia, Africa and Latin America”.(31) 

However, the Chinese may be hinting at something different.The Soviets have in the past shown a  propensity to calculate whether or not support for a revolutionary situation is in their national interest. One example was post-war Greece when Stalin decided that he could not afford to risk confrontation with the U.S. A more recent example was Algeria, where the Soviets long refused to recognize the Algerian revolutionary movement (the F.L.N.) for fear of damaging relations with the French Government.

There may even be some truth in the Chinese claim that Khrushchev attempted to come to terms with Kennedy over Vietnam.

But national interests can also dictate support for revolutionary movements. Active support for Left-Wing movements in Africa costs the Soviets (or the Chinese) little more than the friendship of the Portuguese, South Africans and Rhodesians, while it helps to reduce the influence of the Chinese (or the Soviets) in the area.

Similar thinking may have persuaded the Soviets to give full support to the Vietnamese revolutionaries – once it became clear that a satisfactory compromise with the U.S. was not possible. And in the process of negotiating with the West for compromise solutions of these revolutionary situations (Vietnam 1954, Laos 1962), the Soviet Union has been able to use its support for the revolutionaries as a bargaining counter for concessions in other areas involving Soviet relations with the West.

Thus, if there is a difference in practice between the Soviet and the Chinese positions over revolution, it comes back to what was suggested as the basis of the Sino/Soviet dispute: the importance to the Sino or Soviet national interest of relations with the Western countries. As the following section will attempt to show, however, the Chinese can be just as careful as the Soviets in calculating the national-interest gains and losses from support for revolutionary movements.  It is the gains and the losses which differ.

Territorial Differences

An explanation of the Sino/Soviet dispute in terms of national-interest differences involving Soviet/U.S. relations and the Taiwan question means more than having to discount ideological differences as a primary cause of the dispute. It means that other differences of national rather than ideological interest, such as Cuba, India, Sino/Soviet territorial frictions, are also ruled out as possible causes. Instead, we have to regard these differences as consequences of the dispute, with each side using them to embarrass the other as much as possible.

The behaviour of both sides on these questions can also be much more readily understood if looked at in these terms. If we assume that the Chinese position over Cuba was inspired by the hope of discrediting Khrushchev to the maximum, its apparent inconsistencies (accusations of adventurism in sending missiles to Cuba, of capitulationism for withdrawing the rockets) make sense.

The Soviet position over the Sino/Indian dispute was anti-China in 1959, when Khrushchev was seeking to project his Camp David image; anti-India at the outbreak of hostilities in 1962, when Chinese support over Cuba was needed; and switched to anti-China again as soon as it was clear that this support was not forthcoming. 

Sino/Soviet border clashes did not erupt until after the worsening of relations in the early 1960’s. (The Chinese claim the clashes were first provoked by the Soviet Union following the cancellation of economic aid in mid-1960.) Some observers believe that the border clashes, and even the Sino/Soviet, dispute itself, are the result of Chinese claims to large areas of Soviet territory.

The Soviets have accused the Chinese of seeking lebensraum in the manner of pre-war Germany and Japan.(32)  It may be useful, therefore, to give the background and detail of the differences which have arisen over territorial questions.

In December 1962, Khrushchev, in the course of an attack on Chinese policies,(33) pointed out that the Chinese criticised the Soviets for restraint over Cuba while themselves practicing restraint over Hong Kong and Macao. In January 1963, the same point was taken up by the U.S. Communist Party which asked why the Chinese adopted a double standard of “not following the adventurous policy in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao that they advocate for others”. (Subsequently the Soviets were to ask explicitly why the Chinese, who were so keen on liberating other peoples, had failed to liberate their own kinfolk in Hong Kong.)

The Chinese replied in March pointing out that Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan had been lost under some of the Unequal Treaties* of the nineteenth century, and that those who raised “questions of this kind” should also remember that large areas of Chinese territory were also lost to Tsarist Russia under the Unequal Treaties.*

The Chinese added that their policy towards these treaties was to “recognize, abrogate, revise or re-negotiate them according to their respective contents”, and that “in this respect our policy towards the socialist countries is fundamentally different from our policy towards the imperialist countries.”

Sino-Soviet Border Diferences

Sino/Soviet border negotiations commenced in Peking on February 23,1964. They appear to have been unproductive. In a letter to the Soviets of February 29, 1964, the Chinese claimed their position to be as follows: “The Sino/Soviet border question can be settled through negotiations. Pending such a settlement, the status quo on the border should be maintained”.They added: Although the old treaties relating to the Chinese/Russian boundary are Unequal Treaties, the Chinese Government is willing to respect them and take them as a basis for a reasonable settlement of the Sino/Soviet border question”.

In May 1964, the Soviets returned to the Hong Kong issue. In a series of newspaper articles highly critical of Chinese policies, China was accused of “making a big profit from the sale of drinking water, which is in short supply in Hong Kong’s working-class section.”** Beijing was also accused of using Hong Kong as an exit-point for drugs smuggled out of China. Pravda claimed “it would be in vain to search in the Peking Press for angry words of protest and condemnation for the rule of the colonialists who exploit several million Chinese in Hong Kong”.(34)

*The Chinese description of the treaties imposed on China by the European powers and Japan during her period of weakness.

**A rather unfortunate misrepresentation, incidentally, since Peking originally offered the water free of charge. The Hong Kong authorities insisted on paying for the water in order to deny the Chinese an opportunity for propaganda.

Subsequently, in July 1964, Mao Tse-tung was reported to have told a Japanese Socialist Party delegation that the Soviet Union had occupied “too many places”, extending from Eastern Europe to the Kuriles. He said that the Kuriles “must be returned to Japan”. As for territory lost by China, “we have not yet presented our account for this list”.(35)

The Soviets responded strongly: By what right are the Chinese leaders claiming lands that do not belong to China? They refer to the fact that hundreds of years ago Chinese troops came to these areas and that the Chinese Emperor at one time or another collected tribute from the local people. Indeed, were not such a serious question involved, such ‘historic arguments’ could not be called other than childish” They added: Have those who question the inclusion in the Soviet Union of a territory of more than one and a half million square kilometres considered how these claims will be taken by Soviet people who have lived and worked on this land for several generations…?”(36)

Khrushchev, in September 1964, discussing Mao’s reported statement with a visiting Japanese delegation warned: “The frontiers of the Soviet Union are sacred and he who dares to violate them will meet with a resolute rebuff”.(37)*

In conclusion, it could be mentioned that the Chinese Foreign Minister, Chen Yi, is reported to have told a visiting Japanese politician early in 1965: “China, too, has had 1.5 million square kilometres of territory east of the Outer Khing-an range taken away by the Soviet Union, though we are not thinking particularly of trying to get it back”.(38)**

*italics supplied. The Russian word carries the same religious overtones as its English equivalent.

**A possible explanation for this contradictory picture was that given me by a Russian in Moscow in 1964: “The Chinese have said they will renounce their right to former territories, provided we publicly acknowledge their generosity in so doing”.

Clashes which have occurred along the Sino/Soviet frontier are more likely, it would seem, to be the result of differences over border demarcation than of Chinese attempts to reclaim lost territories. Like the Sino/Indian border, the Sino/Soviet border for much of its length has never been clearly defined.

Ownership of islands in the Amur and certain areas along the Xinjiang border are disputed. The Chinese have hinted at this Soviet/India parallel:

Among all our neighbours it is only the leaders of the C.P.S.U. and the reactionary nationalists of India who have deliberately created border disputes with China. The Chinese Government has satisfactorily settled complicated boundary questions which were legacies from the past with all its fraternal socialist neighbours, except the Soviet Union, and with its nationalist neighbours such as Burma, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan with the exception of India.(39)*

Polemics aside, the Chinese may have some reason to feel that their border problems with the Soviets resemble those with New Delhi. In both cases, border clashes followed a worsening of state relations. In both cases, the Chinese have a basis of a claim to territory lost during China’s period of weakness in the nineteenth century. In both cases, the Chinese appear to have been willing to accept the existing status quo as the basis for border negotiations. In both cases, the Chinese may have expected the other side to agree to a compromise settlement by which the Chinese relinquished claims to former territories.  And in both cases, the Chinese have had to deal with Governments which refer to their claimed frontiers as “sacred”.

* Soviet ethnologists and historians have been commissioned to write articles denying historical links between China and the indigenous population of the Soviet Far East. In the historical museum in Khabarovsk can be seen maps showing, as evidence of the level of civilization reached by the original population of what is now the Maritime Province of the U.S.S.R., the fact that in the twelfth century they had organized themselves into a political unit under leaders called Chin. 

In fact a Chinese dynasty called Chin (or Qin) had controlled the area 3rd century BC.


A further, and possibly more serious, source of Sino/Soviet friction is conflicting interests in two highly sensitive border regions: Xinjiang and Mongolia.

The Chinese have accused the Soviets of “subversive” activity in Xinjiang, a Chinese province with non-Chinese peoples closely related to the non-Russian peoples of Soviet Central Asia.(40)  Before 1949 the Soviet Union exercised a degree of economic and even political control over the area. Following the breakdown in Sino/Soviet relations, it seems the Soviets may have felt they should reassert their interest in the area to the limited extent of distributing anti-Chinese propaganda among the local population.

In Mongolia a more serious situation exists. The territories inhabited by the Mongolian peoples include territory now incorporated in China and the Soviet Union, as well as the territory of the present Mongolian Republic. In the past, these territories were attached to China in much the same manner as Tibet. The Chinese (communist and non-communist ) have always felt that China has a valid claim to most of this territory. As with Tibet, the Mongolians took advantage of the Manchu overthrow in 1911 to assert their independence, though in an agreement of 1913 they settled for the formula of Chinese suzerainty and internal autonomy similar to that applied later to Tibet. *

In 1921, however, during the Russian civil war, Bolshevik troops entered Mongolia and a communist. Government asserting Mongolian independence was established. The independence of the Government was reluctantly recognized by Chiang Kai-shek in 1946 as a concession to gain Soviet neutrality in the civil war against the communists. (Chiang has since withdrawn this recognition on the ground that the Soviet did not maintain neutrality.) The Communist Chinese Government recognized Mongolian independence in its friendship treaty with the Soviet Union on February 14, 1950.

It seems probable that Mao, like Chiang in 1946, recognized Mongolian independence on certain conditions – that they would be that they be allowed a degree of influence in Mongolia and that Mongolia would serve as a buffer region between themselves and the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1950’s, the Communist Chinese made every effort to establish their influence in Mongolia.**

The Soviets, however, have retained their traditional dominance. Following the breakdown in Sino/Soviet relations, all Chinese influence in Mongolia has been expelled and pro-Chinese Mongolian leaders purged. Mongolia is now firmly aligned with Moscow – politically, economically and even culturally.

The Chinese can be expected to feel bitter over these developments. This bitterness is likely to continue and possibly intensify – at least as long as the Sino/Soviet dispute continues. But, had the dispute not occurred, it seems likely that whatever differences of opinion might have existed, whether over Mongolia, Xinjiang, India, Cuba, ideology, or support for revolutionary causes, would have continued to be sublimated for the sake of the Sino/Soviet alliance – at least as long as Beijing continued to feel it needed the alliance.

* Mao is reported in the 1930’s to have claimed Mongolia to be part of China.(41)

**even to the extent of sending thousands of Chinese labourers to dig the roads and ditches for various construction projects – work which the Mongolians by temperament appear unwilling to do.


  1. In their letter to the Soviets of February 29, 1964, the Chinese complained openly of the limitations of Soviet aid, and that the prices of Soviet goods had been above those of the world market.
  2. Article in People’s Daily, April 5, 1956; “On the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”.
  3. The Sino/Soviet conflict (1961,) Donald Zagoria
  4. People’s Daily, December 29, 1956; “More on the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”.
  5. People’s Daily, September 6, 1963, “Origin and Development of the Differences between the C.P.S.U. Leadership and Ourselves”. This article states: “The Twentieth Congress of the C.P.S.U. [in 1956] was the first step along the road to revisionism taken by the C.P.S.U.”
  6. “Huang Ch’i-hsiang Unmasked as a Two-Faced Anti-Communist and Anti-Socialist Monster”; New China News Agency, July 29, 1957.
  7. Pravda, November 22, 1957.
  8. The evidence of Chinese backing for Khrushchev is given in A Key to Soviet Politics: the Crisis of the Anti-Party Group, R. Pethybridge.
  9. Pravda, July 12, 1957.
  10. Chinese Government Statement, August 15, 1963
  11. Kommunist 8, 1959; “Notable Aspects of the Chinese People”.
  12. Excerpt from Mao’s speech of November 18, 1957, in Moscow and quoted in his article “Imperialists and All Reactionaries are Paper Tigers”; N.C.N.A., October 31, 1958.
  13. Speech to Chinese National People’s Congress, February 10, 1958.
  14. Chinese Government Statement, September 1, 1963.
  15. People’s Daily, September 6, 1963; “The Origins and Development of the Differences between the C.P.S.U. leadership and ourselves”.
  16. Anna Louise Strong, “China’s Strategy in the Taiwan Straits”; New Times, November 1958. A good example of the influence of face-saving on Chinese policies.
  17. Hung Ch’i (Red Flag), February 1959.
  18. Soviet Government Statement, September 21, 1963.Speech in Vladivostok, October 6.
  19. Speech in Novosibirsk, October 10.
  20. Report to Supreme Soviet, October 31.
  21. See China Quarterly, No.8, 1961; “The Dismissal of P’eng Te-Huai”, by David Charles.
  22. Khrushchev’s address to the June 1963 C.P.S.U. central Committee plenum on ideological questions.
  23. Kommunist, October 18, 1963; “Marxism/Leninism is the Basis for the Unity of the Communist Movement”.
  24. L ’Humanite, Paris, February 21, 1964.
  25. People’s Daily, January 21, 1964.
  26. The Chinese Letter of June 14, 1963, provides a detailed outline of the Chinese attitude towards the bourgeoisie.
  27. P.S.U. Open Letter, July 14, 1963.
  28. For a useful analysis of Soviet writings on the “revolutionary democratic state” see Bulletin(Institute for the Study of the U.S.S.R.), No.4, April 1966.
  29. Hung Ch’i, November 10, 1965. Note use of the term “national democratic revolution”.
  30. People’s Daily, October 21, 1963, “Apologists for Neo-Colonialism”.
  31. Pravda editorial, September 2, 1964.
  32. Speech to Supreme Soviet, December 12, 1962.
  33. May 27, 1964.
  34. Report carried in Sekai Shuho, Tokyo, August 11, 1964.
  35. Pravda editorial, September 2, 1964.
  36. Tass dispatch, September 19, 1964.
  37. Report of conversation with Tokuma Utsunomiya, Liberal Democratic member of
  38. Japanese Diet, Yomiuri, January 24, 1965.
  39. Chinese Letter to C.P.S.U. Central Committee, February 29, 1964.
  40. People’s Daily, February 4, 1964; “The C.P.S.U. leaders are the Greatest Splitters of the Present Age”.
  41. Red Star over China’ (1944), Edgar Snow