Difficulties in relations between the cpsu and the Chinese Communists existed before Mao Tse-tung came to power in Peking and they were apparent in the first negotiations in Moscow with the Party-Government delegation of the Chinese People’s Republic. At the time, however, the existence of these difficulties was not widely known. The major feature of relations between our countries after the proclamation of the Chinese People’s Republic in 1949 was ever-developing collaboration; as early as 1950, hundreds of Soviet specialists were sent to China to help in its economic restoration and, simultaneously, thousands of young Chinese came to the Soviet Union to study in higher educational institutions, technical schools and factories. Stalin frequently talked at that time about the ‘great and indestructible friendship between the ussr and China’, calling on the Chinese to ‘learn from the ussr’. Mao Tse-tung even more frequently talked about the ‘eternal friendship’ between our countries.
Economic, cultural and technical aid to China was significantly broadened by the Soviet Union during the first Five Year Plan, 1953–1957. The ussr helped in the building of all China’s major enterprises, and large loans were given to China under very advantageous conditions. At that time the Soviet programme of aid to China was the largest given by an industrial to an under-developed country.
However, this ‘eternal’ friendship between China and the ussr lasted only ten years. The first visible cracks between the Soviet and Chinese Communist Parties already appeared in 1956–57. Initially, they concerned only ideological issues but gradually they became wider and deeper and involved economic and political matters and domestic and foreign policy. The incipient failure of the Great Leap Forward in China, the worsening of Chinese-American relations, and Khrushchev’s attempts at detente between the ussr and America cooled relations even more. In 1960 Khrushchev heedlessly demanded the return of specialists to the ussr.
This withdrawal of Soviet specialists did not signify the complete breakdown of relations. Even at the end of the sixties, the ussr helped China build eighty major plants, and thousands of Chinese students, workers and engineers continued to study in the ussr. Relations between the Communist Parties also continued for some time. However, the ideological polemics became more open and critical. The Chinese leaders were particularly displeased with the nuclear test-ban agreements. Economic relations between China and the ussr were almost completely disrupted. The Chinese press gradually stopped calling the Soviet Union a socialist country. Thereafter such terms as ‘revisionism’ and ‘social-imperialism’ began to appear. Naturally, the Soviet Union retaliated. The final severing of relations occurred at the beginning of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China, when the Soviet Embassy in Peking was besieged by Red Guards. Government and Party channels of communication between the two countries were almost completely shut and ideological and political confrontation gradually grew into a military confrontation. The military collision on a small island in the River Ussuri in 1969 led to a chain of short but bloody disputes along the Soviet-Chinese border. Not only border troops but also rocket divisions of the Soviet Army took part in the battles, the latter opening fire on massed troops of the Chinese Army.
During this military confrontation, China carried out preparations for a war with the Soviet Union. In many of the largest cities in China, including Peking, an enormous system of underground shelters was built. A large part of the youth, including school-children, underwent military training. The people of the border regions were moved to southern provinces of China and millions of Red Guards sent north. Despite the technical backwardness and poverty of the country, China was able to create its own atomic weapons and rockets. Gradually, medium-range missiles aimed at targets in the ussr were sited in China. In the 1950s, Khrushchev had dismantled many of the fortifications on the border between the Soviet Union and China. Now in the 1960s the Soviet Union began to create a newer and much more powerful military zone. According to Western
The possibility of a war between the ussr and China was discussed at all levels in both Moscow and Peking. Brezhnev attempted to talk to Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon about a Chinese or ‘yellow’ peril. Many people considered a war inevitable. And some Western politicians were secretly prepared to welcome such a collision between the giants of the communist world. There is no doubt that the developing confrontation with China was one important stimulus for the Soviet Union to look for possible paths of detente and collaboration with the West.
The death of Mao Tse-tung and the arrest of the ‘Gang of Four’ did not appreciably alter Soviet-Chinese relations. The anti-Soviet orientation of all previous Chinese policy had been so deep and powerful that neither the supporters of Hua Guofeng nor those of Deng Xiaoping could hope to succeed in their power struggles without employing the strongest anti-Soviet rhetoric. However, the heritage of Mao Tse-tung was so heavy that it was impossible not to revise many aspects of domestic and foreign policy or to make a critical analysis of the Mao years. The first signs of a change in relations between the ussr and China began to appear; border negotiations were renewed and the two countries began to translate and publish works by each other’s authors. However, the Chinese publishers chose Russian classical literature or rural prose of the 1950s and 1960s, while their Soviet counterparts chose either the Chinese classics or narratives criticizing the events of the ‘Cultural Revolution’.