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China and De-Stalinization 1953-1957

Mar 20, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The death of Stalin on March 5, 1953, was not just a relief for the Russian people, but also brought about a thorough change in Cold War politics. For China, this change proved quite favourable. The CPC had long followed directives from Moscow, and Mao had done everything to win the confidence and support of the leader of the communist world, even if Stalin had often enough proved that he mistrusted Mao (who might have become an apostate, a "second Tito", and China a second disloyal Yugoslavia) and looked down on the CPC as a socialist party of minor value.

State relations (the possession of industries, railways and ports on Chinese soil) had been more important for Stalin than ideological solidarity. On the other hand, Mao had copied much of the Soviet model, even if Russian patterns did not fully apply to Chinese reality, as can be seen in the case of industrialization. One of the first Chinese movements after the death of Stalin was the armistice in Korea. Other decisions followed, mainly in field of economic and technical cooperation. In May 1953 the SU agreed to provide help for 91 new projects, a figure that was raised to 258 in August 1958 (Guillermaz 1976: 185).

The new leader, Nikita S. Khrushchev (1894-1971), accompanied by Prime Minister Nikolai A. Bulganin (1895-1975) and First Deputy Premier Anastas I. Mikoyan (1985-1978), paid a visit to Beijing in September/October 1954. During that visit, the last treaties limiting China's territorial and economic sovereignty, were abolished with the handover of Port Arthur (May 14, 1955), and the transferral of the Soviet shares in mixed Sino-Soviet companies. The SU also granted a new loan of 520 million Rubles, and agreed to further cooperation in common projects. It was promised that as soon as the Taiwan question was settled, the entry of China into the United Nations would be supported by the SU.

On the other hand, the SU began during that summer a policy in which China would play just a minor role. Rapprochement with Yugoslavia was initiated in early 1955, and Khrushchev toured many Asian and African countries, and so demonstrated that the SU's intention to become a major player in third-world countries. During the 20th Congress of the CPSU in February 1956, just a few months after the decisive change of the Party constitution in China, Khrushchev ignited De-Stalinization, with criticism of the personality cult (in Chinese geren chongbai 个人崇拜), the dogma of peaceful coexistence (heping gongchu 和平共处), and the proposition of different roads to socialism (XXX).

The first Chinese reactions were guarded, but on April 5, 1956, the Renmin ribao 人民日报 published an article (Guanyu wuchan jieji zhuanzheng de lishi jingyan 关于无产阶级专政的历史经验 "On the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat"), where the role of Stalin as the defender of Lenin's heritage and as the builder of a powerful socialist economy was emphasized, and his gross errors (personality cult, excessive suppression of counterrevolutionaries, lack of vigilance before WWII) acknowledged. Yet the article also justified the preeminent role Mao Zedong played in the socialist construction in China.

The first test of Sino-Soviet friendship were the uprisings in Poland (Jun 28-30, 1956) and Hungary (Oct 23-Nov 10, 1956). China later alleged that the suppression of the Hungarian uprising had happened on their advice, due to Chinese reservations concerning the new dogma of peaceful coexistence between capitalist and socialist countries. China on December 29, 1956, stressed the importance that dogmatism should not prevail over national conditions, and the latter made it necessary that each socialist country would have to follow its own path. China was too large as being a mere satellite of Moscow. Prime Minister Zhou Enlai's 周恩来 visits to Poland and Hungary underlined the important position of China in the socialist camp. In October 1957 the SU agreed to provide for the supply of sample atomic bombs to China, including technical data on manufacture. The agreement was eventually denounced in June 1959.

The celebrations for the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution in 1957 were accompanied by the launching of the world's first artificial satellite on October 4, known as Sputnik (Chinese Shipunike 史普尼克). From November 2 to 20, Mao stayed in Moscow and confirmed the preeminence of the SU in the socialist bloc, quoting in a speech to Chinese students a famous sentence from the romance Hongloumeng 紅樓夢 which says that "the east wind prevails over the west wind" (dongfeng yadao xifeng 东风压倒西风), which can ex post be interpreted in two ways (socialism prevails over capitalism, or China prevails over the Soviet Union).

In speeches on ideology, the Chinese delegates negotiated a compromise in the question whether power could be achieved without a civil war and in the dogma that the transition to socialism can happen in non-peaceful ways. The Chinese stressed that the real danger, after successful takeover of power, was the continuous existence of revisionism, dogmatism and sectarianism within society and even within the Party. Yet it was made clear to Mao that the influence of the CPC in the communist world would remain limited. The Soviet Union faced a new problem against which internal dogmatic disagreements with China were just minor issues: Nuclear deterrence. When Mao returned to China in late 1957, the CPC had become aware that the Soviet Union went into another direction, and that China had to rely on its own strength, and to search for an own road to socialism.

Shan Gang 单刚, Wang Yinghui 王英辉. "1957, Mao Zedong dui liu Xu xuesheng de yanjiang" 1957年,毛泽东对留苏学生的演讲 [Mao talks to Chinese students in the SU], from Zhongguo gongchandang xinwen 中国共产党新闻 / News of the Communist Party of China.
Lewis, John Wilson, Xue Litai (1988). China Builds the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press).