Home Issues Past Issues MCS 2015 Issue 1 Introduction to the Special Issue on China and the USSRThe Forgotten Decade: A Retrospective Look at the 1950s
Introduction to the Special Issue on China and the USSR
The Forgotten Decade: A Retrospective Look at the 1950s
Abstract: This special issue, “The Forgotten Decade: A Retrospective Look at the 1950s,” presents the latest scholarship from some of the best specialists on the Cold War. These scholars hail from many countries, bringing a new perspective to this important period of Chinese-Soviet relations. Relying on newly-discovered sources in many languages, these articles provide a fresh look at the Sino-Soviet friendship years. This friendship was a unique learning experience for both countries, and in retrospect, it was probably the most ambitious transfer of a total political and economic model in the last century.

The painting by Li Bin at the beginning of this issue of Modern China Studies beautifully represents the topics and concerns found in the articles. As described by the artist, China’s relationship with the USSR played a central role in his generation and remains a singular experience of communism and the hope for the future. The fact that these two countries went from proclaiming their special friendship to military conflict in just over a decade is both a paradox and an opportunity. It is a paradox that these two regimes shared many important values, and yet, grew so far apart in such a short time. But it is an opportunity for scholars, for this period of cooperation is a rich vein to mine for gaining a better understanding of China, as well as the USSR. While there is much work to be done to finally understand the importance of this decade for China, these articles represent the best, most current research available. Many of the them rely on far-flung archives in China, the USSR, and Eastern Europe, the new scholarship of Chinese authors, as well as personal memoir and interviews of many people on both sides of the border.

The first article is Alexander Pantsov’s unusual discovery of Mao Zedong’s private dossier in the Soviet Archives. Over and above the simple voyeuristic pleasure of discovering that Soviet doctors encouraged the leader of the masses to have daily full body massages and pine needle baths, the fact that these kind of detailed records and observations were kept indicates that the Soviets were very aware of Mao’s central role in the future of China. While files were kept on other Chinese leaders, Pantsov relates that Stalin was especially interested in his Chinese counterpart and did everything possible to not only discover what he could about him but to assure that he remained healthy enough to keep control of the USSR’s fraternal state. In the second piece, Hua-yu Li shows us that this fascination came along with an equivalent Chinese desire to emulate the Soviet Union. Her article discusses how the CCP’s very organization had much to do with wanting to copy the CPSU. In the struggle to transform from a revolutionary to governing party, the CCP sought many organizational and institutional features of the CPSU, including the creation of control mechanisms over party behavior, the emulation of the CPSU’s role in the economy, and the importance of maintaining ideological orthodoxy inside the CCP. What is interesting is that while China in the 21st century has moved very far from the Stalinist model of the 1950s, its political structures remain the most important historical legacy of the great friendship. Deborah Kaple’s article gives a bird’s-eye view of the Sino-Soviet friendship through the experiences of the Soviet advisors and experts in China and of their Chinese co-workers. These micro-encounters, including both friendship and at times, suspicion, parallel to a very large degree the peregrinations of the relationship of the top leadership.  At the beginning of the Friendship Decade, the Soviet and Chinese co-workers were excited and energized to work together, but by the mid-1950s, their interactions became less friendly and more difficult. By 1957, they reported cases of absolute disagreement and misunderstanding. Looking back, many participants on both sides express wonder and awe at the size of the Soviet Advisors’ Program in China, and feel nostalgic for the days when the citizens of the two biggest communist parties worked together building communism.

S.A. Smith provides an interesting counter-example to the work in the earlier papers. What is most interesting is that despite the closeness of the Chinese emulation of the Soviet model, the Chinese elite was able to realize that their problems with religion were very different than what the Soviets had met in 1918.  Instead of a dominant and highly-centralized church, the Chinese encountered a much more pluralist and less centralized religious tradition. In the face of this, they wisely avoided the anti-religious policies of the Soviets. Nevertheless, as the CCP took a more radical turn after the mid-1950s, the Chinese patience with religious tolerance disappeared.  The next two articles focus on this more radical period, and show how these helped to shape the subsequent Soviet-Chinese relationship. Chen Jian’s article stresses that 1956 was the crucial year of the beginning of the Sino-Soviet split. After Khrushchev delivered his de-Stalinization speech in February 1956, serious cracks began to appear in the alliance. Mao and the CCP did not go along with Khrushchev’s debunking of Stalin, because to do so would repudiate Mao’s own revolutionary programs. Chen Jian focuses on the issue of who—Moscow or Beijing—would be the leader of the “world proletarian revolution” and who should be in charge of the ideological discourse of international communism.  After the events that took place following Khrushchev’s speech, Mao was even more determined to promote continuous revolution. The most serious consequences of 1956 were the major changes in the Sino-Soviet strategic relationship, and between the USSR and China and the Socialist Bloc.  Shen Zhihua and Yafeng Xia’s contribution argues that the CCP largely agreed with the political and economic programs emanating from the CPSU 20th Party Congress in 1956, so there was no disagreement between the Soviets and Chinese on policy. But Khrushchev’s airing of Stalin’s mistakes as a leader damaged the stature of the CPSU’s leadership in the socialist world. After the speech, Mao and the CCP gained new prestige in the socialist camp by reaching out to Khrushchev to help manage the Polish and Hungarian revolts. Mao’s increasing status in the socialist bloc, the authors maintain, may contain the seeds of the Sino-Soviet split.

The next three articles move us from the dizzying heights of high party relations to a focus on cultural effects of the Sino-Soviet friendship on regular citizens.  Austin Jersild’s article once again highlights the Chinese wish to have a more symmetrical relationship with the USSR, but the friendship was nearly always tinged with Chinese feeling of inferiority among intellectuals with regard to their Soviet counterparts. The magazine Soviet-Chinese Friendship, launched in 1958, appeared to be a place where these problems could be worked out. The magazine was intended as a forum in which each country could learn about the other. Nevertheless, the Soviets failed to reassure the Chinese of their mutual respect and also expressed doubts about the increasing radicalization of Chinese policies. In the face of Soviet domination of the journal, they failed to institutionalize the friendships in this cultural arena. By contrast, as seen in Nicolai Volland’s article, Soviet science fiction and adventure novels were a great success in China. It is not clear how many Chinese citizens actually read Soviet political literature, or how many received economic advice from Soviet experts, but many people did read Soviet science fiction. Chinese readers looked to Soviet science fiction for a new model of modernity and scientific behavior. The scientific superiority of the Soviet Union was reflected in these novels, making them enjoyable and enhancing the prestige of the USSR in the eyes of regular Chinese readers. As Volland notes, “their nation was on the road not just towards the current Soviet Union, but towards the very future depicted in these Soviet novels.” In Simon Shen’s contribution, he documents the significance of Albanian films on regular Chinese people in the 1960s. Deprived of the flow of their already beloved Soviet movies when Khrushchev ended the Soviet Advisors’ Program in 1960, the Chinese turned to Albanian films for popular viewing.  Chinese citizens of this generation, including prominent contemporary artists, remember how important seeing aspects of daily Albanian life was in shaping their own artistic vision. Albania’s films dealt much more with people’s everyday concerns than the domestic Chinese plays and operas with their overly-didactic plots. Chinese contemporary filmmakers maintain that Albanian films gave them their first freedom to present non-linear narrative, free of the constraints of Socialist Realism.

The final two articles discuss China’s relations with the rest of the revolutionary world. Lorenz Luthi demonstrates how the Soviet Union acted as a hinge in the global communist movement and actively discouraged close relations within the socialist bloc. Even as the USSR included Eastern European advisors in China as part of the economic re-development plan, Eastern Europe’s contributions were contained within the framework of Soviet relations with China. This changed after Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization speech, when in 1956-57, Chinese analysis and advice played a key role in the Polish and Hungarian crises. After 1958, China actively sought to create its own relationships with Eastern Europe, but by then that region’s increased dependence on Moscow made the late Chinese entry difficult.

Jeremy Friedman turns his attention to the Sino-Soviet competition over China’s increasing involvement in Africa in the 1960s. Africa was one way for China to escape its still marginal role in the communist movement. Moreover, China’s more explicit post-colonial analysis found an increasing number of African adherents in the 1960s, since the Soviet Union’s foreign policy was found wanting in the post-colonial world. In its place the dynamics of China’s more radical vision seemed to offer much more to Africa.

What do all these articles tell us about the Chinese-Soviet relationship, and about China in particular? First, even if it were necessary, this should be the last nail on the coffin of the myth of a unified, centralized global communism in the 1950s. Most attest to an ongoing and uneasy relationship between the two communist giants. The second point we can draw from these articles is how hard it was for the Soviets and the Chinese to communicate with each other, even when they agreed ideologically. This should not surprise us. Despite hewing to identical goals of communist development, China and the USSR were two completely different cultures, each run by its own charismatic national leader. Third, these articles demonstrate China’s increasing uneasiness during the 1950s with its own role in the global communist movement.  Prior to 1949 and well into the 1950s, the Chinese seemed enthusiastic about learning from their “older brother.” As the relationship matured in the middle of the decade, the Chinese began to behave as any younger brother might, by pushing away and striving for autonomy. And finally, these articles indicate the central role Mao had already attained by the 1950s. As far as the Soviets were concerned, Mao was China. And when Mao sensed that Soviet support for his centrality might be waning after 1956, it was just one more reason for Mao to follow his own path, which meant breaking out of the “younger brother” role. 


Previously Unpublished Historical Photography

(Provided by Deborah Kaple)

article1pict1 Left: from left to right: V. Ya. Sidikhmenov, Soviet Interpreter, Zhu De, PLA Marshal, and Ye Jizhuang, China’s Minister of Foreign Trade.  On return trip from 20th Party Congress in Moscow, Tianzhen Railway Station, April 2, 1956.左图左起: V. Ya. Sidikhmenov (苏联翻译)、朱德(中国人民解放军元帅)、叶季壮(中国外贸部长),赴莫斯科参加苏共20大归来, 1956年4月2日摄于天镇火车站。

 Right: from left to right: Liu Zunqi, chief editor of the journal Narodniy Kitai (People’s China), V. Ya. Sidikhmenov, Soviet Advisor, and Zhang Yan, deputy editor,  Peking, 1955. 右图左起: 刘尊棋(《人民中国》总编)、V. Ya. Sidikhmenov(苏联专家)、张彦 (《人民中国》副总编), 1955年摄于北京。