Tracing the Sino-Soviet Split Back to It’s Roots

A look at the origins of the break in relations that occurred between Russia and China in the 1960s.

I’ve decided to submit essays from my past studies as writing samples. This is an essay from my time at Langara College. (2014)

Russia was deeply involved in the affairs of China throughout the first half of the twentieth century. After all, China and the USSR are perhaps the two most powerful communist states of all time, and communism in China was developing at a time when the USSR was at the height of its power and influence. Despite the close relationship these regions may have had, however, their co-existence has been largely superficial, fueled by self-interests, and essentially inharmonious. In order to understand the nature of the Sino-Soviet split, it is useful to understand the deeply rooted issues that formed between Russia and China since the very beginning of their relationship. From the infancy of Sino-Soviet relations through to the end of the Korean War, the USSR’s involvement in China seeded a resentment within the Chinese Communist Party that would form the basis for the Chinese-Soviet Split; whether it was Russia’s mismanagement of the Chinese Civil War before WWII, their consistent inability to properly assess the needs for Communist success in China, or their lack of support for China in international affairs.

Chinese-Russian relations arose in the 1920s when the Russian Communist International (Comintern) began to support Marxism and nationalism within the Republic of China, which lacked a strong central authority. By 1923, the Russian policy towards China became to support the Chinese Communist Party as a “bloc within” the Chinese nationalist movement; which was led by the larger Kuomintang (KMT) party. At this time, the USSR sent military aid and advisors (such as Mikhail Borodin) to China to assist in the reorganization of the KMT along Leninist lines and help the nationalist movement gain momentum. Just before the Chinese Civil War broke out, the USSR insisted that the Chinese communists remain within the Kuomintang during the Northern Expedition (a campaign against warlord governments), and also made the decision to arm the Kuomintang in this pursuit of national dominance. This period of alliance between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang is known as the First United Front. Unfortunately for the Chinese Communist Party, however, the Russian decision to arm the KMT and instruct the CCP to stay within the KMT led to the Shanghai massacre. This occured after the Kuomintang was taken over in a coup d’état by Chiang Kai-Shek in 1926. Part of the way through the Northern Expedition (in 1927), Chiang led the right wing members of the nationalist movement in purging the Kuomintang’s ranks of all Communist influence. This not only led to the beginning of the Chinese Civil war, but the dispersion of CCP leadership throughout China and the severing of KMT-Russian ties. Any potential communist revolution in China received a major setback due to the Soviet’s mismanagement of the Kuomintang. This period from 1923–1927 is the first example of the Communist International’s inability to instruct the CCP leaders effectively, and the beginning of what would become a growing resentment for Russia within the CCP due to the Comintern’s inability to properly assess the Chinese revolutionary climate.

The period after the Shanghai massacre has been described by Zhou Enlai, one of the leaders of the CCP, as a period in which “the line of the Communist International was basically wrong, and its influence on [the Chinese Communist] Party was most serious”. It was at this time that the communists were at a major turning point in the Chinese revolution; and the USSR involved themselves accordingly. Just as before, however, the Comintern was unable to properly assess the nature of the struggle in China at the time. To revive the revolution, Russia strongly advocated for armed insurrections and worker uprisings in the urban centres (known as the “Li Lisan line”); this approach was very much in opposition to that of the Chinese leadership, which was to influence and gain support from the rural peasantry. In order to impact the decisions of the Chinese Communist Party, the Soviet Communist International relied on a number of CCP associates that had been educated in Russia, such as Wang Ming. These lackeys engaged in a power struggle with the core leadership of the CCP, and even though they were unsuccessful in wresting total power from the current leaders, they still exerted the Comintern’s influence to an extent great enough that many of the Comintern’s missives were carried out. These attempts to launch a revolution, which were based on an incorrect attachment of importance to the urban areas, led to very large losses for the Chinese Communist Party. And so once again, resentment for Russia grew within the CCP as the Comintern’s incorrect assessment of the Chinese revolutionary movement led to a large number of Red Army casualties. Their difference in ideal approaches also underscored the growing ideological gap between the parent and child branches of the Communist International.

In 1931, the Chinese Communist Party was not in much better shape than they were after the Shanghai massacre, still unable to effectively lead a revolution in the Chinese urban centers at the USSR’s command. At this time, under the instruction of the Communist International, Mao Zedong established the Chinese Soviet Republic. This republic, located in the city of Jiangxi, became a place for the Communist Party to regroup and reorganize; a new refuge for the Chinese communist leaders that were scattered by earlier Soviet mismanagement to unite as the Civil War raged on. By 1933, Bo Gu (a CCP member who had studied in Russia) and Otto Braun (a German communist agent dispatched by Moscow) rose to positions of military power alongside Zhou Enlai in Jiangxi, where they were kept busy by the encirclement campaigns that were being launched by The Kuomintang. Under the leadership of Gu and Braun, the Red Army’s tactics changed, and they suffered huge losses after four years of prior resistance. In October of 1934 (as a result of their failures in and around Jianxi) the Chinese communist forces were forced to retreat in the massive journey now known as the Long March; a journey which many did not survive. Three months later, only part of the way through the Long March, the Zunyi Conference of the Politburo was held. At this conference, the blame for failure in Jiangxi was placed on Braun and Gu, and Mao was put in supreme command of the Chinese communist forces and the Chinese Communist Party. Though the Long March is applied today as propaganda of the Chinese Nation’s strength and perseverance, it was in fact a major setback; and the the events leading up to this setback were found to be the fault of Russian involvement and the Soviet’s inability to advise the Chinese Communist Party.

At the close of the long march, the Chinese Communist Party leadership still identified themselves as a branch of the Russian Communist International, despite their disagreements with the Comintern. After all, the CCP both wanted and needed to secure material aid from the Soviets, and Mao did not want to alienate those within the CCP that were still loyal to Russia. At the occurrence of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, the Chinese Communist Party found themselves united for the second time with the Kuomintang against a common enemy: this time, the common enemy was Japanese Imperialism. The two year period from 1937 until 1939 saw a fair amount of aid flow from Russia to China, since Russia was (obviously) concerned with Japanese aggression in the region. Russia and China also signed a mutual non-aggression treaty in 1937. Russia’s aid was, however, primarily negotiated with and sought by Chiang Kai-Shek. Kai-Shek had taken the lead in the temporary CCP-KMT “alliance” that was struck just before WW2. Meanwhile, the CCP was steered heavily by the Communist International towards latching onto the nationalist movement and placing the needs of Russia’s Comintern above their own. When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, Russian aid to China ceased almost entirely, but the Soviet Union still continued to try to exert their will on the CCP. In the early 1940s, there was a minor incident in which Mao refused to divert CCP forces in Manchuria to protect Russia from Japan at the request of Stalin. This was then followed by Mao’s “rectification campaign” to consolidate his position of leadership within the CCP, suppressing Soviet influence in the process. The Chinese Communist leadership fell under heavy criticism from the Comintern for taking actions contrary to Soviet objectives in both cases. These two acts of solidarity against Russia were, arguably, at least a partial result of the ill-will Mao had for Russia after almost two decades of interference, and only served to alienate the two leadership parties even further.

Though the Communist International was dissolved in 1943, Russia continued its turbulent relations with China towards the end of the Second World War. In 1945, there were a series of conferences held that aimed to set the circumstances for the end of World War II. The most notable of these in terms of Chinese-Soviet relations was the Yalta conference; attended by the USSR, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom. At this conference, the USSR pledged to declare war on the Japanese in return for several considerations, none of which were necessarily to the benefit of China. Without consulting the CCP, Russia demanded the independence of Mongolia, as well as strategic ports, railroads, and islands in the Manchurian region. Furthermore, the Soviet Union expressed it’s “readiness to conclude with the National Government of China a pact of friendship and alliance”. The National Government of China, was, in fact, the Kuomintang nationalist government. In essence, the USSR had agreed with America to align with the CCP’s adversaries in order to strip China of Mongolia and reduce Chinese autonomy in Manchuria. Though the Russians would assist the Chinese Communists to a small degree in the Civil War that resumed after Japan’s eventual WW2 surrender, these slights cannot have been overlooked by the CCP leadership.

After the Chinese Civil War and into the Cold War, the Chinese and the Soviets were certainly allied with one another, but relations improved only incrementally — and not to a point sufficient enough to avoid their impending split. Though the USSR had upheld a position of general neutrality throughout the post-WWII Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong attempted to restore relations with Moscow. The Cold War, after all, was coming to a head, and much of the world was choosing sides. Mao made his famous “lean to one side” statement in 1949 in an effort to clear the air around Chinese intentions and assure the Stalin government that the CCP were not involved in any Titoist lines of thinking, which had become a recent concern for the USSR. When Liu Shaoqi visited Moscow soon after, many gains were made, including an apology from Stalin regarding the lack of aid provided to the CCP during the Civil War, confirmation of the USSR’s recognition of the Chinese Communist regime, a guarantee of increased Chinese autonomy in Russian-dominated regions, and an agreement made regarding the promotion of future Asian revolutions. This visit (and Mao’s own later visits) reflected the entire decade of the 1950s –a generally amicable period of reconciliation and support.

Despite the great strides that had been taken, the Soviet-CCP relationship after the Chinese Civil War was not perfect. In December of 1949, a report was published by China’s Chief Soviet Advisor that openly criticized the CCP party structure; this led to conflict between Mao and Stalin, and serves as an indication of the divide that still existed between the two states. The Korean War was also a factor that could have led to a stronger relationship between the Communist States, but actually had the opposite effect. China’s decision to enter the Korean War was highly contingent on Stalin’s promise in 1950 to provide China with air support. Stalin broke this promise; and China nearly backed out of their commitment to the situation in Korea. As Korea was vital to the national interests of China, the Chinese still decided to enter the Korean War without strong air cover. Though this did not directly lead to major losses for the Chinese forces, Soviet betrayal put the safety and security of China at a great risk. Stalin’s backing out of Korea angered Mao greatly, and it was a transgression he would not forgive.

The Korean War ended in March of 1953, and Joseph Stalin passed away four months later. By this time, the seeds had been sown for the Sino-Soviet split. Though there are many, many examples of the wedge that was driven between China and the Soviet Union over a long period of time, it is still important to remember that they were ultimately allies with the same broad goals. The fact that they were philosophical comrades, however, meant less and less as relations between the two devolved towards the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s. From the earliest point of contact through to the end of the Korean War, the USSR’s involvement in the affairs of China was marred by self-interest and the incorrect application of revolutionary tactics. This led to great resentment within the CCP leadership that would certainly serve to explain the vehemence with which the Sino-Soviet Split occurred in the 1960s.


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