'Face' and Something 'Delicious'

Sergey Radchenko writes in Foreign Policy on Mao and Stalin’s first awkward meeting and what it tells us about Xi Jinping’s confident trip this week to see Vladimir Putin.

In December 1949, Mao Zedong traveled to Moscow, for his first trip abroad. Three months earlier, perched high above a crowd of thousands in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Mao had announced the founding of the People's Republic of China. The nascent country was yet unformed, and Mao thought it important to ensure that New China would stand on the right side of history: the Communist side. In this, Mao needed Joseph Stalin's blessing and Soviet help.

Back then, China was in ruins after years of war, first with Japan, then with itself: it had little industry and infrastructure, even less science and technology; it had no navy, no air force but unspeakable poverty and rampant disease. Russia, though still recovering from wartime losses, had a modern industry, atomic weapons, and the ambitions of a superpower.

Mao wanted a treaty of alliance that would give China "face" on the international stage but also provide security guarantees against the United States, economic aid to rebuild and modernize the ruined Chinese economy, and military assistance to "liberate" Taiwan. According to Mao's interpreter, present at the meeting, he told Stalin he wanted something that "looked good but also tasted delicious." Stalin was non-committal. He feared that closer relations with Mao could jeopardize Moscow's postwar gains in the Far East and quite possibly lead to a U.S. intervention.

After the opening of the Russian archives in the early 1990s, the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars (CWIHP) obtained declassified documents on the meetings between Mao and Stalin, publishing them in translation, with scholarly commentary, in successive issues of the CWIHP Bulletin to shed light, for the first time, on the making of the Sino-Soviet Alliance. Not all documents were declassified, and key evidence remains locked away in inaccessible archival vaults in Moscow as well as Beijing. This week, CWIHP has published additional documents on the Mao-Stalin cat-and-mouse game, and on the ups and downs of Sino-Soviet relations in the following years. These documents offer an interesting look behind the curtains of foreign policy decision making in China and Russia and provide clues for understanding where the Sino-Russian relationship is headed today.

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Image, Chinese Stamp showing Mao and Stalin.