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 CWIHP e-Dossier No. 57 

 Beyond Moscow: East German-Chinese Relations during the Cold War 

Zhong Zhong Chen

Two and a half decades after the end of the Cold War, we are now lucky to have a significant amount of literature covering one of the most divisive episodes that occurred within the communist bloc during the conflict: the Sino-Soviet Split.[1] The Split divided the socialist camp, with both Beijing and Moscow spending considerable political capital to convince the wider communist world that their version of socialism was the correct one.

Yet, while substantial attention has been devoted to understanding the causes and consequences of the Sino-Soviet fallout since the beginning of bilateral tensions in the late 1950s and early 1960s, less scholarship exists on how smaller socialist states were affected by the ebb and flow of the confrontation between the two communist behemoths. In this regard, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) serves as a very interesting case study. During much of the Cold War, it was often assumed that East Berlin, as the Soviet Union’s “prize” from the Second World War, spent much of its existence in total alignment with Moscow’s directives.[2] As the archives opened, however, scholars have discovered that disagreements and tensions were, curiously, the rule rather than the exception in East Berlin-Moscow relations.[3] And certainly, as East Berlin’s engagement with China shows, while Sino-Soviet tensions dictated East German attitudes towards Beijing especially during times of turmoil, where Moscow reined in its allies (such as during the Prague Spring in 1968), Ulbricht and Honecker were both often able to carve out substantial diplomatic freedoms for the GDR. This was especially evident when Deng Xiaoping recalibrated his foreign policy in the early 1980s in order to funnel in foreign expertise to push forward his Reform and Opening process.[4]

However, as Document No. 1 shows, East Germany was often compelled to stick to the Soviet line during times of turbulence within the bloc, especially if unrest challenged the stability of the Warsaw Pact and encouraged the rise of popular movements. Thus, roughly a year after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to quash Alexander Dubček’s attempts to put a more “human face” on communism, East Berlin’s leadership firmly toed the Soviet line in the Sino-Soviet confrontation. As Mao repeatedly branded the Soviet Union as “social imperialist” after Moscow’s suppression of Czechoslovak reforms, East Berlin and other fraternal states predictably condemned China’s line towards Moscow.[5]

In regular consultations in Beijing, the Ambassadors and Acting Ambassadors of Hungary, the GDR, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, and the USSR came together to discuss the state of Sino-Soviet conflict. The fraternal states, at this time also coordinated by a concerted Soviet effort to keep a unified line towards China through mechanisms such as the Interkit, criticized Chinese evaluations of the Soviet Union in an aggressive fashion.[6] Reiterating the general line that was expounded during previous Interkit meetings, the group suspected that Beijing still viewed Moscow as the main enemy on the international stage and warned the fraternal countries that Beijing was embarking on a strategy to drive a wedge between Moscow and its allies in order to encourage them to split from the Soviet Union into Beijing’s camp. This insecurity became especially pertinent as formally loyal Soviet bloc states such as Romania had first rejected Soviet informal controls on its security apparatus and then strayed closer to Beijing.[7] The ambassadors suspected that China was using Romania to undermine the Warsaw Pact from within and that the Chinese leadership wanted to create a nationalist anti-Soviet bloc consisting of Albania, Romania, and Yugoslavia. As proof for this “splittist” strategy employed by China, Document No. 1 features other examples that range from Mao’s reported support for extreme right forces in Czechoslovakia to Mao’s attacks on the Mongolian Communist Party.

These meetings tell us volumes about the insecurities of the Soviet Union about its allies. In addition to convening regular Interkit meetings in fraternal states’ capitals, the Soviet Foreign Ministry also felt it necessary to warn its allies’ ambassadors on the ground in Beijing of Zhongnanhai’s supposed ill will towards the Soviet bloc. The policy recommendations for even greater coordination between the Warsaw Pact states “in order to not offer the Mao group even the slightest opening” serves as an apt reminder on just how sensitive Moscow was towards a further possible “Romanization” of its close allies.

As Beijing sought a rapprochement with Washington in order to counter the emerging Soviet threat amidst escalating tensions along its Ussuri frontier, behind-the-scenes machinations were set in motion by Mao and Nixon for the eventual “week that would change the world” in February 1972.[8] In the Soviet bloc, Mao’s moves to normalize relations with the US were met with resentment and suspicion. As demonstrated by Document No. 2, the GDR Foreign Ministry’s Far Eastern Department paid particular attention to Mao’s policy of opening to the rest of the world, as Beijing had reestablished diplomatic relations with twenty-one states since October 1970. The GDR estimated that this renewed opening to the world was first and foremost defined by an open collusion with “American imperialism.”

At this stage, there seems to be absolutely no doubt about the sincerity of the GDR’s antagonistic attitude towards China. Blaming the division of the communist movement squarely on Beijing, the GDR Foreign Ministry lamented the fact that Soviet efforts to bring about a bettering in Soviet-Chinese relations in 1971 were usurped by Beijing. In part, Document No. 2 also shows the GDR’s—and, by implication, the Soviet Union’s—insecurity towards Beijing’s budding alliance with Washington. In its estimations, the MfAA’s Far Eastern Department judged this new alliance to be firmly directed against Moscow. As Yang Kuisong has aptly shown, this was an absolutely correct understanding of the situation.[9] But perhaps even more worrying and relevant to East Berlin, was China’s reengagement with West Germany.

And Document No. 3 outlines this worry quite vividly. As relations improved between Washington and Beijing, it also came with the expected side-effect that America’s Western European allies soon followed suit. So, some eight months after Nixon’s visit to Beijing, West Germany normalized its relations with Beijing on 11 October 1972. As Bonn seemed to gain clout in Beijing, East Berlin was left to desperately remind China of East German sovereignty and ‘separateness’ from the other Germany. Thus, a year later, the GDR’s Foreign Minister Oskar Fischer asked Hermann Axen, SED Politburo and Central Committee member and a senior architect of East German foreign policy formulation, to convey a strong message to the Chinese about a proposed opening of an official Chinese representation in West Berlin. For a country which had never recognized the existence of a separate West Berlin, this was no small issue. Even with the signing of the Basic Treaty between the FRG and the GDR on 21 December 1972 and the subsequent mutual recognition between the two Germanies, Honecker and his deputies were still plagued by the ‘foreign’ occupation of a small island deep inside East German territory. Thus, Oskar Fischer urged Hermann Axen to respond strongly to the Chinese in regards to communication between the Chinese Ambassador in Bonn and the mayor of West Berlin. In fact, the suggested message was so strongly formulated that even Hermann Axen, himself not a mincer of words, asked in the margins whether it was “smart” to use such a harsh tone.

As China increased its contacts with the West in the mid-1970s and “ordered equipment for approximately 90 modern factories,” the East German leadership firmly held to the Soviet line. In a 10 September 1975 directive (Document No. 4) which was to serve as a conduct handbook for all GDR representatives abroad, Deputy Foreign Minister Ewald Moldt urged individual departments in GDR ministries to comply with the mandated anti-China stance. Reiterating grievances of the past, now undoubtedly strengthened by the East German belief that Beijing’s engagement with the West signaled more than ever an abandonment of the communist camp, Moldt criticized the Maoists’ alignment with imperialist doctrines and China’s continued effort undermine socialist economies. In addition, and in line with rising worries about improving Bonn-Beijing relations, Moldt lambasted Chinese wishes to ally themselves with “reactionary” and “neo-fascist” forces in the FRG. This was no doubt a reference to CSU-Chief Franz-Josef Strauss’ visit to China in January 1975. With Soviet China-policy coordination very much still in effect, Moldt urged further coordination on all actions with Moscow and other socialist fraternal countries, stressing that all GDR state organs are required to report their contact with Chinese contacts to the MfAA.

In China, Mao’s passing in 1976 would bring about a drastic change in Chinese domestic and foreign policy. Ideological arguments were eclipsed by a desire to siphon in foreign expertise for a modernization effort. Returning from political wilderness (where he had found himself repeatedly before), Deng Xiaoping outmaneuvered both the Gang of Four and Mao’s handpicked successor Hua Guofeng to assume the paramount leader position in order to lead China down this new path towards “getting rich.”[10] In 1979, Deng went to the US, and on top of visiting Washington, he made a point to make trips to Seattle and Houston to get a first-hand look at America’s industrial and scientific prowess.[11]

Deng’s opening to the West also coincided with a willingness to listen to Eastern European countries about their experiences. And in this regard, the GDR as the most industrialized and most successful Eastern European economy, was deemed to have the most to offer Beijing. So what changed in a little over five years, which allowed the East German leadership to openly defy Moscow in order to receive guests which, at this point, were still bitter Soviet enemies? In short, due to a mix of factors ranging from a relative leadership vacuum in Moscow due to Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s ill health, to East German frictions with Moscow on issues such as missing oil deliveries, as well as Honecker’s fear that the Soviet war in Afghanistan’s might threaten détente in Europe, the East German leadership had gradually started to shift away from Moscow’s antagonistic China-policy. Gradually, many in East Berlin deemed Soviet warnings on China’s ‘Maoist’ tendencies outdated given that Deng Xiaoping seemed to be leading the Middle Kingdom in a different direction.[12]

Thus, in August 1981, as revealed in Document No. 5, East Germany reciprocated China’s interest and received a learning mission led by senior figures from the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s USSR and Eastern Europe section as well as its Central Committee International Department. A week-long tour to study East German combines and to consult GDR experts on different aspects of economic advancement was organized. In preparation for the visit, the MfAA was asked by the SED Party leadership to prepare a very detailed program according to the requests made by the Chinese embassy in East Berlin. Leaving little doubt about their intentions, the Chinese visitors took time to visit numerous combines as well as new residential areas in order to see how a successful socialist economy conducted its affairs. In their conversations, the Chinese delegates, in line with Reform and Opening imperatives at home, were most interested in the specifics of the SED’s economic policy as well as the intricate details of central and local economic planning. In fact, matters of foreign policy were hardly discussed at all, as the Chinese delegation clearly relegated its past strategies to lure Soviet allies closer to China firmly behind practical economic considerations.

As history would show, East German-Chinese relations would continue to improve faster than the state of Sino-Soviet relations. By 1982, East Germany was reluctant to adhere to the Interkit at all, deeming the Soviet coordination forum outdated, especially in light of Brezhnev’s own fresh efforts to affect some kind of positive change in Sino-Soviet relations as evidenced by his Tashkent Speech in March 1982. On the ground, East Berlin made its willingness to improve relations with Beijing known to its Chinese counterparts. As Document No. 6 shows, at outgoing Ambassador Chen Dong’s farewell meeting with Honecker in April 1982, the East German leader was keen to paper over the Moscow-imposed ice-age in bilateral relations, remarking. “We all know why relations [between the GDR and China] were tarnished (getrübt). We all know, and we don’t have to talk about this.” By 1986, bilateral relations had improved to such a degree that Honecker was granted a state visit to China, the first by a Soviet bloc leader since the Sino-Soviet Split.

Zhong Zhong Chen recently obtained his PhD in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research focuses on East German-Chinese relations during the Cold War. Previously, he was a Visiting Researcher at the Freie Universität in Berlin and a Senior Research Student at Peking University. He is currently co-editing a special issue of Cold War History which will analyze Deng Xiaoping's relations with Europe during the Reform and Opening era.

List of Documents 

Document No. 1
Note on Exchanges of Opinions by the Ambassadors and Acting Ambassadors of Hungary, the GDR, Czechoslovakia, the USSR, Bulgaria, Poland, and Mongolia on the Subject of “The PRC Position vis-a-vis the Socialist Countries” on 21 November and 3 December 1969, 29 December 1969
[Source: Political Archive of the [German] Foreign Office (PA AA), C 1362/74. Translated by Bernd Schaefer.]

Document No. 2
The International Activities of the Chinese Leadership and Conclusions for the Practice of the GDR's Relations with the PR China, January 1972
[Source: Political Archive of the [German] Foreign Office (PA AA), C 6563. Translated by Bernd Schaefer.]

Document No. 3
Letter from the Deputy Minister of the GDR Council of Ministers to Comrade Hermann Axen, 18 July 1973
[Source: Political Archive of the [German] Foreign Office (PA AA), C 6610. Translated by Bernd Schaefer.]

Document No. 4
Letter to the GDR Council of Ministers, “Information about Recent Issues of PRC Domestic and Foreign Policy – Directives for the Code of Conduct of GDR Representatives towards the Representatives of the PR China,” 10 September 1975
[Source: Political Archive of the [German] Foreign Office (PA AA), C 295/73. Translated by Bernd Schaefer.]

Document No. 5
Information for the Politburo of the Central Committee of the SED, “Visit by Two Officials from the CCP Central Committee to the GDR (16 July to 23 August 1981),” August 1981
[Source: Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records (BStU), Central Archive (ZA), Main Department (HA) II, File 38917. Translated by Bernd Schaefer.]

Document No. 6
Record of Conversation between Erich Honecker and Chinese Ambassador Chen Dong, 30 April 1982
[Source: PAAA, MFAA ZR 46/87. Obtained by Zhong Zhong Chen and translated by Sean O'Grady.]

[1] On the Sino-Soviet Split, see, Lorenz M. Lüthi, The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); Roderick MacFarquhar, The Politics of China, 1949-1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Sergey Radchenko, Two Suns in the Heavens: The Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy, 1962-1967 (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009); Vojtech Mastny, The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Odd Arne Westad, ed., Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945-1963 (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998); 吴冷西 Wu Lengxi, 《十年论战 : 1956-1966 中苏关系回忆录》 Shi nian lun zhan: 1956-1966 Zhong Su guanxi huiyilu (Ten Years of Debate, 1956-1966: Recollections of Sino-Soviet Relations) (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1999).

[2] See for example, David Childs, The GDR: Moscow’s German Ally (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983).

[3] Indeed, as Hope Harrison contends, “The Soviet-East German relationship was more two-sided than previously understood.” See Hope Harrison, Driving the Soviets up the Wall: Soviet-East German Relations, 1953-1961 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 2.

[4] Zhong Zhong Chen, “Defying Moscow: East German-Chinese Relations during the Andropov-Chernenko Interregnum, 1982-1985,” Cold War History 14, no. 2 (2014): 259-280.

[5] Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War, 238-276.

[6] James Hershberg, Sergey Radchenko, Peter Vamos, David Wolff, “The Interkit Story: A Window into the Final Decades of the Sino-Soviet Relationship,” CWIHP Working Paper 63( February 2011).

[7] See Larry Watts, “Divided Loyalties within the Soviet Bloc: Romanian Objection to Soviet Informal Controls, 1963-1964,” CWIHP e-Dossier 42 (October 2013). As early as 1964, Romanian delegates were reporting divergences between the RWP and the CPSU to their Chinese counterparts. See “Conversations between Delegations of the Romanian Workers Party and the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, 3-10 March 1964 (excerpts),” March 3, 1964, ANIC, fond C.C. al P.C.R. – Secţia Relaţii Externe, dosar 29/1964, f. 1-124. Translated by Larry L. Watts.

[8] On Sino-Soviet border skirmishes, see Lüthi, The Sino-Soviet Split, 340-341. On how the Zhenbao Island clash directly led to Mao’s recalibration towards Washington, see Yang Kuisong, “The Sino-Soviet Border Clash of 1969: From Zhenbao Island to Sino-American Rapprochement,” Cold War History 1, no. 1 (2000):  21-52; Margaret MacMillan, Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2007)

[9] Yang, “The Sino-Soviet Border Clash of 1969.”

[10] See Ezra Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011). Though Deng seems to have never personally uttered the “to get rich is to get glorious” (致富光荣) quote so widely attributed to him, his intention was certainly to bring China out of economic backwardness. See discussion on the quote in Evelyn Iritani, “Great Idea but Don’t Quote Him,” Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2004.

[11] Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, 311-348

[12] At the 1982 Interkit in Sofia, the East German delegation staged a quiet “revolt” against Soviet antagonisms towards China. BA-SAPMO, DY 30/ J IV 2/2A 2484, Rede des Leiters der Delegation der SED, Genossen Bruno Mahlow, auf der XII. Internen Chinaberatung am 12. 5. 1982 in Sofia, p. 4.


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Zhong Zhong Chen

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