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Central Europeans and the Sino-Soviet Split: The “Great Friendship” as International History

CWIHP e-Dossier No. 46


IntroductionCentral Europeans, and the region itself, were an important part of the Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s, with Czechoslovaks, Poles, Hungarians, East Germans, and others eager to travel to China and contribute to the socialist bloc advising program there.[1]  The shared task of reconstruction in the wake of war, with the help of the Soviet Union, was a common topic throughout the bloc, as Document 1 illustrates.  Like the Soviets, the Chinese especially valued Czechoslovak and East German industrial technology, at that time the most advanced in the socialist world.  Chairman Mao Zedong was well aware of the weaknesses of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in matters of industrial, economic, and administrative training and expertise, evident here in his exchange with a Czechoslovak delegation in 1957 (Document 8).  The behavior and activities of the advisers themselves, however, frequently disturbed the Chinese authorities.  The advising program was marred by the inefficiencies of socialism generally, and included accumulating instances of adviser misbehavior, incompetence, arrogance, drunkenness, and so on.[2]  Document 2 is a letter from a Soviet embassy official in Beijing, V. Akshinskii, to Ambassador Pavel Yudin, in which he worries about the consequences of adviser misbehavior in Shanghai.  Yudin subsequently brought the matter to the attention of Nikita Khrushchev.

The report from the Czechoslovak General Consulate in Shanghai offers an example of a “friendship” that became far too close and complicated for officials in the late 1950s (Document 9).  The story of the relationship between Oldřich Havlíček, the visiting Czechoslovak electrical power plant expert, and Zhen Peilu, an employee of the Chinese Ministry of Energy, reveals the circumscribed vision of exchange that officials, especially from the Chinese side, visualized.  The Chinese intended to borrow industrial technology and more advanced forms of production without the social, political, and cultural influences that generally accompanied such economic exchange.  In this case both figures were married, and the matter became especially sensitive because the jilted husband of Zhen Peilu was determined to pursue the matter through all available channels.  Chinese officials involved in foreign affairs and working in the energy industry originally hoped the issue would go away, and they predictably blamed and pressured the woman to resolve matters quietly so that the valued work of Havlíček could proceed.[3]  The story offers fascinating insight into the tensions of the exchange, the different cultural assumptions of very different societies, and the dilemmas of personal life in the highly regimented world of the socialist bloc.  Security officials traced, discussed, and disseminated, in official reports between embassies, the first moments of the unfortunate couple’s “intimacy.”  Oldřich Havlíček returned home, and was never allowed to work abroad again.

The topic of the withdrawal of Soviet and European advisers from China, as eventually took place in the summer of 1960, came up well before then.   In Document 5, dated 22 November 1956, Liu Shaoqi poses the question directly to Yudin in November 1956 about “whether or not the advisers should return to the USSR (but not the technical specialists).”  The Chinese premier had contributed to the 30-31 October 1956 discussions surrounding the Soviet decision to use force against the Hungarians, a moment of great curiosity to historians of foreign policy and the Cold War.[4]  The 30th of October, however, was also when officials issued a declaration designed to alleviate concerns about the advising program and other policies on bloc coordination.[5]  Liu Shaoqi and other Chinese state-builders were aware of the weaknesses and tensions surrounding the advising program, but they considered the work of the Soviet specialists to be valuable to China and did not push for their removal.  Instead Liu Shaoqi, as he suggests here, feared the “sudden withdrawal of all the specialists, as was done in Yugoslavia.”  He knew the Soviets themselves were discussing reductions in the program, as Khrushchev subsequently reminded everyone in his defense of the decision to withdraw the advisers in July 1960.  In 1956, and again “in 1958 the Chinese leaders expressed their dissatisfaction with several Soviet specialists, and we again suggested to the CC of the Chinese Communist Party that the specialists be removed.  The Chinese comrades again insisted that the Soviet specialists remain there, and in the interests of our common work we agreed” (Document 12).

The Central European region was especially sensitive in the summer and fall of 1956, and so too were the Central European advising communities in China.  Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, delivered at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow in February 1956, had “immediate repercussions” throughout the socialist world, notes Lorenz Lüthi.[6]  Mao chaired some twenty-six high-level meetings on the international communist movement from October to December 1956, report Zhihua Shen and Yafeng Xia.[7]  The Stalin question was linked to the instability in East and Central Europe, by both critics and defenders of the bloc.  As Czechoslovak Ambassdor to China, Ján Bušniak, put it in April 1957 (Document 7), “We have been informed that the Chinese comrades strongly rebuked the Soviet comrades for their manner of resolving the problem of the cult of personality this past year, and the concrete measures taken to criticize c. Stalin.  All of this led to the development of events that took place last year in Hungary and Poland.”  Those “events” reverberated through the advising communities of the bloc.  East Germans and Czechoslovaks in China were comparatively reliable in the tumultuous year of 1956, while Hungarians and Poles were frequently suspect.  "[M]any letters from Hungary had created a bad influence upon the mood of the people,” reported Hungarian envoy Ezhef Sall to Soviet embassy official K.A. Krutikov in Beijing (Document 6).  “A portion of these people [the Hungarian advisers],” he continued, “still maintain the illusion that Hungary might become a neutral country, that some other path is possible in Hungary, and so on.”

The large meeting of representatives of communist parties that took place in November 1957, the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution, was an opportunity for the bloc to reaffirm its solidarity as a means of recovery from the trauma of 1956.  Mao’s famous “east wind” speech has again attracted significant interest from historians, but more suggestive was his careful effort to emphasize that the “head” of the socialist camp was indeed the Soviet Union.[8]  In the 2 October 1958 discussion with socialist bloc officials (Document 10), Mao mixed his provocative challenges to America with an affirmation of support for Soviet leadership:  “After the Moscow meeting [November 1957] we created a common program.  With the help of this common program it became easier for us to work.  We will unite together further only under one general condition—under the leadership of the Soviet Union.”  Mao and the Chinese repeated this formulation often from late 1956 to early 1958, pleased to be recognized for their leadership role in maintaining bloc stability and “unity” in the broader struggle against the opposing camp led by the “imperialists.”  Their supposed wisdom extended to diverse areas, and included a more workable interpretation of the Stalin question, attention to the problem of “great power chauvinism” in Poland, opposition to a “counterrevolutionary” weakening of the bloc in Hungary, and experience in addressing the problem of “revisionism” in thought and culture.

The support of the CCP for the Soviet Union was conditional, however, on the idea that the bloc would indeed get busy and address the problems evident in 1956 in the form of dissent, fascination with the West, attraction to Western-style consumerism, and the other problems Mao grouped under the general notion of “revisionism.”  The “events” in Poland and Hungary, Liu Shaoqi argued, should serve as a “useful lesson for the entire communist movement” and demanded a “theoretical” treatment (Document 5).  For Mao the continuing development of consumerism in the bloc was part of his notion of “revisionism.”  Mature socialist societies in power had gone soft, and the younger generation in particular was no longer properly schooled in matters of revolution and socialist construction.  The stage was set for the radical turn in the direction of the people's communes and the campaigns that made up the Great Leap Forward after 1958, all of which amounted to an explicit challenge to the Soviet model in general and the authority of the advisers and experts in China in particular.  Document 10 captures the mix of arrogance and bluster of the loquacious and gregarious Chairman Mao.  Perhaps fueled by alcohol, Mao eagerly taunts and pokes fun at rivals such as Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) and John Foster Dulles, the “teachers” whose challenge was, in his view, useful to the fostering of a militant cohesion within China itself and across the broader socialist world.  This was a common theme for Mao in socialist bloc circles throughout the decade.[9]  Here Mao is excited but also a bit frightened by the magnitude of the extraordinary changes he has launched, and chides his socialist “friends” for their reluctance to challenge the central rivals of the socialist world, which above all means the “imperialist” Americans.

 As this momentous turn unfolded, Mao routinely courted the Central Europeans, eager to continue the dialogue that emerged in 1956-1957 about the direction of the bloc.  The Central European parties were not about to apologize to anyone for their eagerness to improve their consumer economies, however.  By the late 1950s they routinely justified their rule with explicit references to their success in precisely this area.  Countries such as Hungary and East Germany increased decentralization in the economy, and pursued a profit motive for enterprises, the abolition of compulsory agricultural deliveries from the countryside, and, eventually, participation in the “international division of labor.”[10]  The documents here from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs archive in Prague illustrate the concerns of Czechoslovak officials in the late 1950s about the orientation of Chinese politics in the era of the Great Leap Forward and People’s Communes.  They recognized and feared the implications for the bloc of China’s radical vision of the late 1950s, a precursor to the even more destructive Cultural Revolution of the subsequent decade.  The bloc without the Chinese was a contradictory mix of a continuing focus on the “politics of productivism” with an emphasis on the importance of the arrival of higher standards of living in the future, even on par with the most developed countries of the West.[11]  The enhanced stability brought by the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall allowed the ruling SED to develop and cultivate the emerging Central European version of reformed socialism.[12]  Even as socialist states often proclaimed the necessity of becoming independent of western imports, culture, and influence, competing with the West required information from the West, and the imitation of Western social practices and industrial technologies.[13]  The Czechoslovaks were at the forefront of this effort, encouraged by the Soviets to take this role and themselves eager to adopt it. 

Document 13 describes the departure of the Hungarian Ambassador, Ferenc Martin, from China in late 1963, which included a “meeting with Zhou Enlai [that] featured the sharpest words against the Hungarian ambassador that c. Martin has ever experienced in his time in the PRC.”  Through these early years of the Sino-Soviet conflict the Chinese continued to hope for support from within the bloc:  from the Central and East European parties, from presumably silenced but sympathetic Soviets, and even from the general public.  Even in this hostile exchange Zhou Enlai wondered about the possibilities of increased Sino-Hungarian trade.  The Chinese would be disappointed in the Central Europeans, however, who remained decidedly unconvinced of the Chinese position that maintained “great power chauvinism” (the old dilemma for the bloc) was now colluding with “imperialism.”  The Chinese turned their attention to national-liberation movements in the Third World.  Foreign Minister Chen Yi abruptly ended his meeting with Ambassador Martin by pointedly noting that “he must receive the Algerian delegation.”


Obtained and translated by Austin Jersild

Document 1

2 February 1953, “Memorandum of conversation of the Soviet Ambassador to the PRC, A.S. Paniushkin, with the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, Ia.K. Petkov, of 5 January 1953,” Source: AVPRF f. 0100, op. 46, 1953, p. 362, d. 12, l. 8.

Document 2

17 January 1956, V. Akshinskii to Pavel Yudin, Source: SAPMO DY 30/3603/77.

Document 3

21 March 1956, “Reception:  Comrades K.E. Voroshilov and Zhu De, 20 March 1956,” Source: AVPRF f. 0100, op. 49, 1956, p. 410, d. 6, l. 39-40.

Document 4

14 October 1956, “According to notes of an interview with Zhou Enlai from 14.10.1956,” 017.267/56, Source MZV Teritoriální odbory – Tajné 1955-1959, ČLR, krabice 1, obal 3.

Document 5

22 November 1956, “Memorandum of conversation with comrade Liu Shaoqi of 30 October 1956,”P. Yudin, Source: AVPRF f. 0100, op. 49, 1956, p. 410, d. 9, l. 202-03.

Document 6

17 December 1956, “Record of conversation,” K.A. Krutikov and Sall, Source: RGANI f. 5, op. 28, r. 5195, d. 479, l. 74-81.

Document 7

15 April 1957, “Memorandum of visit of the ambassador of the German democratic republic, c. Fr. Everhartze,” 014.498/7, J. Bušniak, Source: MZV Teritoriální odbory – Tajné 1955-1959, ČLR, krabice 2, obal 10.

Document 8

9 November 1957, “Notes from a conversation between Czechoslovak parliamentary delegation and Chairman of the PRC, Mao Zedong, from 29 September 1957,” 0423/57, J. Bušniak, Source: MZV Teritoriální odbory – Tajné 1955-1959, ČLR, krabice 2, obal 10.

Document 9

21 December 1957, “Excerpt from memorandum,” L. Kubiš, Source: MZV Teritoriální odbory – Tajné 1955-1959, ČLR, krabice 3, obal 3.

Document 10

2 October 1958, “Memorandum of conversation of comrade Mao Zedong, 2 October 1958, at meeting with six delegates of the socialist countries, located in the PRC,” Source: GARF, f. 9576, op. 18, 1958, d. 26, l. 312-322.

Document 11

29 November 1958, “Memorandum of exchange of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, Chen Yi, at dinner in the Embassy of the USSR in the PRC in honor of the ambassadors of the socialist countries in China, 8 November 1958,” P.F. Yudin, Source: AVPRF f. 0100, op. 51, p. 432, d. 6, l. 173-75.

Document 12

18 July 1960, “N. Khrushchev to Central Committee of Socialist Unity Party of [East] Germany,” Source: SAPMO DY 30/3605/25-27.

Document 13

12 November 1963, “The visit of the Hungarian ambassador in the PRC to bid farewell,” 2296/7, Source: NA, Ústřední výbor komunistické strany československa (ÚV KSČ), 1945-1989, Antonín Novotný II, krabice 85, folder 118:  Čína.

Archive Acronyms and Footnotes

AVPRF - Arkhiv vneshnei politiki rossiiskoi federadtsii (Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation)

GARF - Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv rossiiskoi federatsii (State Archive of the Russian Federation)

MZV - Archiv Ministerstva zahraničních věcí České republiky (Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic)

NA -  Národní archiv (National Archive)

RGANI - Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv noveishii istorii (Russian State Archive of Contemporary History)

SAPMO - Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv (Archive of Parties and Mass Organisations of the GDR in the German Federal Archive)

[1] On the advising program in China, see Shen Zhihua, Sulian zhuanjia zai Zhongguo (1948-1960) (Beijing:  Zhongguo guoji guangbo chubanshe, 2003); T.G. Zazerskaia, Sovetskie spetsialisty i formirovanie voenno-promyshlennogo kompleksa Kitaia (1949-1960 gody) (St. Petersburg:  NIIKH, 2000); Zhihua Shen and Danhui Li, After Leaning to One Side:  China and Its Allies in the Cold War (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011); Thomas P. Bernstein and Hua-yu Li, eds., China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949-Present (Boston, MA:  Lexington, 2010); Austin Jersild, The Sino-Soviet Alliance:  An International History (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina, 2014).

[2] Jersild, The Sino-Soviet Alliance, 38-46.

[3] Chinese women who became involved with foreigners found themselves under a great deal of “pressure,” recalls a former Hungarian student at Qinghua University in the 1950s.  See Borna Tálas, “China in the Early 1950s,” in Marie-Luise Näth, ed., Communist China in Retrospect:  East European Sinologists Remember the First Fifteen Years of the PRC (Frankfurt am Main:  Peter Lang, 1995), 37-64.  I explore this episode further in Jersild, The Sino-Soviet Alliance, 97-102.

[4] Shen Zhihua, “Mao and the 1956 Soviet Military Intervention in Hungary,” in János M. Rainer and Katalin Somlai, eds., The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Soviet Bloc Countries:  Reactions and Repercussions (Budapest:  Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, 2007), 28-32; Zhihua Shen and Yafeng Xia, “New Evidence for China’s Role in the Hungarian Crisis of October 1956:  A Note,” The International History Review 31, no. 3 (2009): 558-575.

[5] Zhihua Shen and Danhui Li, After Leaning to One Side, 129.

[6] Lorenz M. Lüthi, The Sino-Soviet Split:  Cold War in the Communist World (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University, 2008), 49.  Like other communist party leaders in the bloc, Mao presented himself as an historic victim of Stalin’s excesses, and welcomed the speech as an opportunity for the party to engage in self-criticism and improve itself.  See 31 March 1956, “Zapis’ besedy,” P.F. Yudin and Mao Zedong, Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv noveishii istorii (Russian State Archive of Contemporary History, RGANI) f. 5, op. 30, d. 163, l. 89-92; also 5 April 1956, “Zapis’ besedy,” P.F. Yudin and Mao Zedong, Arkhiv vneshnei politiki rossiiskoi federadtsii (Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation, AVPRF) f. 0100, op. 49, p. 410, d. 9, l. 87-94.  For excerpts from this exchange in English, see Odd Arne Westad, introd., “Mao on Sino-Soviet Relations:  Conversations with the Soviet Ambassador,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 6-7 (Winter 1995/1996): 157, 164-167.  For similar efforts from Mátyás Rákosi in Hungary, see 19 May 1956, “Referat Mátyás Rákosi,” Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv (Archive of Parties and Mass Organisations of the GDR in the German Federal Archive, SAPMO) DY 30/3403/53.

[7] Zhihua Shen and Yafeng Xia, “Hidden Currents during the Honeymoon:  Mao, Khrushchev, and the 1957 Moscow Conference,” Journal of Cold War Studies 11, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 80, 25n.

[8] Zhihua Shen and Yafeng Xia, “Hidden Currents during the Honeymoon,” 74-117.  On the “east wind” speech, see Li Jie, “Cong jiemeng dao polie: zhongsu lunzhan de qiyuan,” in Li Danhui, ed., Beijing yu Mosike: Cong lianmeng zouxiang duikang (Guilin: Guangxi shifan daxue chubanshe, 2002), 444; Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian yanjiushi, ed., Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao, vol. 6 (Beijing: Zhongying wenxian chubanshe, 1992), 632, 649; Donald S. Zagoria, The Sino-Soviet Conflict 1956-1961 (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1962), 160; Pu Guoliang, Zhong Su dalun zhan de qiyuan (Beijing:  Dangdai shijie chubanshe, 2003), 54-74.

[9] On 8 January 1955, for example, Mao explained to Yudin that China was actually better off without American diplomatic recognition and a role at the UN, as this provided the opportunity to more effectively “educate the people in the spirit of anti-Americanism, and more freely carry out the liquidation of the exploiting classes in our country.” From 8 January 1955, “Zapis’ besedy,” P.V. Yudin and Mao Zedong, RGANI f. 5, r. 5142, op. 28, d. 307, l. 9-10.  At the November 1957 conference of communist parties in Moscow, in conversation with the Czechoslovak delegation, Mao similarly referred to the “good service” provided by Dulles to the socialist bloc.  See 9 November 1957, “Záznam z besedy čs. parlamentní delegace u předsedy ČLR Mao Cetunga,” J. Busňiak, 0423/57, Archiv Ministerstva zahraničních věcí České republiky (Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, MZV) Teritoriální odbory – Tajné 1955-1959, ČLR, krabice 2, obal. 10.  For a similar reference in a 1964 discussion with Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, see Odd Arne Westad, Chen Jian, Stein Tønnesson, Nguyen Vu Tung and James C. Hershberg, eds., “77 Conversations between Chinese and Foreign Leaders on the Wars in Indochina, 1964-1977,” Cold War International History Project Working Paper 22 (1998), 71.  For an exploration of the relationship between domestic and foreign policy in several contexts, see Chen Jian, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina, 2001), 7; Thomas J. Christensen, Useful Adversaries:   Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947-1958 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996); 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), 47-56, 175.

[10] Olga A. Narkiewicz, Eastern Europe 1968-1984 (Totowa, NJ:  Barnes & Noble Books, 1986), 27-58; 1960, “Erklärung der Beratung von Vertreter der Kommunistischen und Arbeitesparteien,” SAPMO DY 30/11757/17.

[11] Mark Landsman, Dictatorship and Demand:   The Politics of Consumerism in East Germany (Cambridge, MA:   Harvard University Press, 2005), 29; Jiři Pernes, Krize komunistického režimu v Československu v 50. letech 20. století (Brno:   Centrum pro stadium demokracie a kultury, 2008); Paulina Bren and Mary Neuberger, eds., Communism Unwrapped:   Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe (Oxford:   Oxford University Press, 2012).

[12] Corey Ross, “East Germans and the Berlin Wall:  Popular Opinion and Social Change before and after the Border Closure of August 1961,” Journal of Contemporary History 39, no. 1 (2004):  25-43; Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State:   East German Society from Hitler to Honecker (New Haven, CT:   Yale University Press, 2005), 66-67.

[13] Burghard Ciesla and Patrice G. Poutrus, “Food Supply in a Planned Economy:  SED Nutrition Policy between Crisis Response and Popular Needs,” in Konrad H. Jarausch, ed., trans. Eve Duffy, Dictatorship as Experience: Towards a Socio-Cultural History of the GDR (Oxford:  Berghahn Books, 1999), 145.


About the Author

Austin Jersild

Former Short-Term Scholar;
Professor, Department of History, Old Dominion University
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