CWIHP e-Dossier no. 69

China and Eastern Europe in the 1980s: A Hungarian Perspective

by Péter Vámos

January 2016

Introductory Essay

Bilateral relations between China and the closest European allies of the Soviet Union (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland) tended to reflect the state of Sino-Soviet relations. After the Sino-Soviet split, China began to distinguish socialist states based on their degree of autonomy from the USSR, a policy referred to as a “differentiated” (qubie duidai) approach toward the socialist community (Document No. 1.1 and Document 1.2).

Chinese policies toward Eastern Europe followed a unified pattern. The major tendencies of the development of Sino-East European relations during the 1980s can be characterized by a gradual switch from informal exchanges to formal relations, from peripheral fields of cooperation to central issues, and from small steps to major moves. Following the outset of the Sino-Soviet thaw in 1979, and especially after the resumption of political consultations in 1982, Beijing accelerated efforts to reestablish the system of relations it had with socialist countries in the 1950s, but based strictly on mutual benefit and the principles of peaceful coexistence. According to a Hungarian evaluation from 1986, the process of normalization was characterized by the fact that “essentially all initiatives, or for the most part, have been taken by the Chinese. Another feature is the delay in the development of relations with the Soviet Union, which is 1-1.5 steps behind the rest” (Document No. 10).

During the first half of the 1980s, bilateral relations between China and the Soviet bloc did not develop at a fast pace. Similar to other Soviet satellites, Hungary adhered to the basic principles made up in Moscow, according to which improvement of Sino-Soviet relations was a precondition to significant changes in Sino-East European relations.

Starting from the late 1960s, the Soviets intended to control all spheres of cooperation between its closest allies and China, and created a system of close coordination of China policies. It included multilateral and bilateral meetings of the top leaders, consultations of ministers and deputy ministers in Moscow or in other capitals, meetings of ambassadors in Beijing (the “ambassadors’ club”), Interkit meetings of Party Central Committee International Department officials, scientific conferences of China specialists from government organizations and research institutes, and consultations of Soviet diplomats with government officials and party workers.[1] Eastern European diplomats were summoned to Moscow for consultations, and one of their main tasks in Beijing was to coordinate their countries’ steps with the Soviet Union. The Soviets stressed the importance of mutual exchange of information, and of the united resistance to China’s differentiation strategy. The Hungarians participated in the “meetings, consultations, coordination meetings, working groups, thematic councils, sub-committees, etc.” half-heartedly and were critical about the efficiency of existing forms of policy coordination (Document No. 2).

In the early 1980s, the CPSU made increasingly desperate and futile efforts to retain total control over its allies. The tone of propaganda became shriller and shriller, and the struggle against Maoism took a more and more anachronistic shape. Disputes over differences of opinions surfaced between the CPSU represented by O.B. Rakhmanin—deputy director of the CPSU CC International Department for Relations with Fraternal Countries and head of Soviet Interkit delegations—and the East German and Hungarian parties. At the Sofia Interkit in May 1982, the East Germans refused to sign the final protocol of the meeting (Document No. 1.1 and Document 1.2). In 1983, Rakhmanin stressed that “the Soviet Union aims to frustrate cooperation between Beijing and imperialism, while the socialist community aims to counteract China's policy to divide socialist countries.” At the same time, the SED representative Bruno Mahlow pointed out that “by the decision to acknowledge Eastern European socialist countries as being socialist, the Chinese leadership intends to demonstrate interest in the experiences of these countries gained in building socialism” (Document No. 4).

The last official Interkit meeting was held in 1984 in Hungary at the picturesque Tihany on Lake Balaton. By this time, it was increasingly clear in Eastern European capitals that internal disputes on Chinese issues existed even within the Soviet Party’s top leadership. Rakhmanin proposed that “the meeting needed to be held along party line, and it was unnecessary to involve scientists.” Also, contrary to earlier practice, no jointly produced analytical material was prepared for the meeting. Rakhmanin, who had to face increasingly serious conflicts within the CPSU leadership at home, explained to his Hungarian colleague that the Chinese question looked different when viewed from Budapest, Sofia, or Prague, and again different when viewed from Khabarovsk. “I have been keeping on repeating this to everyone recently,” he added. Rakhmanin admitted that there was a “subjective factor” at play on Soviet part, but hurried to reiterate that when it was stated “that the PRC was conducting a policy to differentiate between socialist countries”, it represented “the CPSU Central Committee’s position” (Document No. 5). M. L. Titarenko, advisor to the International Department of the CPSU CC and member of the Soviet Interkit delegation admitted that China meant a serious problem for the Soviet Union: “We simply do not know what to do about them.” He acknowledged that the evaluations of various delegations “might differ to a slight extent”, but argued that these “nuances…do not pose obstacles in cooperation” (Document No. 6).

At the Tihany Interkit meeting, Rakhmanin did not deny the socialist character of the PRC, but pointed out that “the activities of the Chinese leadership are not guided by the principles of socialist internationalism” which manifested in Beijing’s denial of the existence of the two world systems, and its development of military relations with the US. As to the Chinese leadership’s approach toward individual socialist countries, he repeated his decade-old mantra about differentiation “which must be rejected.” The report of the meeting prepared by the HSWP CC International Department noted that “the contributions delivered by some of the delegations were practically made up of rhetoric elements only, and declarations are frequently contradictory to real steps taken.” The report took it as an unequivocal fact that “developments in Chinese domestic politics and some phenomena in foreign politics are evidently judged differently by the SED, PUWP and HSWP representatives on the one hand, and the representatives of other party delegations” (Document No. 7).

The differences of opinion originated, among others, in the evaluation of reforms. At the Prague Interkit in December 1983, M. I. Sladkovsky, director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Soviet Academy of Sciences “gave a lengthy elaboration on the impossibility and harmful features of ‘Chinese type socialism’, stating that socialism as a scientific doctrine was universal, and no Soviet, Yugoslav or Chinese models existed” (Document No. 4). On the other hand, Chinese leaders spoke approvingly about Hungarian reform experiences. Zhu Rongji, who as vice-chairman of the State Economic Commission headed the first major Chinese economic delegation to the five Eastern European Soviet bloc countries in March-April 1984, indicated that „China and Hungary both seek to build socialism according to their national characteristics” (Document No. 9).

The last Interkit, which officially was a working meeting and lasted for a mere four hours took place on 18 February 1985 in Moscow. Rakhmanin informed the participants that the meeting was convened upon the initiative by none other than CPSU General Secretary K. U. Chernenko in order to achieve even closer coordination between fraternal parties. The event provided Rakhmanin with yet another opportunity to lecture the participants about the harmful tendencies in the Chinese domestic situation and foreign policy, including rightist revisionist transformation; capitalist or semi-capitalist way of living; an attempt to undermine the Yalta system through “one country, two systems”; and Chinese territorial claims against the Soviet Union. The Hungarian report of the meeting noted that “there are indications that the practice of Soviet policy towards China is not completely identical with what is outlined in Comrade Rakhmanin’s general overview.” At the meeting, the SED representative reminded that “the policy aimed at the normalization of state-to-state relations between the GDR and China had been fully justified with time” and declared that “the GDR would continue to conduct a political dialogue with China”, and even proposed that “we should consider establishing low-level, informal contacts with the CCP.” In the HSWP delegation’s opinion, the SED proposal for the establishment of informal party contacts was “actually an attempt to ‘legitimize’ the GDR's practice that already existed at the beginning of 1984” (Document No. 8).

The change in Moscow’s policy became significant after Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent to power in March 1985. As by the mid-1980s both the USSR and the PRC showed the intention and will for the normalization of relations, Eastern European countries had a relatively free hand in widening the scope of their relations with China.

Although the basic pattern of relations between China and Eastern European relations remained largely unchanged even as Soviet control over its satellites began to relax, by the mid-1980s Sino-East European relations gained importance for their own sake. As party relations were reestablished in 1986-1987, the East Europeans welcomed China’s return to the great family of socialist states and hoped that expanding economic relations would open up new market opportunities. Intending to strengthen China’s socialist identity and legitimize the party’s reform policies, the reform-minded Chinese leadership also attributed Eastern Europe an important role in Chinese domestic propaganda. Furthermore, in foreign policy Beijing wished to win the other socialist states’ sympathy for its reform course and acceptance for the new concept of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

The first East European top leaders to visit China were Poland’s Wojciech Jaruzelski and East Germany’s Erich Honecker in September and October of 1986. China’s relations with the Eastern European countries were further cemented in 1987 by Czechoslovak premier Lubomír Štrougal’s visit to China in April, the Bulgarian Todor Zhivkov’s visit in May, the reciprocal visit to the five Eastern European countries by acting general secretary of the CCP and Premier Zhao Ziyang in June (Document No. 12, Document No. 13, and Document No. 14), and Hungarian party leader János Kádár’s visit to the PRC in October.

The timing of Kádár’s visit was particularly important for China’s reform forces. Reform-minded leaders wanted to create the appropriate political climate to push forward political and economic reforms at the Thirteenth CCP Congress, held between October 25 and November 1 (Document No. 15). With Hu Yaobang’s removal from the post of party general secretary in early 1987, the struggle between conservatives and reformists within leadership flared up again. A strong advocate for reform, Zhao Ziyang seemed to have succeeded temporarily and believed that it was important for the reformists to gain support from Eastern Europe as well. With the visit, the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party provided unconditional support for the forthcoming decisions, the new policy line, the planned reform steps, and the new political leadership.

Reference to a reform community remained a common theme in both Beijing and in Budapest, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy. In 1988, when the Chinese leaders agreed that “the domestic political practice followed in Hungary…cannot serve as model for them”, Chinese diplomats in Budapest still claimed that “the temperature of Sino-Hungarian relations is much higher than that of Sino-Soviet relations.” As a Chinese diplomat in Moscow put it, “China learned the reforms in Hungary many years ago…The Chinese do not forget that Hungarians were the first to offer their hands of friendship at times when Sino-Soviet relations were frozen” (Document No. 18).

Despite controversies over the contents of political reform, a commitment to reform served as a binding force for both Eastern Europe and China right until the spring of 1989. Paradoxically, the same reform processes—which on both sides initially ran parallel, serving as a point of reference and contributing to the renormalization of relations—had, by 1989, led to diametrically opposite political solutions and turned into a source for difference and separation.

Péter Vámos is senior research fellow at the Institute of History of the Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and associate professor at Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary, Budapest. He is the author of Magyar jezsuita misszió Kínában [The Hungarian Jesuit mission in China] (Akadémiai Kiadó, 2003); Kína mellettünk? Kínai külügyi iratok Magyarországról, 1956 [Is China with us? Chinese diplomatic records on Hungary, 1956] (História Alapítvány: MTA Történettudományi Intézete, 2008); and coeditor (with Huang Lifu and Li Rui) of Xin shiliao xin faxian: Zhongguo yu Sulian Dong’Ou guojia guanxi [New Archives, New Findings: The Relationships between China, the Soviet Union and Eastem Europe] (Beijing: Shehui Kexue Chubanshe, 2014).

List of Documents

Document 1.1 – Cable from the Embassy of the Hungarian People's Republic to China, 'Some New Phenomena in the Chinese Pursuit to Differentiate Socialist Countries', January 25, 1982
Source: National Archives of Hungary (MNL OL) XIX-J-1-j-Kína 103-001239-1982. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119996

Document 1.2 – Appendix to 'Some New Phenomena in the Chinese Pursuit to Differentiate Socialist Countries'
Source: National Archives of Hungary (MNL OL) XIX-J-1-j-Kína 103-001239-1982. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119997

Document 2 – Cable from Ernő Lakatos and Gyula Horn, 'Proposal for the Political Committee', December 2, 1983
Source: National Archives of Hungary (MNL OL) M-KS 288. f. 5/898. ő. e. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119342

Document 3 – Cable from Géza Kótai, 'Report on the China Consultation of CC International Departments of Fraternal Parties of Ten Socialist Countries', December 14, 1983
Source: National Archives of Hungary (MNL OL) M-KS 288 f. 32. cs. 110/1983 ő.e. pp. 631-638. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119343.

Document 4 – Cable from Géza Kótai, 'Protocol of the China-Consultation of Representatives of CC International Departments of the Ten Fraternal Parties Held on 6-7 December 1983 in Prague', December 27, 1983
Source: National Archives of Hungary (MNL OL) M-KS 288 f. 32. cs. 110/1983 ő.e. 384-389. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119344.

Document 5 – Iván Németh, 'Memorandum for the Attention of Comrade Mátyás Szűrös', October 15, 1984
Source: National Archives of Hungary (MNL OL) M-KS 288 f. 32. cs. 110/1983 ő.e. 152-153. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119345.

Document 6 – Iván Németh, 'Memorandum for the Attention of Comrade Mátyás Szűrös', November 2, 1984
Source: National Archives of Hungary (MNL OL) M-KS 288 f. 32. cs. 1983/110 ő.e. pp. 158-159. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119346.

Document 7 – Iván Németh, 'Report for Members of the Political Committee on the China Consultation held in Tihany (Interkit)', November 6, 1984
Source: National Archives of Hungary (MNL OL) M-KS 288 f. 32. cs. 110/1983 ő.e. pp. 167-176. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119347.

Document 8 – Géza Kótai, 'Memorandum for Comrade Mátyás Szűrös', February 21, 1985
Source: National Archives of Hungary (MNL OL) M-KS 288 f. 32. cs. 1985/124 ő.e. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119348.

Document 9 – Letter, 'Re: Information Related to China', September 30, 1985
Source: Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (ÁBTL) 1 11 4 S-II/2/85/1. pp.  6-9. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119349.

Document 10 – Secret Telegram from Jász, 'On the Relations between China and the Socialist Countries in 1986', December 15, 1986
Source: Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (ÁBTL) 1 11 4 S-II/2/86/4.pp. 26-32. Obtained by Peter Vamos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119350.

Document 11 – Telegram, 'Re: Chinese Expectations before Comrade Havasi's Visit', December 19, 1986
Source: Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (ÁBTL) 1 11 4 S-II/2/86/4.  pp. 24-25. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119351.

Document 12 – 'Relations of the Chinese Communist Party to Some Fraternal Communist Countries’, May 14, 1987
Source: Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (ÁBTL) 1. 11. 4. S-II/2/87. p. 105. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119352.

Document 13 – 'Report on Zhao Ziyang's visit to Hungary. Information from the Chinese community in Budapest,’ July 1987
Source: Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (ÁBTL), 1. 11. 4. S-II/2/87, pp. 59-60. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119353.

Document 14 – 'Zhao Ziyang's Visit to Hungary. Evaluation by Delegation Members', July 23, 1987
Source: Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (ÁBTL) 1. 11. 4. S-II/2/87 pp. 47-49; 53-54. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119354.

Document 15 – Memorandum, 'Re: Chinese Evaluation of the Visit by HSWP's General Secretary', October 26, 1987
Source: Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (ÁBTL) 1. 11. 4. S-II/2/87, pp. 30-31. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119356.

Document 16 – ’ Chinese Views on Hungarian Economic Reforms and Sino-Hungarian Trade Relations’, December 1987
Source: Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (ÁBTL) 1. 11. 4. S-II/2/87, pp. 32-42. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119357.

Document 17 – Letter, 'Re: Chinese and Japanese Diplomats on Foreign Policy Issues', July 18, 1988
Source: Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (ÁBTL) 1. 11. 4. S-II/2/88, pp. 27-28. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119358.

Document 18 – Memorandum, 'Re: Chinese Views on Some Aspects of Hungarian and Soviet Reform Policies', October 31, 1988
Source: Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security (ÁBTL) 1. 11. 4. S-II/2/88, pp. 25-26. Obtained by Péter Vámos and translated by Katalin Varga. Accessible at http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/119359