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Sino-European Relations and the Cold War

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Beginning in 2012, the Wilson Center's Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) launched an initiative to document and trace relations between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Eastern and Western Europe during the Cold War, focusing especially on the 1960s and 1970s. The initiative initially aimed to collect, translate, and disseminate a wealth of documentary and oral history evidence on Sino-European relations through theWilson Center's Digital Archive and other platforms, and later turned toward a substantive and scholarly examination of Sino-European relations through an international conference and edited volume.

Image removed.Participants from the July 2012 critical oral history conference, "The Rise of a Multipolar World"

The initiative began with the convening of a one-of-a-kind critical oral history conference in Palermo, Italy, in July 2012 with the support of the Fondazione Roma-Mediterraneo, the Machiavelli Center for Cold War Studies (CIMA), and East China Normal University's Cold War International Studies Center. The critical oral history conference, "The Rise of a Multipolar World: Sino-European Relations in the Last Decades of the Cold War," brought together dozens of veteran diplomats from Albania, China, Italy, Poland, Romania, and the United Kingdom, and paired them face-to-face with historians from around the world. Though the dialogue at the conference often dealt with individual bilateral relationships between China and various European countries, the conference was anchored by a much broader theme: identifying the transition from bi-polarity to multi-polarity during the Cold War and post-Cold War eras.

To supplement and stimulate the conversations at the critical oral history conference, CWIHP and its world-wide network of partners made an ambitious effort to mine the archives in China and Europe for relevant and illuminating documentation. CWIHP obtained and translated hundreds of documents from Albanian, Chinese, East German, French, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Romanian, and West German archives and published document collections.

Click Here to View Hundreds of Translated Archival Sources on Sino-European Relations on the Wilson Center's Digital Archive

Though voluminous, the documents obtained were by no means comprehensive. For instance, no documents dated beyond 1965 were available at the Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (PRC FMA), so all resources about Chinese foreign relations during the Cultural Revolution and in the post-Mao era came from outside of the PRC. Furthermore, new restrictions on access to archival documents were introduced at the PRC FMA in 2013-2014. The majority of documents once accessible—including those previously obtained by CWIHP—were removed. 

The discussions at the critical oral history conference were recorded, transcribed, and translated fully into English. The oral history testimonies were then packaged, along with a selection of key primary source documents from international archives and comprehensive bibliography on Sino-European relations, into the publication, Sino-European Relations during the Cold War and the Rise of a Multipolar World: A Critical Oral History, which was released in 2015.

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Sino-European Relations during the Cold War and the Rise of a Multipolar World offers a wealth of information and perspectives which have never before been accessible to researchers or policymakers in any country. It demonstrates that Sino-European interaction and the resulting transformation of the Cold War order were the outcomes of Europe’s forward thinking diplomacy and Beijing’s genuine desire for independence on the international stage. De Gaulle’s vision of French grandeur inaugurated Europe’s overture to Beijing in 1960s. Later, the universalist impulses of and the emphasis on inclusiveness in Rome’s foreign policy also found fertile soil in the ashes of the Cultural revolution. These and other shifts in the European political landscape added an ethical horizon to Europe’s diplomatic contacts with Beijing and opened the door to Beijing’s return to a broader family of nations, thanks to its participation to the United Nations in 1970s.

In 2014, the initiative shifted from simply obtaining documentation toward stimulating new and original analysis of Sino-European relations during the Cold War. Specifically, CWIHP challenged a group of scholars to reconsider how the interactions between Europe and China, undoubtedly the most important third actors in the Cold War system, affected the supremacy of the superpowers, including their policy-making processe and their strategic choices, and, in general, the Cold War itself. As territorial entities and political and economic actors located at the crossroads of the mutual spheres of action of the two superpowers, China and Europe played a key role in the evolution and reshaping of the bipolar system, and it was this issue which the scholars were asked to debate.


Qiang Zhai discusses the role of France in Mao Zedong's strategic outlook at the June 2014 conference "Same Dreams, Different Beds"

For these purposes, CWIHP brought together in June 2014 Austin Jersild (Old Dominion University), Zhong Zhong Chen (London School of Economics), Margaret Gnoinska (Troy University), Peter Vamos (Hungarian Academy of Sciences), Mircea Munteanu (US Department of State), Jovan Cavoski (Institute for Recent History of Serbia), Niu Jun (Peking University), Garret Martin (American University), Qiang Zhai (Auburn University Montgomery), Enrico Fardella (Peking University/Wilson Center), Martin Albers (University of Cambridge ), Bernd Schaefer (Wilson Center), and Robert Sutter (The George Washington University) for a day long workshop entitled "Same Dreams, Different Beds: Sino-European Relations and the Transformation of the Cold War."

The international conference is being used as the springboard for an edited volume featuring a dozen chapters on Sino-European relations during the Cold War. The volume, which is currently in the process of being finalized, will be published by a university press in 2016-2017.

The initiative on Sino-European relations has been spearheaded by Christian Ostermann, Enrico Fardella, and Charles Kraus, and has been generously supported by the MacArthur Foundation.

New Evidence and New Analysis on Sino-European Relations

To bring greater attention to the new documentation obtained as a result of the initiative on Sino-European relations, the Cold War International History Project enlisted a group of scholars to offer some initial analysis through the CWIHP e-Dossier series. 

CWIHP e-Dossier no. 58

China and Eastern Europe from the 1960 Moscow Conference to Khrushchev’s Removal

by Niu Jun

Niu Jun introduces translations of thirty-five documents from the now closed Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive. The documents demonstrate the decisive role played by Sino-Soviet relation in shaping China-Eastern European relations and reflect the re-radicalization of Chinese foreign policy in the early 1960s.

CWIHP e-Dossier no. 57

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

by Zhong Zhong Chen

Zhong Zhong Chen introduces documents from the archives of the former East Germany and argues that, although Sino-Soviet tensions dictated socialist bloc attitudes towards Beijing especially during times of turmoil, East German leaders were often able to carve out substantial diplomatic freedoms. 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.

CWIHP e-Dossier no. 56

Sino-West German Relations during the Mao Era

by Bernd Schaefer

Bernd Schaefer introduces newly translated documents from West German archives to explore the convergence of interests between Mao Zedong and politicians in West Germany in the 1970s.

CWIHP e-Dossier no. 55

Negotiating Sino-Italian Normalization, 1968-1970

by Enrico Fardella

Enrico Fardella introduces Italian Foreign Ministry documents which provide an inside view of the Sino-Italian negotiations for diplomatic recognition in 1969 and 1970, and the influence of structural changes in the Cold War system on that process.

CWIHP e-Dossier no. 53

A “Diplomatic Nuclear Explosion”? Sino-French Relations in the 1960s

by Garret Martin

When France and the People’s Republic of China established diplomatic relations in January 1964, observers called the event a “diplomatic nuclear explosion," but the high hopes entertained for Sino-French relations never quite materialized, undermined by China and France’s conflicting goals toward the Vietnam War and the turmoil associated with the Cultural Revolution.

CWIHP e-Dossier no. 50

“Much Listening, Little Speaking:” Chinese Foreign Ministry Documents on Hungary, 1956

by Péter Vámos

Péter Vámos addresses the controversy over the Chinese role in the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Using documents from the Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive in Beijing, Vámos argues that the official Chinese position was a distortion of actual events.

CWIHP e-Dossier no. 46

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

by Austin Jersild

Austin Jersild discusses tensions between Chinese and Central European officials over the misbehavior and incompetence of socialist bloc advisers in China.


CWIHP e-Dossier no. 45

Seeking Truth from Facts: Deng Xiaoping's Visit to France in 1975

by Martin Albers

Martin Albers discusses Deng Xiaoping's 1975 visit to France - the first major Western country to fully recognize the People's Republic of China - and the trip's importance to Deng's future economic policy in China.

CWIHP e-Dossier no 41

Privilege and Inequality: Cultural Exchange and the Sino-Soviet Alliance

by Austin Jersild

Austin Jersild introduces a collection of Russian documents which show the intense cultural tensions and conflicts that undermined the Sino-Soviet relationship.

CWIHP e-Dossier no. 12

China and the Warsaw Pact in the 1970-1980s

by Bernd Schaefer, Mihail Ionescu, and Oldrich Tuma

Click Here to View Hundreds of Translated Archival Sources on Sino-European Relations on the Wilson Center's Digital Archive