On 1 October the People’s Republic of China (PRC) turned 70. With a huge parade of military might, the country was obliged to relive the moment in 1949 when Mao Zedong stood on the Gate of Heavenly Peace (or Tiananmen) in Beijing to proclaim the triumph of the communist revolution after more than two decades of on-off civil war.
The Chinese have never forgotten their repeated humiliation by Westerners during the colonial era carve-up of a feeble and feuding China. This year is also the centenary of the now legendary “May Fourth” protest against the Paris peacemakers’ handover of Germany’s former territories in China to Japan.
The Chinese also take a long view of the future. At a time when Americans wonder where they are going from month to month (and we Brits from day to day), President Xi Jinping has committed huge resources to the “One Belt, One Road” land and sea infrastructure project, embracing more than 150 countries. Intended to enhance China’s global reach, it is scheduled for completion by mid-century, to cap the PRC’s centenary celebrations.
Of course, Donald Trump proclaims that he will “make America great again”. Not to be outdone, “Britain Trump” – as the president styled Boris Johnson – predicts that by 2050 the UK could be “the greatest place on Earth”. But in reality neither man is capable, either personally or politically, of conducting grand strategy à la chinoise.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also has its eye on another date. By the end of the 75th anniversary of the revolution in 2024, it will have ruled for longer than the Communist Party of the USSR – from Lenin’s Bolshevik coup in November 1917 to the Soviet Union’s demise in December 1991. That anniversary has huge importance for China’s communist leaders. They always measured themselves against their Kremlin counterparts, from Josef Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev. Looking more closely at the Sino-Soviet rivalry sheds a different light on China past and present – and also on the trajectory and meaning of the Cold War.
In March 1947 Harry S Truman described a world in which “nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life” – freedom or “totalitarianism” – and he committed the United States to supporting “the free peoples of the world”. The US president was indulging in rhetorical overkill, hoping to scare a penny-pinching Congress into granting $400m of aid to Greece and Turkey, but the “Truman Doctrine” became the template for Americans’ view of the Cold War. For the McCarthyite right, the “fall of China” in 1949 showed that Truman had failed. The idea of a global contest between “the free world” and the rest has endured in much of America to the present day.
Yet in 1949 Stalin responded cautiously to Mao’s victory. He was always wary of uppity communists who didn’t toe the Kremlin line, notably the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. And, being more of a realpolitiker than an ideologue, during China’s civil war Stalin had worked with Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese nationalists who were the official government of China, and recognised as such by his wartime allies. In the summer of 1945 he signed a treaty of friendship and alliance with Chiang, in accordance with the deal he struck with Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta.
Accordingly, Stalin kept the PRC’s new supremo at a distance. When Mao was finally granted an audience in the Kremlin, on 16 December 1949, the Soviet leader made very clear who was boss. He rebuffed overtures for a new Sino-Soviet treaty with the CCP, arguing that this would “give America and England the legal grounds to raise questions” about other aspects of the Yalta settlement, especially the islands the USSR had gained from Japan. When Mao, acutely conscious of his regime’s vulnerability, went through his begging list – from trade to aid, from building a navy to creating air routes – Stalin gave supportive but vague answers.
At the end he cross-examined Mao sternly about plans for development:
“Can rubber-bearing trees be grown in southern China?”
“So far it has not been possible.”
“Is there a meteorological service in China?”
“No, it has not been established yet.”
“It should be established.”
Although invited to Stalin’s lavish 70th-birthday celebrations, Mao was otherwise left to stew for five weeks in a remote dacha at Lipki, 25 kilometres south-east of Moscow. He complained that there was “nothing to do there but eat, sleep and shit”. Russian comrades found Mao’s scatological language distasteful – further evidence of his “peasant” background. Deputy premier Vyacheslav Molotov told his boss that Mao was not a real Marxist: he “confessed he had never read Das Kapital”.
Eventually granted a second audience on 22 January 1950, Mao found Stalin more forthcoming and a treaty was agreed. When Mao expressed puzzlement at Stalin’s earlier punctiliousness about the Yalta agreement, the Soviet leader exclaimed, “To hell with it!… It is true that for us this entails certain inconveniences, and we will have to struggle against the Americans. But we are already reconciled to that.”
Having thought things over, Stalin now felt on a roll – for various reasons. In August 1949 the USSR had tested an atomic device, presaging an end to the US nuclear monopoly. Washington had not attempted to reverse the Chinese revolution or provide military aid to the remnants of Chiang’s regime on the island of Taiwan. Indeed, on 12 January 1950 US secretary of state Dean Acheson declared that America’s “defensive perimeter” in Asia ran from “the Ryukus to the Philippine Islands”, a line that included Japan but not Taiwan or Korea. Stalin seems to have reckoned that the correlation of forces had shifted in his favour. He was ready to take risks.
In April 1950 Stalin acceded to the repeated demand of the North Korean communist leader Kim Il-sung for support in his bid to reunify the peninsula, divided at the 38th parallel since 1945. The Soviets provided substantial weaponry and drafted the operational plan, reassured by Acheson’s speech and confident of a quick victory.
Hubris indeed. Truman not only intervened but after the invasion of South Korea on 25 June American-led UN troops reversed the initial advance and by September had thrust across the 38th parallel into North Korea. Stalin’s grand design had blown up in his face. But he made Mao the fall-guy.
On 1 October 1950, as the PRC celebrated its first birthday, Mao received a telegram from the Soviet leader, which began airily, “I am far away from Moscow and somewhat detached from events in Korea” (actually he was in bad health and recuperating on the Black Sea). Stalin summarised Kim’s “desperate” circumstances and observed: “I think that if in the current situation you consider it possible to send troops to assist the Koreans, then you should move at least five-six divisions towards the 38th parallel at once so as to give our Korean comrades an opportunity to organise combat reserves.” Chinese troops could be depicted as “volunteers” (as if that would fool anyone). Stalin ended by saying that he hadn’t informed “our Korean friends about this idea, but I have no doubt in my mind that they will be glad when they learn about it. I await your reply. Greetings.”
Mao told his Politburo grimly on 1 October that the PRC had to intervene. War with the Americans now seemed only a matter of time and it was better to fight them on favourable terrain close to home. Also he – like Stalin in the late 1920s – envisaged war fever as a way to consolidate his revolution. But the CCP leadership was split and so Mao sent a cagey interim reply, noting various problems such as the risk of “open conflict” with the US, the setback this would inflict on domestic reconstruction and the ill-equipped state of Chinese forces.
Over the next few days envoys shuttled to and fro between Beijing and Moscow. Only when Mao had been assured of extensive Soviet support, including air cover for his troops in Korea, did Chinese “volunteer” units cross the border. Whereupon Stalin wriggled out of his promise, claiming that the Soviet air force was not ready. Admittedly, Soviet planes and pilots did enter the struggle in 1951, when Chinese troops were routing the Americans, but they did so in PRC markings and uniforms. The betrayal in October really rankled with Mao, as did the Soviet demand when the fighting ended in 1953 that China must pay for all that Soviet aid.
And so the dawn of the Sino-Soviet alliance cast a long shadow. Both diplomatically and personally, Stalin had treated Mao with near-contempt, like a “younger brother”. China’s leader survived his baptism of fire – but he neither forgot nor forgave.
Chairman Mao’s second (and last) journey to Moscow was in November 1957, for the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. By now the PRC had fought the US and its allies to a standstill in Korea – at the cost of perhaps 400,000 Chinese dead – as well as forcing the US to guarantee the security of the Nationalist regime on Taiwan. So Mao had to be taken seriously as a world figure and in 1957 Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, behaved with much greater courtesy – accommodating the Chinese leader in one of Catherine the Great’s palaces.
Yet the guest went out of his way to snub the host. Mao turned up his nose at the imperialist plumbing and used his own pisspot, brought specially from Beijing. Instead of being captivated by Swan Lake at the Bolshoi, he stalked out early asking, “Why don’t they dance normally?” When addressing international communist leaders he struck a chillingly belligerent note, declaring that “the east wind is prevailing over the west wind” and that, if nuclear war broke out and “half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist”.
The following summer, Khrushchev paid a return visit to Beijing. Mao – a keen swimmer – insisted on conducting one of their meetings in a pool. Khrushchev could not evade the challenge, even though barely able to swim. So the portly Soviet leader was subjected to detailed questioning on ideology and policy while flopping around in water-wings, swallowing mouthfuls of water, as his Chinese counterpart circled, shark-like. Mao gloated that this was a way of “sticking a needle up his arse”.
The ego game had a larger purpose, because Mao was now systematically challenging Soviet leadership of the communist world. He denounced Khrushchev’s attempts at “peaceful coexistence” with the West and in 1958 shelled Taiwan in a deliberate effort to raise Cold War tensions. He also lambasted the Soviet leader’s programme of “de-Stalinisation” at home – believing that Stalin, for all his nastiness, had been a true Marxist-Leninist. To counter any Khrushchev-style revisionism in the PRC, he embarked on the “Great Leap Forward” in 1958. This was intended to inject new revolutionary zeal into the country by creating mass communes and diverting the peasantry into steel production – an international virility symbol as well as being crucial for war-making. The result by 1962 was probably the worst famine of the 20th century: perhaps 30 million died, roughly 5 per cent of China’s population.
The Sino-Soviet split was now public knowledge. In 1960 Khrushchev recalled all Soviet advisers from the PRC and enlisted most of the world’s 80-odd communist parties in public condemnation of Mao’s reckless attitude to war and peace. China’s successful test of an atomic device on 16 October 1964 was Mao’s response, giving him additional pleasure because it coincided with news from Moscow that Khrushchev had been overthrown.
Yet Mao had turned 70 in December 1963, and was already showing symptoms of motor neurone disease. Sometimes he spoke dolefully of going soon “to see Marx”. But he hated being treated by his colleagues “like a dead ancestor”. He feared for his legacy, as the triumphs of 1949 were seemingly cast aside by “capitalist roaders” – similar to the fate of Lenin’s revolution as the old Bolshevik “vanguard” ossified into what became known in the West as “the new class”.
And so Mao took to the water again – this time to teach China a lesson.
His one-hour swim in the Yangtze river at Wuhan on 16 July 1966 was a meticulously staged photo opportunity. The Chairman reportedly swam nearly 15 kilometres in 65 minutes – equivalent to a mile every eight minutes. The world record was 20 minutes a mile. “The greatest swimmer of all time,” joked Australian Olympic medallist Judy-Joy Davies. Mao had indeed covered that distance but, for much of the time he was carried downstream by the strong current.
“What to Westerners seemed an amusing public-relations exercise,” observes the Mao biographer Michael Lynch, “to the Chinese represented a national awakening.” Images of the “Great Helmsman” in the water and then waving to the crowd were endlessly reproduced, together with his injunction that the people must combat “great wind and great waves”.
Two days after his epic immersion, Mao headed for Beijing, where he had not been seen for eight months. There he exploited the media adulation to depose leading “reactionaries” and stamp his mark on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution – greeting a mass rally by student “Red Guards” on 18 August from atop the Tiananmen Gate, his grand podium on 1 October 1949. This was the first of eight such performances in 1966, all intended to drive home Mao’s attack against the “four olds” (customs, culture, habits and ideas) and, more generally, to rejuvenate the party. “I love great upheavals,” he told his doctor.
Like the Great Leap, however, the Cultural Revolution soon got disastrously out of hand. It degenerated into factional struggles and the leadership even lost control of government ministries and provincial administrations. The British Embassy in Beijing was one of many buildings sacked by rampaging Red Guards. In the end Mao used the army to bring the students to heel. The total death toll was around half-a-million; several million students were rusticated to the countryside.
Mao’s frenzied attempts to revivify his revolution also had a global dimension. As the historian Julia Lovell reminds us in her recent study, Maoism: A Global History, in the Sixties and Seventies many “hot conflicts of the Cold War” – across Asia, Africa and the Middle East – “were driven not only by tension between the Soviets and the Americans, but also by Chinese-Soviet rivalry for influence”. Mao’s determination to show that the PRC stood in the forefront of world revolution and of the anti-colonial liberation struggle forced the Kremlin to enter the contest or else lose face.
Indochina was the most grotesque example. Competitive aid from the PRC and the USSR helped Ho Chi Minh to ratchet up the Vietnam War until Lyndon Johnson felt obliged to commit US troops in 1965. It was only with Richard Nixon’s dramatic visit to Beijing in 1972 that the US finally exploited the Sino-Soviet split to open up relations with “Red China”. This helped extricate America from Vietnam and prod the USSR into a brief era of détente.
At the end of the Seventies, Soviet support for Vietnam and the PRC’s backing for Pol Pot’s Kampuchea (Cambodia) led to a proxy war between the two communist giants. The Vietnamese army finally invaded China’s brutal client state at Christmas 1978 and uncovered the regime’s atrocities. Pol Pot was the ultimate Maoist, who envisioned a “Super Great Leap Forward” to outdo even the Great Helmsman. His regime boasted that “we will be the first nation to create a completely communist society without wasting time on intermediate steps”. From this dream of instant revolution came the nightmare of national genocide: perhaps 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died (a quarter of the population).
By now Mao, too, was dead, though not forgotten. The man who emerged as China’s paramount leader was the dimunitive Deng Xiaoping (under five feet high). He had been lucky to survive the Cultural Revolution, enduring four years in internal exile. His elder son was thrown out of a window by Red Guards and crippled for life. Unlike Mao, Deng knew something of the outside world, having spent five years in France during the 1920s as a worker-student. In 1974, just four days in New York (to address the UN) served to open his eyes to the transformative effects of modern capitalism.
Yet during the 1980s Deng moved cautiously to modify the command economy – breaking up the communes, permitting rural and urban markets, and creating Special Economic Zones for foreign capital along the coast. Very different from the breakneck privatisation of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and his simultaneous commitment to rapid democratisation – which the CCP leadership considered “idiotic”. As the decade progressed, however, Deng found it hard to restrain the reform movement in China itself, stimulated by younger leaders such as Zhao Ziyang.
By the spring of 1989 these dual pressures for economic and political change reached a new height, just as in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. But the denouement in China was very different.
On 15 May 1989 Gorbachev arrived in Beijing for the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years, intended to thaw mutual relations. To the CCP’s fury, however, pro-democracy students – inspired by the May Fourth movement of 1919 but also demanding perestroika for China – occupied the city centre, so that a planned welcome ceremony for the Soviet delegation in Tiananmen Square had to be abandoned. “Tiananmen is the symbol of the People’s Republic of China,” Deng fumed. “What do we look like if the square’s a mess?” Gorbachev kept well away from the students and decided to go back to Moscow “as quickly as possible”.
As soon as the Soviets had left, Deng – furious at being humiliated in front of the world’s media – ordered the military to clear the square. On 4 June 1989, as Poland experienced its first free election since the 1920s, China’s green shoots of democracy were crushed by tanks of the People’s Liberation Army. Deng was adamant that “we must not give an inch on the basic principle of upholding Communist Party rule and rejecting a Western multiparty system”. His Maoist spasm of violence restored order, the CCP toughed out international ostracism for the “Tiananmen Massacre” and in 1992 it resumed Deng’s developmental project to create a “socialist market economy”.
The regime’s confidence was boosted by watching, with schadenfreude, the disintegration of its old “frenemy”, the Soviet Union, in 1991. Gorbachev’s half-baked attempts to liberalise both economy and politics had undermined the communist regime. In eastern Europe, the reforms he encouraged also led to the collapse of communism, symbolised in the fall of the Berlin Wall. By contrast, Deng had gradually marketised China’s economy while keeping the Communist Party firmly in control. Since 1991 Russia and most of eastern Europe has failed to develop democratic politics or economic prosperity, while the PRC has boomed under CCP rule. As Kristina Spohr observes in Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World after 1989, China and Russia’s very different exits from the Cold War “had vast implications which are still being played out in today’s world”.
Seventy years after leading the CCP to power, Mao still looms large in the Chinese imagination. Julia Lovell calls the regime of Xi Jinping “Mao-ish”. Admittedly, the party remains haunted by the Cultural Revolution – not least Xi personally. His half-sister was killed by Red Guards, his father locked up for four years and Xi himself packed off to the countryside to dig ditches. Yet since becoming party secretary in 2012, he has built up a Mao-style cult of personality (at the military parade marking the 70th anniversary on Tuesday, Xi deliberately sported a charcoal Mao suit). In 2018 the People’s Congress appointed him president for life, and “Xi Jinping Thought” has been enshrined in the CCP’s constitution. Today’s equivalent of Mao’s Little Red Book is the “Xuexi Qiangguo” (“Study to Make China Strong”) app that teaches Xi’s philosophy and which, since its issue in January 2019, has become the most downloaded in the country. (That’s not altogether surprising: party members are required to use it every day.)
The theme of greatness, beloved of Mao, permeates other slogans such as the “Chinese Dream” and distinguishes Xi from the relatively cautious foreign policy of Deng. In fact, reworking the “triangular” geopolitics of the 1970s, there is now a loose axis of Xi and Vladimir Putin to challenge American “hegemony”, with cyberspace and the Arctic among the prime arenas of conflict.
The People’s Republic of China’s leadership finds much to celebrate on its 70th birthday, particularly given the travails of post-Soviet Russia. The 2024 milestone is in its sights; even the 2049 centenary. But will this increasingly corrupt regime be able to maintain its grip on such a vast and volatile country? Can it keep Hong Kong under control without another Tiananmen? Are the growing tensions with Taiwan going to escalate into conflict? How long will the PRC’s urban populace accept political castration in return for unfettered consumerism? And, if the CCP decides to embark on political reform, will it face the same dilemmas as Gorbachev three decades ago – with even greater pent-up force?
David Reynolds is professor of international history and a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and a New Statesman contributing writer