Looking Back on Strategic Partnership
As China celebrates the 70th anniversary of relations with Russia and “unprecedented” friendship, with a possible alliance in the future, the record in the Chinese press tells a more complex story of brotherhood, disillusionment and conflict.
During a three-day visit to Moscow in June, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin signed an agreement elevating bilateral relations to what both sides called — in an apparent nod to the prevailing political discourse of the Chinese Communist Party — “a comprehensive strategic Sino-Russian cooperation partnership for the new era.”
The visit was, by all accounts, a warm one. A package of trade deals were signed. A pair of pandas took up residence at the Moscow Zoo. General Secretary Xi noted that he had met with Putin on 30 occasions already as China’s top leader, and he referred to the Russian president as “my best friend and colleague.” For his part, Putin said the relationship had reached “an unprecedented level.”
- Warming Up: The relationship between China and Russia, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, is growing warmer and warmer, and there is some speculation from Russian sources (shared in Chinese) that the military relationship could be upgraded to an "alliance" in 2021, when the 2001 Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Relations expires.
- Same Same: China's Xi Jinping has said in exchanges with Russia's Vladimir Putin that he and Putin share "the same character."
- Speed Bumps: Despite the developing romance, there could be tension ahead as China continues to make inroads into Central Asia, with an economy six times the size of Russia's.
- Hello Lenin: While the Russian revolutionary is no longer a factor in contemporary politics in the Russian Federation, the Chinese Communist Party continues to look for Lenin, and validation of its own legitimacy, in the ghosts of Russia's Soviet past.
While the Russian Federation traces its origins to the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, the clock of bilateral relations has kept on running for China, which marks this year as the 70th anniversary of Sino-Russian relations, stretching back to the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the newly founded People’s Republic of China on October 2, 1949.
The ups and downs of this 70-year stretch of history, however, can be difficult to face. When China Daily, published by the Information Office of the State Council, presented its “chronology of major moments” in Sino-Russian relations during Xi Jinping’s Moscow visit, the chronology blanked out a half century of PRC history. The establishment of relations in 1949 was followed immediately by the signing of a treaty of friendship on July 16, 2001. (We've included a screenshot of this coverage below.)
Gaps and omissions like this one can often tell us a great deal about how the Chinese Communist Party understands questions of history – and how these reflect on the always crucial question of legitimacy. And they can give us a clearer historical view of a bilateral relationship that seems to be rapidly warming toward an alliance (mentioned by Russian sources, with Chinese media following suit), something that could have profound global implications.
If we look back on this 70-year history of friendship, following the traces in official Chinese media coverage, what can we see? And what does this history tell us about the foundations of this “comprehensive strategic cooperation partnership” as understood on the Chinese side?
Five Themes, One Thread
Walking back through the pages of the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, we can identify five clear themes defining various phases in the Sino-Russian relationship, changing as the relationship changed. The five main themes, in the order they emerge in the history of the Sino-Russian relationship, are: “Soviet Big Brother” (苏联老大哥); “Khrushchev Revisionism” (赫鲁晓夫修正主义), “Social Imperialism” (社会帝国主义); “reform and new ideas” (改革与新思维); and finally “strategic cooperation partner” (战略协作伙伴). This last theme brings us up to the present day — what Xi and Putin referred to in their agreement as the “new era.
But we also find one core concept threaded through the entire 70-year history of the relationship — and that is the concept of Leninism.
Leninism is something I won't deal with in detail here. The cores of Leninism, violent revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, have already been thoroughly renounced in Russia. But in China, of course, the opposite is true. Leninism remains at the heart of the political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, and of its system marrying authoritarian rule and the market economy.
And this is why China is so insistent on calculating the history of bilateral relations the way it does. With this in mind, let's move on to our five themes.
Love Letters to “Big Brother”
“Big brother” is an old concept in China, a mark of respect. In Chinese, it does not convey, even in the context of China’s relationship with the Soviet Union, the image found in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
References to our “Soviet Big Brother” are something Chinese of my generation, those especially born in the 1940s and 1950s, will associate with their childhood, even with a sense of nostalgia. Related language at the time included “Stalin,” “unconditional support” (一边倒), “the USSR as the head” (以苏联为首) and “the Soviet Union’s today is our tomorrow” (苏联的今天是我们的明天).
The phrase “Soviet Big Brother” first appeared sometime before 1949.
On February 14, 1950, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance (中苏友好同盟互助条约). It was Saint Valentine’s Day, and love was in the air.
Reporting the news of the treaty, the People’s Daily ran a photo of Stalin alongside a photo of Mao Zedong.
“We thank big brother, we study from big brother,” was a slogan commonly seen at the time. Another slogan was, “The Soviet Union’s today is our tomorrow.” Both appeared frequently in the newspapers.
In the very first edition of the People’s Liberation Army Daily (解放军报), published by the CCP’s Central Military Commission, the influence of the Soviet Union is clearly in evidence. An image at the top of the front page is of a Chinese soldier playing the accordion, an instrument introduced from Russia. Further down on the page, a soldier is pictured wearing a Soviet-style beret.
Shen Zhihua’s (沈志华) Outline of the History of Sino-Soviet Relations (中苏关系史纲) is essential reading for anyone delving into the history of the Sino-Russian relationship. Shen’s book makes clear that through the 1950s the Soviet Union rendered a great deal of assistance to China. This included military support for the Korean War, for economic recovery and large-scale economic development, and for scientific research and nuclear weapons development.