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Original artwork by Tse Yuet Ching. 

12:06 am | 25. July 2019

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.

By Qian Gang

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.”

QUICK TAKE

 

  • 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.

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Half century missing? A timeline of the Sino-Russia relationship at the official China Daily omits five decades on key developments. Screenshot from Chinadaily.com

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. 

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Stalin and Mao appear side-by-side on the front page of the People's Daily as it announces the Treaty of Friendship. 

“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.

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A book published in the 1950s is called "Soviet Big Brother." Not the centrality of the Russian figure, teaching his little brothers. 

China received substantial assistance in the form of equipment, aid and scientific and technical materials. In the twelve years from 1949, some 18,000 Soviet experts were sent to China. From 1953 to 1957, corresponding to China’s First Five-Year Plan, it was the recipient of roughly half of the total foreign aid the Soviet Union provided to other socialist countries. It is fair to say, in fact, that it was thanks only to the assistance of the Soviet Union that the First Five-Year Plan was achieved at all. 

But even at this time, the bilateral relationship was not all about brotherly love and friendship. From early on there was disagreement, suspicion and the contesting of respective interests. 

The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance came only with a great deal of arm wrestling between Stalin and Mao Zedong. Mao is said to have referred to his gaining of concessions from Stalin over the North Manchuria Railway and Port Arthur (present-day Dalian) in China’s northeast as “taking food straight from the tiger’s mouth” (虎口夺食). 

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The front page of thee first edition of the People’s Liberation Army Daily (解放军报) shows strong Russian influence, including this image of a soldier with a Soviet-style beret. 

But China also paid a steep price for Soviet assistance. Much of this cost came in human lives as the country was thrown into the conflict on the Korean Peninsula, in which nearly 200,000 Chinese lives were lost. The war itself was part of Stalin's grand strategy to lure the United States into war with China, and in this way to buy time to consolidate strength in the Soviet bloc against a possible future third world war. 

The honeymoon period in Sino-Soviet relations lasted just five years, from 1954 to 1958. Khrushchev’s assistance to China rose significantly during this period, and included assistance for China’s nuclear program. This of course was not only a matter of goodwill. Each warming of relations, and each wave of generosity, corresponded to resistance Khrushchev faced within the socialist camp and within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In such times, China’s support was beneficial, and support came with a price. 

In the July 5, 1957, edition of the People’s Daily we can find an important clue to the history unfolding at the time, with huge implications for the Soviet relationship with China. 

The headline of the July 5 article reads, “Resolution from the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party on the Malenkov, Kaganovich and Molotov Anti-Party Clique.” The article refers to the outcome of the failed ouster of Khruschev by hard-liners within the Communist Party who opposed his policy of de-Stalinization. The drama had unfolded through June, and China was rewarded for its support of Khrushchev by the relaxation of the Soviet Union’s guarded attitude toward sharing its nuclear know-how. 

But even at this time, the bilateral relationship was not all about brotherly love and friendship.

 

Mao Zedong acted quickly in Khruschev’s moment of need, publishing the full text of Khruschev’s resolution in the People’s Daily. Mao had, as we say in Chinese, delivered coal in the dead of winter. Khrushchev returned the favor by lending support to China’s nuclear program. The October after the coup attempt, China and the Soviet Union signed a protocol on nuclear power and “new weaponry.” This was happening even as US-Soviet negotiations over a possible agreement on nuclear disarmament were moving forward in the summer of 1957. 

The Sino-Soviet friendship was absolutely critical to China’s future at this juncture, and the sense of friendship among Russians and Chinese was deeply felt. Soviet culture poured into China, impacting a whole generation of Chinese. As Mao Zedong moved to purge so-called “rightists” in 1957, this included those who had dared criticize “Soviet Big Brother,” and a charge leveled at the time was “attacking the Soviet Union” (攻击苏联). The Soviet Union was acknowledged as having a leading role in the relationship, and this was reflected in the phrase “with the Soviet Union as the head” (以苏联为首), which often appeared in the news pages. 

Before long, however, Mao grew impatient with his role as the little brother. He yearned to find his own model for economic development that could break free of the Russian model suggested by Khrushchev and Malenkov, with its stress on heavy industry. 

By the second half of 1958, the brothers were growing apart. The honeymoon was coming to an end. 

“Khrushchev’s Revisionism” and China’s Homegrown Tragedy

The word “revisionism,” or xiuzheng zhuyi (修正主义), has a complex past. In the context of the international communist movement, it refers first to the efforts of German political theorist Eduard Bernstein and others to revise Marxist doctrine and some of its core ideas. After 1949, Chinese and Soviet communists alike criticized the “revisionism” of Earl Russell Browder, the leader of the Communist Party USA, and the “revisionism” of Josip Tito in Yugoslavia. One Christmas Day in 1956, the People’s Daily offered a definition of revisionism in a page-six article: “Revisionism is a philosophy held by reformists within the workers movement,” it said. In this case, being a reformist meant favoring gradual change over revolution. 

By the 1960s, it was Khrushchev’s turn to become a revisionist in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party -- and this marked the crucial next phase in the China-Russia relationship. 

Even during the honeymoon phase, Khrushchev and Mao constantly tested one another. Mao excelled at stirring up trouble and manufacturing tension. Before Mao shelled the Kinmen Islands during the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, he not only failed to inform Khrushchev but fostered the impression that this had been a strategy cooked up together with the Soviet Union. Each time Mao created drama that drew in the United States and the Soviet Union, Khrushchev had no choice but to voice his support for China. 

The basic lines of “Khrushchev revisionism” have been referred to in the West as “Khrushchevism” (赫鲁晓夫主义) — a reckoning of the tyranny of Stalin, an easing of tense relations with the West, and opposition to violent revolution in favor of “peaceful coexistence” (和平共处) or “peaceful competition” (和平竞赛). 

While Khrushchev's ideas were widely circulated in China, for example his collection of speeches called A World Without Weapons: A World Without War, they were a source of consternation for Mao Zedong. In the end, though, it was China’s own domestic politics, and not Khrushchev’s ideas directly, that lit the fuse on the bilateral relationship.

In 1958, Mao Zedong launched the folly of the Great Leap Forward (大跃进) and the people’s communes (人民公社) with a mind to militarizing Chinese society to achieve rapid economic progress. The result was the tragedy of the Great Chinese Famine. The Great Leap Forward was criticized within the Chinese Communist Party by the likes of Peng Dehuai (彭德怀), China’s defense minister, and criticism came internationally from the Soviet Union. 

As the criticism mounted at home and abroad in 1959, Mao Zedong found the situation unbearable.

In the fall of 1962, as Mao faced increasing pushback at home over his failed policies and talk of correcting the errors of the left, he struck back against his political opponents under the auspices of class struggle. In the realm of international affairs, he launched a relentless critique of "revisionism" that was essentially all about the preservation and consolidation of his own personal power.

Mao was a master at setting the agenda to his advantage. "Revisionism" became the hot button of political struggle he used to clear away his opponents and discredit his critics. 

In May 1963, Mao held a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Central Committee at which the theme was “opposing revisionism and preventing revisionism." On October 5, 1963, the abbreviated term “anti-revisionism,” or fanxiu (反修), appeared for the first time in the People’s Daily. The related term “preventing revisionism” (防修) appeared for the first time on February 13, 1964. 

Between September 6, 1963, and July 14, 1974, the People’s Daily and Red Flag magazine jointly ran nine official commentaries criticizing the “revisionism” of the Soviet Union. Collectively, these were called the “Nine Critiques” (九评). The last two of these criticized Khrushchev by name in headlines: “The Proletarian Revolution and the Revisionism of Khrushchev"; and “Concerning the False Communism of Khrushchev and its Historical Lessons." 

The casual European reader might think of nine commentaries as a casual thing. But that would be a mistake. In the Chinese political context, discourse is weaponized. It is regarded -- particularly if it comes from core media -- as something serious, and as such it can have serious consequences. This is something we might bear close in mind, in fact, concerning the recent nine-part commentary series issues by the People's Daily on the trade war with the United States. 

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Khrushchev is criticized as a revisionist in a prominent headline in the People's Daily

The way things work in China, whoever becomes the object of criticism is swiftly submerged in the sewage of discourse. 

After 1963, the image of the Soviet Union in China becomes loathsome and disgusting. Even in primary school classrooms from that point you have teachers telling their pupils that the reason Chinese are now so desperate is because the Soviet Union has forced us to repay loans. 

According to Shen Zhihua, he was able to find no records in his research whatsoever of the Soviet Union seeking repayment of debts from China. 

But such facts of course did not stop the vicious trail of bile in the People's Daily and other publications.

There can be little doubt that the open rhetorical aggression against “Khrushchev’s revisionism” was a dress rehearsal for the terror of the Cultural Revolution.

 

"Revisionism," Khrushchev's supposed crime, became an indictment turned on all of Mao's enemies. And it was China, as always, that suffered the lashes most painfully. By 1966, the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution was destroying lives as the country descended into chaos. Mao's fury against “Khrushchev revisionism” was being turned on his own people as violent class struggle was used to eliminate so-called revisionists who opposed him. 

During the Cultural Revolution, Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇), then formally China’s head of state, was purged and and died under extreme persecution. For a time through 1967 and 1968, Liu was not openly mentioned as target, but referred to instead as “China’s Khrushchev” (中国的赫鲁晓夫), as you can see from this article in Guangming Daily appearing on April 8, 1967, which is called “Criticizing and Purging China’s Khrushchev.” By the end of 1968, we can see Liu openly attacked as “Revisionist Liu” (刘修).

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Public domain image of Liu Shaoqi. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There can be little doubt that the open rhetorical aggression against “Khrushchev’s revisionism” was a dress rehearsal for the terror of the Cultural Revolution. And in this sense, Sino-Russian relations had at this stage a chilling domestic component for China. 

These words are sounded again and again, like alarm bells, driving a whole generation of Chinese forward into the surging tide of the Cultural Revolution.

“Imperial socialism” and Unease on the Borders

The marriage of two words held by orthodoxy to be mortal enemies, socialism and imperialism, marks the next historical phase in China’s relationship with Russia. The words came together in the People’s Daily in 1968 with the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to put an end to the wave of liberalization known as the Prague Spring. 

“Imperial socialism” (社会帝国主义) was born as a dominant phrase circumscribing China’s relations with the Soviet Union. 

The phrase had in fact been used in the past to criticize social democratic parties in Western countries that, according to critics in China, “flew the flag of socialism while supporting imperialism." But in the late 1960s, we had not really heard the phrase in China, because it was rarely used. When it began appearing quite regularly, in radio broadcasts for example, it seemed a shock and surprise. I personally remember this period very well. 

In the March 1969 Zhenbao Island Incident (珍宝岛爆发边界武装冲突), Soviet and Chinese troops clashed along the Sino-Soviet border in China’s Heilongjiang province. The following front page of the People’s Liberation Army Daily, which reports on the incident, has a very special connection for me — because this was in fact my first day as a soldier in the PLA.

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The first edition of the People's Liberation Army Daily, published on March 5, 1969. 

In the barracks that day, the news erupted like a volcano. At dinner that night, we all came together in the mess hall, my new comrades chattering in local dialects from Henan, Jiangsu and Anhui. All of us were in an uproar, huddled at the center of the room, where we craned our necks to read the petition for war (请战书) and the line, “Overthrow the revisionism of Soviet imperial socialism!” The slogans seemed to shake the roof, and I felt certain at the time that we would be sent to the front lines the next day. 

On August 13, 1969, another conflict occurred on the border of Xinjiang between Chinese and Soviet troops. Below is the front page of the People’s Daily the day after, with a large headline that reads: “The Government of Our Country Registers Severe Opposition With the Soviet Government.” The smaller headline above reads: “The Soviet government directed the Soviet army to intrude upon our Tielieketi region in Xinjiang and create another bloody incident.” 

This time the PLA paid a heavy price, with scores of casualties. The mood within the barracks this time around was far more solemn than it had been during the Zhenbao Island Incident. There was a feeling that full-scale war could happen at any moment. 

A few months later, on January 1, 1970, the New Year’s editorial in the People's Daily was called “Welcome to the Great 1970s” (迎接伟大的七十年代). It relayed Mao’s latest direction: “The people of the entire world must unite to oppose any war of invasion by imperialism, or by imperial socialism, and [we must] especially oppose wars of invasion using nuclear bombs as weapons! If such wars occur, the people of the entire world must use a war of revolution to annihilate the war of invasion, and from this point on we must be prepared!” 

By 1970, the Soviet Union had surpassed the United States as China’s most dangerous enemy. The Party-run media used a whole range of new phrases to describe our former big brother. 

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Marshal Lin Biao, who died in a mysterious plane crash in 1971. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The authorities in the Soviet Union were “new czars.” They exploited notions of “limited sovereignty” to seek “international dictatorship,“ bullying China’s “little brothers” in Eastern Europe on the slightest pretext. They used agencies like the dreaded KGB, the Soviet secret service, to terrorize their own population, practicing “fascist socialism” (社会法西斯主义). 

China was still at this time deeply mired in the Cultural Revolution at home. And Mao Zedong apparently saw no irony in turning this charge of “fascist socialism” around on those within the Chinese Communist Party who opposed him, or on members of society who resisted tyranny at home. 

Shortly after the sudden death of Mao’s closest ally and chosen successor, Lin Biao (林彪) in a suspicious plane crash on the night of September 12–13, 1971, a campaign was initiated against Lin, during which the Chinese Communist Party released what was portrayed as the Lin’s master plan for a coup d’état — the so-called “Minutes of Project 571” (五七一工程纪要). This text was a draft plan seized from the air force in the wake of Lin’s death in an aircraft explosion as he attempted to flee China for the Soviet Union with his family.

The notebook read more like a political pamphlet than a carefully thought-out military plan. Most of it, in fact, criticized the policies of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s leadership. Quite contrary to Mao’s intention, which was to uphold the notebook as proof of Lin’s treachery, the words resonated with many Chinese, including educated youth who had been sent down into the countryside"

Their socialism is actually a socialist-fascism 
They turn the state apparatus into a meat grinder of mutual slaughter and mutual discord
They turn the political life of the Party and the nation into something more like a life of patriarchal and feudal tyranny

The socialist-fascism referred to in “Minutes of Project 571” quite accurately described, in fact, the prevailing political climate at the time in China. 

The phrase “imperial socialism” emerged in the People’s Daily in 1968 and can be found all the way through to 1982, into the reform era, a history of 14 years. 

Reform and New Ideas

When China went to war in Vietnam in 1979, I was a journalist on the front lines, where I closely observed the maneuvers of the Soviet Union. This was a ground war with air cover in which the loss of human life was severe — and whenever our planes went airborne and crossed the Vietnamese border this drew an immediate response from the Soviets and brought an escalation in the fighting.

But it wouldn't be too long before things shifted once again. In 1982, the People’s Daily still used the term “imperial socialism” to refer to the Soviet Union, but China’s domestic economy was undergoing a radical transformation, and changes were also on the way in the Soviet Union. Within four years, three Soviet general secretaries died in quick succession — Leonid Brezhnev in November 1982, Yuri Andropov in February 1984, and Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985— paving the way for Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power. 

By the second half of the 1980s, rather dramatic changes were underway in both countries that coaxed them back toward a normalization of relations and a setting aside of ideological rivalries .

 

By the second half of the 1980s, rather dramatic changes were underway in both countries that coaxed them back toward a normalization of relations and a setting aside of ideological rivalries . The new word was “reform” (改革). 

In China's official Party media, the role of reform as a magnetic force in the relationship was played down somewhat. The majority of reports in China dealt with the formalities and dry business of mutual state visits and negotiations. In the intellectual sphere, however, the exchange of information and ideas about reform was lively to point of being electric — and this was something I personally experienced. 

In 1987, I made a visit to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation of Chinese writers. The very first issue of the magazine Reportage (报告文学), published in 1988, includes my account of the trip. The title of my piece, using both Russian and Chinese, was simply: “Reform.” 

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"Reform: Autumn 1987 in the Soviet Union," Qian Gang's essay for the inaugural edition of the magazine Reportage

1987 marked the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution. That year, Gorbachev wrote his book Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, which in Chinese was simply Reform and New Thinking (改革与新思维). 

China’s reform and the Soviet reform were like paintings in different styles. What particularly interested Chinese intellectuals at the time was how the Soviet Union was engaging in a process of top-down political relaxation. For journalists like me, this also included the slogan of glasnost, or “openness” (公开性), and the relaxing of restrictions on speech.

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Russian's gather outside the offices of the Moscow News to read the newspaper in 1987. Photo by Qian Gang. 

The courageous weekly Moscow News (莫斯科新闻) was at the time referred to as the “flagship of reforms” (改革的旗舰). I cautiously raised the idea of paying a visit to their newsroom, and I was certain at first that this request would have to make its way through layer upon bureaucratic layer. Much to my surprise, I phoned them and has an answer within 30 minutes: of course they would be happy to welcome me! 

Outside of their office, I took the following photograph, later included with my article in Reportage

The people here are gathered around a newspaper bulletin board reading a report called “Gorbachev’s Three Crises” (戈尔巴乔夫的三个危机). The author wrote it with an attitude of discussion and criticism. The whole scene had a powerful effect on me. 

Many years later I would say to my colleagues at Southern Weekly, an outspoken newspaper in Guangzhou that epitomized the reform spirit, that my fondest hope as a journalist was that we might be able to run articles that deliberated directly with leaders, looking them eye-to-eye, with titles like “Three Difficulties Facing Comrade Jiang Zemin.“ 

When the People’s Daily reported on Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, its treatment was rather lukewarm.

The meeting in Beijing between Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping on May 16, 1989, symbolized that the Soviet Union and China had finally “ended the past and opened the future” (结束过去,开辟未来). Relations between the two countries were normalized. 

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An article in the People's Daily on October 29, 1987, look at Gorbachev's book Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World.

Aside from discussions of the relationship, these two reform leaders had a discussion about reform. But given the intensity of the pro-democracy movement unfolding not far from the meeting venue, and growing more intense by the day, the dialogue about reform was drowned out. 

We know from Gorbachev's memoirs and from a passage in Deng's collected writings called "Ending the Past, Opening the Future," that Deng raised his views on Marxism-Leninism during the dialogue, something Gorbachev did not anticipate. Deng emphasized that it had been more than 100 years since the birth of Marxism. The world had undergone dramatic change, he said, and new conditions had emerged in the various countries of the world. Marx would be unable to resolve many of the questions that had emerged since his death  — nor would Lenin have been able to supply answers.

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Deng Xiaoping and Gorbachev appear on the front page of the People's Daily on May 19, 1989. 

Deng also talked about political reform. In the final line of  "Ending the Past, Opening the Future," Deng confides to Gorbachev that his has still been unable to achieve "the abolishment of the lifetime tenure for leaders (领导职务终身制), and this remains an important problem for the system.” Deng meant, for those unfamiliar with this concept, that China needed to do away with the over-concentration of power in the hands of a single leader who ruled until their death  — an important lesson coming out of the Cultural Revolution. What was needed instead was an orderly system of succession. 

But aside from the records left behind by Deng and Gorbachev, we have an account of the reform dialogue from a third source, Pravda reporter Vsevolod Ovchinnikov (欧福钦), who accompanied Gorbachev during the visit. Ovchinnikov recalls: 

For that historic visit between Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, I had not been asked to leave the meeting hall. I heard Gorbachev say: ‘Comrade Deng Xiaoping, I believe we should use a bulldozer to utterly eliminate this kind of political system, and from the beginning establish a market economy! If we don’t do this, all of the reform we have carried out will be buried in the sand.” Deng Xiaoping listened carefully to what he had to say and then responded: “I don’t entirely agree with you, Mr. Gorbachev. We are traveling right now along a bumpy country road, and that is the planned economy. Two miles out we can see a modern highway — the market economy. To get ourselves onto that road, we must spend a bit more time jolting along this muddy path, and so letting go of the steering wheel is not an option.” 

This account comes from an interview with Ovchinnikov by a reporter for Russia's Neva Times, which is titled, “We Must Have a Steering Wheel.”

In the Spring and Summer of 1989, the interpreter who had accompanied me on my visit to the Soviet Union, Youla (尤拉), was studying in Beijing. Worried about my situation in the midst of the unease in the capital, he sought me out everywhere. Finally, a few days later, he found me, and said: “Soon, the tanks will enter Moscow . . . “

It was two years before his prediction came true. On August 19, 1991, hardliners within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union staged a coup against the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev. In the People’s Daily, the headline read: “Soviet Vice-President Yanayev Issues Edict Announcing Termination of Gorbachev Presidency.”

Below the main headline was a sub-head that made China’s sympathies clear. “According to the Soviet Constitution, Yanayev to Assume Presidency,” it read. But China's Party-run media were jumping the gun. 

“Seven tanks were stopped 100 meters away, at the head of the bridge leading over the Moscow River,” Sheng Shiliang (盛世良), the Moscow correspondent for Xinhua News Agency, later recalled. “But it seemed that things weren’t quite right . . . . The flags on the tanks were red, white and blue, rather than red with the hammer and sickle. When I asked the soldiers on the tanks what was going on, they said that the night before Lieutenant General Lebed had ordered them to change out the flags.” 

“We realized at the bureau,” Sheng recalled, “that this situation was not what they had predicted back home.” 

““When the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin, we quickly made our way to Red Square. But it was like nothing had happened at all, even though in fact a nation had vanished. We had already guessed this outcome, but the nonchalant attitude of the Soviet people still greatly surprised us.” ”

Wang Chengcai, former Moscow bureau chief for Xinhua

“On December 25, [1991], when Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union, no one found it strange, and no one felt dejected,” former Moscow bureau chief for Xinhua, Wang Chengcai (万成才) later said. “Everyone was calm.”

“When the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin, we quickly made our way to Red Square. But it was like nothing had happened at all, even though in fact a nation had vanished. We had already guessed this outcome, but the nonchalant attitude of the Soviet people still greatly surprised us.” 

Gorbachev’s “reform and new ideas” lasted for just three years in the People’s Daily, from 1987 to 1989. After this, Gorbachev’s name appeared only sporadically in the newspaper, and some of the relevant articles sharply criticized his “new ideas,” drawing painful lessons from the “death of Party and country” the Soviet Union had experienced, from the official Chinese perspective. Those within the Chinese Communist Party who were in support of dictatorship naturally viewed Gorbachev as a figure to be opposed, and his lessons as a negative force demanding resistance. 

Strategic Partnership

Between 1989 and 2005, a total of six joint communiques (联合公报) were issued for the Sino-Soviet and Sino-Russia relationship. The keywords used in each of these tell us a great deal about the development of the relationship during the period. 

In 1989, the operative term was “normalization” (正常化). In 1991, this became “friendship, neighborly relations and mutually beneficial cooperation” (友好,睦邻,互利合作). In 1996, 1998 and 2005, the phrase of greatest significance was “strategic partnership” (战略协作伙伴关系). 

In 2001, Jiang Zemin made and official visit to Russia, where he signed the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Relations (中俄睦邻友好合作条约) with Vladimir Putin. The treaty, which was published in full in the People’s Daily on July 17, 2001, resolved long-standing border disputes between the two countries. 

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In April 1996, the People’s Daily reports a “joint statement” from China and Russia on friendly relations, as Jiang Zemin and Yeltsin meet in Beijing.

Li Fenglin (李凤林), China’s Ambassador to Russia at the time, stated, according to An Outline of the History of Sino-Soviet Relations: “The Tsardom of Russia occupied a large portion of Chinese territory through unequal treaties . . . Even though the treaties determining the border between China and the Soviet Union were unequal, the Chinese side will still conscientiously resolve the border question on the basis of these treaties, and will not demand the return of 1.5 million square kilometers of territory invaded and occupied by Russia. The border question has now been thoroughly resolved, and historical questions will no longer trouble Sino-Russian relations.”

The People’s Daily reported on July 14, 2002, that the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Relations was fundamentally different from the alliance represented by the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty (中苏友好同盟互助条约) signed in the 1950s, emphasizing strategic cooperation but “not representing an alliance, not opposing and not directed at any third country." The most important “third country” referred of course to the United States.

“Even though the treaties determining the border between China and the Soviet Union were unequal, the Chinese side will still conscientiously resolve the border question on the basis of these treaties, and will not demand the return of 1.5 million square kilometers of territory invaded and occupied by Russia.”

Li Fenglin (李凤林), Chinese Ambassador to Russia

In 1997-1998, thanks to the Sino-US Joint Statement signed on October 29, 1997, during the Clinton presidency, “constructive strategic partnership” became a buzzword in US-China relations. During the presidency of George W. Bush, however, China was identified as a “strategic competitor,” dialing down the temperature in US-China relations. Meanwhile, warming relations between China and Russia caused surprise — and in some quarters, alarm. By 2007, the word “comprehensive” (全面) had been added to “strategic partnership,” 

Since the rise of Xi Jinping in late 2012, the question of leadership personalities has also been a strong factor in the Sino-Russian relationship. This surfaced in the Chinese media in March 2013 as Xi Jinping made his first official trip to Russia as China’s top leader, and Russian media reported that Xi had said to Putin, “My personality is very like yours.”

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A story from the Jilu Evening News on March 25, 2013, appearing on the China Youth Online website, reports that Xi told Putin that they have similar personalities. 

In September 2016, more than a month before Party-run media in China started formally referring to Xi Jinping as the Party’s “core,” (以……为核心), Putin and Xi met again at the G20 leaders summit in Hangzhou. Xi Jinping said on the occasion that “China and Russia must more closely strengthen comprehensive strategic cooperation.” 

The “[Sino-Russian] strategic partnership,” dating back to 1996, has now been used in the People’s Daily for 22 years, longer than any of the themes I mentioned at the outset. There has been some talk in Russian sources of a possible “political and military alliance” (政治军事同盟) between the countries, and this talk has been mentioned in a number of Chinese sources as well (see the China.com report below). If that were to become a reality, then the caveat that this does not amount to a formal alliance  — which is included in the 2001 Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Relations set to expire in 2021 — would be a thing of the past.

Will the sparrows come home to roost? Are we headed toward a new closeness in the Sino-Russian relationship, recalling the brotherhood of the 1950s?

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A report at China.com about Xi and Putin meeting at the G20 in 2016 alludes to talk of a possible "alliance." 

There has been a great deal of speculation in recent weeks and months about the possible formation of a Russia-China axis. A Pentagon study released in May this year referred to this possibility as a "reverse Nixon"  — essentially undoing the decoupling US President Richard Nixon achieved with his 1972 visit to China  — and noted that its implications would be profound. "The world system, and American influence in it, would be completely upended if Moscow and Beijing aligned more closely," it said. 

These concerns were highlighted in July, as a joint Sino-Russian long-range patrol over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, the first exercise of its kind, risked drawing a military response from Japan and South Korea. Many viewed this as a test of security cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea. Joint military exercises, such as the Vostock war games in 2018, held in Russia's Far East just across the border from China's Heilongjiang province, have worried European countries, in particular those Baltic countries previously within the Soviet sphere of influence. 

The warming friendship around the shared personalities of Putin and Xi, and ongoing trade tensions between China and the United States, certainly suggests an alliance as one possibility. But as our brief review has shown, the history of Sino-Russian relations has been at least as much about conflict as it has been about friendship and mutual feeling. Things have never been easy  — which is why Chinese state media have gone to such pains to adapt and embellish 70 years of history. 

China and Russia are drawn together for the time being by their mutual efforts to oppose the United States, and China can still benefit, though less and less, from certain areas of Russian military expertise and weapons technology. But there will be deep and lingering tensions between the partners over such issues as borders and resources, to say nothing of China's huge ambitions across Central Asia.

As ever, personality could be an issue too. At one brief point in history, China was content to be the "little brother." But even with a return to closeness, the tables may have turned. With a GDP of 13.6 trillion dollars in 2018, China's economy is more than eight times the size of Russia's. By purchasing-power parity, China's economy is six times larger, and this gap will likely only widen, the trade war with the United States notwithstanding. In its most recent issue, The Economist asks whether the China-Russia relationship is shaping up as a partnership, or whether "Russia is evolving into a Chinese tributary." That is a suggestion a personality like Putin is sure to view with displeasure.

 

25. July 2019
Author
Qian Gang

Qian Gang is a veteran Chinese journalist and media scholar whose career spans the reform era. Starting his journalism career in the late 1970s at a reporter for the People’s Liberation Army Daily, Mr. Qian was later managing editor of Southern Weekly, a leading professional newspaper of the reform period. He is currently co-director of the China Media Project, a research and fellowship program in partnership with the University of Hong Kong's Journalism & Media Studies Centre.