‘Face’ and Something ‘Delicious’

What Mao and Stalin’s first awkward meeting tells us about Xi Jinping’s confident trip to see Vladimir Putin.


In December 1949, Mao Zedong traveled to Moscow, for his first trip abroad. Three months earlier, perched high above a crowd of thousands in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Mao had announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The nascent country was yet unformed, and Mao thought it important to ensure that New China would stand on the right side of history: the Communist side. In this, Mao needed Joseph Stalin’s blessing and Soviet help.

Back then, China was in ruins after years of war, first with Japan, then with itself: it had little industry and infrastructure, even less science and technology; it had no navy, no air force but unspeakable poverty and rampant disease. Russia, though still recovering from wartime losses, had a modern industry, atomic weapons, and the ambitions of a superpower.

Mao wanted a treaty of alliance that would give China "face" on the international stage but also provide security guarantees against the United States, economic aid to rebuild and modernize the ruined Chinese economy, and military assistance to "liberate" Taiwan. According to Mao’s interpreter, present at the meeting, he told Stalin he wanted something that "looked good but also tasted delicious." Stalin was non-committal. He feared that closer relations with Mao could jeopardize Moscow’s postwar gains in the Far East and quite possibly lead to a U.S. intervention.

After the opening of the Russian archives in the early 1990s, the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (CWIHP) obtained declassified documents on the meetings between Mao and Stalin, publishing them in translation, with scholarly commentary, in successive issues of the CWIHP Bulletin to shed light, for the first time, on the making of the Sino-Soviet Alliance. Not all documents were declassified, and key evidence remains locked away in inaccessible archival vaults in Moscow as well as Beijing. This week, CWIHP has published additional documents on the Mao-Stalin cat-and-mouse game, and on the ups and downs of Sino-Soviet relations in the following years. These documents offer an interesting look behind the curtains of foreign policy decision making in China and Russia and provide clues for understanding where the Sino-Russian relationship is headed today.

After their first meeting at the Kremlin, Stalin refused to see Mao for days, leaving the Chinese chairman to vent his rage, privately, at a dacha outside Moscow. Mao had few options, but he did hint to the Soviets that if they did not want an alliance, he would look for friends elsewhere, perhaps in the West. Stalin relented at last and signed the treaty, though with quasi-colonial secret add-ons that guaranteed Soviet interests in Manchuria. Years later, Mao would complain about the "bitter fruits" he was forced to eat in Moscow.

Despite the bad taste left in Mao’s mouth, the signing of the Sino-Soviet treaty inaugurated technology transfer, and economic and military aid from the USSR to China on an unprecedented scale. Thousands of Soviet scientists and engineers came to China in the 1950s to help build up its industry, and tens of thousands of Chinese students (including future leaders Jiang Zemin and Li Peng) went to the Soviet Union to learn to forge steel and split the atom.

There are echoes of this historic meeting today: Like Mao, Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, also chose Russia as his first overseas destination after officially taking power in mid-March, though under dramatically different circumstances. China’s GDP easily dwarfs Russia’s, its industry is the workshop of the world, and its infrastructure makes Russia look like a Third World country. Now it is Xi who, this weekend, gave Vladimir Putin "face," praising Russia’s economic progress, Russian literature (of which he claimed to be an avid reader, contrary to Mao who preferred Chinese classics), and even Putin himself, with whom, Xi said, he shared character traits.

And this time it was Putin who wanted something "delicious" from this visit. He was only partially successful. Among the 35 agreements signed in Moscow on March 22-24 are deals to supply Russian oil, gas, coal, and electricity to China. This "energy dialogue" has helped boost bilateral trade to $88 billion in 2012 but has also made Russia an appendage of China’s industrial machine. In the meantime, Sino-Russian military cooperation has become a subject of serious controversy amid fears in Moscow that, due to China’s copying of Russian defense technology, such a program may lead to the loss of Russia’s preeminence in the one area it still enjoys a leading edge.

Efforts to go beyond energy and weapons made little progress. For instance, China and Russia agreed to protect migratory birds and cooperate in rabbit husbandry but this only serves to emphasize that, in economic terms, they still need the West much more than they need each other.

Putin and Xi have inherited a complicated relationship. The latest installment of documents released by the CWIHP highlights two legacies that continue to haunt the Sino-Russian relationship: the resentment of domination of one party by the other, and the pervasive presence of the third player at the table — the United States. "Do not tease the United States too much," Stalin’s personal envoy Anastas Mikoyan advised Mao in 1949, a piece of advice Putin and Xi would do well to remember.

And yet the relationship between China and Russia is closer than it has been at any time since the mid-1950s. The two countries coordinate on key international problems like Syria, Iran, and North Korea, and work closely in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — a regional forum long thought to be a paper tiger in the West but one that has proven surprisingly robust. Like in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union and China worked together in the hope of steering the Third World onto the socialist path, now Xi and Putin have sought to set the tone for the BRICS summit in South Africa (where they have gone after Moscow) in the spirit of subtly anti-American multi-polarity.

In June 1949, Mao famously announced that China would "lean to one side" in the Cold War — the Soviet side. Xi is nowhere near so unequivocal today. Marxist-Leninist solidarity is absent from the present-day relationship, and fortunately so, because divergent interpretations of Marxism contributed to the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s. But it would be wrong to overlook the ideological element that remains in today’s relationship between Beijing and Moscow. Just as in the 1950s, desire for more global influence at America’s expense and resentment against perceived U.S. meddling in domestic affairs of China and Russia is a cornerstone of the relationship.

This shared worldview is a product of different historical processes. The Communist Party’s claim to domestic legitimacy under Xi, no less than under Mao, rests on the promised deliverance of China from the shame of its "100 years of humiliation" — the period stretching from China’s 1842 defeat at the hands of the West in the First Opium War, to its struggles against the Japanese in World War II. Russia’s humiliation is more recent: born of defeat in the Cold War, it has produced a deeply felt resentment of the West. As brothers-in-humiliation — and, as leaders whose political legitimacy depends on the continued maintenance of the victim discourse — Xi and Putin need each ot
her’s support in rejecting increasingly loud domestic calls for political reform, as well as the Western criticism of the two countries’ human rights records. If there is any substance to the Sino-Russian strategic partnership today, it is this. 

When Mao met with Stalin in December 1949 to negotiate the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Alliance, he hardly had an inkling of what was in store: in 10 years’ time, this great alliance would be visibly crumbling; in another 10 years’ time, China and the Soviet Union would be fighting an undeclared border war. In the 1970s, the two countries built up massive military forces along their shared border. Both sought security in a better relationship with the United States, Mao with better results than the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev — whose efforts to convince U.S. President Richard Nixon of Beijing’s "exceptional perfidiousness" fell on deaf ears.

Then, the Soviets feared Sino-American cooperation but took comfort in the hope that, as the leading Soviet China hand Mikhail Kapitsa put it in 1982 (in newly released documents), "the Chinese never befriend anyone for a long time." In the early 1980s, Moscow was helped by Deng Xiaoping’s growing frustration with American weapons sales to Taiwan and restrictions on the export of U.S. technologies to the mainland — but the road to rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing was long and arduous.

When, in 1989, Deng Xiaoping met Mikhail Gorbachev to finally normalize relations, the new archive materials note that he told the Soviet president that the split between their two countries arose because "the Soviet Union incorrectly perceived China’s place in the world…. The essence of all problems was that we were unequal, that we were subjected to coercion and pressure."

The problem with the Sino-Russian relationship today is that it is still unequal, though now it is China that has the upper hand. China’s interest in Russian technology has diminished significantly, and Beijing now sets the terms of trade — as Moscow has found out in painful bargaining over the price of gas, a matter Xi’s visit left unresolved. But China’s deference to Russia on grand strategic concepts like multipolarity (and even its readiness to follow Moscow’s lead in forums like the U.N. Security Council) has lent the Sino-Russian strategic partnership a greater degree of cohesion than would otherwise be the case.

In one of his talks in Moscow during the latest visit, Xi Jinping announced that the "Chinese dream and the Russian dream coincide." Recently, Xi has had a lot to say about this dream of the "great renaissance of the Chinese nation." He has talked about creating a "prosperous" and "powerful" country while maintaining one-party rule under "socialism with Chinese characteristics." Xi has also promised that China will not strive towards international hegemony. This will be a hard sell with China’s worried neighbors.

Indeed, with Beijing acting ever more assertively in international affairs, and Russia losing leverage vis-à-vis its resurgent neighbor, even Putin will find it increasingly difficult to maintain alignment between his own global ambitions and those of his Chinese counterpart. Like Mao did in his time, Putin may yet taste the bitter fruits of leaning to one side.

Sergey Radchenko is a professor of international politics and director of research at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University. He is the author, most recently, of Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War. Twitter: @DrRadchenko

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