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The Sino–Soviet split was the gradual worsening of relations between the People's Republic of Chinamarker (PRC) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republicsmarker (USSR) during the Cold War (1945–91). Since 1956, the countries had (secretly) been diverging ideologically, and, beginning in 1961, the Chinese Communists formally denounced “The Revisionist Traitor Group of Soviet Leadership." In the 1960s, this intellectual divergence became critical, continuing until the late 1980s — yet was rendered moot with the USSR’s disestablishment in 1991. Their doctrinal divergence owed as much to Chinese and Russian national interest, as with the régimes’ interpretative Marxist ideologies.


The Sino–Soviet split: Communist state alignments, pro-USSR (red); pro-PRC (yellow); and the non-aligned North Korea and Yugoslavia (black).

The roots of the Sino–Soviet split lie in the 1940s, when according to the CCP the Communist Party of China, led by Mao Zedong, conducted a war of resistance (Second Sino-Japanese War) (1939–45) against the Empire of Japanmarker, whilst simultaneously fighting the Nationalist Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, in the Chinese Civil War. Mao ignored most of the politico-military advice and direction from Stalin and the Comintern on conducting the Chinese revolution — because applying (traditional) Leninist revolutionary theory proved difficult, because, unlike Russia, China had no great urban working class, thus he organized the peasants and farmers to fight the Chinese Revolution.

During the Second World War (1939–45) Stalin had urged Mao into a joint, anti-Japanese coalition with Chiang. After the war, Stalin advised Mao against seizing power, and to negotiate with Chiang, because Stalin had signed a Treaty of Friendship and Alliance with the Nationalists in mid-1945; Mao abided Stalin, calling him “the only leader of our party”. Unwisely, Chiang Kai-Shek insisted to Stalin about the USSR’s illegal occupation of Tannu Uriankhai, in northern Mongolia; Stalin broke the treaty requiring Soviet withdrawal from Manchuria three months after Japan’s surrender, and gave Manchuria to Mao. Moreover, besides the land, Stalin gave the Chinese Communists some $1 billion in matériel and aid to help expel the Nationalists from continental China, and to establish the People's Republic of Chinamarker (1 October 1949); yet Tannu Uriankhai remained Soviet. Soon afterwards, however, a two-month Moscowmarker visit by Mao culminated in the Sino–Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance (1950), which comprised a $300 million low-interest loan and a 30-year military alliance.

Simultaneously, however, Beijing had begun trying to supplant Moscow as the ideological leader of the world Communist movement. Mao (and supporters) had promoted the idea that Asian and world communist movements should emulate China’s model of peasant revolution, not Russia’s model of urban revolution. In 1947, Mao gave US journalist Anna Louise Strong documents, directing her to “show them to Party leaders in the United States and Europe”, but he did not think it “necessary to take them to Moscow”. Earlier, she had written the article “The Thought of Mao Tse-Tung” and the book Dawn Out of China, reporting that his intellectual accomplishment was “to change Marxism from a European to an Asiatic form . . . in ways of which neither Marx nor Lenin could dream” — which the Soviet government banned in the USSR. Years later, at the first international Communist conclave in Beijing, Mao advocate Liu Shaoqi praised the “Mao Tse-tung road” as the correct road to communist revolution, warning it was incorrect to follow any other road; moreover, he praised neither Stalin nor the Soviet communist model, as had been the practice among Communists. Yet, with politico-military tensions at crisis in the Korean Peninsula, and fear of US military intervention there, geopolitical circumstances disallowed the USSR and the PRC any ideological split, hence their alliance endured.

During the 1950s, Soviet-guided China followed the Soviet model of centralized economic development, emphasising heavy industry, and delegating consumer goods to secondary priority; however, by the late 1950s, Mao had developed different ideas for how China could directly advance to the communist stage of Socialism (per the Marxist denotation), through the mobilization of China’s workers. In the event, this progressed to the Great Leap Forward (1958–61).

After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 there was a temporary revival of Sino-Soviet friendship; thus, in 1954, the Soviets calmed Mao with an official visit by Premier Khrushchev that featured the formal hand-over of the Lüshunmarker (Port Arthur) naval base to the PRC. The Soviets provided technical aid in 156 industries in China’s first five-year plan, and 520 million rubles in loans; thus at the Geneva Conference of 1954, the PRC and the USSR mutually persuaded the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh, to temporarily accept the West’s division of Vietnammarker at the 17th parallel north.

Premier Khrushchev’s post-Stalin policies began to irritate Mao; despite not dissenting when Khruschev denounced Stalin with The Personality Cult and its Consequences secret speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956; nor when he restored relations with Yugoslaviamarker, led by Tito, whom Stalin had denounced in 1947. These occurrences shocked Mao, who had supported Stalin ideologically and politically, because Khrushchev was dismantling Mao’s support of the USSR with public rejections of most of Stalin’s leadership and actions — such as announcing the end of the Cominform, and (most troubling to Mao), de-emphasising the core Marxist-Leninist thesis of inevitable war between capitalism and socialism. Resultantly, contradicting Stalin, Khrushchev was advocating the idea of “Peaceful Coexistence”, between communist and capitalist nations — which directly challenged Mao’s “lean-to-one-side” foreign policy, adopted after the Chinese Civil War, when he feared direct Imperial Japanese or US military intervention, the circumstances that pragmatically required a Sino–Soviet alliance. In de-Stalinizing the USSR, Khrushchev was dissolving the condition that had made the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship (1950) attractive to China. Mao thought that the Soviets were retreating ideologically and militarily — from Marxism-Leninism and the global struggle to achieve global communism, and by apparently no longer guaranteeing support to China in a Sino–American war; therefore, the roots of the Sino–Soviet ideological split were established by 1959.


In 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev met with US President Dwight Eisenhower (1953–61) to decrease Russo–American tensions and with the Western world in the Cold War. Moreover, the USSR was alarmed by the Great Leap Forward; had reneged on aiding Chinese nuclear weapons development, and refused to side with them in the Sino-Indian War (1962), by maintaining a moderate relation with Indiamarker — actions offensive to Mao as Chinese Leader. Hence, he perceived Khrushchev as too-conciliatory with the West, despite Soviet prudence in international politics that threatened nuclear warfare (i.e. the US and USSR were nuclear powers by the late 1950s), wherein the USSR managed superpower confrontations such as the status of post-war Berlinmarker.

Chinese domestic politics also contributed to the Sino–Soviet split; the Great Leap Forward had failed, killing millions of Chinese, for which Mao’s rivals, Liu Shaoqi (State Chairman) and Deng Xiaoping (Communist Party General Secretary) plotted his deposition — which Mao astutely thwarted by portraying them as agents of a foreign power (the USSR) by mobilising Chinese nationalism behind his leadership as Chairman.

Communist nemeses: Chairman Mao and Premier Khrushchev, at road’s end.

At first, the Sino–Soviet split manifest itself indirectly; polemics between the CPSU and the CPC crticized each others pupils — China denounced Tito, Russia denounced Enver Hoxha, leader of the People's Socialist Republic of Albania; but, in 1960, they directly criticized each other in the Romanian Communist Party congress, when Khrushchev and Peng Zhen openly quarrelled. Premier Khrushchev insulted Chairman Mao Zedong as “a nationalist, an adventurist, and a deviationist”. In turn, Mao insulted Khrushchev as a Marxist revisionist, crtitcizing him as “patriarchal, arbitrary and tyrannical”. In follow-up, Khrushchev denounced China with an eighty-page letter to the conference.

In November 1960, at a congress of 81 Communist parties in Moscow, the Chinese quarrelled with the Russians and with most other Communist party delegations — yet compromised to avoid a formal ideologic splitting; nonetheless, in October 1961, at the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union they again quarrelled openly. In December, the USSR severed diplomatic relations with the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, graduating the Russo–Chinese ideologic dispute from between political parties to between nation-states.

In 1962, the PRC and the USSR broke relations because of their international actions; Chairman Mao criticized Premier Khrushchev for withdrawing from fighting the US in the Cuban missile crisis (1962) —“Khrushchev has moved from adventurism to capitulationism”; Khrushchev replied that Mao’s confrontational policies would provoke a nuclear war. Simultaneously, the USSR sided with India against China in the Sino-Indian War (1962). Each régime followed these actions with formal ideological statements; in June 1963, the PRC published The Chinese Communist Party’s Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement [44268], and the USSR replied with an Open Letter of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; [44269] these were the final, formal communications between the two Communist parties. Furthermore, by 1964, Chairman Mao asserted that a counter-revolution in the USSR had there re-established capitalism; consequently, the Chinese and Russian Communist parties broke relations, and the Warsaw Pact Communist parties followed Soviet suit.

After Leonid Brezhnev deposed Premier Khrushchev in October 1964, the Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai travelled to Moscow, in November, to speak with the new leaders of the USSR, Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin, but returned disappointed to China, reporting to Mao that the Soviets remained firm; undeterred, Chairman Mao denounced “Khrushchevism without Khrushchev”, continuing the polemical warfare.

From words to war

In the mid-1960s, the Sino-Soviet split was an international relations fact that imbalanced the (original) bipolar Russo–American configuration with which the Cold War had begun in 1945, because the People’s Republic of China openly competed against the USSR for the leadership of the international Communist movement; the Cold War had become tripolar.

Meant to re-establish his sole leadership of China, Mao’s launching of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) first aggravated, then severed PRC–USSR relations, and relations among the PRC and most of the Western world. Nevertheless, communist pragmatism allowed the USSR and the PRC to aid the Vietnamese communists, led by Hồ Chí Minh. The Chinese permitted Soviet matériel across China to North Vietnam, to aid the prosecuting of war efforts against South Vietnam, in the Vietnam War (1945–75). In that time, among communists, besides the Albanians, the only significant support for the PRC philosophic line of peasant revolution was the Communist Party of Indonesia, (itself destroyed during a coup d'état, in 1965); nevertheless, Maoist communist parties arose in many such countries.

Since 1956, less than a decade, the Sino-Soviet ideological split, between political parties, had decayed into warfare between states; by January 1967, Red Guards had besieged the Soviet Embassy in Beijing. Despite unbroken formal diplomatic ties, PRC–USSR relations froze in practice. In that context, the PRC then raised the matter of the Sino–Soviet territorial frontier — realised, in the nineteenth century, with unequal Tsaristmarker treaties imposed upon an impotent Qing Dynastymarker monarchy, tantamount to annexation. Although demanding no territory, the Chinese insisted upon Soviet acknowledgement of that historic Russian injustice against China committed with the Treaty of Aigun (1858) and the Convention of Peking (1860); the Soviets ignored the matter.

Two years later, by 1968, the ideological purges that the Red Guards were effecting to restore political correctness, had reduced parts of China to near-civil war — a crisis partly stabilized with Chairman Mao’s ordering the People's Liberation Army to restore civil order, by suppressing “lawless” Red Guards; Mao Zedong again was sole leader of China. Thereafter, the ideological excesses of the Guards and the Cultural Revolution gradually declined; one reason was his awareness that the PRC’s global political isolation had rendered China strategically and militarily vulnerable.

Meantime, during 1968, the Soviet Army had amassed along the 4,380 km (2,738 mi.) frontier with China — especially at the Xinjiang border, in north-west China, where Turkic separatists might easily be induced to insurrection. Earlier, in 1961, the USSR had some 12 half-strength divisions and 200 aircraft at that border, seven years later, at the end of 1968, they had 25 divisions, 1,200 aircraft, and 120 medium-range missiles deployed there. Moreover, although China had exploded its first nuclear weapon in October 1964, at the Lop Nurmarker basin, the PLA was militarily inferior to the Soviet Army.

In March 1969, political border tensions metamorphosed into armed raids, at the Ussuri River and on Damansky IslandmarkerZhenbao Islandmarker; more (small-scale) warfare followed in August. Observers of international relations predicted inter-communist war; in The Coming War Between Russia and China (1969), US journalist Harrison Salisbury reported that Soviet sources implied a possible first strike against the Lop Nurmarker basin nuclear test site; and military documents of the time indicate that the USSR had more nuclear-attack plans against China than against the US. Aware of that possibility, China built large-scale underground shelters; Beijing’s Underground Citymarker was for protecting a large portion of the civil populace; military tunnels, the Underground Project 131marker command center, were built in Hubeimarker.

After the 1969 clashes, the Communist combatants withdrew from full-scale war. In September, Minister Alexei Kosygin secretly visited Beijing to speak with Premier Zhou Enlai; in October, the PRC and the USSR began border-demarcation talks. Although fruitless, those talks restored minimal diplomatic communication, and, by 1970, Chairman Mao Zedong understood that the PRC could not simultaneously confront the USSR and the USA, and suppress internal disorder. During that year, when the Vietnam War was at its worst, and Chinese anti-American rhetoric at its zenith, Mao perceived that China’s geographic neighbors, the Soviets, were the greater threat, and thus sought a pragmatic rapprochement with the US, in confronting the USSR.

In July 1971, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly visited Beijing to prepare President Richard Nixon’s head-of-state visit to China, in February 1972. Moreover, the diplomatically offended Soviet Union also convoked a summit meeting with President Nixon, thus establishing the triangular Washington–Beijing–Moscow diplomatic relationship, which underscored the contemporary tripolar nature of the Cold War — occasioned by the Sino–Soviet split begun in 1956.

Cold War nemeses: Chairman Mao and President Richard Nixon meet, in 1972.

Concerning the 4,380 km (2,738 mi.) USSR–PRC border, the Soviet government replied with counter-propaganda against the PRC’s drawing attention to the unequal character of the Treaty of Aigun (1858) and the Convention of Peking (1860). Moreover, in cultural disrespect to China’s legitimate historic territorial claims, between 1972 and 1973, the Soviets erased the Chinese and Manchu place-names — Iman (伊曼, Yiman), Tetyukhe (from 野猪河, yĕzhūhé), and Suchan — from the Soviet Far East map, and replaced them with the Russian place-names Dalnerechenskmarker, Dalnegorskmarker, and Partizanskmarker. In the Stalinist tradition, the pre–1860 Chinese presence in the lands Russia acquired with the Tsarist Treaty of Aigun and the Convention of Peking, became a politically incorrect, taboo non-subject in the Soviet news media, “inconvenient” museum exhibits were removed from public view, and the Jurchen-script text about the Jin Dynasty stele, supported by a stone tortoise in the Khabarovskmarker Museum, was covered with cement.

In the 1970s, Sino-Soviet rivalry extended to Africa and the Middle East, where each Communist superpower, the People’s Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, funded and supported political parties, armed movements, and states, vis-à-vis the Ogaden War (1977–78) between Ethiopia and Somalia, the Rhodesian Bush War (1964–79), the Zimbabwean Gukurahundi (1980–87), the Angolan Civil War (1975–2002), the Mozambican Civil War (1977–92), and Palestinian factions.

Return to normality

In 1971, the fall from power of Lin Biao, Chairman Mao’s executive officer and heir-apparent, marked the end of the most radical phase of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), and, until Mao’s death in September 1976, the PRC gradually returned to Communist political normality. The re-establishment of Chinese domestic tranquility ended direct armed confrontation with the USSR, but did not improve their diplomatic relations — because the Soviet Army remained amassed at the USSR–PRC border, where, by 1973, the Soviet garrisons were almost double the size of the 1969 garrisons. In the event, the pragmatic Chinese continued denouncing “Soviet social imperialism” and accusing the USSR of being enemy to world revolution — despite the PRC’s discontinued sponsorship of revolutionary groups after 1972, and supporting a negotiated end to the Vietnam War in 1973.

After Mao’s death, Chinese pragmatism accelerated politico-economic progress; i.e. the thwarted coup d’état by the radical leftist “Gang of Four” usurpers, and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms (reversing Mao’s policies), which began the transition from a planned economy to a mixed economy featuring elements of capitalism. Politically, by the 1980s, Premier Deng Xiaoping’s policies of “seeking truth from facts” and emphasizing the “Chinese road to socialism”, indicated that the PRC had lost interest in the abstract preoccupations of ideologues such as Communist polemic and denouncing Soviet revisionism.

After Mao, the ideologic rivalry between the USSR and the PRC diminished as domestic politics, but increased as geopolitics — the realm where Russian and Chinese hegemonic interests conflicted. Their first major confrontation was in Indo-China; the communist victory ending the thirty-year Vietnam War in 1975, left pro–Soviet régimes in Vietnam (Socialist Republic of Vietnammarker) and Laos (Lao People's Democratic Republicmarker), and a pro–Chinese régime in Cambodiamarker (Kampuchea). At first, the Vietnamese ignored the murderous domestic policies of the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge régime in Democratic Kampuchea (1975–79) — but, when their societal reorganisation attacked the ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia, Vietnam deposed Pol Pot in 1978 with the Cambodian–Vietnamese War (1975–79). The PRC denounced the deposition of their Maoist client, and punitively invaded northern Vietnam in the Sino-Vietnamese War (1979); and the USSR denounced the PRC’s action.

In December 1979, the USSR intervened in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to aid the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan whose Communist régime was losing the Afghan Civil War (1978–?). The PRC viewed that Soviet action in aid of an ally, as a feint, part of a greater geopolitical encirclement, and so entered a tri-partite alliance with Pakistanmarker and the US to sponsor armed Islamist resistance in Afghanistan to end the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979–89).

Meanwhile, the Sino–Soviet split again became manifest when Deng Xiaoping, the Paramount Leader of China, required the removal of “three obstacles” so that Sino–Soviet relations might improve: (i) the amassed Soviet Army at the PRC–USSR border and in Mongolia, (ii) Soviet support of the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea (Cambodia), and (iii) the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Moreover, from 1981 to 1982, Deng Xiaoping distanced the PRC from the US because of its weapons sales to the Nationalist Republic of Chinamarker in Taiwan island, and because the PRC was the junior partner in the current Sino-American relations. Hence, in September 1982, the 12th Chinese Communist Party Congress declared that the PRC would pursue an “independent foreign policy”. Meanwhile, in March 1982, in Tashkentmarker, USSR Secretary Leonid Brezhnev gave a speech conciliatory towards the PRC, and Deng Xiaoping took advantage of Brezhnev’s proffered conciliation; in autumn of 1982, Sino–Soviet relations resumed (semi-annually), at the vice-ministerial level.

When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the Presidency of the USSR in 1985, he endeavoured to restore relations with the PRC, by reducing the Soviet Army concentrations at the USSR–PRC border and Mongolia (Tannu Uriankhai), resuming trade, and dropping the border-demarcation matter; yet the matter of the Soviet Army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan remained unresolved, and relations remained cool. Moreover, that Sino–Soviet diplomatic coolness prompted the Reagan government to make an opportunity of that, and use China to counter Russia, thus, the US sold weapons to the People's Liberation Army.

In May 1989, President Gorbachev visited the People’s Republic of China, whose government were ambivalent about perestroika and glasnost, his reform programs, which ultimately ended communist government and provoked the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since the PRC did not officially recognise the USSR as a socialist state, it had no official opinion about how he might reform Sovietmarker socialism; yet privately, the Chinese leaders said it was too early for President Gorbachev’s political reform without his first economically reforming the country — whereas Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping effected economic reform, via a mixed economy, without weakening the political power of the Chinese Communist Party.

See also


  1. One-Third of the Earth, TIME Magazine, 27 October 1961
  2. Mueller, Jason: Evolution of the First Strike Doctrine in the Nuclear Era, Volume 3: 1965–1972
  3. John J. Stephan, The Russian Far East: A History, Stanford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0804727015 Partial text on Google Books. pp. 18-19, 51.
  4. Violet Conolly, Siberia Today and Tomorrow: A Study of Economic Resources, Problems, and Achievements, Collins, 1975. Snippet view only on Google Books.
  5. Georgy Permyakov (Георгий ПЕРМЯКОВ), “The ancient tortoise and the Soviet cement” ( «Черепаха древняя, цемент советский»), Tikhookeanskaya Zvezda", 30-April-2000

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