Sino-Soviet split

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"All people of the world unite, to overthrow American imperialism, to overthrow Soviet revisionism, to overthrow the reactionaries of all nations!" (Chinese poster, 1969) — bold text corresponds to blackened characters

The Sino-Soviet split was a major conflict between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China, beginning in the late 1950s, reaching a peak in 1969 and continuing in various ways until the late 1980s. It led to a parallel split in the international Communist movement, although it was as much about Chinese and Soviet national interests as it was about Communist ideology.



The roots of the split went back to the 1930s, when the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong were simultaneously conducting a war of resistance against the Japanese and a civil war against Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Party. Mao largely ignored advice and instructions from Stalin and the Comintern on how to conduct the revolution in China. Traditional Leninist theory, by this time raised to the level of unquestioned dogma, was based on the revolutionary struggle of the urban working class, a class which barely existed in China. Mao therefore ignored the theory and sought to mobilise the peasantry.

During World War II, Stalin urged Mao to form a coalition with Chiang to fight the Japanese. Even after the war Stalin advised Mao not to attempt to seize power, but to negotiate with Chiang; Stalin signed a Treaty of Friendship and Alliance with Chiang in mid-1945. Mao politely accepted all of Stalin's advice and ignored it in practice, driving Chiang off the Chinese mainland and proclaiming the People's Republic in October 1949. Soon after, however, a two-month visit to Moscow by Mao culminated in a limited treaty of alliance against Japanese aggression.

During the 1950s, China, guided by a large number of Soviet advisors, followed the Soviet model of development, with its emphasis on heavy industry funded by surpluses extracted from the peasantry, while making consumer goods a secondary priority. However, by the late 1950s, Mao had begun to develop new ideas about how China was supposed to advance directly to Communism (in the Marxist sense of the word) through a mobilisation of China's massive labour force — these ideas led to the Great Leap Forward.

Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin
Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin

Meanwhile, Stalin's death in 1953 had created a new situation in the Communist world. Although Mao ignored Stalin's directives, he acknowledged the Soviet ruler's status as the leader of the Communist movement. When Stalin died, Mao felt that he was now the senior leader, and he became increasingly resentful when the new Soviet leaders, Malenkov and Khrushchev, did not accord him the status he desired. He was mollified by an official visit to China by Khrushchev in 1954, which formalised the return of the naval base of Lushun to China, and was also the occasion to agree on closer economic co-operation.

Mao did not openly dissent when Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, or when he restored relations with Tito's regime in Yugoslavia, which Stalin had denounced in 1947. But Khrushchev had, in a series of public and private speeches, deliberately rejected the authoritarian regime of Stalin, announced the end of the Cominform, and also downplayed the core Marxist-Leninist thesis of inevitable armed conflict between capitalism and socialism. Mao disagreed with these actions, and increasingly felt that the Soviet leadership were retreating from Marxist-Leninist purity (or, to be more exact, its Stalinist form) and from the struggle for the worldwide triumph of Communism. By 1959, the stage was set for a rupture between the two Communist powers.

The onset of the split

In 1959, Khrushchev held a summit meeting with United States President Eisenhower. The Soviets were alarmed by the Great Leap Forward, and Khrushchev sought to appease the West. The Soviets reneged on their earlier commitment to help China develop nuclear weapons. They also refused to support the PRC in its border dispute with India, a country friendly to the Soviet Union.

These events greatly offended Mao and the other Chinese Communist leaders. Mao saw Khrushchev as too conciliatory to the West. From the Soviet point of view, however, they were taking prudent measures in light of the existing international situation and the threat of nuclear war. By the late 1950s both the United States and the Soviet Union had massive nuclear arsenals, and the Soviet leadership was engaged in a strategy that balanced confrontations over issues such as Berlin with negotiations to avoid an outbreak of war. They were not prepared to give Mao nuclear weapons. They also saw the Great Leap Forward as evidence that he was not a real Marxist.

The split also arose from Chinese domestic politics. The Great Leap Forward had failed to meet its objectives. For this, Mao's rivals in the Communist Party, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, plotted to remove him from office. The fomenting of a split with the Soviets allowed Mao to portray his rivals as agents of a foreign power, mobilising Chinese nationalist sentiment behind his leadership.

For a time, the polemics between the two parties remained indirect, with the Chinese denouncing Tito and the Soviets denouncing China's ally, Enver Hoxha of Albania, in a war of words by proxy. But in June 1960 the split became public, at the congress of the Romanian Communist Party, when Khrushchev and China's Peng Zhen openly clashed. Khrushchev called Mao a nationalist, an adventurist, and a deviationist. The Chinese called Khrushchev a revisionist and criticised his "patriarchal, arbitrary and tyrannical" behaviour. Khrushchev followed his attack by delivering an eighty-page letter to the conference, denouncing China.

At a meeting of 81 Communist parties in Moscow in November 1960, the Chinese delegation clashed heatedly with the Soviets and with most of the other party delegations, but eventually a compromise resolution was agreed, preventing a formal rupture. At the twenty-second Congress of the Soviet Party in October 1961, however, disagreement flared again. In December, the Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations with Albania, expanding the dispute from one between parties to one between states.

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One of the last meetings between Mao and Khrushchev before the Sino-Soviet Split

During 1962, international events caused a final rupture between the Soviet Union and China. Mao criticised Khrushchev for backing down in the Cuban missile crisis ("[Khrushchev has moved] from adventurism to capitulationism"), to which Khrushchev responded that Mao's policies would lead to a nuclear war. At the same time, the Soviets openly supported India in its brief war with China. These events were followed by formal statements of each side's ideological positions: the Chinese published The Chinese Communist Party's Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement [1] ( in June 1963. The Soviets responded with Open Letter of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[2] ( This was the last formal communication between the two parties.

By 1964, Mao was asserting that there had been a counter-revolution in the Soviet Union, and that capitalism had been restored. Relations between the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union broke off, as did relations with the Communist parties of the Warsaw Pact countries.

There was a brief pause in polemics after the fall of Khrushchev in October 1964. In November, the Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, went to Moscow to speak with the new leaders, Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin, but he returned to report that the Soviets had no intention of changing their position. Mao denounced "Khrushchevism without Khruschchev" and the war of words went on.

From split to confrontation

After 1965, the Sino-Soviet split was an established fact, and the onset of Mao's Cultural Revolution severed all contact between the two countries, and indeed between mainland China and most of the rest of the world. The only exception to the freeze was Chinese permission for the transport of Soviet arms and supplies across China to support Communist North Vietnam in its conflict against the South and the United States in the Vietnam War.

After 1967 the Cultural Revolution overthrew the existing structures of state and party in China. The only significant party apart from the Albanians to support the Chinese line was the Communist Party of Indonesia, which was destroyed during a military coup in 1965. Maoist parties were formed in many countries.

The Sino-Soviet confrontation had now become a conflict between states. In January 1967, Red Guards besieged the Soviet Embassy in Beijing. Diplomatic relations were never formally broken, but they went into a deep freeze. The Chinese also chose to raise the issue of the Sino-Soviet border, which was the result of nineteenth century treaties imposed on the weakened Qing Dynasty by Czarist Russia. China did not make specific territorial demands, but insisted that the Soviets acknowledge that the treaties were unjust. The Soviets flatly refused to discuss the issue.

In the following year, China reached the depths of the Cultural Revolution, with near civil war in some parts of the country, a situation only partly stabilised in August when Mao ordered the Army to restore order. Thereafter, the worst excesses gradually declined. One reason for this was Mao's realisation that China was now strategically isolated and vulnerable.

During 1968, the Soviets massively increased their troop deployments along the Chinese border, particularly the border with Xinjiang, where a Turkic separatist movement could easily be fostered. In 1961, the Soviet Union had around twelve half-strength divisions and 200 aircraft on the border; by the end of 1968 there were 25 divisions, 1,200 aircraft and 120 medium-range missiles. Although China had detonated its first nuclear device in 1964 at Lop Nor, its military power could not compare to that of the Soviet Union. Tensions along the border escalated until March 1969, when armed clashes broke out along the Ussuri River on Damansky Island, followed by more in August.

Many observers predicted war: veteran American journalist Harrison Salisbury published a book called The Coming War Between Russia and China and, in August 1969, Soviet sources hinted at a strike on Lop Nor with nuclear weapons. But after the 1969 clashes, it appeared that both sides had drawn back from the brink. In September, Kosygin made a secret visit to Beijing and held talks with Zhou Enlai. In October, talks on the border issue were begun. No agreement was reached, but the meetings restored a minimum of diplomatic communication.

By 1970, Mao had realised that he could not simultaneously confront both the Soviet Union and the United States and suppress internal disorder. During the year, despite the fact that the Vietnam War was at its height and China's anti-American rhetoric at its peak, Mao decided that since the Soviets were the greater threat because of its geographical proximity to China, he should seek an accommodation with the United States to confront the USSR.

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Mao meeting President Richard Nixon in 1972

In July 1971, Henry Kissinger secretly visited Beijing and laid the groundwork for President Richard Nixon's visit to China in February 1972. Although the Soviets were initially furious, they soon held a summit of their own with Nixon, thus creating a triangular relationship between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow. This ended the worst period of confrontation between the Soviet Union and China.

In the 1970s Sino-Soviet rivalry also spread to Africa and the Middle East, where each Communist power supported and funded different parties, movements, and states. This helped fuel the war between Ethiopia and Somalia, the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, and the rivalry between various groups of radical Palestinians. Unlike the Soviets, the Chinese did not actually send troops to any of these trouble spots, but their competitive intervention helped create and maintain instability.

Return to normality

The fall from power of Lin Biao in 1971 marked the end of the most radical phase of the Cultural Revolution, and from then until Mao's death in 1976 there was a gradual return to Communist "normality" in China. This led to an end to the state of armed confrontation with the Soviet Union, but not to any thawing in political relations. However, the Soviet military build-up on the Chinese border continued: in 1973 there were almost double the number of Soviet troops present as in 1969. The Chinese continued to denounce "Soviet social imperialism" and accuse the Soviets of being the enemies of the world revolution. This was despite China's cessation of direct support for revolutionary groups in other countries after 1972, and its support in 1973 for a negotiated end to the Vietnam War.

This trend accelerated after Mao's death, with the removal from power of the radical "Gang of Four" and the beginning of sweeping economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping, who reversed Mao's policies and began a transition to a market economy in China. By the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping's policies of "seeking truth from facts" and emphasising the "Chinese road to socialism," which in practice meant the restoration of a market economy in China, meant that China had largely lost interest in Communist polemics, and denunciations of Soviet revisionism took on a fading, ritualist tone.

After Mao's death, rivalry between the Soviet Union and China surfaced less in polemics about the internal politics of either country and more in the international field, where the national interests of the two states frequently clashed.

The first major confrontation was in Indo-China. The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 left pro-Soviet regimes in power in Vietnam and Laos, and a pro-Chinese regime in Cambodia. The Vietnamese were at first prepared to ignore the murderous domestic policies of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, but as it led to persecution of ethnic Vietnamese communities and clashes along the border, they invaded the country in 1978, removing Pol Pot's regime. The Chinese furiously denounced this and launched a "punitive" invasion of northern Vietnam, resulting in the Sino-Vietnamese War. The Soviet Union in turn denounced China, but took no military action.

In 1979, the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan when the Communist regime there was in danger of being overthrown. The Chinese government, viewing this as part of a Soviet plot to encircle them, formed an alliance with the United States and Pakistan to support the Islamist resistance movements in Afghanistan and thwart the Soviet invasion. This was highly successful; the interminable war in Afghanistan did much to weaken the Soviet system in its later years. In 1982, shortly before his death, Leonid Brezhnev delivered a speech in Baku that was somewhat conciliatory toward China. This opened the way for Chinese ministerial representation at his funeral (1982) and low-key efforts at reducing tensions.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985, he endeavored to restore normal relations with China. Soviet military forces along the border were greatly reduced, normal economic relations were resumed, and the border issue was quietly forgotten. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan removed the major contention between the two states. However, the ideological issues of the 1960s were not resolved, and official relations between the two Communist parties were not resumed. The still frosty relations between the Soviet Union and China prompted many in the United States government under Ronald Reagan to consider China a natural counterbalance against the Soviet Union, resulting in American military aid to the People's Liberation Army.

To cement improving relations, Gorbachev visited China in May 1989. An unintended consequence of this summit was the high coverage by foreign media of the Tiananmen Protests of 1989 and the ensuing crackdown.

The Chinese government took an ambivalent view of Gorbachev's reform program, which led ultimately to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Communist Party rule in 1991. Since the Chinese government did not officially recognise the Soviet Union as a fellow "socialist state", it had no official opinion on how Gorbachev should reform Soviet socialism. In private, Chinese leadership expressed the opinion that Gorbachev was foolish to embark on political reform before implementing economic reform, whereas Deng Xiaoping had implemented economic reform without weakening Communist Party rule.


The collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Sino-Soviet split. Rather than a massive Soviet invasion, the Chinese government was now more concerned about United States intervention in support of Taiwanese independence. Likewise, weakened Russia was now more concerned about American initiatives such as the expansion of NATO and intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Rather than a counterbalance against Russia, the United States now viewed China as an incipient peer competitor. Due to these factors in the new political landscape of the world, Russia and China tightened relations in order to counter American power. In 1993, the two nations signed a treaty that formally demarcated the border and officially ended all outstanding disputes.

Related articles

de:Chinesisch-sowjetisches Zerwürfnis fr:Rupture sino-soviétique


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