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.