In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, 65 years ago today (February 14, 1950), the USSR and China signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. But instead of guaranteeing friendly relations for decades to come, the treaty touched off a bitter rivalry between the world’s two biggest Communist powers.
Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong smile warmly and exchange a handshake on a Chinese 400-yuan stamp from 1950. It looks as though they are congratulating each other on a job well done, and for good reason: they have just concluded a treaty to ensure goodwill and collaboration for the next 30 years. With two of the world’s largest countries working toward building communism, it finally looked like a bright future.
And then, in 1953, Stalin died. What’s worse, three years later, the Soviet public found out that he had been less of a glorious leader than his public image made him out to be.
Nikita Khruschev’s infamous speech, “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” resonated beyond the Soviet Union’s borders, and Mao got wind of it as well. The Chinese leader was a devoted follower and admirer of Stalin’s policies and a proponent of belligerent communism. Khruschev’s talk of atrocities under Stalin and of peaceful coexistence with capitalism was entirely unacceptable, as far as the Chinese idealists were concerned.
At the same time, the shift in Soviet policy was convenient for the ambitious Mao. Even before he came to power, he had been circumventing the Soviet ideologues on the sly, talking about changing “Marxism from a European to an Asiatic form.” Now that the Soviets themselves appeared to be wavering on true Marxist principles, the Chinese were free to criticize – first secretly, then openly – their ideological ally and partner in the Treaty of Friendship.
And criticize they did. When the Cuban Missile Crisis came around, Mao accused Khruschev of cowardice; in return Khruschev accused Mao of pushing for nuclear war (not an unfair accusation). In the early 1960s, each country wrote its own open letter purporting to contain the true path toward communism for the international community.
Sticks and stones, you might say. But the two communist “allies” didn’t stop at words. In 1969, the two sides fought an unofficial seven-month war over their border. They vied for the favor of budding communist parties and regimes throughout the world, sending aid and trying to outdo each other. And then, amid all the commotion, China reached out to the greatest enemy of all: the United States.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the ideological rivalry was suddenly moot. Russia and China were no longer ideological enemies masquerading as allies – they became just two big countries who happened to butt up against each other. In July 2001, the old Treaty of Freindship (expired 1979) was finally replaced by the similarly-named Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendship.
Postscript: Now China and Russia are part of BRIC, a group of countries with rapidly growing economies that may challenge the supremacy of the current richest countries (such as the US). With the recent tension between the US and Russia over Ukraine and oil prices, Russia and China have gone so far as to collaborate on currency, potentially undermining the importance of the dollar. Communist rivalry has turned into capitalist collusion!
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
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