The threat of armed conflict with the Soviet Union persuaded the Chinese leadership to bring the Cultural Revolution to a premature conclusion in order to bolster the country’s defenses. Internal conflict did not cease, but thereafter the major effort was devoted to the issue of national defense. The year 1969 witnessed a major confrontation between China and the Soviet Union in which Soviet leaders went to the length of threatening the nuclear bombardment of Chinese territory. Propaganda statements to the contrary, the confrontation drove each party to seek better relations with outside powers—principally the United States. The stakes were of the highest magnitude. For the Russians, the split with China raised the possibility of a coalition between the Chinese and the United States, which would threaten the strategic security of the Soviet Union in the Far East. The Chinese, on the other hand, sought to improve their strategic position and to develop sorely needed alternative sources of development assistance from the non-Communist world. Internal instability, however, caused by the resumption of the power struggle at the top, left open the question of China’s strategic orientation, even as arrangements were being made to establish a working relationship with the United States.
The Soviet Union Probes China’s Defenses
Ever since the Great Leap Forward, Soviet leaders had sought to bring about a resumption of close relations with the Chinese. Khrushchev employed various means toward this end, but they only resulted in driving the Chinese and Russians farther apart. His successors, Brezhnev and Kosygin, pursued the same policy objective much more forcefully. Before the Cultural Revolution, a “pro-Soviet” group did exist within the Chinese leadership, and this gave the Soviet Union a means of exerting considerable leverage upon the internal Chinese decisionmaking process.1 Indeed, it was the Soviet call for “united action” in Vietnam in 1965 that galvanized this group into action. They unsuccessfully strove for a resumption of close Sino-Soviet ties over the issue of aid to North Vietnam. One early result of the cultural revolution was the elimination of the “pro-Soviet” group from the Chinese leadership.
From 1966, therefore, the Soviet leaders were no longer able to affect the decision-making process from within, and hence they shifted their tactics to building pressure on the Chinese leadership from without, hoping ultimately to force a split. The course of events during the Cultural Revolution provided the Soviet leadership with the opportunity to pursue these tactics. It had become clear by mid-1968, if not before, that Mao had significantly weakened China’s defenses by employing main force units in pursuit of internal political victory. Perceiving this weakness, the Soviet Union proceeded to intensify military and political pressure on China. Ultimately, its objective was not war but the creation of sufficient pressure on the Chinese leadership to force a return to the earlier close relationship.
Throughout 1969, the Soviets applied pressure along each of the three main sectors of the border—Manchuria, Mongolia, and Sinkiang. The Manchurian sector was first to reach a flash point when, on March 2, a “border incident” occurred at Damansky (Chen Pao) Island in the Ussuri River. The river forms part of the Sino-Soviet border along the eastern edge of Manchuria, and the island lies virtually equidistant between the two major Soviet cities of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. The armed exchange resulted in an undisclosed number of Chinese dead and, according to varying reports, between thirty and forty Russian soldiers killed.2 Each side immediately denied responsibility for the incident and attempted to place blame on the other.
A second, more violent incident occurred two weeks later in the same area, involving upwards of two to three thousand men on each side and the use of tanks and artillery. Although successful in matching the Soviet effort in each case, Chinese leaders could not fail to see the analogy between their situation and Czechoslovakia, in which escalating border activity preceded invasion. During the crisis, the Canadian Communist paper Canadian Tribune published an article by Wang Ming, a former member of the CCP Central Committee, who since 1957 had been residing in the Soviet Union. The article, “China: Cultural Revolution or Counterrevolutionary Coup?” represented the situation in China as a struggle between “two lines,” the “Marxist-Leninist” and “anti-Marxist Maoist.”3 Centering on Mao’s attempt to “smash the Chinese Communist Party,” the article took much the same line of argument that the Soviets had employed in the Czech case earlier, leaving no doubt as to its implication. If the border probes, combined with related political activities like Wang’s article, were in fact conducted with the purpose of disrupting the Chinese Communist party’s Ninth Congress, then the probes failed.
The Ninth Party Congress opened secretly on April 1 and continued through April 24. It was followed by the First Plenum of the Ninth Central Committee, which “elected” a Politburo Standing Committee composed of Mao, Lin, Chou, Ch’en Po-ta, and K’ang Sheng. The congress was clearly intended to show internal unity in the face of external threat. No new internal policies were announced; China would continue to consolidate the gains made in the cultural revolution, which was seen as having been “absolutely necessary and most timely.” Stress throughout was laid on the necessity of preparedness for war. In the only speech reported in the press, Lin Piao declared:
We must make full preparations against their [Soviet Union and United States] launching a big war and against their launching a war at an early date, preparations against their launching a conventional war and against their launching a large-scale war.4
Although the leadership which emerged from the congress was heavily studded with military men—a phenomenon that has generally been interpreted to mean army dominance of the political scene—it also suggested that the army was not only behind the party but able to defend the nation.
World Congress of Communist Parties
In June 1969, when the World Congress of Communist Parties met, an intensification of Soviet activities along the Mongolian sector of the Sino-Soviet border became apparent. Although the Russians had hoped to mobilize Communist support at the World Congress for their position in the conflict with the Chinese, they encountered stubborn, opposition from the Rumanian and Yugoslav leaderships.5 Instead of a public rebuff to the Chinese, the congress specifically rejected any proposals to expel the Chinese Communists from the movement. Still, rumors concerning the extension of the “Brezhnev Doctrine” to China abounded; and immediately after the congress adjourned, Tsedenbal, party leader of the Mongolian People’s Repubhc, declared that “our party will continue to wage a resolute struggle against the subversive and splitting activities of Mao Tse-tung’s group in China, which . . . [has broken with the principles of Marxism-Leninism.”6
The implication of Tsedenbal’s statement was that Inner Mongoha, bordering on Outer Mongolia, would become a pressure point. This impression was further heightened when news was leaked of an increase in Soviet troops stationed in Outer Mongolia, the emplacement of additional missiles, and the assignment of a new commander with expertise in rocketry. Sinkiang became a focal point during August, as armed clashes occurred frequently. On August 19, the Chinese issued an official protest charging the Soviet Union with responsibility for as many as 429 border incidents in the previous two months. Chinese protests were now accompanied by visible signs of defense preparations. Industry was relocated, excavation projects for air defense were accelerated, the militia was mobilized, and throughout China, meetings were held to prepare the population for the worst.7 On the Soviet side of the frontier, the deployment pattern was equally obvious. Great stocks of military material—rockets, artillery, transport, fuel, food—were moved into place. Soviet troops were in evidence all along the border, including the Mongolian sector.
The death of Ho Chi Minh on September 3 provided an opportunity for contacts between Russian and Chinese leaders. Premier Kosygin, on his return from Ho’s funeral, stopped off in Peking and held discussions with Premier Chou En-lai on September 11. The usual communique noted that they had held a “frank conversation,” but the talks were evidently inconclusive. On September 16, an article by Victor Louis, unofficial Soviet channel to the West, appeared in the London Evening News entitled, “Will Russian Rockets Czech-mate China?” The article moved the crisis to its highest point. Louis made three points in his article: first, that there was no reason why the “Brezhnev Doctrine” should not be applied to China; second, that Soviet rockets stood aimed and ready to destroy China’s nuclear center at Lop Nor, Sinkiang; and third, that clandestine radio broadcasts indicated a “degree of unification of anti-Mao forces,” which “could produce a leader who would ask other Socialist countries for fraternal help.”
The threat of Soviet military intervention combined with nuclear bombardment brought the Chinese to the bargaining table. On October 7, the Chinese leadership noted in an official statement that they were entering negotiations out of fear that “a handful of war maniacs” in Moscow would “dare to raid” China’s nuclear installations:
There is no reason whatsoever for China and the Soviet Union to fight a war over the boundary question.8
The “negotiations” began in Peking on October 20, but soon stalled. Although no settlement on border issues was reached, the Soviet Union gradually lowered the extremely aggressive public posture of the previous few months, and tension seemed to ease somewhat along the border. For the time being, the crisis had passed.
China in a Tripolar World
The 1969 crisis with the Soviet Union impelled China toward better relations with the United States. This was a movement which struck a responsive chord among American policymakers, who were searching for a means to disengage U.S. forces from Vietnam. The result was the evolution over the following two years of a mutually beneficial quid pro quo arrangement centering on the improvement of Sino-American relations. Major benchmarks were China’s admission into the United Nations in October 1971 and the visit of President Nixon to Peking in 1972. China moved toward the United States in order to provide a counterweight to the pressure being applied by the Soviet Union, while the United States acted to improve relations with the People’s Republic of China so as to facilitate the extrication of American forces from Southeast Asia without impairing the viability of the Republic of South Vietnam.
More was at stake for the Chinese than the establishment of a simple diplomatic counterweight to the Soviet Union. The larger issue was China’s overall economic development. If China were ever to develop independently of the Soviet Union, it would be necessary to form a viable economic relationship with the Western world, and in particular the United States, which held the key to that development. The intensification of the Sino-Soviet crisis and the clear intransigence manifested by each side in the ongoing “border talks,” served to underline the sense of urgency and to accelerate the shift to improve relations with the United States.
For the United States, China held a key to successful withdrawal from Vietnam. In this connection, China’s north-south railway system, stretching from the Outer Mongolian border to North Vietnam, and along which 80 percent of the war material shipped to North Vietnam (the majority of Soviet origin, particularly the heavy weaponry) traveled during the 1965–69 period, was of crucial significance. If the flow of traffic along this secure supply route could be reduced significantly for a period of time, it would diminish the capacity of the North Vietnamese to wage large-scale warfare against the South. In the time gained, the United States would not only complete its withdrawal, but also bolster South Vietnamese fighting capability to the point where Saigon could defend itself against incursions from the North regardless of the future disposition of the rail link. In other words, the United States sought to trade an improvement in relations with Communist China for the establishment of a viable South Vietnamese nation. Such a bold foreign policy initiative required a major structural revision of international relations both in the Far East and worldwide, the consequences of which have yet to be fully worked out.
The Soviet Union clearly perceived the implications of an improvement in Sino-American relations for its own position. The logical extension of current developments would be the establishment of an American presence on the Chinese mainland, where there had been none for the previous two decades—a development which would severely undercut the Soviet Union’s strategic position in East Asia. In response to this major shift in the international balance of forces, the Soviet leaders unfolded a new multipronged strategy aimed at compensating for and possibly preventing the impending shift. Principal elements of the new strategy included the strengthening of Soviet positions in South and East Asia while continuing to build up pressure all along the Sino-Soviet border. Its concrete manifestations have been the improvement of Soviet-Japanese relations, support for India in the Indo-Pakistani conflict, establishment of alternate supply routes into Vietnam to off’set the possible loss of the China route, and the military and economic buildup of eastern Siberia as part of a defense-in-depth along the border.
After a year of stalemate in the Sino-Soviet talks, the Soviet leaders appeared in March 1971 (at the Twenty-fourth Congress of the CPSU) to have decided upon a long-range solution to their “China problem.” Economically, the Soviet Union would give higher priority to the development of eastern Siberia and the Maritime Provinces, while at the same time encouraging the Japanese to undertake development in the area. Improving relations with the Japanese would also have the eff’ect of drawing Japanese investment capital toward the Soviet Union and away from China. The overall impact would presumably be to strengthen Soviet ties with Japan while helping to fortify the Soviet position in Siberia, where Soviet forces operate at a logistical disadvantage despite troop superiority and enormous stockpiles of war material.
Soviet policy in Southeast Asia, particularly North Vietnam, is an integral part of a long-term containment strategy toward China. This strategy dictates continued support to North Vietnam, regardless of public agreements to the contrary, to maintain to the extent possible a two-front conflict situation for the Chinese. During the Cultural Revolution the Soviet Union built a strong military position along the Sino-Soviet border, matching the American buildup in South Vietnam. The American countermove, in grand strategic terms, was to improve relations with the People’s Republic of China, thereby facilitating withdrawal from Vietnam and assisting the Chinese in their effort to extricate themselves from the two-front conflict situation. The U.S. withdrawal also permits the Chinese to reallocate resources to meet the Soviet buildup in the north. In the short run, however, Soviet military superiority along the border continues to constitute a “strategic pin,” immobilizing China’s ability to maneuver elsewhere.
The extent to which China’s military forces were immobilized was graphically demonstrated in the Indo-Pakistani war in late 1971. Soviet willingness to “open a diversionary action” against China was the strategic reality that prevented Chinese intervention and assured the Indian victory.9 The political returns from the Indo-Pakistani conflict for the Soviet Union related indirectly to the Soviet efl’ort to establish an alternative supply route into North Vietnam. For supplying India, the Soviet Union obtained the benefit of safe passage along the Indian coast, access to Indian ports and airfields, as well as access to the facilities of the new state of Bangladesh (in fact, the Soviets are assisting in the construction of port facilities at Chittagong10), and air corridor rights to Laos. The Soviet Union has therefore succeeded in establishing an alternate supply route into Vietnam that has small capacity at present, but is relatively secure and difficult to interdict.11 If developed, the supply route could place the Soviet Union in position to support a continuation of conflict in Southeast Asia and Vietnam.
The Continuing Struggle in Peking
Paralleling the new pattern of external forces, the domestic Chinese political scene has undergone similarly vast changes. The context of these changes has been the attempts of the leadership to solve the problems of internal power relations both at the center and in the provinces. By March of 1971, the process of reestablishing party committees at the provincial level to complement the revolutionary committee structure created during the cultural revolution was mainly completed—at least on paper. Sixteen provincial party committees had been proclaimed by the end of that month. The provinces where party committees had not been set up by that time included those bordering on the Soviet Union—Heilungchiang in Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and Sinkiang. In these areas, the requirements of defense against a prospective invasion relegated the task of building party committees to second place. By late August 1971, however, the remaining thirteen provincial-level party committees were established.
As the process of recreating the party apparatus at the provincial level neared completion, a new dispute erupted among the leadership. This time, the differences concerned the future role of the military in the new political structure; and the main protagonists, it seems, were none other than Mao Tse-tung and his designated successor, Lin Piao. The dispute evidently reached irreconcilable proportions, leading to what was perhaps the most bizarre episode in the entire inner political history of Communist China.
Sometime in mid-1971, Mao and his supporters, particularly Chou En-lai, acted to reassert party primacy and relegate the military to its former subordinate role in matters of high policy. Important members of the PLA leadership, including Lin Piao and others (Huang Yung-sheng, Chief of Staff; Wu Fa-hsien, Commander of the Air Force; Li Tso-p’eng, Commander of the Navy; Ch’iu Hui-tso, Chief of the Logistics Department), all strongly opposed the move to downgrade the military’s role in politics. In the resultant policy conflict, the issue was resolved in favor of party control and the “military opposition” were removed from their positions. While it is clear that Lin Piao and his supporters suffered defeat in the contest with Mao, events surrounding it remain unclear. Only the most tentative hypothesis can be put forward here; but even if it is only partly true, the story that emerges is one of palace intrigue unmatched by any fictional account.
On the night of September 12–13, 1971, nine persons, including one woman, were aboard a British Trident jet (one of three owned by the Chinese) which departed from Peking and headed northward toward the Soviet Union. The plane crashed at Altan Bulak, a missile base on the Soviet-Outer Mongolian border located inside the territorial limits of Outer Mongolia some three hundred miles due north of Ulan Bator. Neither the Chinese, Soviet, nor Outer Mongolian press made any mention of the plane crash until Tass reported it eighteen days after the event. Chinese authorities reacted instantly to the plane’s departure by grounding all air traffic, both civil and military, and canceling all military leaves—in the words of a Chinese cable picked up by the Japanese—“to prevent turmoil.”12
Neither Lin Piao nor Huang Yung-sheng, Wu Fa-hsien, Li Tso-p’eng, nor Ch’iu Hui-tso has appeared in public since the ill-fated flight of the Trident jet; Lin Piao’s disappearance dates back somewhat earlier, to June 3. A week before China’s National Day, October 1, it was confirmed officially that the traditional military parade would not be held, although local celebrations would take place as in previous years. In the past, the leadership always observed the parade from atop T’ien An Men (Gate of the Heavenly Peace); cancellation of the event suggested that all was not well and that, for one reason or another, the leadership could not appear together.
Initial speculation was that Mao was ill or dead, but he soon appeared in public, meeting with Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia on October 8. Chou En-lai also continued to appear in public, but Lin and the top military brass were conspicuously missing. Moreover, others began to undertake duties normally performed by Lin and the other missing generals. For example. Marshal Yeh Chien-ying, vice-chairman of the party’s Military Affairs Commission, was much in evidence. In November, he was formally ranked number four in the leadership hierarchy—behind Mao, Chou, and Chiang Ch’ing—at a ceremony celebrating the founding of the Albanian Communist Party, which indicated that Yeh had indeed advanced in the hierarchy and that Lin Piao was out.
By mid-October, persistent reports filtered out from the mainland that party cadres were being informed that Lin Piao and others “were finished” because they plotted unsuccessfully against Chairman Mao.13 Rumors were rife that Lin and his supporters had failed in an attempt to assassinate Mao and had sought to flee China aboard the plane that crashed in Outer Mongolia. It was the Russians, however, who definitely linked Lin and the plane. In a news release on January 1, 1972, Soviet medical experts stated that they were “reasonably certain” that two of the bodies aboard the crashed jet were those of Lin Piao and his wife, Yeh Ch’un.14 They also noted that all nine of the bodies aboard the aircraft were “bullet-riddled,” raising doubts about the obvious deductions to be made concerning the event.
At first glance it would appear that Lin and his generals attempted to flee and seek refuge in the Soviet Union—that they were traitors. But the Soviet report noting that all nine bodies were bullet-riddled implies that all were dead before the crash. Was there an argument in flight among the passengers? Or were they placed aboard the aircraft dead? Even more mysterious is the report—unconfirmed—that not one but two aircraft penetrated Outer Mongolian airspace on the evening of September 12–13, that one returned to China. Whatever the facts, there is sufficient ambiguity about the plane crash to cause serious misgivings about the all-too-obvious deduction that Lin had turned traitor.
This author would entertain a different hypothesis. There is little question that Lin Piao lost out in a struggle with Mao and that he perished. The two events may not have been causally connected. Lin may even have died a natural death—he had been ill for some time. In itself, however, Lin’s demise would not serve Mao’s larger purpose of subordinating the military to party rule. If Lin and his close supporters could be made to appear as traitors, then Mao would have all the justification necessary to crack down on the military. Indeed, although it is not a proof of the hypothesis, since mid-October 1971 the Chinese media have stressed party control over the military; during October the regime also began to inform its cadres that Lin Piao was “finished”:
The most fundamental thing is to obey the commands of our great leader, Chairman Mao, and the party central headed by Chairman Mao. . . . The party commands the gun and the gun must never be allowed to command the party, so we must place the army under the absolute leadership of the party, carry out whatever Chairman Mao instructs and go wherever the party directs.15
It was not until late in July 1972 that the Chinese officially acknowledged Lin’s death in the September plane crash, Mao himself informing visiting statesmen of his fate.16 According to the report, Lin opposed Mao on two crucial issues, the restoration of civil leadership over the military, which meant the decision to rebuild the party apparatus, and the move to normalize relations with the United States. With the party leadership against him, Lin plotted to assassinate Mao and establish a military dictatorship. Failing, he sought to flee to the Soviet Union, taking with him tape recordings of conversations between President Nixon’s advisor Henry Kissinger and top Chinese officials.17 So goes the official version of Lin Piao’s demise. His role in Chinese Communist history is already in the process of being expunged.18 Chairman Mao’s personally selected successor has become an un-person.
Many questions remain. Does the party now lead? Who will replace Mao now that his designated successor has fallen? Will it be Chou En-lai, or a new, unknown challenger? Did Lin Piao’s death resolve a crisis, or precipitate a new one? Whoever emerges, will he continue to pursue policies set out by Mao, or adopt new ones? How will the resolution of the current crisis affect China’s strategic orientation, particularly the apparent rapprochement with the United States? And what of Sino-Soviet relations? Will the Soviet Union be content to observe placidly the deterioration of a strategic position maintained for over twenty years?
The Soviet Legacy
In the course of two decades, the Chinese People’s Republic evolved from a decentralized, regionally-focused state into a highly centralized one. The course of that evolution was marked, and indeed marred, by a major systemic flaw—the absence of an institutionalized leadership selection mechanism. A major legacy of the historical relationship with the Soviet Union, this flaw is a primary determinant of the continuous conflict that characterizes Chinese Communist politics. Without an institutionalized mechanism to determine the succession, no limits are placed upon the struggle for power. The cultural revolution itself was a logical, if not inevitable, culmination of that struggle. Indeed, the struggle continues although the overt military phase appears to be over. Given time and the absence of external interference, will China’s leaders surmount the inherent shortcomings of the Communist political system?
Resolution of the leadership crisis will determine China’s strategic orientation between East and West. Although today everything seems to point in the direction of stronger ties between China and the United States, the basic instability of Chinese politics makes prediction hazardous. If a pro-Soviet group were to emerge from the struggle and assume leadership of the mainland, it is not inconceivable that they would reverse current policies and revert to the earher relationship with the Soviet Union.
The impact of the Soviet Union on the political evolution of the Chinese People’s Republic has been continuous. The over half-century of Soviet involvement in Chinese Communism has helped to create the very basis for conflict between China and the Soviet Union and within the Chinese state itself. The ideological and organizational heritage conditioned the initial orientation of Communist China toward the Soviet Union. The Chinese leaders, whether trained in Moscow, as many were, or not, operated within the political parameters of the international Communist movement—a factor which shaped the policy alternatives they perceived to be open to them. They were obliged to determine policy in terms of the relationship with the Soviet Union. Even when they subsequently made the decision to develop independently of the Soviet Union, the new alternatives were also shaped to a great extent by that relationship. The choice was never between Communism and democracy; rather the issue was: should there be greater, or less, Soviet influence and control over Chinese affairs? Although the decision was in favor of the latter alternative, the cost was high, particularly in terms of China’s economic development.
For the Soviet Union the last decade has witnessed the gradual disintegration of a highly advantageous strategic posture in East Asia. The establishment of a Communist state in China provided enormous security for the long and vulnerable Sino-Soviet border, and permitted Moscow to allocate greater resources westward toward Europe. That situation has been reversed in recent years. The evidence suggests strongly that the Russians will relinquish their East Asian position only grudgingly and will do everything possible to prevent its total deterioration. In 1969 Russia and China were on the brink of all-out war, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that such an alternative will someday prove more desirable than a hostile—and powerful—China under the control of an unfriendly leadership.