Academic International Press

Sino-Soviet Documents Annual

Edited by Stephen Uhalley, Jr.

Sino-Soviet Docs Contents


Back to Sino-Soviet Documents Annual (SinoSovDocs).

Back to China.

Back to Russia / Soviet Union / Eurasia.

Back to AIP Home Page.


The year 1989 was an exceptional one in the history of Sino-Soviet relations. The highlight of the year was the restoration of party-to-party relations between the ruling communist parties of the two countries and the continued broad improvement in the overall relationship. The year 1989 is, therefore, a particularly appropriate one with which to commence this new series of volumes.

The most signal event of 1989 was the historic visit of Soviet President and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to Beijing in May 1989 because of the formal restoration of party-to-party relations that was brought about on that occasion. Gorbachev's visit completed a process of normalizing the relationship between the two countries that had begun several years earlier and that was expedited as a result of his coming to power in 1985.

In the twenty-five years since 1960 when the estrangement began, and prior to 1985, changes in the severely strained Sino-Soviet relationship were less a result of initiatives or concessions by the Soviets than of developments in China.1 These signal developments began with the death of Mao Zedong and were re-energized by the reforms initiated at the end of the 1970s and implemented throughout most of the 1980s in China. The Soviet leadership tried to use the opportunity afforded by Mao's passing to re-establish normal relations but was unsuccessful due to the continued ascendancy of the leftists under Hua Guofeng. However, the official Chinese critical reassessment of Mao in 1981 initiated change.

General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev's subsequent conciliatory speech in Tashkent in March 1982 publically signalled the Soviet's positive response to the reappraisal underway in China. This initiative, which led to the reopening of negotiations in October, was continued despite Brezhnev's death that November. In fact, Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua was given special prominence at Brezhnev's funeral. One of the next two short-lived successors to Brezhnev, General Secretary Yuri Andropov, also clearly desired an improvement in Sino-Soviet relations. Thus, the process of reconciliation was moving forward during the early 1980s even though it was not entirely smooth.

The initiatives of Gorbachev and the developing awareness by the Chinese that he was, indeed, an exceptionally new kind of Soviet leader, gradually led to the rapprochement. The Chinese saw that Gorbachev really did bring a fresh approach and a real spirit of conciliation to the problems that divided the two countries and parties.

The visit of Gorbachev to Beijing in May 1989 was the crowning point in the restoration of Sino-Soviet relations. As such it was a triumph for the diplomacy of both Gorbachev and his hosts in Beijing, particularly the elderly paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Unfortunately for these two leaders, however, this triumphant moment was upstaged by an even more profound drama that was being enacted on the streets of Beijing and other cities of China. Gorbachev's historic visit concentrated considerable media coverage in Beijing and Shanghai and brought additional global attention to the Chinese pro-democracy movement. The sheer excitement of the latter phenomenon deflected attention from the visit and, in fact, interferred with it. This was to the embarrassment and annoyance of Deng Xiaoping and other key Chinese leaders.

The subsequent mishandling of the protest movement by the Chinese leadership before an astonished world audience immediately created an awkward wrinkle in the new Sino-Soviet relationship. It was apparent to all that at the very moment of the symbolic restoration of the Sino-Soviet relationship the two countries were on a significantly different orientation with regard to continued reforms. The irony, of course, is that China had been a leader in the socialist camp throughout most of the 1980s in spearheading bold economic and political reforms and that much of this was attributable to Deng Xiaoping personally.

Gorbachev appeared to be from the same reformist mold but such reforms seemed to be much more difficult to achieve in the Soviet Union. Still, he had already won global recognition for his forthrightness and courage in introducing perestroika and glasnost, despite formidable obstacles. It was ironical, then, that when Gorbachev visited China the Chinese leadership was in the process of denying the demands of its own protesting citizens that it continue to implement the reforms to which it had committed itself as recently as late 1987 at the 13th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The Soviet Union subsequently took the lead in 1989 with regard to continued reforms and made the important decision not to stand in the way of even more dramatic reform efforts in Eastern Europe. At the same time, the Soviet leadership also wished to make the most of the new relationship with China. Therefore, while many Soviet citizens deplored the way in which protesting Chinese were treated in China, the determination was made to preserve the new relationship by refraining from public criticism or from participating in the sanctions that other nations were placing on China.

The year 1989 was a year that was especially fascinating for Chinese and Soviets to observe developments in each other's country. This phenomenon was due to the great interest in, and curiosity about, the reforms that were being undertaken in each country. The underlying interest was intensified by the sudden dramatic change in China's reform orientation. The imposition of martial law in May and then the shockingly brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy movement riveted the attention of Soviet citizens and people around the world on China. Information from official media in the Soviet Union was doled out hesitatingly and conservatively on this subject. Therefore, the chapter "Domestic Policy, Developments, and Issues" is unusually lengthy as it contains a number of press dispatches that provided information to Soviet readers regarding the tragic backlash in China.

1 Herbert J. Ellison, The Soviet Union and Northeast Asia (New York, 1989), 23.

Go to Academic International Press Home Page.

Click here to send us e-mail with your comments.

© 2000 Academic International Press