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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Visions of China CNN TIME Asiaweek Fortune
SEPTEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 38

Joining the World
Beijing has moved away from Mao's aim of toppling the global order

Fifty years of Communist rule have brought both triumph and tragedy to China

From "class struggle" to village elections

The Economy
Backyard furnaces yield to enterprise reform

The drive for world clout and national reunification

Society and Culture
Still searching for a modern identity

Personal accounts of life in the People's Republic

People to Know
50 Movers and shakers in today's China

Immortal Quotes
50 immortal quotes from over 2,000 years of Chinese history

50 years of the People's Republic presented by CNN, TIME, Asiaweek and Fortune

China's Amazing Half Century
Navigate through the People's Republic of China and discover the 50 places where history was made

Surrounded by security agents, Mao Zedong boarded a special armored train in Beijing on a cold December afternoon in 1949. He was about to go abroad for the first - and only - time in his life. The train headed north to the Russian border at Manchouli, where Mao's party got on the Trans-Siberian Railway for the seven-day trip to Moscow. There he was to meet the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, and among other things wish him a happy 70th birthday.

It was natural that Mao should have chosen the Soviet Union for his seminal overseas venture. After all, it was a fraternal socialist country, while China was the newest, most important addition to the communist bloc since Russia's own Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Yet the two leaders were wary of each other. For one thing, Russia was still a colonial power in China. Even after the Western nations had left, Moscow retained naval bases and controlled a railroad in northeast China.

For his part, Stalin wondered if Mao would be a faithful ally - which meant toeing the Soviet line on foreign affairs - or chart an independent course, like Josip Tito in Yugoslavia. Mao spent three months in Moscow's winter, negotiating the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance. Thus emerged the defining characteristic of New China's early foreign policy - a close relationship with Russia.

The People's Republic was lucky to have a friendly power to the north since, less than a year after its founding, it was at war in Korea with the United States. That dashed any hopes Mao might have had of recovering Kuomintang-held Taiwan by force. U.S. President Harry Truman sent the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to prevent any military crossing.

Beijing's ties with Moscow remained cordial through the mid-1950s. Then at the secret 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956, Nikita Khrushchev delivered a scathing critique of the late Stalin and his policies. The Chinese were stunned - and put out - that the new Russian leader had not consulted them first. They maintained that a communist titan like Stalin should not be entirely vilified. And they chided Khrushchev for being "soft" on the 1956 Hungarian uprising and for his desire to repair relations with the U.S.

"From then on it was all downhill," recounts Niu Dayong, a foreign-affairs expert at Peking University. Russia did nothing to assist China during the Quemoy-Matsu crisis of 1958 (when the Chinese bombarded Taipei-held islets off the mainland), or in Beijing's 1962 border war with India. In 1958, Khrushchev invited himself to China in a bid to mend fences. But the two sides spent most of the time quarrelling. The Russians disapproved of Mao's grandiose social engineering, such as the Great Leap Forward (which spurned the Soviet development model). And China's leader called the Soviets "revisionists," who wanted a return to capitalism. The ultimate break came in July 1960, when Moscow abruptly pulled out all its technicians and advisers in China, leaving many projects unfinished.

By this time, China had turned decisively leftward, first with the Great Leap and, after a brief respite, with the Cultural Revolution. Preoccupied with domestic upheavals, Beijing hardly had any coherent foreign policy, except to back emerging revolutionary regimes in Africa and guerrilla movements in Asia. China's greatest friend and ally was tiny Albania, whose harsh brand of communism found favor with the Chinese elite.

Throughout most of the 1960s, the U.S. seemed oblivious to the great communist schism. Many Americans still spoke of the "Sino-Soviet bloc," long after the relationship had developed gaping fissures. Washington's disastrous pursuit of the Vietnam War was driven largely by perceptions of a monolithic, aggressive communist camp. Often, U.S. policymakers would justify their military involvement in Southeast Asia as an effort to contain Chinese Communist "expansionism." All of this, however, would change abruptly as the new decade opened.

In December 1970, the official People's Daily carried a picture of Mao chatting amiably with the American journalist and "friend of China" Edgar Snow on top of Tiananmen. It was the Great Helmsman's way of trying to get Washington's attention. In case the Americans missed the point, Snow took home a message from Mao: "The American people are a great people. But to resolve issues in Sino-U.S. relations, we must be able to talk to their leaders. Why can't President Nixon make a visit to China?"

So Richard Nixon went to Beijing in 1972, famously meeting Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai. On the eve of the Nixon trip, Beijing took over China's United Nations seat from Taipei. Things then moved quickly. After Mao died, Deng Xiaoping pushed a policy of opening China to the world in order to promote and safeguard the country's economic revival. Beijing signed a peace treaty with Japan followed by numerous economic accords. In 1979, Washington formally recognized the People's Republic and withdrew its mission from Taipei. Deng made a triumphal tour of the U.S.; though technically a mere vice premier, he was treated as royalty.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese diplomacy showed a fresh preoccupation with restoring territorial integrity. During Mao's time, Beijing paid virtually no attention to Hong Kong and relatively little to Taiwan. But then Deng conceived "one country, two systems" as a formula that might lead to the peaceful reunification of the mainland with the non-communist fragments still outside its control. The trailblazing notion was first tried out with Britain and later Portugal, leading to the return of Hong Kong (in 1997) and Macau (this December). But it was also meant to apply to Taiwan.

Complicating the issue was the growth of democracy in Taiwan and the need of political leaders there to cater to an increasing sense of separateness among the local population. That led directly to China's biggest foreign-policy crisis of the 1990s. In response to Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's groundbreaking trip to the U.S. in 1995, Beijing conducted missile tests off the island the following March. That rattled many Asian capitals, soured relations with the U.S. for a while and probably drew Tokyo and Washington closer together in a defense alliance.

On other fronts, things have moved more smoothly. China repaired relations with Indonesia, opened them with South Korea and joined regional groupings such as APEC. Conflicting claims in the South China Sea remain a sore point in Southeast Asia, but the Chinese at least have shown a willingness to talk about them in international forums. Relations with Russia have thawed, as Beijing and Moscow discovered a common interest in opposing single-power dominance (by the U.S.).

In the past 50 years, Chinese foreign policy has evolved far beyond what could be imagined by the founders of the People's Republic. National interest has replaced political ideology as the chief engine of diplomacy. To a large extent, military confrontation has given way to peaceful negotiations. And the imperative to alter the capitalist-dominated international order has given way to a sustained effort to participate in it. Chairman Mao probably would not have approved.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home

Visions of China Home



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THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

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PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

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TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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