- After Leaning to One Side: China and Its Allies in the Cold War by Shen Zhihua and Li Danhui
This book’s intriguing title alludes to the authors’ intention to gain new insights from the Sino-Soviet alliance through deep, concentrated research and the discovery of new sources. They recount, in incredibly rich detail, China’s relationships with the Soviet Union, North Korea, and Vietnam during the Cold War. These absorbing histories present much that is new in the twists and turns of the relationships. Further, in these narratives, they provide a fresh interpretation of the workings of the actual country-to-country relationships and the way in which the socialist world operated during this period.
The chapters on North Korea demonstrate the authors’ talents and attention to detail. The story of the Korean War1 reads almost like a novel and includes some valuable insights into the inner workings of the Mao-Stalin-Kim relationship. Whereas many scholars have postulated that China’s participation in the Korean War came about by mutual agreement between Mao, Stalin, and Kim, the authors’ evidence leads them to conclude that “facing decisions already made by Moscow and Pyongyang, he [Mao] reluctantly supported Kim’s war effort” (p. 24). In fact, as the account reveals, Mao was actually caught in the web of relations that held all the socialist allies. In other words, China’s relationship with North Korea was dominated by, and indeed restricted by, its relationship with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Working inside that relationship, Kim first convinced the reluctant Stalin to support his war effort, and then Stalin, sensing an opportunity for a Soviet win-win situation, cunningly handed over the entire responsibility [End Page 217] for starting the Korean war to Mao. Thus, Mao was given an option between overruling Stalin and accepting Stalin’s decision as his own “final decision” (p. 31). North Korea hugely benefited from playing the Soviets and the Chinese off one another within this triangle.
This history as revealed by Shen and Li demonstrates one of their bigger points about the operational problems of relationships in the socialist world. Structurally, the socialist alliance was set up hierarchically, almost like a family, with the Soviet Union being the father and the allies being the sons, or fraternal brothers. Thus, all of China’s relationships with socialist allies during the Cold War were constrained by China’s relationship with the USSR. In any triad—for example, USSR–China–North Korea—the Soviet Union was always the most important player. By the 1950s, Stalin had already overseen industrialization and collectivization in his country, triumphed in a major world war, and negotiated successfully with the Allies to obtain advantageous territorial gains. In contrast, Mao had just come to power in China, faced a devastated country, and had little experience with the large-scale economics that was needed to put the country back together. Consequently, there was a built-in power inequality in the Sino-Soviet relationship from the beginning of the alliance.
The Comintern (the Communist International) was a case in point. It was set up to oversee and encourage Communist revolutions all over the world, and, indeed, Communists from many countries were sent to other countries to help foment revolution. But the Comintern was dominated by the USSR; in fact, it was the USSR’s organization. The Soviet Union was the first to achieve a successful revolution, and by default, the USSR was the most experienced partner in this international organization. As Shen and Li put it: “[t]he Soviet Communist Party became an ‘overlord’ to other countries’ Communist parties” (p. 253). The Russian sources in another deeply researched book made this abundantly clear in its chapters on Soviet involvement in China beginning in the 1920s.2
Shen and Li offer another interesting observation about the socialist alliance itself. Built by the USSR, it was structured around Marxist ideology with the idea that all...