Conflict on the Ussuri

In November 1967, there were border skirmishes between Chinese and Soviet troops, and the first Chinese fatalities were recorded in January 1968. In February 1969, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) decided to ambush Soviet troops on Zhenbao or Damansky Island, and on 2 March, twenty-nine Soviet soldiers and two officers were killed, and the Chinese lost seventeen men. In all, forty-nine servicemen were wounded, and one captured Soviet soldier was tortured to death. Between 2 and 21 March, the Soviets lost forty-four soldiers and four officers with eighty-five soldiers and nine officers wounded. On 15 March, the Soviets had counter-attacked but had not attained their objectives. The exact number of Chinese casualties is unknown, but the Soviets reported over 800 Chinese dead. Why did the Chinese attack Soviet border guards? The Chinese move was defensive in the sense that its aim was to shock the Soviets into stopping their border skirmishes. The ‘offensive deterrence concept involves the use of a pre-emptive strategy not so much to defeat the adversary militarily as to deal him a psychological blow to cause him to desist’ (Kissinger 2012: 216). On 21 March, Aleksei Kosygin, the prime minister, attempted to speak to Mao on the telephone, but the operator refused to put the call through, cursing Kosygin as a ‘revisionist element’. In August, Soviet troops wiped out a Chinese battalion on the border with Xinjiang, and war became a possibility as over a million soldiers were stationed along the Sino-Soviet border.

There were some Soviets who were in favour of drastic action. Marshal Andrei Grechko, the minister of defence, was one of those who wanted to obliterate China’s nuclear potential. In August, a Soviet diplomat asked what the Americans would do if the Soviet Union wiped out China’s nuclear installations. How would Washington react if Beijing asked for assistance to repel Soviet attacks? Soviet diplomats posed the same questions in other countries. Moscow then thought of a conventional attack.

During this tense period, Mao set up a study group of four marshals on relations with Moscow and Washington. Marshals Chen Yi and Ye Jianying concluded that the best response would be for China to play the ‘US card’. This was because the US would not favour a Soviet conquest of China. This led to secret talks with the Americans which concluded with President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 (Andrew and Mitrokhin 2005: 281). The Soviets engaged in the same exercise but concluded that the main adversary remained the US.

In August 1969, President Nixon, at a National Security Council meeting, argued that the Soviet Union was the more dangerous party and it would run counter to US interests if China were ‘smashed’ in a Sino-Soviet war. Kissinger put out a directive stating that the US would remain neutral in the case of a Sino-Soviet conflict but would lean towards China to the greatest possible extent. This was revolutionary after two decades of enmity between Beijing and Washington, as capitalist America wanted the second most powerful communist state to survive and would assist it to do so. Recent research indicates that the Soviets came very close to launching an attack, and it was only uncertainty about America’s reaction which held them back. Mao expected an attack, on 1 October, the anniversary of the revolution, and ordered all leaders to disperse around the country (except Zhou who was to run the government), and the military was placed on ‘first degree combat readiness’ alert (Kissinger 2012: 218–20).

Zhou met Kosygin at Beijing airport in late September, and they agreed to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict. On 11 December, border talks failed again, but on 1 May 1970, Mao received the head of the Soviet border negotiation team and told him that the two sides should only fight with words. An uneasy truce ensued.

The Chinese version is as follows:

The US had been sending U-2 planes from Taiwan over central and western China and located Lop Nor, in south east Xinjiang, as the nuclear test facility. Washington expected China to test a nuclear device in in 1962 and a nuclear bomb in 1965. President Kennedy feared, in 1961, that a nuclear armed China would gobble up South East Asia. As a result, on 14 July 1963, in Moscow, an American official gave a detailed presentation of China’s nuclear potential and proposed a joint attack to eliminate it. Khrushchev refused, stating that China posed no threat. The US considered other options: an attack by Taiwanese and American paratroops, conventional and nuclear bombs.

In August 1964, the US predicted that China would explode its first nuclear bomb in 1965 but the Middle Kingdom exploded it in October 1964. President Johnson called it the ‘blackest and most tragic day for the free world’.

In October 1969, all party and military leaders were told to leave Beijing, and Mao moved to Wuhan. Liu Shaoqi ordered 940,000 soldiers, 4,000 aircraft and 600 ships to scatter, airport runways were blocked and workers were given weapons to shoot Soviet air force personnel when they landed. Major archives were moved from Beijing to the south west, and the Chinese were told to prepare for war (South China Morning Post, 12 May 2010, quoting a Beijing scholar). An underground city of 85 km 2 was built under the capital. By the end of 1970, the country’s seventy-five largest cities had enough underground shelters to house 60 per cent of the population. Over 1,800 factories were transferred to remote areas to protect them from attack, but economically it was a colossal waste of resources (Dikötter 2016: 212, 214, 218).

Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin informed Henry Kissinger of Soviet plans to launch a nuclear attack on China and requested the US remain neutral. The White House leaked the story to the Washington Post, which wrote that the Soviet Union planned to attack Beijing, Chongqing, Anshan and its missile launch centres at Jinquan, Xichang and Lop Nor.

On 15 October, Henry Kissinger informed Dobrynin that if the Soviet Union launched nuclear missiles at China, Washington would launch nuclear missiles against 130 Soviet cities. President Nixon was also concerned about the effect of a nuclear war on the 250,000 US troops in the Asia-Pacific region.

Nixon viewed the Brezhnev leadership as a collective whose main concern was to stay in power. A collective leadership was less likely to engage in rash judgements. The president rated Mao and Zhou Enlai more highly than the comrades in Moscow. Another explanation would be that Moscow wanted to signal to Beijing that it was serious about ending the border conflict but never had any intention of launching a nuclear attack. Leaking the information to the Washington Post provided the Soviet leadership with global publicity, and this is precisely what it wanted.

The People’s Republic faced the threat of a nuclear attack five times: once by the US and the USSR in 1963 (if we accept Chinese information on this), three by the US (in 1950, 1955, and 1958) and one by the Soviet Union in 1969.

In January and February 1955, the PLA captured two islands opposite Fujian. The Taiwanese, helped by the US Navy, evacuated 25,000 soldiers and 15,000 civilians to Taiwan and centred their defences on Quemoy and Matsu. On 6 March, John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state, made it clear that if the PLA took over Quemoy and Matsu, it would be a disaster for Taiwan and the rest of Asia. Nuclear weapons might be used to defend the islands.

In late March, B-36 planes in Guam were loaded with nuclear weapons ready for action. However, there was worldwide criticism of the decision to use nuclear weapons to defend these small islands. The US pulled back and began discussions at ambassadorial level with the Chinese in Geneva later that year.

The next nuclear threat occurred after the PLA launched 45,000 shells at Quemoy on 23 August 1958. The following day, it attacked ships leaving the island for Taiwan and enforced a blockade. Five B-47s were put on standby to launch a nuclear attack on Xiamen airport. However, like President Truman, President Eisenhower decided not to use nuclear weapons to defend the islands and instead rely on conventional weapons.

In October 1969, Deng, his wife and stepmother were exiled to Nanchang. They spent three and a half years there where Deng engaged in ‘corrective’ labour at a tractor repair plant alongside his wife. Political re-education consisted of reading the works of Mao and newspapers, but their children were permitted to visit them. Mao was shocked when Lin Biao, his anointed successor, suddenly attempted to flee to the Soviet Union, but the plane crashed in Mongolia and all aboard were killed. The KGB severed Lin’s head, boiled it to remove the hair and skin and placed the skull in its museum in the Lubyanka (Dikötter 2016: 252).

Mao began to see Deng in a better light, and, in February 1972, his party membership was restored. In February 1973, Deng and his family were rehabilitated and returned to Beijing. A major reason for this was that Zhou Enlai was dying of cancer. He was irreplaceable, and Mao judged that he needed Deng’s expertise and experience.

In December 1973, Deng returned to the Politburo, headed the Party Secretariat and became a member of the Central Military Commission. Jiang Qing was not amused as Deng’s rise weakened her political influence. Economic difficulties led Mao to appoint Deng deputy prime minister in October 1974, and he was also made chair of the Central Military Commission and Chief of the General Staff. He became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee in January 1975 and began to implement the four modernisations: agriculture, industry, defence and science and technology laid down by Zhou Enlai in December 1964. The goal was to attain the present development level of advanced countries by the end of the century. Jiang Qing and the left (with three others, they were labelled the Gang of Four) began chipping away at Deng’s power base.

In January 1976, Mao appointed Hua Guofeng as acting prime minister and head of the Party Central Committee. The next month Hua (read Mao) declared open season on Deng. Jiang Qing called him a ‘counterrevolutionary double dealer, a fascist, a representative of the bourgeoisie, a betrayer of the fatherland and an agent of international capitalism in China’. Mao tried to rein her in, but she controlled the press and pilloried him there. Rumours that Zhou Enlai had been a capitalist roader ignited protests which became violent and had to be suppressed. Jiang blamed Deng for heading the ‘counterrevolutionary uprising’, and he was dismissed from all his posts but remained a party member and was placed under house arrest. When Mao passed away on 9 September 1976, Deng was apprehensive as things could get worse for him.

A secret plan was devised, on 26 September 1976, to depose the Gang of Four by Hua Guofeng. On 6 October, the Politburo Standing Committee convened, ostensibly to discuss Mao’s legacy, and two members of the Gang of Four were arrested as they arrived. Another was taken into custody at his home. Jiang Qing was in bed when the troops arrived, and she realised it was a coup. There was some fighting between the military and local radical militias, but the radicals had no hope of success. Ye Jianying, the minister of defence, was offered the top post but declined and passed it on to Hua Guofeng, who thus stepped into Mao’s shoes. The Gang of Four were not charged with ‘ultra leftism’ but ‘ultra right opportunism’! (Pantsov 2015: 308).

Within a month after Mao’s death, the Cultural Revolution was over. It had devastated the economy and led to between 1.5 and 2 million deaths (Dikötter 2016: xvi), but it had also ruined the lives of millions more.


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