H-Diplo Article Review 779 on “Socialism, Capitalism and Sino-European Relations in the Deng Xiaoping Era"

George Fujii's picture






Article Review

No. 779

29 June 2018




Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse

Web and Production Editor: George Fujii


“Socialism, Capitalism and Sino-European Relations in the Deng Xiaoping Era.”  Special Issue of Cold War History 17:2 (May 2017):  111-197.


URL: http://tiny.cc/AR779


Review by Garret J. Martin, American University


The editors of the journal Cold War History have done the field of diplomatic history a great service by publishing this special issue on Sino-European relations in the age when Deng Xiaoping, as Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party of China, led the People’s Republic of China (1978-1989). Relying on extensive archival evidence, the four main articles of the issue, preceded by a helpful foreword and introduction, shed great light on the previously understudied field of Sino-European relations in the 1970s and 1980s; and by doing so, this scholarship furthers the goal of ‘decentering the Cold War,’ or going beyond the sole focus on the role of the superpowers during the East-West conflict. Granted, one does regret the slight lack of engagement between the articles that make up this special issue, as well as the lack of symmetry in approaches and format; but this minor criticism does not take away from the otherwise significant contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the later years of the Cold War.


The first two short articles set the stage for the special issue. The foreword, written by historian Odd Arne Westad, paints the broader story of Sino-European relations. According to him, Europe played a significant role in the post-Mao shift of Chinese policy for two main reasons: “The first was that Deng and other Chinese leaders hoped that China could acquire technology and markets in Europe that would make the country less dependent on the United States as Beijing’s renewed modernisation process took hold. The other was that China had an intrinsic interest in the fate of the socialist countries in Europe.”[1] Historical legacy further fueled that interest, as many Chinese leaders had developed a complex attitude toward Europe. While on the one hand, they had come to resent past imperialist practices, one the other hand, they admired Europe’s technological capacities. Moreover, as Westad points out, many Chinese leaders, including Deng, had studied in Europe in their youth, and one could not downplay the significance of them “having taken on a European political theory to help shape the future of China” (111).


The introduction, by Martin Albers and Zhong Zhong Chen, makes the case for the special issue. The authors note the very limited available research on the origins of Sino-European relations, which they point out is particularly surprising “given the density and degree of mutual economic dependence” that exists in the present.[2] And, as Albers and Chen explain, the scholarship that does exist tends to suffer from two shortcomings. A number of good studies do focus on the ties of individual European states with China, but “their mono-national focus prevents them from exploring the bigger picture”; and most of these works rarely tap into “archival material from beyond the 1960s,” be it on the Chinese or European side (116). This omission, in itself, could suffice to justify the need for a special issue. But Albers and Chen also argue that the special issue on Sino-European relations serves additional purposes. Besides helping to decenter the Cold War, the collection of articles on the latter stages of the Cold War can “allow us to ‘see into the future’ in the sense that they highlight the evolution of economic globalisation and the power shift away from the Atlantic and towards the Pacific context” (118).


The four main articles of the special issue do an admirable job of digging into the broad themes outlined in the introduction, starting with Vladislav Zubok’s study of relations between the Soviet Union and China. Zubok’s article provides a compelling explanation for the eventual Sino-Soviet normalization that occurred during the 1980s, putting particular emphasis on the lessened role of ideology: “What made this remarkable change [the end of Sino-Soviet confrontation] possible was one, but cardinal, factor: China and the Soviet Union no longer vied for leadership in the global revolutionary movement.”[3] This rapprochement, however, when it finally materialized, remained limited, more of a “reconciliation,” a “polite divorce,” as opposed to any new “vibrant partnership” (140).


In part, this reflected the slow pace at which Moscow and Beijing overcame the barriers to their reconciliation, including: the legacy of mistrust between Chinese and Soviet leaders; the three obstacles or conditions for normalization outlined by China;[4] and the dynamics of triangular diplomacy with the United States. The latter point mattered in particular, with the greatest obstacle being “China’s fear of jeopardizing relations with the United States and the transfer of Western technologies to China” (129). And even when Deng Xiaoping and then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, finally met in May 1989 to agree to bury the past, the extraordinary circumstances of the time created a distance between China and the Soviet Union. As Zubok explains, “they drew very different lessons from their common communist history, and they formed diametrically opposite lessons regarding the future. The Tiananmen tragedy confirmed both leaders in their determination not to emulate each other” (140). Whereas Gorbachev pursued political liberalization without economic reform, leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Deng Xiaoping pursued the opposite path, but preserved the authority of the Chinese Communist Party.


The theme of a limited rapprochement also features heavily in the article by Margaret Gnoinska on Sino-Polish relations in the 1980s. China, which was focused on its own domestic reforms, initially paid very little attention to the growing economic crisis afflicting Poland in the late 1970s. But the dramatic events in Poland in 1980-81 changed the calculations of leaders in Beijing. Initially, Chinese propaganda outlets praised Solidarity; but “when the authority of the communist party became challenged by Solidarity, and when Poland’s national security became threatened by the Warsaw Pact military maneuvers, the Chinese leadership began to view the situation through a different lens and to draw lessons.”[5] As a consequence, Chinese officials and diplomats shifted to supporting the imposition of martial law in Poland and offered economic aid.


According to Gnoinska, four main ideological and political factors pushed China to provide broad economic and moral support for Poland: “the fear of spillover effects on China; second, China’s efforts to continue its differentiation policy in Eastern Europe; third, Beijing’s goals of normalizing its relations with the Soviet bloc nations; and fourth, Beijing’s gesture of reciprocity for Poland’s assistance during the US embargo in the 1950s” (152). Poland, for its part, approached Chinese aid carefully and pursued a dual track policy. On the one hand, facing major upheavals at home and a less generous Soviet patron, Polish leaders sought to “to obtain the maximum aid possible” from China (149). On the other hand, leaders in Warsaw knew they were walking a tightrope and were “mindful of any attempts by the PRC officials to negatively influence already strained and tense Polish-Soviet relations” (150). Because of the realities of blocs and alliances, Poland refused to go beyond discussing economic and trade ties with China until it received the support from the Soviet Union to do so.


Limitations of a different kind, such as historical legacies and the persistence of Cold War perceptions, also affected relations between the United Kingdom and China in this crucial period of the early 1980s. In his article, Chi-kwan Mark puts the spotlight on a specific moment, the visit of Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, to China in September 1982, in order to draw out broader themes of Sino-British relations.[6] The visit mattered first because it occurred at a crucial juncture for both the UK and China. It took place a few months after the Falklands War and in a difficult context for Sino-American relations, following the resumption of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. But it also mattered as the setting for the discussion about the future of Hong Kong, since the British lease over that territory was set to expire in 1997.


UK officials, including Thatcher, approached the meetings in Beijing with the idea of “‘educating’ China in Hong Kong’s capitalism.”[7] This British idea of ‘teaching’ the Chinese, according to Mark, had a long history dating back to the Victorian era, even if its actual purpose evolved over time. And in 1982, this took the form of Thatcher lecturing her Chinese counterparts about how capitalism worked in Hong Kong and what would be required to maintain its economic success: “‘[c]onfidence in Hong Kong, and thus its continued prosperity, depend on British administration’” (172). But, such arguments failed to move Deng Xiaoping, who insisted that “China would ‘recover’ its sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997—and no later” (172). He also challenged the assertion that “that the prosperity of Hong Kong could be maintained only under British administration’” (174).


If anything, the meetings between Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping confirmed the difficulties of shedding deeply held perceptions and to understand the motivations of counterparts. Thatcher’s assessment of her discussions with the Chinese leader emphasized that “Deng’s ‘pragmatism counted for little compared with his Marxist-Leninism’,” and that the “Chinese ‘thought they could run a capitalist society but they did not know what it meant’” (175). Moreover, Thatcher also essentially “underestimated the force of Chinese nationalism (as invoked by Deng) in the circumstances of 1982” (177-178). This blinded the UK’s leader to the feasibility of holding on to Hong Kong, as well as the possibility of successful economic reform in China.


The final article, written by Enrico Fardella, takes the long view to chronicle the story of Sino-Italian relations during the Cold War (1949-1989), with an avowed goal of shedding light on two important historical trends: “the decline of Europe and the ascent of Asia.”[8] According to Fardella, Italy missed an opportunity to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1950, but it was thwarted by U.S. pressure and the tense context of that year, marked by McCarthyism and the Korean War. And in that aftermath, Italy stuck to a long-term effort to free itself from some of the shackles of the Cold War structure. China became, for Italy, “an opportunity to gain more freedom of action from Washington and upgrade its status vis-à-vis the other allies within NATO” (184).


But, Rome’s attempts to forge closer ties with Beijing, and thereby give itself more diplomatic breathing room, faced many challenges along the way. This included risking objections from the U.S. which was firmly opposed to recognizing Communist China, and Chinese inflexibility in the 1950s and 1960s. When a broader movement of normalization finally took place between China and the West in the 1970s, Italy suddenly had to contend with many competitors. It was harder to stand out, and “the growing competition brought in by these and other countries affected Italian exports to China and Italian presence in the Chinese market shrunk (from 2.5% in 1971 to 1.6% in 1973)” (189-190). And on top of this, “the anti-Soviet rationale of the new Chinese strategy in the 1970s” was “at odds with Italian support” (190).


The 1980s did, finally, mark somewhat of a golden age for Sino-Italian relations, defined by rapidly growing economic cooperation and culminating in the visit to Beijing of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi in 1986, the first since mutual recognition. But that period proved short-lived, once Italy became embroiled in Mani Pulite, a prolonged nationwide judicial investigation into systematic corruption among the Italian political establishment. And ultimately, as Fardella concludes, Sino-Italian cooperation would always be limited by the very differing perceptions existing in Rome and Beijing. Whereas Italy saw in China an opportunity to gain more diplomatic margin of action vis-à-vis the U.S., China “looked at Italy as a mere instrument in its anti-hegemonic struggle” (195). In other words, both countries wanted to escape the constraints of the bipolar structure of the Cold War, but for very different reasons.


In sum, this special issue as a whole deserves great praise for bringing attention to a subject that has thus far received limited attention. It does so on the basis of excellent, well-researched, and engaging articles, which rely on new archival evidence and great analysis. As discussed in the introduction, these pieces also allow us to form a broader picture of the multi-faceted nature of Sino-European relations at a crucial time in the latter stages of the Cold War. They are tied by their emphasis on the various limitations – historical and personal - that affected any major rapprochement between China and Europe. And, on top of that, this issue is a testament to the importance of collaborative work in order to enrich the field of Cold War History.


Invariably, all scholarship presents some flaws and limitations, and this special issue is no exception. There is, inevitably, a clear imbalance at the heart of the articles, which rely heavily on European sources at the expense of Chinese documents. That Chinese documents are harder to access is not the fault of the authors, but it does mean a slightly incomplete picture of Sino-European relations. Second, it would have been helpful if the articles had engaged with each other as well, and if there had been a greater symmetry of approach. After all, the pieces shift from a longue durée focus on Sino-Italian relations during the whole Cold War to a very specific snapshot of Sino-British encounters in September 1982.


Third, the articles are on shakier ground when it comes to fulfilling the aim of shedding light on the future of Sino-European relations. But these minor quibbles should not take away from the impressive quality of this special issue, which is heavily recommended reading for all those who are interested in Cold War history in general, and China and Europe in particular.


Dr. Garret J. Martin is a Professorial Lecturer at the School of International Service of American University. He has written widely on transatlantic relations, both in the field of history and contemporary affairs, and focuses in particular on security, European foreign policy and defense, France, and the United Kingdom. He is the author of General de Gaulle's Cold War: Challenging American Hegemony, 1963-1968 (Berghahn Books, 2013).


© 2018 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] Odd Arne Westad, “China and the end of the Cold War in Europe,” Cold War History 17:2 (May 2017): 111.

[2] Martin Albers and Zhong Zhong Chen, “Socialism Capitalism and Sino-European Relations in the Deng Xiaoping Era, 1978-1992,” Cold War History 17:2 (May 2017): 115.

[3] Vladislav Zubok, “The Soviet Union and China in the 1980s: Reconciliation and Divorce,” Cold War History 17:2 (May 2017): 122.

[4] The three obstacles listed by China were the Soviet military presence along China's northern frontier, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and Soviet support for Vietnam's intervention in Cambodia. See Colin Campbell, “China lists three obstacles to closer Soviet relations,” New York Times, 18 September 1983, https://www.nytimes.com/1983/09/18/world/china-lists-3-obstacles-to-closer-soviet-relations.html , accessed 4 April 2018.

[5] Margaret K. Gnoinska, “Socialist Friends Should Help Each Other in Crises’: Sino-Polish Relations within the Cold War Dynamics, 1980-1987,” Cold War History 17:2 (May 2017): 145.

[6] Chi-kwan Mark, “To ‘Educate’ Deng Xiaoping in Capitalism: Thatcher’s Visit to China and the Future of Hong Kong in 1982,” Cold War History, 17:2 (May 2017): 168

[7] Ibid.

[8] Enrico Fardella, “A Significant Periphery of the Cold War: Italy-China Bilateral Relations, 1949–1989,” Cold War History 17:2 (May 2017): 182.