Fall & Rise — The Soviet Union, China and Peripheral Diplomacy

The following interview with the historians Shen Zhihua 沈志华 and Li Danhui 李丹慧 was conducted at The Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), 17 April 2015, by Ying Qian, a CIW Postdoctoral Fellow, and others. It took place following the workshop ‘The Long Shadow of the San Francisco Peace Treaty: East Asia from Post-war Settlement to 21st-century Tensions — and Beyond’ organised by the China, Japan and Korea institutes of the ANU College of ANU & the Pacific with the support of CIW.

For a profile of Shen Zhihua on this site, see Key Intellectuals: Shen Zhihua 沈志华. For details of Li Danhui, her journal International Cold War Studies 国际冷战研究 and the Centre for Cold War International History Studies 冷战国际史研究中心 at East China Normal University, go to: Coldwarchina.org.

Our thanks to Will Zou 鄒述丞 for transcribing the interview and to Ying Qian 錢穎 for her draft translation.

GRB=Geremie R Barmé; Li=Li Danhui; RR=Richard Rigby; Shen=Shen Zhihua; YQ=Ying Qian. — The Editors


Mikhail Gorbachev, Andrei Gromyko and Nikolai Ryzhkov. Red Square. 1988

Mikhail Gorbachev, Andrei Gromyko and Nikolai Ryzhkov in Red Square, 1988; from the website of The Gorbachev Foundation

YQ: Could you tell us about the research undertaken at your centre, the Centre for Cold War International History Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai?

Shen: We have two research directions. First, we study issues related to the transition of socialist countries, such as those experienced by the USSR and the Eastern Bloc. Secondly, we conduct research on how countries proximate to China, that is, in Asia and the Pacific region, have developed policies towards China.

In regard to the first topic, we mainly focus on archival research. We try to amass every archival document we can find related to the fall of the Soviet Union, including all the documents generated by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) following Gorbachev’s rise to power. We also study Eastern Europe, particularly on how the countries of the East were incorporated into the socialist camp.

At East China Normal University, besides our research centre where Li Danhui and I work, another research centre run by professors Zhang Jishun 张济顺 and Yang Kuisong 杨奎松 has devoted considerable effort into collecting archival materials [中国当代史研究中心, which focusses on the People’s Republic era in Chinese history]. The two research centres have now created a joint archive. We want to consolidate all of our archival materials and provide access to scholars both in China and from overseas. We have archival material collected from many countries, from Russia, more than ten thousand files from Eastern Europe, as well as from Japan, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. We have just visited Cambodia and established a relationship with the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.

We base our historical research on archival documents, and focus mainly on the transition process of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Of course, this should also include China itself, but for the moment we don’t yet work on China. We will one day.

So one of our state-funded projects of ‘national significance’ is to collect archival materials and conduct historical research on Mikhail Gorbachev and the transition of the Soviet Union. For this project, we have collected almost all the minutes of the meetings of USSR Central Politburo from the time that Gorbachev came into power in 1985, as well as records of Gorbachev’s conversations and speeches when he met with foreign leaders.

We are going to Moscow in June this year. Besides going to purchase some new declassified documents from the archive of the Party’s Central Committee, we have also established links with The Gorbachev Foundation. They have collected many unique documents, including the personal archives of Gorbachev himself. I have also been in direct communication with Mikhail Gorbachev, and will be interviewing him. I am very interested in this figure. In the histories of the Communist Party, be they in the Soviet Union, China, or Eastern Europe, such personalities have always existed: Zhao Ziyang, Gorbachev, Nagy, Tito. They rebelled against the orthodoxy. Even if, in the end, they are accused of betraying the revolution or whatever, their existence shows that within the ranks of the Communist Party there are ideas and tendencies.

GRB: They are internal opponents.

Shen: Yes, what on earth were they thinking? How did they get to where they were? People like Zhao Ziyang were already in leading positions of the Party. I am very interested in this question, though it’s not easy to study this topic in the Chinese context.

GRB: Do you subscribe to the concept of universal human values?

Shen: I think there are universal values. In the future I might write a biography of Gorbachev, an attempt to study this person in depth. Initially, I had also wanted to write on Nagy, as I had spent a lot of time studying Hungary. This July we will be holding a conference in Leipzig with our Russian and Eastern European colleagues. Besides Chinese scholars, we also have collaborators in Russia and Eastern Europe who are working with us on this project. I have tried to find at least one local scholar in each given country. They help us in our efforts to collect archival materials.

Countries in Eastern Europe entered the Soviet camp and adopted the Socialist system in the 1940s. They experienced events such as the Berlin Uprising in 1953, the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the Poznan Protests, the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Polish Solidarity Movement in 1980. In the end, all these countries abandoned the socialist system. Why didn’t socialism work out in these countries? What happened?

It was a combination of people’s choices and party leaders’ decisions. In the end, all of this culminated in the dissolution of the USSR itself. I would like to comb through these histories. My main aim is to discuss the fate of Communist rule with the Chinese Communist Party. If you would like to maintain your rule, how can you do so? Both Danhui and I had parents who were old revolutionaries. They had followed Chairman Mao and fought for the founding of the People’s Republic. As scholars, we have to speak on the basis of historical fact. As an historical phenomenon, Communist rule has existed for only a few dozen years, less than a century. We have to explain this process from an historical perspective: its emergence, its continuation and its disappearance. I want to provide a scientific explanation to this process. I think that this endeavour is important. And our explanation of this history must be based on archival evidence. You can’t just speculate. Of course, I can find some kind of logic if I speculate, but that doesn’t have much objective value.

GRB: Yes, many such speculations exist, but they are often groundless. One has to ‘boldly make hypothesis and search for evidence with care’ 大胆假设,小心求证, as the scholar Hu Shi famously said.

Shen: That’s right.

RR: What about the dissolution of the USSR? The Chinese Communist Party has studied it for a long time, and has previously come up with a detailed analysis of what happened that was circulated internally. However, their analysis was not based on archival materials.

Shen: Yes, this is exactly the problem. It was said that one time, Xi Jinping spoke about the USSR during his visit to Shenzhen. [Supposedly quoting a Song-dynasty poem] he said that among all the party members in the USSR, there was not a single ‘real man’ who would stand up to prevent the dissolution of the Party [‘竟无一人是男儿’]. I’m not sure if this story is a rumour, or if he really did say something to this effect. Whatever the case, he’s not an expert on Soviet history, he doesn’t know this topic well. If he said these, he must have gotten the idea from others. The historical reality, of course, is much more complicated than this. We haven’t understood this history well at all. The explanation at the time [in China in the early 1990s] was a simple, political one. Basically, Gorbachev turned into a traitor, so the Communist Party of the USSR collapsed. This explanation was the easiest and most acceptable. But it is far from what really happened.

GRB: There is a saying current in China today: if we stand firm, and withstand the torrent, we will be okay.

Shen: Yes, and this explanation is unscientific. We need to do more research, go look at the archives, and only then we can start to describe and analyse what that historical process was really like. That’s why we are working on this project, and its significance is recognised by the state. In China, there are many different levels of research funding. We got the highest level of funding from the National Social Science Foundation, and both projects — on Eastern Europe and on the USSR — are listed as ‘projects of significant national importance’ 国家重大课题.

The em>China Daily's view of China's relations with neighbouring countries, from an opinion piece titled 'Inclusive and open strategy'.

The China Daily’s view of China’s relations with neighbouring countries, from an opinion piece titled Inclusive and open strategy.

Our second research direction, as I said at the start of this interview, is the question of China’s relations with regional, or peripheral, countries 周边国家. Xi Jinping stressed the importance of these relationships at a meeting in October 2013. We had already convened a conference of our own on this topic six months prior to that meeting. We’ve had a long-term interest in this topic. Danhui has been studying China’s relationship with the USSR and Vietnam; I have been conducting research on China’s relationship with the USSR and North Korea. Now, I’m also working on the Sino-Mongolian relationship. We increasingly feel that China has problems in dealing with the countries in its vicinity because, in China, we have no idea how others really think about us. What Chinese leaders are doing is, basically, imagining what other people might be thinking about China, and they base their policies on such speculations. Then they expect that people will act exactly as they have imagined!

Over the past fifty years, China has basically followed this same pattern when dealing with peripheral countries. Sometimes it expects things to turn out well because of wishful thinking; sometimes it guesses what others will most probably do, but it gets it wrong. There are all kinds of situation, but it basically boils down to the same thing: China’s leaders don’t understand how other peoples look at China, and why they have certain policies towards China. Is China’s relationship with other countries in the region all that good and stable, and are all these people really embracing and supporting China? Not at all. We need to inform China’s leaders of concrete facts and real historical situations. We wrote up a long, book-length proposal for our project.

You see, the two of us have traveled to North Korea, Korea, Mongolia, Russia, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. We have traveled to many countries in the region, visited their archives, and found out what was declassified and open to the public. We came to Australia this time, not only for the the San Francisco Treaty System workshop, but also because we were interested in the Australian archives. We saw on the website of The Australian National Archive that it holds more than a thousand files on China’s relations with other countries in the region. I have a plan to build a major, comprehensive historical archive on China’s relations with peripheral nations, built up on the basis of others’ points of view. It’s impossible to be exhaustive, but I aim to publish a 150-volume collection of documents. I have already published a twelve-volume collection of Soviet documents related China. At the moment, I’m editing a collection of documents on China-North Korea relations, which will also amount to over ten volumes.

GRB: Which publisher do you work with?

Shen: We work with the Oriental Publishing Centre in Shanghai. We know that the collection of documents on China and North Korea would be sensitive, because it touches upon the Korean War, and on Mao Zedong and Kim Il Song. So I first went to a prestigious publishing house. I told them that I had a big project which would amount to 150 volumes, and asked them whether they would support it. They said, great. I then asked if they could give me a written document [to guarantee their support]. Now they are working on getting me the document. I also went to two publishers, the Oriental Publishing Centre in Shanghai and another one in Beijing. But this is still not secure. We need support from the state; without it and if we make one tiny mistake, or if one person decides to object to the project, the whole thing will be derailed.

GRB: One offensive sentence might end the whole thing.

Shen: Danhui and I discussed the situation and we decided to write a letter to Xi Jinping. We said how important this project was. Sure, you are concerned with China’s relations with its neighbours, but if you really want to know the real situation, you have to let us undertake meticulous and in-depth research. We have to collect archival materials and work with them. Only then can we tell you what has really happened. We asked him, is this okay? If you think it is, then we have a proposal that we can present. We sent him a catalogue of all the archival materials we had already amassed. By then we had already done a lot of work. We told him that if the state could support our endeavour, we could work on this big project. I wrote to three people [in the Politburo] at the same time — Xi Jinping, Yu Zhengshen 俞正声 and Wang Qishan 王岐山. I hoped that I could get one of them to respond.

GRB: Did they respond?

Shen: Yes, they did. Last month, when I was in Korea, I got a call on my mobile. I didn’t know who it was, but he said he was calling from the Central Propaganda Department, and he informed me that I had been commissioned to work on a research project. I immediately guessed that it was the project that I had written to them about. In my proposal, I said I would like to have a budget of twenty million RMB, and a period of ten years. So now we have the project. They gave it to us because we had already worked on it for two years. They saw how thick the catalogue I gave them was.

Li: Actually, two million RMB per year isn’t that much, but it’s good that the Central Propaganda Department supports us.

Shen: Yes. Funding is less an issue — I can get funding from other channels outside officialdom, from friends in the business sector.

GRB: This project is not only valuable to China, but to Australia and other countries in the region as well. Much of that history still needs to be clarified.

Shen: Yesterday we went to The Australian National Archive [but didn’t get to see the documents]. I thought we should have asked you for help.

GRB: You can tell us what you need. We can ask some relevant people.

Li Danhui: We can leave behind the catalogue, so you can help us find the documents.

Shen: So now we are planning gradually to publish these 150 volumes over the next seven or eight years. We don’t have many people at our centre — we have only seven or eight researchers — but we have organised a large research team across different countries.

GRB: How do you find the researchers to work on this project?

Shen: We have divided the project into four blocks: Northeast, Northwest, Southwest and Southeast. We have scholars leading research on each block. I have already finished editing the first half of the documents on Sino-Soviet relations. Afterwards, I will work on relations between China and North Korea up to 1976. I expect to finish that by this June. We have another researcher who is writing on Sino-Indian relations. Over the next ten years, we will publish histories of China’s relations with many countries in the region, even if for some countries we can only write a brief history; this is especially so in the case of countries where research has been scarce, such as Thailand and Singapore.

RR: Actually there are many documents in Thailand.

Shen: Yes, there are. We have already sent all our students. They are in every country in the region. We have also built collaborative relationships with a number of countries, such as Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia.