China’s Role in Suppressing the Hungarian Revolt in 1956

For most historians, China’s significant influence in Eastern Europe after Stalin’s death began with its role in solving political crises there in October and November 1956. Briefly speaking, when Moscow decided to put down the Polish workers’ uprising in mid-October 1956 by using force, Beijing opposed the decision on the grounds that the Polish problem was caused mainly by “big-power chauvinism” (referring to Moscow’s arrogance and interference in the domestic affairs of other countries) instead of Western antisocialist conspiracy. [In contrast], when Moscow was wavering between using force and a hands-off policy in face of the Hungarian crisis at the very end of October, Beijing urged Moscow to send its troops into Budapest. According to some Chinese sources made available in the late 1990s, from 19 to 31 October 1965, a time in which the Polish-Hungarian crisis reached its peak, communication and discussion between Moscow and Beijing were unusually constant and intense….

The most critical moments came on 29 and 30 October. On the evening of 29 October, Khrushchev and other Russian leaders met the Chinese in their residence and told them both Poland and Hungary were asking Moscow to withdraw its army from their countries. While insisting Moscow should change its “big-power chauvinism” attitude toward other communist countries, Liu Shaoqi said that under current circumstances it would be better for the Soviet army to remain and combat the antirevolutionaries. During the conversation the Chinese delegation received a call from Mao, whose suggestion was different from Liu’s. Mao said that it was the time for Moscow to withdraw its army from the two countries and let them be independent. Liu accepted Mao’s suggestion and conveyed it to Khrushchev. The next day, however, the Chinese delegation received a situation report from the Soviet leadership. The report was written by Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet first deputy premier and skillful communicator between Moscow and other communist states, who had been sent to Hungary before the Chinese delegation arrived in Moscow. The report stated that since 29 October, with the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Budapest and dissolution of the Hungarian security force, the Hungarian capital and many other parts of the country had been in chaos, and antirevolutionaries were killing communists. The Chinese delegation was taken by surprise. After a whole day of discussion, they concluded that the nature of the Hungarian development was different from that of the Polish, so the Soviet army needed to reenter the capital and crush the antirevolutionaries. Then in the evening Liu Shaoqi called Mao. Mao changed his earlier stand that the Russians should leave and agreed with the delegation’s conclusion, because, in addition to Liu’s report, he had been receiving daily situation reports from Hungary written by Ho Deqing, the Chinese ambassador, and Hu Jibang, chief correspondent of the People’s Daily in Budapest. But he said it would be better if the Russians would wait a while to let more antirevolutionaries expose themselves–a typical Maoist tactic later on used to smoke out China’s Rightists. After calling Mao, the Chinese requested an emergency meeting with the Russians. In the meeting, Liu Shaoqi, vice chairman of the CCP’s central committee, strongly suggested that Khrushchev not “give up” in Hungary but make more efforts to save the situation, while Deng Xiaoping, the general secretary of the CCP, explicitly urged that the Russian army return to the capital and seize the government. But Khrushchev was hesitant. He told the Chinese that since the situation had changed considerably in Hungary, the return of the Russian army would mean an occupation of the country and the Russians would be regarded as conquerors. Therefore Soviet leadership, Khrushchev told the Chinese, had decided not to send its troops back. Since the Russians had made the decision, the Chinese did not go further to assert their opinions. Instead Liu said to the Russians, jokingly, that yesterday we tried to pursue you to withdraw but you did not agree; today you came and tried to pursue us to agree with your decision to withdraw. All people in the meeting laughed. Then Liu told the Russians that the Chinese delegation would return to Beijing the next evening. But the next evening, 31 October, the Chinese delegation received a call from the Kremlin just before departure for the airport. The Russian leaders asked the Chinese to arrive the airport one hour earlier than scheduled to have an emergency meeting. At the airport, the Chinese met Khrushchev and other Russian leaders. Khrushchev told them the Russian leadership had changed its mind overnight and decided to send troops back to Budapest. Excited, Liu Shaoqi said that the Chinese were glad that now the Russian leadership had taken a stand to defend socialism. In fact, before the airport meeting, the Russian army had already moved back toward the Hungarian capital.

Moscow’s vacillation, reflected in the Chinese account, in solving the Hungarian crisis may be confirmed by Khrushchev’s own statement: “I don’t know how many times [we changed our minds] about whether to get out of Hungary or ‘crush the mutiny.’” It is difficult to decide exactly to what extent Beijing influenced Moscow in making decisions, but as the above Chinese account shows, the Chinese did play some role in the process and the Russians did take China’s attitude seriously. On 3 November 1956, three days after Russian tanks rumbled into Budapest, China’s People’s Daily was one of the earliest communist papers worldwide to hail the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian revolt. China further endorsed the political change in Hungary by sending Zhou Enlai, its premier, to the still-smoldering Budapest in mid-January 1957, where Zhou’s residence (although he stayed there for only one day) had to be guarded by Soviet tanks.

SOURCE: Yinghong Cheng, “Beyond Moscow-Centric Interpretation: An Examination of the China Connection in Eastern Europe and North Vietnam during the Era of De-Stalinization,” Journal of World History 15:487-518 (Project Muse subscription required).

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