Mikhail Klochko received his recall telegram on 16 July 1960. Together with some 1,500 Soviet advisers and 2,500 dependants, he was ordered to pack up and leave by his embassy in Beijing. His hosts were courteous to the last, having been instructed to provide every assistance possible – as well as to obtain, by any means possible, all the technical information that the Russians had not already handed over.1 At a banquet for the departing advisers, foreign minister Chen Yi thanked them warmly for their immense help and wished them good health. On a more sour note, a Soviet delegate complained, ‘We’ve done so much for you, and you are not content.’2
After Mao had initiated an international crisis by shelling Quemoy and Matsu two years earlier, Khrushchev started to reconsider his offer to deliver a sample atom bomb to China. Nuclear disarmament talks between the Soviet Union and the United States prompted him to delay honouring his pledge, and in June 1959 he finally reneged on his promise altogether.3 In late September 1959, at a summit between the USA and the Soviet Union, Khrushchev agreed to a reduction of 1 million in the total number of Soviet troops, seeking a further rapprochement with the United States. Relations further deteriorated when Khrushchev visited Beijing a few months later to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic. The Soviet delegation clashed with their hosts over a series of issues, including a border dispute between China and India, as Moscow attempted to act as an intermediary between the two countries instead of backing its ally Beijing. In the spring of 1960, Beijing started openly to challenge Moscow for the right to lead the socialist camp, denouncing Khrushchev in increasingly vituperative terms for his ‘revisionism’ and his pursuit of ‘appeasement with imperialists’.4Angered, the Soviet leader retaliated by pulling all Soviet advisers out of China.5
The withdrawal came as a blow to Mao. It led to the collapse of economic relations between the two countries, the cancellation of scores of large-scale projects and a freeze in high-end military technology transfers. As Jung Chang and Jon Halliday point out in Mao: The Unknown Story, the population should have benefited from these cancellations, as less food would now have to be exported to pay for expensive projects.6 But where the agreements allowed for repayments to be made over sixteen years, Mao insisted on settling up ahead of schedule: ‘Times were really tough in Yan’an [during the war], we ate hot peppers and nobody died, and now that things are much better than in those days, we want to fasten our belts and try to pay the money back within five years.’7 On 5 August 1960, even before the departure of all Soviet specialists was completed, provincial leaders were warned by phone that the country was not exporting enough, as it was heading towards a deficit in the balance of payments of 2 billion yuan. Every effort had to be made to honour the Soviet debt within two years, and this had to be done by increasing exports of grain, cotton and edible oils as much as possible.8
The true scale of early repayments to the Soviet Union has only just come to light with the opening of the archives in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, where an army of accountants kept detailed records of how shifting exchange rates, the changing gold content of the ruble, re-negotiations of trade agreements and the calculation of interest rates affected repayments to the Soviet Union. They show that Moscow lent some 968.6 million rubles to Beijing between 1950 and 1955 (not including interest). By the time of the recall of Soviet experts some 430.3 million rubles were still owed.9 But as a consequence of the trade deficit further loans were contracted during the following years, and by the end of 1962 the total owed by Beijing stood at 1,407 million rubles (1,275 million in loans plus interest estimated at 132 million). Some 1,269 million of this was amortised by 1962.10 In other words, while the total debt increased from 968 to 1,407 million rubles, China managed to pay off roughly half a billion between 1960 and 1962, as tens of millions of Chinese died of famine. It may be that this amount was actually smaller, as the figure provided for 1960 did not include interest, which was presumably repaid on top of capital, but even if we allow for a correction of 10 per cent the fact remains that large sums of money were paid to the Soviet Union. In 1960 some 160 million rubles were sent to clear part of the debt, while in 1962 about 172 million rubles were returned (the figure for 1961 is missing but is likely to be similar).11 Large amounts of exports were also used to amortise the debt, meaning that by the end of 1962 China owed the Soviet Union only 138 million rubles: China insisted on paying 97 million in 1963, clearing the debt by 1965.12
But the Russians never asked for an accelerated repayment. On the contrary, they agreed in April 1961 that 288 million rubles in unpaid balances should be refinanced as a new credit, with the payments taking place over four years, the first in 1962 being no more than 8 million.13 As the moratorium on the trade deficit worked like an unplanned loan, it actually meant that China was given more economic aid by the Soviet Union than any other country had received during a single year to date.14
The real damage done to the economy by the recall of all experts was minor, since few civilian specialists worked in agriculture. And even if some industrial projects were delayed by the withdrawal of foreign expertise, the economy, at this stage, was already in deep trouble. But Mao conveniently blamed the Soviet Union for China’s economic collapse, starting one of the most enduring myths about the famine, namely that hunger was caused by Soviet pressure to pay back the debts. Already in November 1960 China invoked natural catastrophes as well as the immense damage done to the entire economy by the Soviet recall to explain delays in the delivery of foodstuffs to East Germany.15 In 1964, Mikhail Suslov, the chief ideologue in foreign policy in Moscow, noted that China blamed the Soviet Union for the famine.16 To this day, when ordinary people who survived the famine are asked what, in their opinion, caused mass starvation, the answer almost invariably points to the Soviet Union. This is how a farmer from Shajing, near the Hong Kong border, explained the famine in a recent interview: ‘The government owed the Soviet Union a huge sum of money and needed to repay the loans. A very huge sum of loans. So all the produce in the country had to be submitted. All the livestock and the grain had to be given out to the government to repay the loans to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union forced China to repay the loans.’17
Did the recall of foreign advisers hasten the adoption of policies in China designed to tackle the famine? Few observers, at the time or to this day, see it in that light. Khrushchev is roundly blamed for having shot himself in the foot: overnight the Soviet leader threw away whatever leverage he had over China. Especially scathing of their leader were Russian diplomats serving in Beijing at the time, for instance Stepan Chervonenko and Lev Deliusin, who relished their country’s ‘special relationship’ with China – and hence their own positions as intermediaries between the countries.18 Khrushchev himself certainly had no such goal in mind. He probably expected a humbled China to come back to the table to renegotiate in terms more amenable to the Soviet Union. But whether he intended to do so or not, Khrushchev’s move did contribute to isolating Mao further, hitting him just when reports were coming in from all parts of the country about the effects of mass starvation. In fact, Mao became so depressed in the summer of 1960 that he took to his bed, seemingly incapable of confronting adverse news.19 He was in retreat, trying to find a way out of the impasse.