Let the Shelling Begin

The remains of Laika, the stray dog catapulted into orbit days before the celebration marking the October Revolution, were burned up as Sputnik II disintegrated on re-entering the atmosphere in April 1958. As the space coffin circled the earth, the world below it changed. Fired by the missile gap the Russians had exposed, President Eisenhower sent ballistic missiles to Great Britain, Italy and Turkey. Khrushchev responded with submarines carrying nuclear missiles. But, for his threat to be credible, a submarine base in the Pacific Ocean was needed, which in turn required a radio transmitter station. Moscow approached Beijing with a proposal to build long-wave radio stations on the Chinese coast, suggesting that they might serve a joint submarine fleet.

On 22 July Soviet ambassador Pavel Yudin sounded out the Chairman with a proposal. Mao flew into a rage. During a stormy meeting, he attacked the hapless ambassador, claiming, ‘You just don’t trust the Chinese, you only trust the Russians. Russians are superior beings, and the Chinese are inferior, careless people, that’s why you came up with this proposal. You want joint ownership, you want everything as joint ownership, our army, navy, air force, industry, agriculture, culture, education: how about it? Why don’t we hand over our thousands of kilometres of coastline to you, we will just maintain a guerrilla force. You have a few atomic bombs and now you want to control everything, you want to rent and lease. Why else would you come up with this proposal?’ Khrushchev, Mao continued, behaved towards China like a cat playing with a mouse.1

The outburst came like a bolt out of the blue to the Russians: seeing conspiracies everywhere, Mao was convinced that the proposal for a joint fleet was a manoeuvre by Khrushchev to renege on a promise made a year earlier to deliver an atom bomb, and no amount of explaining could allay Mao’s suspicions.2

On 31 July Khrushchev flew to Beijing to save the situation. But whereas lavish hospitality had welcomed Mao in Moscow seven months earlier, the Soviet leader was met with a cool reception at the airport. ‘No red carpet, no guards of honour, and no hugs,’ recalled interpreter Li Yueran, just a stony-faced team including Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.3 Khrushchev was relegated to lodgings without air-conditioning up in the hills far out of Beijing. Moving his bed to the terrace to escape the stifling heat, that night he was devoured by swarms of mosquitoes.4

Immediately after Khrushchev’s arrival a long and humiliating meeting was held at Zhongnanhai. The Soviet leader was forced to explain Yudin’s démarche at great length, and took pains to defuse a visibly irritated Mao. Impatient, Mao at one point jumped out of his chair to wave a finger in Khrushchev’s face: ‘I asked you what a common fleet is, you still didn’t answer me!’

Khrushchev became flushed and strained to stay calm.5 ‘Do you really think that we are red imperialists?’ he asked in exasperation, to which Mao retorted that ‘there was a man who went by the name of Stalin’ who had turned Xinjiang and Manchuria into semi-colonies. After more squabbling about real or perceived slights, the idea of a joint fleet was finally abandoned.6

More humiliation followed next day, as Mao, clad only in a bathrobe and slippers, received Khrushchev by the side of his swimming pool in Zhongnanhai. Mao realised that Khrushchev did not know how to swim, and put the Soviet leader on the defensive. After spluttering about with a bulky lifebelt in the shallow end, Khrushchev ended up crawling out of the pool and floundered on the edge, clumsily dangling his legs in the water while Mao swam back and forth, showing off different strokes to his guest before turning on to his back and floating comfortably in the water.7 All the while, interpreters scurried about at the side of the pool trying to catch the meaning of the Chairman’s political musings. Later Mao explained to his doctor that this had been his way of ‘sticking a needle up Khrushchev’s arse’.8

Mao had started a bidding war with Khrushchev in Moscow half a year earlier. Now, treading water as his host sat defeated by the side of the pool, the Chairman talked about the success of the Great Leap Forward. ‘We have so much rice that we no longer know what to do with it,’ he bragged, echoing what Liu Shaoqi had told Khrushchev a few days earlier at the airport when reviewing the country’s economy: ‘What we worry about now is not so much lack of food, but rather what to do with the grain surplus.’9 A baffled Khrushchev diplomatically replied that he was unable to help Mao with his predicament. ‘We all work hard yet never manage to build up a good reserve,’ Khrushchev thought. ‘China is hungry but now he tells me there is too much rice!’10

Over the years Mao had taken the measure of Khrushchev. Now he bossed him around, dismissing the need for a submarine base and brushing aside a request for a radio station. The Soviet delegation went home empty-handed. But this was not the end of it, as Mao was determined to take the initiative in world affairs. A few weeks later, on 23 August, without advance warning to Moscow, Mao gave the order to start shelling the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Strait, controlled by Chiang Kai-shek, triggering an international crisis. The United States responded by reinforcing its naval units and arming a hundred jet fighters in Taiwan with air-to-air missiles. On 8 September Moscow was forced to take sides by throwing its weight behind Beijing, proclaiming that an attack on the People’s Republic of China would be considered an attack on the Soviet Union.11 Mao was jubilant. He had forced Khrushchev to extend the protective mantle of nuclear power to China while at the same time wrecking Moscow’s bid to reduce tensions with Washington. As he put it to his doctor, ‘The islands are two batons that keep Khrushchev and Eisenhower dancing, scurrying this way and that. Don’t you see how wonderful they are?’12

But the real reason for the bombing of the islands had nothing to do with international relations. Mao wanted to create a heightened sense of tension to promote collectivisation: ‘A tense situation helps to mobilise people, in particular those who are backward, those middle-of-the-roaders . . . The people’s communes should organise militias. Everyone in our country is a soldier.’13 The Taiwan Strait crisis provided the final rationale for the entire militarisation of the country. An East German studying in China at the time called it ‘Kasernenkommunismus’, or communism of the barracks, and it found its expression in the people’s communes.14

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