What accounts for Mao-Tse Dong’s “Leaning to One Side” speech in 1949?

Photo Courtesy: The Statesman

By Yash Singh on December 20, 2022


The 1949 success of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Chinese Civil War marked a significant political development in international relations. The victory of the revolutionary People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the CCP over the ruling nationalist forces of the Guomindang (GMD) became imminent with the fall of the country’s de-facto capital at the time (Nanjing) in April 1949. During this time, Chairman Mao Zedong, soon-to-be the founder- leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), had to coordinate Chinese foreign policy by navigating the tricky waters of the Cold War, as the CCP was preparing to usher China among the international society of states. 

This nonplus ascendence to power of the CCP in October 1949 occurred at (and was notably influenced by) the onset of the Cold War in a post-World War II era. The context is critical as the Cold War marked the political bifurcation of the international system into the Soviet Union-led and the US-led spheres of influence. The all-powerful Central Committee (CC) of the CCP, led by the Chairman, had to factor in several political and socio-economic variables (both domestically and internationally) to contemplate and determine whether to initiate an independent path as a politically-neutral state or support one of the blocs. This assumes importance as China was ravaged both by the civil war and the brutal Japanese occupation (and associated military resistance by both CCP and GMD), hence the need of crucial monetary and human resources to rebuild the country. A policy of equilibrium which projected the country’s pursual of pressing economic rejuvenation was sought, as well as an allegiance to the shared ‘revolutionary zeal’ of the Chinese commune against any exploitative hierarchy.   

On 30th June, Chairman Mao published an article titled “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship” for the People’s Daily, in which he famously announced the policy of ‘leaning to one side’, which meant backing the Soviet Union in the Cold war. “The forty years’ experience of Sun Yat-sen and the twenty-eight years’ experience of the [CCP] have taught us to lean to one side… we are firmly convinced that… to win victory and consolidate it we must lean to one side” Mao wrote (Nakajima, 1995). This essay will zero in on two mutually-reinforcing elements through which this policy can be rationalised: the historical-ideological factor and the Political Realism of the CCP. 

Historical-Ideological factors

The hyphenation of two separate variables (namely history and ideology) into one has been done to rationalise the CCP’s view of the outside world, derived from its lived historical experiences with imperialist countries. Here, the variable ‘history’ denotes the period of the military, political and economic subjugation of China in the 1800s and early 1900s by the western imperialists, an era the Chinese remember as the ‘Century of Humiliation’. The CCP and its cadres perceived communism as an ‘ideological vehicle’ to dismantle the domestic manifestation (corruption and societal injustice brought on by the feudal warlords, class supremacist, etc. overseen and underwritten by the GMD reactionaries) of this western capitalism-inspired imperialism. Such an ideological projection is said to be based on the collective conviction of the Chinese to restore (via popular revolution) the prestige and pre-eminence of the Chinese civilisation by safeguarding its national sovereignty and ushering in a just economic development. “[Such an] emotional commitment to national liberation provided the crucial momentum in Mao’s and his comrades’ choice of a Marxist-Leninist-style revolution” (Jian, 2001). The CCP believed that the “world is divided into two inherently hostile and warring camps that mirror the basic class division of contemporary society” (Levine, 1994). The Chinese identified their struggle against imperialism and its domestic manifestations with the global struggle against colonialism and thus band-wagoned with the socialist states for a global struggle to dismantle the old-world order. 

Levine (1994) explains that Mao and his fellow members of the CCP viewed the Soviet Union as the leader of the socialist states and China as one of its members. Such an argument does not mean that the then-ruling GMD did not envisage a united Chinese nation contributing to economic and social transformation to strengthen the political and territorial sovereignty. The ideological objectives of the CCP lay both national and international as they sought to expand and strengthen the socialist ideals and push back against western imperialism. “… other objectives … [such as] opposing imperialism [and] supporting national liberation struggles in the colonial world… were logical corollaries of the ideological imperative that dictated the PRC’s alignment with the socialist world” (Ibid., p.38). In 1946, Mao also positioned China as part of the ‘intermediate zone’ which was a ‘vast zone’ spanning Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. This zone impeded America’s ulterior objective of subjugating the anti-imperialist, anti-hegemon Soviet Union. Mao located China as part of this zone of resistance. 

After the Second World War, the CCP viewed the US as the successor of the imperialist world order that had once condemned the Chinese into the abyss of humiliation during the 19th century. “Mao’s and his comrades’ generation became indignant when they saw the… United States treat the ‘old’ declining China with arrogance and a strong sense of superiority” (Jian, 2001). The CCP’s antagonism towards the imperialist countries (Japan, UK, US, France, Tsarist Russia) can be perfectly encapsulated in their genuine resentment of the ‘Unequal Treaties’ which China was coerced into signing post the Opium Wars of 1839-42. “[These treaties] … often reached after a military defeat, contained one-sided terms requiring China to cede land, pay reparations, open treaty ports, or grant extraterritorial privileges to foreign citizens” (Fravel, 2005, p.47). The CCP’s conceptualisation of a new international order, Jun (2010) explains, involved the repudiation of these unequal treaties and restoration of China’s position as an equal power in global politics. But why was such antagonism reserved for the West even though Tsarist Russia was equally guilty of signing unequal treaties in the 19th century?

Mao answered this on his trip to Moscow in 1949. The Chairman noted that “… after the October Socialist Revolution [1917], the Soviet Government, in compliance with the policy of Lenin and Stalin, first abolished Tsarist Russia’s unequal treaties with China…” (Nakajima, 1995). Such an act of acknowledgement of historic injustices against (and associated lived experiences of) the Chinese, based on principles of egalitarianism and equality, buttressed the CCP’s faith in the Marxist-Leninist axioms as a vehicle to national unity and political liberation. This also strengthened their conviction that the USSR would internationally project such ideals to free the colonised/decolonised nations from the shackles of imperialism. But should Mao not have doubted Stalin’s commitment to the global revolutionary cause after the Soviets signed the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance with the GMD government in 1945? This treaty was an epitome of an ‘Unequal Treaty’ which set the legal base for agreements on the geopolitically critical Dalian Port, Port Arthur (designated as a naval base) and the joint ownership of the Changchun Railway in Manchuria in return for the recognition of the GMD government as legitimate. “… [as per their commitments to the Yalta agreement] the United States and the USSR forced the Chinese Nationalist government to accept the Soviet conditions” (Shen, 2020). Rather than blaming Stalin, the CCP perceived this treaty as the GMD’s ineptitude to promote the country’s national interest at the highest diplomatic level as they succumbed to pressure by the US to accede extraterritorial rights. This also reinforced the CCP’s projection of the GMD as a group of power-hungry feudalists which could wager national sovereignty to retain its grasp on power while condemning the nation to corruption, injustice and class exploitation. The CCP nevertheless made their disappointment with the treaty apparent to Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan, whom Stalin had sent in January 1949 to chart out the Soviet-Chinese relations. “Through Mikoyan, Stalin admitted that the 1945 agreement was unequal and the USSR was willing to suspend it. He even agreed to immediately withdraw Soviet troops from Lüshun and to renounce any territorial claims to Xinjiang” (Shen, 2020). Whatever Stalin’s motivation to agree to the treaty revision as well as recognition of the CCP as the legitimate rulers of China by the summer of 1949, Mao perceived it as a validation of the shared ideological principles which recognised all the states as equal partners in their aspiration to establish a just international order. Appropriate to the desired success of the international socialist movement within the context of the Cold War, Mao quickly reciprocated with his ‘leaning to one side policy’.     

CCP’s Realism 

Realism is a theory which can partly rationalise the ‘leaning to one side’ policy of Mao Zedong. As much as the ideological imperatives influenced the evolution of the said policy, realism on part of the CCP informed the degree of ‘leaning’. In 1946, Mao’s close aide and fellow CCP member Zhou Enlai informed the special U.S. envoy George Marshall that the extent of ‘leaning’ would depend on Washington’s policy towards the CCP (Goncharov, Lewin and Xue, 1995). Owing to the Treaty of 1945, the CCP doubted the degree to which Stalin adhered to the Marxist-Leninist principles. Stalin’s conviction to uphold the anti-imperialist axioms was further questioned as he tried to convince Mao to make peace with the GMD in August 1945. The CCP was incensed, but pragmatism prevailed. Jian (2001) notes that Chairman Mao rationalised the Soviet approach to the civil war by arguing that Stalin was forced to shoulder the responsibility of upholding the hard-fought international peace. “… if the Soviet Union were to assist us, the United States would certainly support Jiang, and, as a result, the cause of international peace would suffer and a world war might follow’’ (ibid., p. 28).

Mao’s pragmatism succeeded. The 1946 policy decisions by the US and GMD government respectively unnerved Stalin and made him suspicious of American machinations in China’s northeast region of Manchuria. The Dalian harbour and Port Arthur (Lushun) were critical to Soviet access to the Pacific Ocean. Stalin’s misgivings about American intentions in east Asia intensified as the US shut the Soviets out of any role in the administration of the post-war Japanese government (Jun, 2010). Given the strategic importance of the northeast, the US granted the GMD government request of airlifting nationalist troops to the northeast as part of Operation Beleaguer (1945). The Soviet Red Army, which had entered the war in east Asia after the Yalta Agreement, postponed its troop withdrawal from the northeast to late 1945. The CCP-GMD civil war had begun to shape itself along the contours of the Cold War. Jian (2001) mentions that the Soviet troops cooperated with the PLA in the northeast to wrest control of the cities and towns. Jun (2010) further notes that the CCP leadership was convinced about the American intervention in the civil war to aid GMD’s victory. The 1946 Commercial Treaty between the US and the GMD reinforced such fears amongst both the CCP and Soviets. Tensions between the US and the USSR had amplified in the same year owing to events such as the civil war in Greece; formalised by a politically-charged international discourse led by Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in March 1946. The Party scrutinised the restructuring of the international order along ideological lines. They believed that it was in the interest of the Party to court the USSR’s support by leveraging Stalin’s security concerns. “Mao… immediately set about drafting a theoretical overview that would locate the Chinese revolution according to Stalin’s post-war coordinates…” (Goncharov, Lewin and Xue, 1995). Despite the “… two decades of unreliable support, Mao decided to seek rapprochement with the [Stalin]…” (Luthi, 2008).

The CCP seceded its autonomy in matters of domestic political proceedings and governance when, as Goncharov et al. (1995) note, Mao redrafted the earlier ‘On Coalition Government’ report of 1945 upon learning of Stalin’s disapproval of the original version. “Mao [had] advocated the creation of a new democracy based on an alliance of workers, peasants and bourgeois elements… citizens could freely develop their individuality and a private capitalist economy” (Goncharov, Lewin and Xue, 1995). In 1947, the CCP revised its official slogan to “struggle against Chiang Kai-Shek and the United States and for the [Chinese nation] unity with the Communist Party and the Soviet Union.” They also unconditionally condemned Yugoslavian leader Josef Tito per the 1948 Cominform resolution to shed the perception of their ‘independence/neutrality’, despite having no enmity against him. Goncharov et al. (1995) further mention that the CCP had also decided they might temporarily keep some of the clauses of the 1945 Treaty which were essential to Moscow’s strategic interests as part of a quid-pro-quo. The CCP also resentfully recognised the authenticity of the 1945 referendum of outer Mongolia and gave up any claim on the Mongol nation. But how does realism explain such policy manoeuvres by the CCP? 

For Mao and co, the success of the revolution was not just the military defeat of the GMD. Rather, the parameter of success was the restructuring of the Chinese economy and its civil society as per the communist principles. Such objectives were directly dependent on the strength of the party and the resources at its disposal to usher in such reforms. And the CCP perceived the USSR as a potential guarantor of human, economic and diplomatic capital to help it firmly establish itself in power. In simple terms, they extrapolated the survival of a future communist state to the survival and strength of the Party. 

Even though the PLA made several gains, especially in the north and northeast owing to coordination with the Red Army, they understood that they will need a nod from the top of the Soviet political hierarchy to outright defeat the GMD forces and establish a stable CCP regime. And after significant pro-Soviet posturing backed by positive gains in the battlefield, “the USSR began to provide military assistance to the Chinese Communists in the summer of 1948” (Shen, 2020). The desire for a post-victory diplomatic recognition by the superpower was of utmost significance. Such a recognition of the success of the civil war would elevate the revolution within the global socialist movement against anti-imperialism and hence aid the legitimacy of the CCP’s advent to power amongst the Chinese. The CCP, nevertheless, was anxious about the gains of the revolution post-victory as it feared a lack of diplomatic recognition of the regime would impact their legitimacy at home. The Party had abandoned any possibility of normalisation of Sino-US relations given the bipartisan nature of the US domestic politics that had pivoted against the ‘scourge’ of communism. Such a perception was not unfounded as, Levine (1994) notes, the Truman administration provided military assistance to the GMD regime in line with the ‘China Act’ of 1948. “Washington had also declined to contact Mao about normalizing relations once the Communists were in power” (Levine, 1994). The intersectionality of anti-imperialist and anti-American discourse within the broader context of the global ideological battle had become a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein any American posture to mediate the civil war was perceived (and weaponised) as a notorious move to weaken the revolution. Hence, their best and safest bet was the USSR.

The Party further wanted to consolidate its victory by rebuilding the country’s war-ravaged economy, transforming the Chinese society within its image and strengthening its armed forces. They “… needed the umbrella of a military alliance with Moscow that could deter foreign interference as the PLA… concentrated on achieving national unity [and the CCP transformed the society]” (Goncharov, Lewin and Xue, 1995). The only assured source of resources for implementing these policies was the USSR. In addition, the pro-Soviet line was necessary to keep the PLA mobilised and motivated. As Goncharov et al. (1995) note, the CCP had some ‘democratic personages’ as allies who advocated a neutral line in terms of the Party’s strategic posture in the superpower rivalry.  However, by 1948, it was realised that a neutral and hence divided CCP might be exploited to dampen the zeal of the PLA cadres on the ground who were high on revolutionary, proletarian and anti-imperialist ideals and were marching to an imminent victory. They were fighting the US-backed GMD forces and an act of neutrality might have been falsely inferred by the ground troops as an act of passive submission to imperialism. “By… [end of] 1948… the anti-imperialist and anti-landlord mood among his [Mao’s] cadres and soldiers had soared” (Goncharov, Lewin and Xue, 1995). The amalgamation of anti-bourgeois and anti-imperialist (anti-US) rhetoric from the CCP, which had gained momentum after the civil war had resumed, was further weaponised to isolate and weaken the national bourgeois, mobilise people to take up the cause of the revolution and strengthen the Party’s hold on the Chinese society. Mao noted that “after the destruction of the enemies with guns, the enemies without guns are still there, and they are bound to struggle desperately against us” (Jian, 2001).

n the interest of the success of the revolution and the stability of the CCP regime, the Party precluded establishing any tentative, uncertain and risky diplomatic relation with a wealthy and technologically-advanced America. Rather, they lobbied the Soviets for their economic, military and diplomatic backing by a short-term compromise by overlooking certain conflict of interests to win their confidence and thorough support. Such a posture paid off as the abovementioned objectives were met during the June 27th 1949 meeting between CCP member Lui Shaoqi and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The ‘Leaning-to-one-side’ policy, declared on 30th June, was thereby an amalgamation of the abovementioned realist posture that solidified the pro-Soviet line. It also added another layer of quid-pro-quo which, in the CCP’s view, might provide leverage to get favourable terms in the renegotiated 1945 Treaty. 


As can be inferred from the essay, the two mentioned factors (historical-ideological and realism) are mutually reinforcing. The long-held antagonism against the western imperialists was strengthened by the US backing of the GMD and the suspicion of the American plots against the revolution. This did not only intensify the anti-imperialist discourse within the Party but also pushed them to court the ‘lesser-evil’ Stalin through a short-term compromise on its ideals by leveraging his security concerns arising from a brewing global ideological battle between the socialist and capitalist blocs. The Cold War, in turn, intersected with the Chinese class war and elevated it as another front of the ideological conflict and thereby raising the political stakes for all the parties involved.    


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