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Between aid and restriction: the Soviet Union's changing policies on China's nuclear weapons program, 1954-1960.

In October 1964 the People's Republic of China (PRC) detonated its first atomic bomb. China has been a nuclear power ever since. How did China develop its nuclear weapons program? (1) What role did the Soviet Union play in the process? How important was Soviet aid to China's entry into the nuclear club? Why did the Soviet Union decide to terminate its aid in 1959?

Chinese scholarship focuses on China's independent development of its nuclear weapons program after the Soviet Union went back on its promise to provide China with an A-bomb teaching model in June 1959. (2) Scholarship in English makes short shrift of the topic. (3) A recent article by Liu Yanqiong and Liu Jiefeng, two scholars from the National University of Defense Technology of China, has done a good job in sorting out the kinds of Soviet nuclear technology transferred to China and assessing its role in building China's atomic bomb (Liu and Liu 2009, 66-110). But the article does not shed much light on how nuclear technology transfer affected the ebb and flow of Sino-Soviet relations. Studying the issue from a historical perspective is thus necessary.

Based on newly available Chinese and Russian archival documents and oral histories, this article examines Soviet policies toward China's nuclear weapons program, beginning with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's decision to assist China in developing atomic energy for peaceful purposes in October 1954 and ending with the withdrawal of all Soviet nuclear specialists from China in August 1960. The article examines the origins of Soviet policies and the reasons behind its policy alterations. The article also looks at the evolution of the Chinese nuclear weapons program in response to Soviet policies. The article argues that Khrushchev only consented to assist China in developing its nuclear energy program because he had to deal with an internal power struggle and needed Mao's political support--but without committing to arm China with nuclear weapons. Once Khrushchev overcame his opponents in the Soviet Communist Party in June 1957, Chairman Mao Zedong immediately expressed his support. Khrushchev was grateful for Mao's clear-cut stand and decided to reward him by helping him develop China's nuclear program. The PRC's bombardment of Jinmen (Quemoy) near Taiwan in the summer of 1958, however, caught Moscow off guard. Khrushchev was justified in feeling that there was a general weakening in Sino-Soviet relations, and in retaliation decided to rescind the October 1957 Sino-Soviet agreement to deliver an A-bomb teaching model to China. By August 1960 all Soviet specialists working on China's nuclear weapons program were recalled.

Khrushchev's Role in China's Nuclear Energy Program

The Sino-Soviet Agreements

Before 1954 the Soviet Union was willing to offer a nuclear umbrella to all socialist countries, (4) but was unwilling to share nuclear secrets to enable them to build their own nuclear weapons. After Josef Stalin's death, in the struggle to acquire political supremacy in Soviet internal politics, Nikita Khrushchev resolved to improve relations with China and Mao. During Khrushchev's visit to China in October 1954, Mao told him that he was interested in atomic energy and nuclear weapons and hoped the Soviet Union would assist China in its nuclear program. Khrushchev was taken by surprise. After a pause, Khrushchev persuaded Mao to concentrate on economic construction. He tried to convince Mao that it was not necessary for China to expend badly needed capital for domestic growth on a nuclear program because the Soviet Union already provided nuclear protection for China (Timerbaev 1998, 45-46).

After Khrushchev left China, the Soviet Union and China started negotiations on concrete issues regarding nuclear energy cooperation. On January 17, 1955, the Soviet government issued a statement that, in order to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy, it was going to provide China and several Eastern European countries with large-scale aid in science, technology, and industry. Included in the aid would be experimental nuclear reactors and the design for accelerators, along with related equipment and fissionable materials. On January 20, China and the Soviet Union signed an accord on the exploration, appraisal, and geological prospecting of radioactive elements in China. According to the accord, China and the Soviet Union would jointly implement exploratory surveys of uranium ores in China. China would organize mining operations of those ores with industrial value, while the Soviet Union would provide technology and equipment. The extracted uranium would first be used to satisfy China's need; the surplus would be sold to the Soviet Union.

On January 31, 1955, the State Council of China's central government passed a resolution on the Soviet suggestion to assist China in researching the peaceful use of nuclear energy (Renmin ribao, January 28, 1955,1; February 1,1955,1; Timerbaev 1998,46). Subsequently, a contingent of Soviet geologists arrived in China, assisting the Chinese in exploratory surveys of uranium ores and prospecting. (5)

On April 27 the Chinese governmental delegation signed the Agreement on Utilizing Atomic Energy to Meet the Needs of Chinese National Economic Development with the Soviet government. The agreement stipulated that the Soviet Union would assist China in nuclear physics research and nuclear tests for peaceful purposes. The Soviet Union would send specialists to assist China in designing and building a 6,500- to 10,000-kilowatt heavy-water research reactor and a 12.5 to 25 MeV (million electric volt) cyclotron. The Soviet Union would provide requisite scientific and technological reference materials and a sufficient amount of nuclear fuel and radio isotopes to keep the nuclear reactor running. It would also train Chinese nuclear physicists and technical personnel (Renmin ribao, November 5, 1956, 6; Ge 2002, 119). In October, a nuclear energy scientific research "plant" (chang, changed in 1959 to suo [institute]) was established in the outer suburb southwest of Beijing. The nuclear reactor and accelerator were installed there.

Nuclear Aid Begins

The Soviet experts team, headed by N. V. Solonov and A. G. Alekseev, made significant contributions to the construction of the facility (Wu and Feng 1987, 15-17). In December 1955 a delegation of Soviet nuclear scientists led by I. I. Novikov, academician and head of the Soviet Institute of Nuclear Physics, visited China and presented a series of educational films on the peaceful use of atomic energy. In addition, the delegation brought many books on nuclear science and technology. The seven Soviet scientists gave a lecture to an audience of 1,400 high-level Chinese officials, including Premier Zhou Enlai. On December 26, Zhou discussed "The Outline of Nuclear Programs of the People's Republic of China, 1956-1967 (draft)" with Soviet ambassador Pavel Yudin, Ivan Arkhipov (the head of Soviet specialists in China), and Professor Novikov (Li et al. 1997, 1:529-530).

From 1956 to 1957 the Soviet Union expanded its aid to China. A Sino-Soviet accord on April 7, 1956, specified building a railroad from Aktogay, a city in Kazakhstan near China, to Lanzhou, the capital of China's Gansu Province. The rail line would make it much easier for the Soviet Union to transport equipment to China's first nuclear weapons experimental center in Lop Nur, Xinjiang. (6) On August 17 the Soviet Union and China signed an agreement for Soviet aid to China's atomic energy industry. The Soviet Union would assist China in constructing nuclear facilities and laboratories (Li 1987, 21).

On November 16,1956, the Third Ministry of Machine Building was established in China (renamed the Second Ministry of Machine Building in February 1958). It was responsible for building and developing China's nuclear industry (Li et al. 1997, 1:605). By March 1957, in its Second Five-Year Plan, the Third Ministry stipulated that China would establish a small but comprehensive nuclear industry system before 1962 (Wu and Feng 1987, 29).

In order to help China's nuclear science research, the Soviet Union dispatched a number of specialists. In May 1957 Evgeny D. Vorobyev arrived at the Institute of Physics with a team of a dozen scientists. According to our interviews with his Chinese colleagues, Vorobyev was a man of broad scientific knowledge and ability. The initial task of Vorobyev's team was to train Chinese specialists in studying enriched uranium and plutonium. They also compiled teaching plans and course materials and supervised experiments on the nuclear reactor. Vorobyev and Qian Sanqiang, director of the Institute of Physics of the Chinese Academy of Science, worked well together. With the assistance of the Soviet specialists, an experimental reactor and a cyclotron were soon constructed. The Chinese were also able to acquire a small amount of plutonium from a heavy-water reactor. Through teaching and experiments, they also educated a cadre of Chinese scientific and technical specialists.

When Vorobyev first arrived in China, there were only about sixty nuclear physicists in the Institute of Physics. By the time he left China in November 1959 the number had increased to 6,000 (Negin and Smirnov 1996, 28; Shen 2002a). According to Meng Gefei's recollection, Vorobyev contributed greatly to China's nuclear weapons program in instructing the Chinese on reactor construction, nuclear power, and research structure as well as on solving technical problems (Meng 2002, 24-30). The dispatch of excellent scientists such as Vorobyev is proof of the sincerity of the Soviets in helping China to build its peaceful nuclear-energy capability.

Khrushchev's Decision to Assist China's Nuclear and Missile Programs

Although the peaceful use of atomic energy might become the technical basis for research and production of nuclear weapons, achieving such a transformation is not an easy task. It requires not only all sorts of infrastructure and equipment but also the mastery of special techniques, such as isotope separation (for enriched uranium bombs), reprocessing of spent fuel (for plutonium bombs), and especially nuclear detonation. It took the United States and the Soviet Union five to seven years to achieve such a transformation (Zhu 2008, 16:432). Taking into consideration China's weak industrial foundation and technological level and the Western economic embargo against China after 1949, China could only rely on Soviet aid in order to develop the atomic bomb in a similar time period. While assisting the Chinese in researching atomic energy for peaceful use, the Soviet Union reacted indifferently to China's request for developing its nuclear weapons program and was hesitant when the Chinese asked for help in developing its missile program. (7)

On August 17, 1956, upon the request of Nie Rongzhen, director of China's Aviation Industry Commission, State Planning Commission chairman Li Fuchun wrote to the Soviet chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikolai Bulganin, requesting Soviet aid for the establishment and development of China's missile program (NRZ 1994, 569). Li proposed that the Chinese government send a delegation to the Soviet Union to negotiate. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee (CPSUCC) responded to China's request on September 13, pledging to train the Chinese in missile technology and send nuclear specialists to Chinese universities to work and teach. The CPSU also instructed relevant Soviet units to send China syllabi, technical manuals, and teaching plans for missile development. Beginning with the new semester in 1957, Soviet institutions of higher learning would set up committees to enroll fifty Chinese students to major in missilery (Zhou 1999, 1:588).

The Soviet reply was far below Chinese expectations. Nie Rongzhen was "very disappointed" (Nie 1982, 3:800-801; NRZ 1994, 569). This disappointment was compounded by the fact that it took more than half a year for the Soviet Union to reply to China's repeated requests regarding aid to China's atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb, and aircraft industry during China's Second Five-Year Plan period (1958-1962). This change in the Soviet stance had much to do with China's role in assisting the CPSU in handling the popular uprisings that took place in Poland and Hungary (Nie 1982, 3:803; Shen and Xia 2009a). On March 30, 1957, the Soviet Union agreed to sign with China an Accord on Assisting the People's Republic of China on Special Technology. The accord stipulated that the Soviet Union would send five specialists to China to help organize teaching programs. The Soviet specialists would teach jet propulsion technology (rocketry) in related Chinese universities, would organize courses on jet technology, and would provide teaching plans and outlines. During the 1957-1958 academic year, Soviet universities would enroll fifty Chinese students, and the Soviet Union would provide two R1 missile samples with their technical manuals. The Chinese government would reimburse the Soviet Union for all fees incurred and would promise to keep the agreement secret (Zhou 1999, 1:605). Yet these undertakings still did not meet China's needs, and the accord was not carried out smoothly.

When the Sino-Soviet negotiations on Soviet nuclear assistance to China deadlocked, Khrushchev was confronted with difficult domestic political problems similar to those he had faced in 1954, following Stalin's death. In June 1957 the CPSUCC passed a Resolution on Malenkov, Kaganovich, and Molotov Anti-Party Group, expelling them from the central committee (Pikhoia 1995, 3-14; Kovaleva et al. 1998). Khrushchev was the victor, but he still had many political enemies within and outside the party. He was aware that he needed the support of other communist parties, especially China's, in order to consolidate his leadership not only of the USSR but also of the socialist bloc (Liu 1986, 50-51). Khrushchev was so anxious that he immediately sent Anastas Mikoyan, a CPSU Politburo member and vice premier, to China for Mao's opinion. Mao and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) expressed their support of Khrushchev in the political struggle (Shen and Xia, 2009b).

Khrushchev repaid Mao for his timely help. He decided to open up the gate to China in nuclear weapons research and production. When Nie Rongzhen, in June 1957, met with Ivan Arkhipov, chief Soviet adviser to China, and asked the Soviet government to assist China in developing an atomic bomb and rocketry, Arkhipov said he had to report the request to Moscow. (8) But when the Chinese government once again requested Soviet help in July, the Soviet Union responded swiftly. On July 22 Arkhipov told Nie that the Soviet government was willing to assist China in developing the new national defense technology (NRZ 1994, 575; Zhou 1999, 1:615). After further consultations, on August 24, S. F. Antonov, the Soviet charge d'affaires in Beijing, handed a diplomatic note to Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Wentian. The Soviet government agreed that the Chinese government could send a delegation to the USSR to negotiate "on issues of the establishment of atomic industry, missiles, and aviation industry" (CFMA No. 109-00787-04, 8-10). We strongly believe that Khrushchev personally made the decision to assist China in building its nuclear industry to repay Mao's political support. (9)

On October 15 the Soviet Union and China signed an Agreement on Developing New Weapons and Military Technology Equipment and Setting Up Comprehensive Atomic Energy Industry in China (hereafter, the New Defense Technology Agreement). According to this agreement, the Soviet Union would assist China in building a comprehensive atomic industry, including research and production of the atomic bomb. The Soviets would provide a teaching model of an atomic bomb with blueprints. As a key link to producing the bomb, the Soviet Union would also sell industrial equipment for enriched uranium products and would provide a sufficient amount of fluoride uranium to operate when the plant went into operation.

Prior to April 1959 the Soviet Union delivered ground-to-ship missile equipment and assisted the Chinese Navy in building a missile unit. The Soviet Union also assisted China in missile research and production and in project design for the launching site. The Soviet Union provided missiles and relevant technical materials until 1961 and dispatched technical specialists to assist in missile production. It further assisted China in designing a test site for the atomic bomb and training specialists.10 Then, on September 29, 1958, the Soviet Union and China signed an Additional Agreement on Soviet Technical Aid to China's Atomic Energy Industry (hereafter, the Additional Agreement). It specified more detailed and concrete regulations for individual projects. It also set 1959 and 1960 as the time limit for project completion (Li 1987, 21-22).

The New Defense Technology Agreement and Additional Agreement are milestones in Sino-Soviet cooperation on nuclear weapons program. China's atomic energy industry entered "a new stage of industrial build-up and research and production of nuclear weapons" (Wu and Feng 1987, 29). Previously, Soviet aid to China's nuclear industry had been careful to avoid military uses. The development of nuclear weapons never appeared in the documents or materials that the Soviet Union gave to the Chinese (Shen 2002b). Prior to the two agreements, those specialists working on the nuclear industry were invited by and were under the jurisdiction of the Chinese military, but the Foreign Experts Bureau coordinated their routine activities. After the signing of the New Defense Technology Agreement, all the Soviet specialists involved in sophisticated technology never participated in any activity organized by the Foreign Experts Bureau (Shen 2002b). It is apparent that the New Defense Technology Agreement was symbolic of the change in Soviet nuclear aid to China. The Soviet Union now provided China with sophisticated technology and equipment in the research and production of an atomic bomb and missiles.

Soviet Aid and Its Limits

The Origins of China's A-Bomb

At the Moscow Conference of World Communist and Workers' Parties in November 1957, Mao said, "If worst came to the worst and half of mankind died [in a nuclear war], the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialism. In a number of years there would be 2,700 million people again and definitely more." This famous remark shocked Khrushchev and Eastern European leaders, but did little damage to Sino-Soviet relations. Nor did it affect Soviet nuclear aid to China (Shen and Xia 2009b). A year after the incident, the Soviet aid to China's nuclear weapons program still ran smoothly. In June 1958 the Soviet-aided experimental heavy-water reactor and cyclotron were successfully constructed, which greatly improved the technical equipment and conditions of China's nuclear physics research. Meanwhile, qualified personnel trained during the process, and the data they collected not only provided prerequisites for China's atomic energy program; they also indirectly laid the foundation for China's research into and production of nuclear weapons.

The Soviet Union also provided several missiles, aircraft, and other military equipment; delivered top-secret materials on missiles and atomic bombs; and dispatched relevant technical specialists to China. This made it easier for the Chinese to familiarize themselves with and to master sophisticated weapons research and production.

Nie Rongzhen stated that the Soviets played a crucial role in initiating Chinese nuclear weapons research and production, especially in missile programs and test site construction. In a word, they accelerated China's forward steps. On this basis, China started to "digest materials, to research and design, and trial production" (Nie 1982, 803-804; Zhou 1999, 2:671). In August 1958, the Second Ministry of Machine Building presented to the CCP Central Committee (CCPCC) its Opinions on Developing Atomic Program's Policies and Plan, which clearly proposed "military use as primary, and peaceful use as secondary." Premier Zhou and the CCPCC approved the proposal (Yang 1998, 6).

In developing a Chinese atomic bomb, the Soviet Union not only provided equipment, blueprints, and technical materials but also dispatched a large number of specialists to China. These specialists played an important role in the selection of plant location and design and in installing and adjusting equipment. Especially valuable was their assistance to Chinese technical specialists in understanding documents and materials and in training Chinese technicians to master operations technique. Yuan Chenglong, former vice minister of the Second Ministry of Machine Building, recalled, "In those years, when our country decided to develop nuclear industry in order to acquire the atomic bomb, the Soviet Union gave us help. More than 1,000 Soviet specialists worked in the Second Ministry." (11)

As mentioned before, China and the Soviet Union signed six agreements on nuclear science and technology and nuclear industry construction: two on uraninite exploration and mining (1954 and 1956), one on nuclear physics (1955), two on nuclear industrial construction (1956 and 1958), and one on nuclear weapons research and production (1957). According to Chinese experts, these six agreements--which included nuclear science foundational research, uraninite exploration and mining, uraninite extraction, uranium conversion, enriched uranium, production of the nuclear fuel element and a nuclear device, a plutonium production reactor, uranium/plutonium separation and treatment, and many other aspects of nuclear explosion testing--covered a relatively complete industrial system for nuclear research and production. This made it possible for all-round development of China's nuclear science and industrial construction. (12)

With the assistance of the Soviet specialists, the plants and facilities for atomic bomb production reached the design stage. (The Soviet specialists were in charge of the preliminary and key technical designs while the Chinese side was responsible for implementation and auxiliary design.) Construction by the end of 1957 indicated that work on setting up the research base was in full swing. On September 27, 1957, the Soviet-assisted 7,000-kilowatt heavy-water reactor and cyclotron (1.2 meters in diameter) were delivered to China. China truly was "making a leap forward toward the era of atomic energy," said Nie at the delivery ceremony. "The construction and delivery of an experimental nuclear reactor and cyclotron will promote the swift development of atomic science and technology in our country.... The imperialists could no longer monopolize the atomic weapons" (Renmin ribao, September 28, 1958, 1; Wu and Feng 1987, 21). In 1958, 111 experts from Glavatom, the main Soviet nuclear administration, and forty-three geologists who specialized in prospecting for nuclear raw materials were sent to China (Timerbaev 1998, 47). The production of nuclear fuel and the research and production of explosion were well under way.

Missile Assistance

There was also great progress in the missile program. The Soviet Union continued to provide technical materials and samples and assist China in training missile units. On November 26, 1957, the acting Soviet chief military adviser to China, Major General Victor S. Shevchenko, relayed a notice from the Soviet defense ministry that sixty railway cars in two trains loaded with R-2 ground-to-ground missiles and equipment would arrive in China in late December. In order to teach the Chinese how to operate and maintain the equipment, the Soviet Union would send 103 personnel to teach missile operation and deployment for three months (Zhou 1999, 1:627-628). R-2 ground-to-ground missiles and equipment arrived on December 20. Several days later, a team of Soviet specialists led by Major General Remi Gaidukov arrived in Beijing. They helped the Chinese locate a suitable site and designed a missile-test shooting range (Zhou 1999, 1:632). In September 1958 a missile school was established under the jurisdiction of the Chinese Air Force to train technical and commanding officers specializing in surface-to-surface, ground-to-air, and ground-to-ship missile technology. The school establishment was created in accordance with Soviet advice. The school also hired twelve Soviet specialists who were missile drillmasters (Wang 1992).

After consultation and negotiation with the Soviet specialists, on October 6, 1958, the first surface-to-air missile unit was established in Beijing. Its code name was Army Unit No. 543. On November 27 and 29, four sets of SAM-2 surface-to-air missiles provided by the Soviet Union arrived in Beijing, two for the air force, one for the Fifth Academy to copy, and one for the 20th Base for testing purposes. Ninety-five Soviet specialists arrived simultaneously to provide training for Chinese soldiers. By April 1959 the Chinese soldiers had all passed live ammunition shooting practice with distinction (Zhang 1992). On October 7 the second missile battalion led by Yue Zhenhua shot down a Chinese Nationalist (Taiwan) RB-57 D high-altitude reconnaissance plane over Beijing. The Chinese Air Force Commander Liu Yalou later summed up, "The battle of 1959 was conducted completely in accordance with what the Soviet advisers had taught us." (13)


Soviet nuclear aid to China was not unlimited. Many Soviet specialists came to realize the restrictions imposed on them from Moscow while they were in China. Nikolay I. Pavlov, the head of one of the chief directorates in the Soviet ministry of medium machine building (the Atomic Ministry), advised those specialists who were sent to China in 1958, "[You] should go to the Chinese comrades and explain to them what nuclear weapons are.... They want to produce the atomic bomb and we should tell them how to do it." But the content of what the Soviet specialists could lecture on was severely restricted. According to directives from higher authorities, every Soviet expert was to lecture only on that part he or she was responsible for in the 1951 atomic bomb design. The technology for the bomb tested in 1949 was based on an outdated American blueprint, but the Soviet leaders "declined a proposal to share with China a more advanced device than the 1951 bomb" (Negin and Smirnov 1996).

As scientists, the Soviet specialists tried their best to fulfill their duties. Victor Y. Gavrilov "told the Chinese about the general physics of the bomb, paying special attention to the physics of the blast wave and critical mass." Academician Evgeny A. Negin, the first deputy of the scientific director and the chief designer of the nuclear center at Arzamas-16, gave lectures on "the design of explosive charge of the atomic bomb and the principles used in its construction." Nikolay G. Maslov "used the drawn scheme of the charge and 'encased' it in a ballistic case. He talked about the bloc of automatic machinery, where and what kind of devices are located, how they function and what they are for." According to later recollections, Soviet specialists believed that the Chinese got all they wanted within the limits set by Moscow and the range of what the Soviet specialists knew (Negin and Smirnov 1996).

It was difficult to define Moscow's limits. Those Soviet specialists who were dispatched to work in confidential units felt distressed and upset because they were afraid of leaking information considered top secret by Moscow. According to a report to the CPSUCC in 1957, several advisers who were sent to China in the capacity of teachers and educators were never briefed on what could and could not be disclosed. The report said the advisers "sank into passiveness or said what the Chinese already knew long ago from newspapers or even the Soviet press" because of the fear of retribution for revealing secrets (Westad 1998, 123).

The Soviet specialists did not create the issue themselves. The Soviet missile expert Major General Aleksandr Savel'ev was sent to China to work for about a year. He was put in charge of training Chinese soldiers in using missile equipment. Prior to his departure for China in autumn 1959, Savel'ev was summoned to Moscow for instruction. The commander in chief of the Soviet artillery unit, Mitrofan Nedelin, told Savel'ev that he could only lecture on the equipment already delivered to the Chinese, "but shouldn't reveal his knowledge on other subjects." When in doubt, he should ask for instruction and clarification from Moscow via a high-frequency communication line at the Soviet embassy in Beijing. On particularly sensitive cases, he should contact Nedelin directly. Savel'ev complied. When he differed with Vorobyev on whether he could lecture on topics beyond tactical missiles, he asked Nedelin for instruction. Nedelin advised, "Don't offer any suggestion to questions raised by the Chinese. Otherwise, you might deliberately or inadvertently leak state secrets ..." (Dolinin 1995). Nie Rongzhen's observation was thus correct. On sophisticated weapons, "Soviet aid was with reservation and limitation after the accord was signed. The Soviet intention was to keep a substantial distance from us in new weapons and scientific research. They wanted us to copy their third-line or outdated equipment, but did not give us first-line or second-line of the latest products" (Zhou 1999, 2:742). It was understandable that the Soviet Union set limits on the sophisticated technology given to China. Moscow had no plan to share its latest nuclear technology with Beijing. In fact, China acquiesced to similar principles of "distinguishing domestic from foreign policy issues." These cases demonstrated that Khrushchev's later assertion that "we'd given the Chinese almost everything they asked for. We kept no secrets from them" was an exaggeration (Khrushchev 1974, 268). As Liu Yanqiong and Liu Jifeng point out, Khrushchev's

perspective is political and does not reflect expert knowledge of the technical issues involved in developing an atomic bomb ... The Soviet Union transferred advanced technology to China in some areas (e.g., the experimental heavy-water reactor), but not others (e.g., the gaseous diffusion plant). For some equipment and processes, the Soviets declined to teach the Chinese how to produce them (e.g., the diffusion barrier). (Liu and Liu 2009, 97-98)

Khrushchev's Decision to Terminate Nuclear Aid

The Failure to Consult

In the first half of 1958 China and the Soviet Union continued to collaborate and cooperate in their nuclear policy. China even proposed to establish a joint conference on national defense industries as a mechanism for achieving overall military cooperation. (14) But soon, policy differences became more apparent when Mao's words and deeds moved further and further away from what Moscow could accept. Several incidents--one involving the joint Sino-Soviet long-wave radio station, another the joint Sino-Soviet submarine fleet idea, a third the PRC's shelling of Jinmen in the second half of the year--strained bilateral relations. Eventually these incidents resulted in Khrushchev's decision to rescind the Sino-Soviet accord and suspend the agreement providing China with an A-bomb teaching model and related technical materials (Shen 2003a, 118-126).

As an ally, Soviet leaders should have been consulted regarding the PRC's military action against Jinmen. But they were not. Yet the Soviet Union had to bear the responsibility for the action afterward. Khrushchev was embarrassed and irritated, especially over another incident during the 1958 offshore islands crisis. During an air war in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, the Chinese Nationalist Air Force launched several US Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, one of which landed on the ground and failed to explode. The Soviet military was very interested in the missile after the Soviet advisers in China alerted Moscow to the fact that the Chinese had the Sidewinder. But to the Soviet request, the Chinese at first did not respond, and then pleaded that the missile could not be given to the Soviets since the Chinese were studying it. Khrushchev was so angry at the Chinese reply that he withdrew his offer of materials for research and development of the R-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile. He also expressed his indignation at the Chinese through his military advisers. Several months later, when the Chinese reluctantly delivered the missile to the Soviet Union, it had been improperly disassembled and the sensing element of the infrared homing system--a crucial part of the missile--was missing. The Soviets believed that the part either was actually lost or the Chinese were secretly keeping it. Khrushchev was justified in feeling that there was a general weakening in Sino-Soviet relations and in retaliation finally decided to renege on the October 1957 promise to deliver an A-bomb teaching model to the Chinese in June 1959 (Khrushchev 1974, 269).

Khrushchev repeatedly told Mao that although the Taiwan issue was China's internal affair, it was a matter affecting the entire socialist bloc. As allies, he suggested, China and the Soviet Union should consult with each other and coordinate policy on matters of such importance. Khrushchev complained to Mao in face-to-face talks that as an ally, the Soviet Union was uninformed as to what China would do the next day (Shen and Li 2004, 13:3210-3222). In his view, China's abnormal behavior was an insult and humiliation to all its allies. More importantly, China's foreign policy during the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis demonstrated that China deviated from the principle of peaceful coexistence in the 1957 Moscow Declaration.

The actions of the Chinese were obviously much more than Khrushchev could tolerate. During the crisis, the Soviet Union had issued two public statements that seemed to offer a nuclear umbrella to protect China. (15) Khrushchev's response to the crisis showed that the Soviet Union was bearing responsibility for China's actions as the head of the socialist bloc. The Soviet Union was substituting for its willingness to offer nuclear aid by reverting back to its original position of providing a nuclear umbrella (Shen 2001a).

According to Arkhipov's recollection, China's displeasure over Soviet policies on a nuclear test ban and prevention of nuclear proliferation was also a contributing factor in the emerging Sino-Soviet dispute. In 1958 the Soviet Union had asked China to support its proposal regarding a ban on nuclear production and testing. China had declined to reply. In 1959 the Soviet Union inquired as to China's attitude regarding nuclear nonproliferation. The Chinese replied, "We expect the Soviet Union to carry out the agreements regarding the nuclear energy industry and to provide equipment for production of the 'final products.'" But Moscow procrastinated in providing technology and equipment for the nuclear plants under construction. By June 1959 the Soviet Union had cut off all supplies to China's nuclear programs (Arkhipov 1995).

The Unraveling of Relations

On April 24, 1958, Khrushchev wrote to inform Zhou Enlai that the Soviet government had designated a foreign aid liaison commission to handle the issue of offering an A-bomb teaching model and technical materials to China in accordance with the New Defense Technology Agreement. The Soviet Union would get the matter done rapidly, he said. (16) After the Taiwan Strait crisis, however, Khrushchev regretted ever having signed the agreement with the Chinese. After consultation with Efim Slavsky, minister in charge of medium machine building, Khrushchev decided that the sample R-12 missile and other materials might be provided to China, but "the offer of an A-bomb teaching model must be reconsidered." Whether the Soviet Union would provide further nuclear aid to China depended on the status of Sino-Soviet relations. If the situation didn't improve, "Then the Chinese mastery of atomic energy technology is the later the better" (Khrushchev 2000, 271). According to Roland Timerbaev, "Khrushchev decided to stop assisting China in developing nuclear weapons for fear that China's leadership would drag the Soviet Union into a conflict with the United States and the entire West" (1998, 48).

Finally, Khrushchev called a special meeting and decided not to ship any nuclear assistance and to temporarily suspend the offer of an A-bomb teaching model (Khrushchev 1974, 269). On June 20, 1959, when the Chinese delegation was about to depart for Moscow for negotiations, the CPSUCC approved a letter to be delivered to the CCPCC. The letter pointed out, "In order not to interfere with the Soviet-American-British negotiations on a nuclear test ban in Geneva and to relax international tension, the Soviet Union will suspend the delivery of an A-bomb teaching model and technical materials to China." The reasoning given was that "if the West knows about the Soviet delivery of an A-bomb teaching model and technical materials to China, it would be extremely detrimental to socialist countries' effort to strive for relaxation of international tension." In two years, "After thoroughly clarifying Western countries' attitude toward the issue of nuclear test ban and the relaxation of international situation, [we] will reconsider this issue." The Soviets argued that this would not hamper the development of China's nuclear program because "it would take at least two years for China to produce fissile materials. Only after this was achieved would China need technical materials for nuclear weapons." (17) On June 26 the Soviet embassy's councilor handed the letter to Zhou Enlai (Dong 2000, 741-742). In his memoir, the Soviet embassy secretary, Aleksei Brezhnev, considered "the decision to renege on the promised model A-bomb delivery a 'blunder' since it came too late to stop China's nuclear weapons project and left the Soviet Union without any leverage" (Luthi 2008, 104).

Soviet suspension of the offer of an A-bomb teaching model to China was only meant as a warning. The Soviet Union did not intend to cut off nuclear aid to China completely. While Khrushchev was still angry with the Chinese over the Sidewinder missile incident, the Soviet government on February 2, 1959, signed an "accord on the Soviet government's offer of new technical aid to the Chinese Navy in producing naval vessels." In it, the Soviet government agreed to sell five types of naval vessels, two types of missiles, and technical blueprints and devices for fifty-one types of equipment including electric devices, radar, sonar, and radio navigation stations. The Russians even transferred the permit for manufacturing this equipment to China. The leadership of the Chinese Navy was especially pleased (Xiao 1988, 181-182; Zhou 1999, 2:665). Moreover, the CPSUCC secretariat discussed and approved the proposal to send to China Soviet specialists and university professors specializing in national defense technology.

The Soviet Union also continued to provide missile and other new defense-related technology to China. Khrushchev personally signed a council of ministers' resolution in September 1959 that instructed the ministries of higher education and national defense to send six Soviet experts and university professors specializing in defense technology to work at China's defense-related science and research institutes (Zazerskaia 2000, 104-105).

China Builds the Bomb

But Khrushchev's reneging on the Sino-Soviet agreement indeed angered the Chinese leaders, prompting China's determination to develop nuclear weapons on its own. Later the Chinese code-named the development of its first atomic bomb the "596" project as "a reminder of the 'shameful' date" in June 1959 when the Soviet Union decided to withdraw support of China's nuclear program. The code name clearly demonstrated China's "indignation" toward the Soviet Union (Lin 1988, 132; Liu 1999, 11). During the CCP conference at Lushan in July 1959 Zhou Enlai told Song Renqiong, minister of the Second Ministry of Machine Building, and Liu Jie, vice minister of geology, of the CCPCC's decision: "To use our own hands and start from the very beginning! [We] plan to spend eight years in developing the atomic bomb" (Song 1990, 69). Zhou also proposed the policy of "acting independently and with the initiative in our own hands, relying on our own efforts, and keeping our own foothold at home." He asked the Second Ministry to downsize programs in order to concentrate on resolving more urgent issues. He also called on all sectors to support the nuclear weapons program.

In accordance with this policy, the Second Ministry of Machine Building drew up new target dates, proposing "to make a breakthrough in three years, to master the technical know-how in five years, and to have atomic bombs in stock in eight years" (Jin 1998, 17431744; Li 1998, 663). On November 11 Nie Rongzhen submitted a report, titled "Relying on Our Own Efforts to Solve the Issue of Materials for New Technology," to the Central Military Commission and the CCPCC. The report pointed out, "To develop our new technological materials, [we should] rely primarily on our own efforts and win over foreign aid as secondary" (NRZ 1994, 2:693).

After the heated quarrels between the leaders of the two countries in October 1959, Soviet policy toward China's nuclear program was finally defined. According to a Chinese embassy report of February 1960, the Soviet Union showed indifference, procrastinating or declining any request from the Chinese on their nuclear weapons program (NRZ 1994, 2:712). Moscow slowed down the pace of offering equipment and technical materials and tightened its grip on the Soviet specialists in China, prohibiting them from offering the Chinese new and key data and suggestions. For example, a Soviet intelligence report in December 1959 recounted the Soviet academician Yu N. Rabotnov's visit to the Beijing Institute of Mechanics. It said that during the visit, "Chinese scientists attempted to acquire information on a series of classified issues from Rabotnov. But the Chinese failed to provide opportunities for Rabotnov to get basic information about their laboratories" (Zazerskaia 2000, 106-107, 122-123). The report raised the issue of secret research areas in Sino-Soviet scientific and technological exchanges, arguing that "those scientists and staff involved in classified work, after being dispatched to foreign countries" often violated Soviet security regulations.

In accordance with Khrushchev's instruction, on February 25, 1960, Yuri Andropov, the head of the CPSUCC's department for liaison with socialist countries, along with two other department directors, drafted a resolution titled "On the Issue of Soviet Scientists Safeguarding State Secrets in International Academic Exchanges." The CPSUCC secretariat approved the resolution on March 16. It demanded strict observance of "the procedure in getting to know secret and top-secret materials. Do not allow foreign experts to get acquainted with secret materials beyond agreement. Strictly observe the existing rules on accessing classified information" (Zazerskaia 2000, 106-107, 122-123). The resolution's purpose clearly was to prevent foreign scientists from getting any Soviet nuclear secrets.

Nie Rongzhen once summarized changing Soviet policies toward China's nuclear program this way: "Prior to the second half of 1958, the Soviet attitude was positive. They acted in accordance with the Sino-Soviet agreements.... After the second half of 1958, the Soviet Union enforced more control..." (Zhou 1999, 2:742). In June 1960, all Soviet experts at the Institute of Atomic Energy were recalled. The Soviets completely suspended providing research equipment (Wu and Feng 1987, 109). The next month, eight Soviet specialists at the Beijing Institute of Nuclear Engineering Design received orders to return to the Soviet Union ahead of schedule. On July 8, five experts in charge of the installation of equipment at the Lanzhou Enriched Uranium Plant left China. By August 23, all Soviet experts working in China's nuclear industry had returned to the Soviet Union, taking important blueprints and materials with them. (18)


Khrushchev's decision to rescind the Sino-Soviet agreements and withdraw experts was a blow to China's nuclear weapons program. Many projects were postponed or not put into production, either because the Chinese did not have the technological expertise, the equipment had failed to arrive, or the designs were not yet complete. According to Sino-Soviet agreements, the Soviet Union promised to assist China in building thirty nuclear-industrial projects. Statistics from September 1960 show that only nine projects were complete. In mechanical design, sixteen projects were complete or near completion while fourteen were not completed. Since the Chinese engineers had not mastered key technology, they had to start from the beginning. In equipment supply, thirteen projects were complete or near completion at the time of the Russians' departure. Nine projects were forced to shut down for lack of Soviet equipment and materials after the withdrawal of the Soviet experts (PLA Archives 1963; Li 1987, 33-34; Li 2010). The study by Liu Yanqiong and Liu Jifeng shows that "China had to solve a range of design, process, technology, and equipment production and installation problems to build the nuclear fuel-element plant on its own" (2009, 88). In short, the Soviet decision obviously created immense difficulties and obstacles for Chinese scientists and engineers and might have postponed the successful detonation of China's first atomic bomb.

Nonetheless, the Soviet Union helped China in establishing a comprehensive industrial system of nuclear science and technology. From July 1955 to the end of 1959 the Soviet Union sent 233 experts to China. They participated in initial design and construction of China's nuclear-industrial engineering and provided opportunities for some 260 Chinese to receive training and to learn engineering design (Liu, Liu, and Xie 2004; Liu and Liu 2009, 95). Soviet aid played an important role in laying the foundation and basic framework for China's nuclear industry and its subsequent development of the atomic bomb and missiles. The Soviet experts assisted the Chinese in uranium mining, nuclear research, uranium enrichment, and the development of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles. The Soviet military specialists helped the Chinese establish new regiments for nuclear-capable SS-1 (8A11) and SS-2 (8Zh38) tactical missiles (Kramer 1995/1996, 175).

China clearly could not have obtained this aid from any other country. China's atomic bomb could not have been successfully detonated in 1964 if the Soviet Union had not signed the six agreements regarding aid to China's nuclear industry and declined to offer equipment, blueprints, materials, and specialists. Nor could the Chinese have been able to prevent Nationalist air incursions over mainland China if the Soviet Union had not provided the surface-to-air missiles and training to the Chinese.

How should we evaluate the extent of Soviet nuclear aid to China? We can conclude that the Soviet decision in 1960 to stop providing technology and equipment in addition to withdrawing experts might have hampered progress but did not prevent China from successfully detonating its first atomic bomb. The Soviets were aware of this likely outcome. Twenty days before China's successful nuclear test on October 23, 1964, Khrushchev met with a delegation from the Japanese Diet (parliament). During the conversation, the Japanese politician Aiichiro Fujiyama inquired whether the Chinese had the capability of conducting an A-bomb test. Khrushchev said frankly

that the Chinese were able to detonate atomic bombs because the Soviet Union had already provided a considerable amount of nuclear technology and equipment and had taught them how to build the bomb. In this interview, Khrushchev claimed that "[b]efore the Soviet-Chinese relationship breakdown, the Soviet Union had offered all of what China had asked for. We kept no secrets." (19) This may not be completely true. As Liu Yanqiong and Liu Jifeng point out, "The Soviet Union transferred advanced technology to China in some areas (e.g., the experimental heavy-water reactor), but not others (e.g., the gaseous diffusion plant). For some equipment and processes, the Soviets declined to teach the Chinese how to produce them (e.g., the diffusion barrier)" (2009, 97-98).

The Soviet Union adopted a policy of both offering aid to and enforcing restrictions on China's nuclear weapons program, which leads to the question: why did the Soviet Union assist the Chinese in building its nuclear weapons program in the first place? First, China was an important member of the socialist bloc, with an increasing role since the mid-1950s. The Soviets' efforts to meet China's needs were in order to avoid a breach in the alliance. Second, Khrushchev was in a delicate political position at home and needed Mao's support. In 1954-1955, the Soviet Union decided to assist China in developing atomic energy. The aid extended to the development of the atomic bomb and missiles in October 1957. This shift was mainly because Khrushchev had to up the ante to gain Mao's support. This phenomenon demonstrated the basic orientation of Sino-Soviet cooperation: the Soviet Union offered China economic and technical aid while China supported Khrushchev politically (Shen 2007, 158-161, 172-176). We agree with Liu Yanqiong and Liu Jifeng's observation that "the Soviet Union's brief experiment in transferring nuclear technology to China was in essence an unwilling concession Khrushchev used to strengthen his own international prestige and domestic position during a difficult period" (2009, 69).

However, once Khrushchev's domestic and international position was on a firmer footing, the condition for such a trade disappeared. He didn't need Mao's support as much. By 1958 it seemed that the Soviet Union was making headway in defense technology and national power. Khrushchev's position of leadership within the CPSU and the socialist bloc was consolidated. The Chinese bombardment of Jinmen shocked Khrushchev, leading him to realize the serious divergences in Chinese and Soviet foreign policies and to his decision to reduce and restrain nuclear aid to China. Khrushchev's personal factors were again in play. Because of the peculiar status of nuclear weapons in national security, the Soviet leaders carefully monitored changes in Sino-Soviet relations. The first step Moscow took was to shut down nuclear aid to China once the first sign of disagreement emerged in Sino-Soviet relations. But it was also because of the increased level of Soviet nuclear aid during the earlier years that China was able to possess the basic infrastructure for producing its first atomic bomb in a shorter period of time. Thus, we disagree with Liu Yanqiong and Liu Jifeng's conclusion that "China could have built its own initial atomic bomb in 1964 or 1965 without this Soviet technology transfer if it had commenced enriched nuclear-materials research in 1956" (2009, 104).


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Zhihua Shen is university professor of history and director of the Center for Cold War International History Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai. He is the author of more than ten books and sixty articles on the Korean War and Sino-Soviet relations. He can be reached at Yafeng Xia is associate professor of history at Long Island University in New York and research fellow at the Center for Cold War International History Studies, East China Normal University in Shanghai. He is the author of Negotiating with the Enemy: U.S.-China Talks During the Cold War, 1949-72 (2006) as well as articles on Cold War history. He can be reached at

(1.) The term "nuclear weapons" in this article refers to the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, and their delivery systems (rocketry and missiles). These weapons were called "sophisticated weapons" or "new national defense technology" in China at the time they were initially under development.

(2.) The most important titles on the topic in Chinese are Nie 1982; Li 1987; NRZ 1994; and Zhou 1999. For studies by Chinese scholars, see Dai 2001 and Shen and Li 2004.

(3.) Early accounts include Morton Halperin's exploration of the interaction between Soviet nuclear aid to China and Soviet efforts to negotiate a nuclear test-ban treaty in the period. See Halperin 1967. Also see Lewis and Xue 1988 on how Beijing built the bomb, as well as Gobarev 1999 and Athwal 2004.

(4.) AVPRF, f. 07, op. 23a, p. 18, d. 235, 1.16-19; Gobarev 1999, 5.

(5.) Li et al. 1997, vol. 1, 441; CFMA, no. 109-00751-01, 5-6, 7-10.

(6.) CFMA no. 204-00024-01, 11-13. Liang Dongyuan contends, "Although the railroad eventually served an important function in delivering the test equipment to Lop Nur, China did not officially designate the site for nuclear-weapons testing until May 1958." See Liang 2005, 91.

(7.) While the Soviet-assisted experimental nuclear reactor and research institutes were still under construction, the Chinese repeatedly stated that China's main purpose was not to learn methods for the peaceful use of nuclear energy but rather to learn how to extract materials for producing a nuclear bomb. The Soviet Union declined to respond (Arkhipov 1995). Arkhipov's memoirs were submitted to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee (CPSUCC) in 1989. In 1995 Arkhipov handed a copy to Yan Mingfu as well as copies of Records of Major Events in USSR-China Conflict and The Origins and Process of the Sino-Soviet Conflict, 1958-1985, supervised and drafted by Arkhipov. Yan Mingfu was a Russian-language interpreter for top Chinese leaders from 1956 to 1965. Also see Chen Geng zhuan bianxiezu 2007, 505.

(8.) "Recollection of Fan Jisheng," who was then Nie Rongzhen's secretary, cited in Liang 2005, 77.

(9.) Before the declassification of Soviet and Chinese Cold War-era documents, Roderick MacFarquhar made an identical argument in early 1980s. See MacFarquhar 1983, 10-15.

(10.) See, for example, Xiao 1988, 172-174 and Dong 2000, 728. During the negotiations, the Soviet Union declined to offer China technical material on a nuclear-powered submarine. See Li 1987, 32.

(11.) See, for example, Yuan 2002, 25. According to Russian sources, the number of Soviet specialists who assisted China in its nuclear program was 640. See Usov 2003.

(12.) Li Yingxiang 2010. Li was director of the General Office of the Second Ministry of Machine Building, and one of the editors of Dangdai Zhongguo hegongye (Contemporary China's Nuclear Industry).

(13.) See, for example, Yue 2002, 17-22, and Shen 2002a. On November 5, 1960, China successfully launched its first short-range ballistic missile, which was put into production in 1962. In May 1963 China conducted an intermediate ballistic missile test. More than a year prior to China's first nuclear detonation, China possessed a delivery system for the atomic bomb. Also see Lin 1988, 49.

(14.) CFMA no. 109-00881-01, 59-61; no. 109-01097-10, 150-155.

(15.) CFMA no. 109-00833-04, 94-103; no. 109-01211-04, 30-31; no. 10900833-01, 4-20; no. 109-00833-01, 21-16.

(16.) CFMA no. 109-00838-03, 9.

(17.) CFMA no. 109-02563-01, 1-3.

(18.) Li 1987, 33. Some Soviet experts did leave important documents for their Chinese colleagues. See Song 1994, 356; Shen 2003b, 271-303.

(19.) "Minutes of Khrushchev's Conversation with the Japanese Diet Delegation," October 3, 1964, in Artizov 2007, 174. Also see Negin and Smirnov 1996.
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