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Chinese leader Mao Zedong with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in August 1958. Photo: AFP

How Mao and Khrushchev fought over China-India border dispute

‘I will tell you what a guest should not say: the events in Tibet are your fault’

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited China at the end of September 1959 to hold a summit with the Chinese leadership. A little over a month earlier, several Indian guards had been killed by the Chinese military along their disputed border.

Khrushchev, who was about to visit the United States on a peace mission when the killings happened, released an announcement through the Russian news agency, TASS, calling on both sides to reach a negotiated settlement. The Chinese were greatly offended, seeing it as more evidence of the Soviets breaking ranks with their communist partners.

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Khrushchev’s visit to China also came just months after the Dalai Lama had fled to India.

Following is a transcript of a meeting attended by Khrushchev, Mao Zedong (毛澤東), M.A. Suslov, A.A. Gromyko, Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇), Zhou Enlai (周恩來), Lin Biao (林彪), Peng Zhen (彭真), Chen Yi and Wan Xia Sang.

The testy exchanges, much of which centred on differences over India, foretold the Sino-Soviet rift that would ensue. They offer a rare glimpse of how the events leading up to the 1962 China-India war, usually seen as a localised border clash, had far wider implications than generally understood.

Mao Zedong meets Nikita Khrushchev in 1955. Photo: AFP
Nikita Khrushchev: You have had good relations with India for many years. Suddenly, here is a bloody incident, as a result of which [Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal] Nehru found himself in a very difficult position…If you let me, I will tell you what a guest should not say: the events in Tibet are your fault. You ruled in Tibet (西藏), you should have had your intelligence [agencies] there and should have known about the plans and intentions of the Dalai Lama.

Mao Zedong: Nehru also says that the events in Tibet [were] our fault. Besides, in the Soviet Union they published a TASS declaration on the issue of conflict with India [supporting India].

Khrushchev: Do you really want us to approve of your conflict with India? It would be stupid on our part. The TASS declaration was necessary…

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Mao Zedong: Our mistake was that we did not disarm the Dalai Lama right away. But at that time we had no contact with the popular masses of Tibet.

Khrushchev: You have no contact even now with the population of Tibet.

Mao: We have a different understanding of this issue.



Khrushchev: You were wrong to let the Dalai Lama go. If you allow him an opportunity to flee to India, then what has Nehru to do with it? We believe that the events in Tibet are the fault of the Communist Party of China, not Nehru’s.

Mao: No, this is Nehru’s fault.


From left: Zhou Enlai, Chen Yun, Liu Shaoqi, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Peng Zhen in Beijing in 1962. Photo: AFP

Mao: We also support Nehru, but in the question of Tibet we should crush him.

Khrushchev: Why did you have to kill people on the border with India?

Mao: They attacked us first, crossed the border and continued firing for 12 hours.

Zhou: What information do you trust more – India’s or ours?

Khrushchev: Although the Indians attacked first, nobody was killed among the Chinese, and only among the Indians.

Zhou: But what we are supposed to do if they attack us first? We cannot fire in the air. The Indians even crossed the McMahon line.


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Chen Yi: I am outraged by your declaration that the aggravation of relationship with India was our fault.

Khrushchev: I am also outraged by your declaration that we are time-servers. We should support [Jawaharlal] Nehru, to help him stay in power.

Mao: The events in Tibet and the border conflict – these are temporary developments…



Khrushchev: Take back your accusations; otherwise we spoil relations between our parties. We are your friends and speak the truth. We never acted as time-servers with regard to anybody.

Chen: But you also lay two political accusations at our door, by saying that both the aggravations of relations with India and the escape of the Dalai Lama were our fault. I believe that you are still acting as time-servers.

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Khrushchev: If you consider us time-servers, comrade Chen Yi, then do not offer me your hand. I will not accept it.

Chen: Neither will I. I must tell you I am not afraid of your fury.

Khrushchev: You should not spit from the height of your Marshal title. You do not have enough spit. We cannot be intimidated…

Source: Cold War International History Project, Wilson Centre