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The Myth of Chinese Non-Intervention

Unlike most other myths about China that are created and perpetuated by the West, this myth – the notion that China does not ever interfere in the internal affairs of other sovereign nation states – was created by China itself. It is perpetuated primarily by China’s historical record of non-intervention. Consequently, over time this principle of non-intervention has unnecessarily taken on an absolutist and unilateral character, while casting aside one small but vital element of Premier Zhou’s original doctrine: 互.

A bit of background for new readers who may not be familiar with the doctrinal foundations of PRC foreign policy. Shortly after the founding of the Republic, Premier Zhou Enlai outlined five basic principles by which China conducts relations with other nation-states:


These principles are roughly translated as “mutual respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference of internal affairs, equality & mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence”, and they remain the basis of Chinese foreign policy to this day.

The word “互”, or “mutual“, by definition implies a reciprocal, non-unilateral relationship. Therefore, under the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, China has NO moral, legal, or doctrinal obligation to respect the sovereignty of nation-states that interfere in China’s internal affairs, since such restraint must be reciprocal. Needless to say, I have a very specific and narrow group of countries in mind that fits the category above.

As China increases its comprehensive national power, it must realize external intervention will not simply go away; it will be ever more critical for China to develop the talent, infrastructure, and institutions necessary to engage in retaliatory foreign intervention (when opportunities arise). I would hope that this capability would be used in a conservative,  judicious, and proportional manner.

Perhaps one way to start would be to help a political dissident break free of persecution… >;-]

  1. Wayne
    August 19th, 2012 at 00:57 | #1

    A case of Chinese ‘interference’ in the supposedly ‘internal’ affairs of other nations, was Hungary 1956, when China encouraged the Soviet Union to suppress the rebellion there.

    However this type of ‘interference’ took place in the wider context of the cold war and US threats against China, so it could well come under Zhou’s principle of reciprocity.

  2. William
    August 19th, 2012 at 04:02 | #2

    hmm, julian assange! i put a weibo post out when ai weiwei was first arrested, suggesting that the UK and china do some sort of swap deal involving him and assange. seemed sensible enough to me, but the weibo post was deleted…

    also there IS a chinese precedent where assange is involved … of a different sort. remember those north koreans entering western embassies in beijing in the early 2000s? they immediately claimed political asylum of a sort. the MFA public line was that embassies can’t grant political asylum (a sort of floodgates argument); nor did they want them to be able to get on the next plane to south korea. eventually most/all of the north koreans (i’m not going for more loaded word choices like “refugees” or “economic migrants”) were offered safe passage to a third-country airport, usually bangkok or manila, from which they immediately transited to seoul.

    now the tables are turned, i wonder if china will make the case for a similar arrangement, and call the UK hypocritical if it doesn’t play along? have him sit out in the ecuador embassy for a bit, then be put on a direct flight to cuba or caracas?

  3. August 19th, 2012 at 09:57 | #3

    If you use only wikipedia and western source, that is the info you get. It is part of the smear campaign against China.

    The Chinese leadership was appalled with the Soviet Intervention! Basically, if the Soviet can send troop to any communist state they can send troops to China too.

    Denoucing Stalin without first consulting the communist bloc, reproachment with the US (while US is actively supporting the ROC), and requiring naval bases in China lead to the complete Sino-Soviet split in 1960.

    The looming confrontation with the Soviet Union from 1956 onward was the major catalyst for the anti-right movement in 1957 and GLP in 1958.

  4. August 19th, 2012 at 10:23 | #4

    Intervention means different things to different people. But I suspect how the Chinese is using the term is similar if not identical to how that term is usually used in international law. That is, things like forced regime change is illegal. In the case of China’s disputes with other countries over territory, the Chinese are not forcibly trying to change another countries government nor is another government trying to do that with China. Merely, there is a dispute over territory. It’s not really intervention unless someone militarily attacks another country over that dispute or otherwise uses other illegal tactics in the dispute to infringe on the other country’s sovereign rights.

  5. August 19th, 2012 at 12:03 | #5

    The following misleading news showed how little most western journalists understand China’s foreign policy. As soon as some Chinese warships poised to cross the Suez canal, there are speculation that the Chinese warships will hold naval exercise with Russia and Syria.


    However, where exactly did the warships go?

    If they even bothered to check China’s official website.
    “After its departure from the waters of the Gulf of Aden, the 11th Chinese naval escort taskforce is scheduled to pay a friendly visit to Ukraine, Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria and Israel successively in two columns. It is the first time for the Chinese naval ships to visit Romania, Bulgaria and Israel.”

    In their black or white worldview, they simply cannot understand why China can blocked a UN resolution against the current government of Syria while maintaining good relationship simultaneously with Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia etc.

  6. August 19th, 2012 at 14:02 | #6


    The issues you point out are complex, but I want to briefly note that “refugees” vs. “economic migrants” is a key issue.

    Every country has a right to secure its borders. If it were to legitimize the movements of opportunistic economic migrants, there will be a real problem of controlling the borders. No country – not even the self-proclaimed “land of the free” allows that.

    Thus the U.S. will not treat Mexican migrants as “refugees” because they are really just migrants seeking economic opportunity.

    Of course clever lawyers can always make economic opportunity seeking into a political issue … but I won’t get there here.

    The same is of China. It can’t afford to allow any Joe Smoe from N. Korea who are really seeking better economic opportunities to be categorized as political refugees.

    As a side anecdotal evidence how this is an important issue, I know at least 3 people from Mainland China who have U.S. green cards now because they have claimed political refugee status of one sort or another (forced abortion, religion). The real reason they want to be in the U.S. is economic opportunity. None plan to get there U.S. citizen and forfeit PRC citizenship. They used the reason of forced abortion and religion to seek asylum status because the U.S. seem to like that sort of thing. Each person paid from U.S. $30k to $50k in lawyer fees to obtain U.S. green card. It’s a cottage industry…

  7. Wayne
    August 19th, 2012 at 14:22 | #7


    Ray: The Chinese support of Soviet intervention in Hungary is a matter of record, both from Chinese and Western sources. This happened (1956) well before the split was formalized in 1960.

    You may be confusing Hungary with the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968, which the Chinese leadership definitely did oppose.

  8. HXM
    August 19th, 2012 at 15:22 | #8

    Wayne, Ray, very interesting discussion…would love to read more…can you post more sources in Chinese or English..preferably non-blog sites, that you have found informative on the issue?
    Also, anyone up on the whole ’輸出革命‘ stuff?? Chinese wiki seems pretty brief:


  9. Wayne
    August 19th, 2012 at 16:08 | #9

    HXM: google 匈牙利 毛泽东, and you will find tons of stuff.

    In 1956, the term ‘social imperialism’ had not yet been coined, but it certainly was by 1968 when the Chinese condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

  10. August 19th, 2012 at 16:27 | #10



    I am in the process of writing a piece on China’s role in Eastern Europe, 1956. I’ll get back to you.

  11. HXM
    August 19th, 2012 at 18:37 | #11

    Thanks, Ray, that will be interesting to read if you can spare the time to finish it.
    With respect to ‘exporting revolution’, though, my understanding is that involved more propaganda and support for Communist guerrilla movements in Malaysia and Indonesia during the 1970s, which seems like a case of China’s political interference in other states, particularly for the Indonesians, although what these countries policies were towards interfering in China’s affairs is something I am unsure of.

  12. August 19th, 2012 at 19:24 | #12

    I’m not sure how relevant the case of Hungary is as a benchmark for Chinese “intervention”, as it was the Soviets who did the intervening. The whole notion of Zhou Enlai “pressuring” the Soviets to invade sounds like Maoist revisionist history (pun intended); I doubt the USSR would’ve just said “let’s just give up Hungary”, especially given that they bought this Eastern European buffer zone with millions of lives barely a decade ago.

  13. Wayne
    August 19th, 2012 at 19:43 | #13

    @Mister Unknown
    “The whole notion of Zhou Enlai “pressuring” the Soviets to invade sounds like Maoist revisionist history”

    Hardly. There are also a lot of Western, as well as Chinese, sources that support the idea. Funny that Mister Unknown puts it in terms of Chinese trying to claim ‘credit’ for it, while Ray puts it in terms of Westerners trying to blame China for it.

    “when Moscow decided to put down the Polish workers’ uprising in mid-October 1956 by using force, Beijing opposed the decision on the grounds that the Polish problem was caused mainly by “big-power chauvinism” (referring to Moscow’s arrogance and interference in the domestic affairs of other countries) instead of Western antisocialist conspiracy. [In contrast], when Moscow was wavering between using force and a hands-off policy in face of the Hungarian crisis at the very end of October, Beijing urged Moscow to send its troops into Budapest. “

    SOURCE: Yinghong Cheng, “Beyond Moscow-Centric Interpretation: An Examination of the China Connection in Eastern Europe and North Vietnam during the Era of De-Stalinization,” Journal of World History 15:487-518

  14. August 19th, 2012 at 20:42 | #14

    As you can see from the source you quote yourself, China is against the use of force in Poland when Moscow wanted to send troops. Accusing the USSR in the face a practising “big-power chauvinism”. In fact, Mao met with the Soviet embassador and said China will openly opposed.

    In Hungary’s case the situation has gone out of control when close to two thousand people killed, and there were slogan of “Down with Communism”, “Russian Out”. It is actually more like a Libya and Syria scenario. It is under this backdrop that China feel it is better to send troops. Ultimately, the decision is all up to the Soviet.

    The blog soure you use in post #7 actually present Zhou as pressuring a scared shitless USSR (以赫鲁晓夫为首的苏修集团吓破了胆) Frankly, the PRC in 1956 is in no position to pressure or encourage the USSR in anyway. Those writing are way too sensational.

    The intervention of 1956, 1968 and split with Yugoslavia then Romania, Albania weakened Soviet’s position. The situation has a long drawn out background. If you are interested, try go through the 10 episodes documentory to get a better picture.




  15. August 19th, 2012 at 21:15 | #15

    Actually, the communist movement in Malaysia and Indonesia are home grown and received nothing except moral support from the communist bloc, including the PRC.

    In Malaya, by the late 1950s the Communist Party of Malaya was already defeated and withdrawn into Thailand. The British declared an emergency in Federation of Malaya, Borneo and Singapore from 1948 and ended in 1960. The communist was only able to survive near the border inside Thailand because the Malay government was sympathetic to the Patani Liberation Front. The Thai government was furious and allow the communist to exist to spite the Malaysian government. Anyway, the most turbulent area in Thailand today is still the Patani area where several thousand people have been killed.

    The only support they received after the defeat was the hosting of the top communist leaders and their family in China. China also allow them to do radio broadcast. Again please bear in mind that the PRC has no diplomatic relationship with Malaya until 1974.

    In Indonesia, the founding president Sukarno has the support of the Indonesian communist and was part of the non-align movement. Indonesia was one of the few countries to recognized the PRC in 1950 and was getting closer to the communist bloc. He was however deposed in a coup by Suharto in 1965. The communist was completely destroyed so there is no way China can support them. The diplomatic relationship also ended in 1967 and didn’t resume until 1990.


    For example, China supported DPRK and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam on the basis that they were the only recognized government of that country. The ROK and ROV likewise did not recognized the PRC. So in China’s view it is not intervention but rather a direct dealing with the true government on a state to state basic. China’s dealing with many African independence movement from the 1950s to 1960s was also done on a similar rule of engagement.

  16. Wayne
    August 19th, 2012 at 21:38 | #16


    Ray, while of course China was in no position to force the Soviets to do anything, it seems that Zhou’s counsel to Khruschev was pivotal in getting the Soviets to intervene. Personally I agree with the intervention and that China did the right thing. Again this was not so much intervention in the internal affairs of another country, as fighting a cold war battle against American and Western supported insurrection. In such a context, the suppression of the Hungarian uprising can be seen in the same light as China’s Korean war participation.

    The Polish situation at around the same time, however, does demonstrate the independent mindedness of the Chinese leadership early on, in China’s relations with the Soviets. But where there was a real threat of Western subversion, China encouraged the correct course of action.

    There was absolutely nothing wrong with China’s support, limited though it was, for South East Asian communists, and support for North Vietnam was thoroughly justified, given the international situation of the time. Where Western imperialism has its tentacles and is openly at war against independence fighters, China had the duty to provide fraternal support.

    Supporting say Vietnam against French and US aggression, cannot be classed as “interference in the internal affairs of other countries”, any more than allied support for the French or Dutch resistance during WWII could be.

  17. William
    August 20th, 2012 at 01:39 | #17

    Yes I agree with your summary. Was just trying to point out that China has been “on the other side of the fence” regarding an issue like Assange, and not so long ago either.

    One thing I forgot to point out (but you didn’t) was that the North Koreans in question were in China illegally in the first place, before scaling the embassy walls. So there’s a parallel with Assange who is also in trouble with the law in the UK (breaching bail conditions), regardless of the embassy / diplomatic premises / asylum / safe passage issue.

    There’s a lot of symmetry … or could be. I don’t think China could be seen as pushy for simply asking for the same thing for Assange that it reluctantly agreed to give in the North Korean cases.

    Also fully agree with you about the green card / US passport racket.

  18. August 20th, 2012 at 09:52 | #18

    As you can see, the Soviet was already considering using troops to settle the issue of Poland. If China disagree with the Soviet on intervention in Hungary, do you think they would listen? That’s why I say it is wrong to present China as having any influence over the Soviet decision.

    At that time, the PRC’s situation is worse than the DPRK today, in that it is not recognized by the UN and has to work out of the system. The USSR also refused to give nuclear and ballistic missile technology to China so China pretty much end up having to develop it alone, much like the space technology today.

    PRC’s worldview is also different from the US and also the USSR. The US supported the French in Indochina solely on the mistaken belief that they are stopping the spread of communism. They failed to see nationalism and thirst for self determination is more important for the locals. In China’s view, the local people are the rightful government and all those supported by outsiders are puppet governments.
    Under Khrushchev, the USSR feel that communism can co-exist with the capitalist bloc lead by the US. Basically, the new leadership actually want to scale down the conflict and pretty much maintain the status quo. China, however was not recognized by most of the US bloc and was facing sanction by the US. On top of that the US has strengthened military and economic support to the ROC.

    In China’s view, the only option is supporting all those independence or communist movement against all those countries that did not has diplomatic relationship with China. Of course, in western press, Mao was painted as a madman who wanted to spread communism worldwide to achieve world domination. If we look at it in term of strategy, it is simply a sound way of survival. So the national policy of the USSR and PRC is now in direct conflict. China’s strategy paid off when those African countries finally achieved independence, in 1971 with their votes the PRC was able to replace ROC at the UN. Another factor is, the PRC stand in Korea, Vietnam and eventually fielding its own missile, satellite and nuclear weapon in the 1960s convincing the countries with no diplomatic relationship to re-evaluate their position with ROC.

    The Soviet relationship with the communist states was also badly outlined. On theory, the USSR by virtue of its size and strength should be the leader of the bloc, much like the US. However, other than the economic model difference between the opposing blocs, the biggest different is the state to state relationship. The US treat its allies as a subordinate state with its own government. Nevertheless, independent minded nation does not like that and under De Gaulle, French withdrew its troops from the command of NATO (which is actually commanded by US). The French also has to develop its own nuclear and ballistic missile with no US help.

    The Soviet leadership believe that communist leadership overwrite that of sovereign rights. For example, although they believe that Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia etc are sovereign states not part of the Soviet Union their government has to be approved by the Soviet. In Europe, Tito’s Yugoslavia is the first to refuse this Soviet view and prefer a sovereign communist state under its own communist/socialist party independent from Soviet interference. The problem with both blocs is that, all the smaller states (Cuba, DPRK etc) need the military protection or economic help to survive under the cold war. And the leader of the bloc, the US and USSR feel that all the smaller states should uphold the highest interest of the bloc even at the expense of state interest.

    As we can tell from history, the USSR eventually end up sending military intervention in many European countries destroying their own prestige and sowed hatred until this very day. Although the US dislike French independence, it did not send troops to force a regime change. Even when the UK government has a less friendly government, the US would keep a hands off. But in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the US has no qualm about using regime change to get a subordinate government. US action in those region would get them bad name and animosity as well.

    So going back to the OP, China has been very cautious of intervention because of the bad example set by US and USSR. And if China intervene in any smaller countries, it would end up practising “Big power chauvinism” as voiced by Mao.

  19. Black Pheonix
    August 20th, 2012 at 16:18 | #19

    I agree with Mister Unknown’s point. We shouldn’t forget the “Mutual” in the Non-interference principle.

    However, that said, I think China is right to emphasize more on the “non-interference” today, and less on the “mutual”.

    If China respond in kind, (say vs. US), China would be dragged into a Mutual tit-for-tat, and dragging other nations in, causing not only waste to China, but untold miseries to other nations.

    Take example the Cold War, even if NATO was the “winner”, there are many nations in Latin America and Africa today, who still bear resentment against US, at very least for using the other nations as pawns.

    As a future Superpower, China must NOT play such games.

  20. August 20th, 2012 at 19:30 | #20

    you cant swap one cia agent for another. that would make no sense. what makes more sense is to swap ai with mumia abu jamal, or leonard peltier, real dissidents, not some mk ultra tool like assange.

  21. August 20th, 2012 at 19:34 | #21

    that is supporting real democracy. the u.s regime prevented vietnamese elections from taking place because they knew the communists would win

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