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China Encounter of Long-Lost Comrades

4 minute read

When East German Communist Party Leader Erich Honecker, 74, and Chinese General Secretary Hu Yaobang, 71, got together last week in Peking, it was a little like a school reunion. There were bear hugs, “fraternal kisses” and reminiscences of the good old days. “I haven’t seen you in 33 years,” said Hu as he embraced the East German party chief in Peking’s Zhongnanhai compound. Ho- necker presented Hu with a photograph taken during their last meeting at a Communist youth congress in Rumania 33 years ago.

The encounter was not merely a reunion between two long-lost comrades. For nearly a quarter-century, the Chinese and East Europeans have been bitter ideological enemies. All East bloc governments except Rumania froze relations with China in the early 1960s, following Mao Tse-tung’s falling out with Moscow over doctrinal disagreements. Honecker’s trip to China last week was the first formal state visit by a Warsaw Pact Communist Party chief since that chilly era, and it signaled what Hu called a “new phase” in relations between the two countries. It came less than a month after a more modest working visit by Premier Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland. Next year could produce new state visits from two more East bloc leaders, Czechoslovakia’s Gustav Husak and Hungary’s Janos Kadar.

The Chinese have been trying to normalize relations with Eastern Europe since 1977. Until now, Soviet leaders have blocked the way by insisting that Moscow’s clients march in lockstep with improvements in Sino-Soviet relations. All that may be changing. Observed a Western diplomat in Peking last week: “This trip and Jaruzelski’s constitute a major Soviet concession to the Chinese.”

Indeed, the Soviets view the rapprochement between Peking and East European governments as part of their own campaign for closer relations with the Chinese. Last month Jaruzelski stopped off in Moscow for talks with Soviet , officials before and after his journey to China. Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev is said to want to re-establish high-level political ties between Moscow and Peking. That desire so far has been frustrated, although cordial talks by various middle-ranking officials have been going on between the two Communist nations since 1982.

But China’s Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping and East European leaders like Honecker have their own agendas to promote. The East bloc nations face serious balance-of-trade problems that lucrative new commercial agreements with the Chinese could help to correct. The Chinese, for their part, produce an enormous quantity of consumer items, particularly textiles and simple manufactured goods like thermos bottles that they would like to barter for East European machine tools and other basic products needed to equip their burgeoning rural industries. China’s primitive manufacturing concerns can neither afford nor fully exploit the benefits of advanced Western technology.

Trade this year between Peking and East Berlin alone will rise by a third, to about $500 million. In an attempt to enhance their potentially lucrative tourist business, the Chinese have just agreed to buy 300 railroad passenger cars worth $100 million from the East Germans and to outfit them for first- class travel. Hungary’s giant Raba automotive factory at Gyor will produce 12,000 trucks for sale to China. As part of the deal, 350 Chinese will work at the Gyor plant. Over the next five years, Czechoslovakia and East Germany are expected roughly to double their China trade.

Commercial links between the Soviets and Chinese are also expanding. Bilateral trade this year is likely to increase by 50%, to almost $3 billion. But any full-fledged normalization must await Soviet concessions on what the Chinese pointedly insist are three obstacles: the Soviet-backed Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea, the war in Afghanistan and the presence of half a million Soviet troops along the Chinese border. For the moment, it seems, the Soviets will have to content themselves with modest improvements on the economic front, while their East European allies get the fraternal embraces in Peking.

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