Energy for China’s Socialist Industrialisation: Eastern European Contributions during the Sino-Soviet Alliance

2:00 pm – 3:45 pm
Room 1

  • Organised by Jan Zofka and Anna Belogurova
  • Chaired by Elisabeth Kaske
  • Jan Zofka, “The Logic of Socialist Exchanges: GDR Coal Specialists, China’s Energy Demand and the Global History of Coal-to-Liquid Technologies”
  • Anna Belogurova, “Exchanges between the Chinese and Soviet Institutions in the Coal Industry (1958–1960)”
  • Péter Vámos, “Hungarian Experts and the Daqing Oil Field”

The significance of the economic exchanges in the framework of the Sino–Soviet alliance outweigh the attention they get in studies on Chinese, Eastern European, and Global History. This panel draws attention to the energy resource sector and looks at transfers and exchanges around coal, oil, and coal-to-liquid technology during the 1950s. At the time, experts throughout the socialist world were discussing the ongoing global shift from coal to oil (and natural gas) as primary energy sources and sought for solutions on limited means to cope with the entangled technological change. Searching for oil was one way, producing liquid fuel from coal was another way, and continuing with coal-based technologies a third one. We want to discuss how important the socialist international cooperation was for China’s industrialisation and its energy base and what rationales stood behind these activities and exchanges. The Soviet support for the Chinese coal industry, the GDR attempts to build coal-to-liquid factories in China and the Hungarian participation in the development of the Daqing oil field are examples for the political economy of the rise and demise of the Sino-Soviet alliance and of the in- and exclusion of China into the international socialist web of technology, knowledge, and resource transfer.

Jan Zofka, “The Logic of Socialist Exchanges: GDR Coal Specialists, China’s Energy Demand and the Global History of Coal-to-Liquid Technologies”

Among the numerous industrial projects that GDR and PRC planned together after signing an economic cooperation treaty in 1955 one proposal stands out: three giant factories for producing liquid fuels from coal to be built by GDR specialists. This by far largest project of the short-lived Sino-East German cooperation was never realised. However, the (knowledge) exchanges in this field are very telling in respect of the rationales behind socialist international economic activities. The GDR leadership was not only keen on political friendship with the most populous socialist country in the world but also followed several economic aims: China was seen as a field for enhancing its industrial exports, complete “turnkey” factories especially. The coal experts aimed to revive their coal-to-liquid knowledge through export, while the technology in the GDR was approaching its end because of being too costly. The Chinese side urgently needed liquid fuels—and thus ended the project with the discovery of oil on its territory. However, as soon as oil demand outpaced domestic production the PRC indeed did acquire coal-to-liquid technologies in later decades. Although coal-to-liquid technology is paradigmatic for politically driven autarkism (of Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa mainly), the history of these concrete exchanges in the 1950s and of the technology more broadly shows that the socialist decision-makers followed rather a rationale of economic calculation. Technology and resources from the capitalist world always played a role in these intra-socialist exchanges, at least as an elephant in the room.

Anna Belogurova, “Exchanges between the Chinese and Soviet Institutions in the Coal Industry (1958–1960)”

Scholars usually view the Sino–Soviet rift (c.1960) either from top leadership angle, focusing on diverging views on the path to communism and on de-Stalinisation, or assess it based on power dynamics in the conflicts between the Soviet and Chinese specialists in their cooperation projects in China.
This paper will examine Soviet documents regarding technological exchanges between Chinese and Soviet institutions in 1958–1960 in the energy sector and coal industry in particular. Overall, they show that economic goals and ambition for global state-of-art technologies were driving forces of cooperation programs, as well as rationales for the disagreements between the Soviet and Chinese sides. What do those tell us about the relations between the SU and the PRC during this crucial time period? What relation (if at all) did those exchanges have to Mao Zedong’s disastrous industrialisation of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961) which was literally fueled by coal?

Péter Vámos, “Hungarian Experts and the Daqing Oil Field”

Advanced geophysical techniques developed in Hungary contributed immensely to the success of geological surveys carried out in the PRC between 1956 and 1959. A group of Hungarian geophysicists played a pivotal role in exploring and discovering oil deposits in the Songliao Basin, which later became known as Daqing, the largest oil field in the PRC. Based on primary sources from Hungarian archives as well as oral history interviews with and publications by people involved in the expedition, this paper will examine this eminent example of Sino-Hungarian cooperation against the backdrop of the radicalisation of Chinese politics and growing tensions between the Soviet Union and China. Taking the Hungarian geophysicists’ expedition as an example, the aim of this paper is to explore the historical setting of early exchanges as well as the daily practice of scientific and technological interactions between the PRC and Hungary, one of the closest East European allies of the Soviet Union in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. The Great Leap Forward launched by Mao Zedong in 1958 became a source of tension between the foreign experts and the Chinese and led to the withdrawal of all Soviet experts 1960. However, some Hungarian advisors continued their work in China until 1962. Ironically, as the Sino-Soviet split escalated into an open conflict by the mid-1960s Daqing became a model industrial city in Mao Zedong’s revolutionary economic development strategy and also an eminent example of self-reliance and the eschewal of foreign knowledge systems.

Event Timeslots (1)

Room 1