Interpretations are called for here — and these are necessarily opinionated to a degree.
From a recent Polish perspective, it might seem rather simple – and one-sided:
There are strong indications that Beijing's position, which opposed armed intervention, had a significant influence on the Kremlin. This was by no means out of warm attitudes towards Gomułka or the Polish October, but rather out of a wish to demonstrate that China was on an equal footing in the communist block, and that no important decisions should be taken without her. The Chinese stand was one of the first signs of the violent conflict which would tear the world communism apart a few years later.
— Pawel Machcewicz: "'1956 - A European date' - Annus Mirabilis 1956", culture.pl, 2006.
Of course, this doesn't explain anything about the different attitudes from China later in that year towards Hungary. This temporal difference alone might give a clue, as it did for a rather contemporary analyst:
It should be pointed out that neither Poland nor China ever intended to
break with the Soviet Union. Nor did they dare to disavow the leadership of the Soviet Union within the Communist camp in the year of 1956. Common interests called for the solidarity of the Communist countries against the free world.
Originally Peiping supported the liberalization movement in Poland as well as in Hungary. An official statement issued by Communist China on November 2, 1956 declared:
… the people of Poland and Hungary in the recent happenings have raised demands that democracy, independence and equality be strengthened and the
material well-being of the people be raised on the basis of the development of production.
These demands are completely proper. The correct satisfaction of these demands is not only helpful to the consideration of the people's democratic
system in these countries, but also favorable to unity among the socialist countries.
However, Communist China changed her attitude toward the Hungarian Revolution. The need for unity in the Communist camp caused China's retreat from her original position with regard to Hungary. It was also a compromise reached between Communist China and the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Chinese might have felt that the Hungarian Revolution had gone a little too far.
— George P. Jan: "Sino-Polish Relations, 1956–1958", The Polish Review, Autumn, 1961, Vol. 6, No. 4, pp. 93–106, 1961. (jstor)
However, the unquestionable Chinese support present for the Polish position should not be exaggerated, since later analysis seems to show a rather intricate dynamic at play that had the emphasis on China much reduced.
“If the Soviet Union sends troops, we will support Poland against you, and we will condemn your military intervention in Poland.”
Mao voiced his categorical warning on 20 October, although Khrushchev had already halted Soviet troop movements in Poland and agreed with Gomułka to continue talks. In the evening, the Chinese ambassador in Warsaw Wang Bingnan met with his Soviet counterpart, yet he did not mention one word of Mao’s opinion. At the same time, Ponomarenko said that despite the fact that Khrushchev had spent only one night in Warsaw, he was aware of the situation and would report on Polish political developments to fraternal countries so that they could discuss necessary steps together. Ponomarenko spoke of Poland as the weakest link in the chain of socialist countries, which was why the socialist countries had to find the correct solution to the Polish situation together:
“I cannot say what the Soviet Union will do regarding Poland in the future, because I cannot speak about what lies outside my jurisdiction”
— added the Soviet ambassador in Warsaw.
According to the notes of Vladimir Nikiforovich Malin, head of the CPSU CC General Department, at a meeting of the CPSU Presidium on 20 October, Khrushchev was not convinced that there would be no need for military intervention in Poland (“There’s only one way out—put an end to what is in Poland. If Rokossowski is kept, we won’t have to press things for a while.”39) and it seems likely that the decision for a peaceful solution was chosen only on 21 October, after Rokossowski’s dismissal. Nevertheless, Chinese sources are in agreement that the PRC did not have a direct role in the resolution of the Polish crisis.
China’s role in the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution
For half a century, debate has raged over the nature of the PRC’s role in the armed suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. More precisely, the question is: what role did the Chinese play in influencing Soviet decision-making?
According to the official Chinese version of events published during the Sino-Soviet disputes of 1960,
“at the end of October 1956, when the counter-revolutionary terror in Hungary had spread throughout almost the whole country, the CPSU CC, with Comrade Khrushchev at its helm, was preparing to withdraw Soviet troops from Hungary. At this point, we informed the CPSU CC of our opinion that it was necessary to repel the attack by imperialists and counter-revolutionaries against the great socialist family. At first the CPSU CC objected to our opinion, and only after much vacillation did they come to concur with us.”
The Soviet response, in contrast, called the Chinese position incomprehensible. The Chinese version of events is that Chinese advice had compelled the CPSU CC to take a stand on the Hungarian unrest. However, the Soviets felt that
“the Chinese comrades have appropriated, groundlessly, for themselves the direction of Soviet actions in the stifling of the Hungarian counter- revolutionary uprising.”
The Chinese position and Soviet reaction were shaped by the increasingly bitter power struggle, disguised in ideological garb, between Beijing and Moscow. The lack of decisive documents from the period means that we are unable to judge the accuracy of these positions. In May 2006, documents relating to the Polish and Hungarian events at the archives of the Chinese Foreign Ministry were opened up (mostly telegrams and reports from the Chinese embassy in Budapest) which deepen our knowledge and provide nuances. Yet Russian documents remain the only sources on the decision-making process: Malin’s notes and the diary of Soviet Ambassador to China Pavel F. Yudin on his discussions with Liu Shaoqi in Moscow on 30 October, and even they only allow us to draw hypothetical conclusions. Nevertheless, the new Chinese sources shed new light on the post-1956 manifestations of Chinese officials, and the ways in which they used the Hungarian events for their own propaganda purposes.
While the Polish problem was still cooking, Chinese delegates were then sent to Moscow, under strict orders to only speak about the Polish situation and to address Polish and Soviet comrades only separately. Ultimately to not only resolve this one problem, but clarify the relationships between the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.
The Chinese opinion on the withdrawal of troops changed on 30 October. According to Chinese memoirs, this change took place after Liu had consulted with Mao on the telephone. During the meeting on the 30th, in which Chinese delegates also took part, Liu Shaoqi indicated “on behalf of the CCP CC that troops must remain in Hungary and in Budapest.”
Khrushchev then said that:
“There are two paths. A military path—one of occupation. A peaceful path—the withdrawal of troops, negotiations.”
It is very probable that the report sent from Budapest on 30 October by Mikoyan and Suslov on the rapidly deteriorating situation played a decisive role in producing the change in Chinese opinion, and the more ambivalent stance of the Soviet leaders.
Analysis of Malin’s notes suggests that it was events in Hungary, and not pressure from China, which led to the change in Soviet opinion. According to Hungarian historian Csaba Békés, the decision of 31 October and the invasion of 4 November were the logical and inevitable consequences of a poor political decision taken in Moscow on 23 October. Békés argues that armed suppression of the Hungarian uprising was not merely one of the alternatives, but the result of the fact that after 30 October, the Soviets could no longer grant the Nagy government further concessions that would allow it to be able to consolidate the situation within the framework of the communist system, thus maintaining the unity of the Soviet bloc.62 This is confirmed by Khrushchev’s notes of 31 October. Referring to Egypt—where the Soviet Union also had interests and, by virtue of its military advisers, was part of the conflict, but where Premier Bulganin only threatened the Western powers with armed intervention, which never took place—he stated that
“we should reexamine our assessment and should not withdraw our troops from Hungary and Budapest. We should take the initiative in restoring order in Hungary. If we depart from Hungary, it will give a great boost to the Americans, English, and French—the imperialists. They will perceive it as weakness on our part and will go onto the offensive. We would then be exposing the weakness of our positions. Our party will not accept it if we do this. To Egypt they will then add Hungary. We have no other choice.”
According to Malin’s notes, not one member of the Soviet leadership made any statement to the effect that they would have been willing to accept Hungary’s departure from the camp of socialist countries. Having just returned from Hungary on 1 November, Mikoyan stated that “We simply cannot allow Hungary to be removed from our camp,” while Suslov declared that “the danger of bourgeois restoration has reached its peak.”
Having made the decision to intervene, Khrushchev mentioned the Chinese once again in connection with work to be done: “We should inform the Chinese comrades, the Czechs, the Romanians, and the Bulgarians.”65 This statement demonstrates that the Soviet leadership did not deal with the CCP any differently from the other fraternal parties.
Chinese memoirs supporting the official Chinese position (those of Wu Lengxi and Shi Zhe) recall that Mao Zedong criticized the Soviets on 30 October for, on the one hand, committing errors in Poland by wanting to intervene where intervention was unnecessary and, on the other, because they had wanted to withdraw from Hungary, where intervention was in fact required.
But it appears from the aforementioned that if Mao’s opinion changed after 30 October, his opinion had no influence on the Soviet decision makers. Not one Soviet leader implied that the Chinese would have supported intervention. On 1 November Bulganin commented on the decision taken the day before: “The international situation has changed. If we don’t take measures—we will lose Hungary.”
Kaganovich added that “The discussion was complicated. The Chinese said that we should not withdraw troops.” Neither Bulganin nor Kaganovich said, therefore, that the Chinese supported intervention. Kaganovich’s words imply that the Chinese spoke only on the question of whether troops should remain in or withdraw from Hungary.
The Soviet statements cited above do not contradict the Soviet explanation given during the later disputes of the 1960s, that although the Chinese opposed the troops’ withdrawal, Liu had said that patience was required, that the “counter-revolutionaries” should be allowed time to rage themselves out, and only after should be seized upon. Indeed, the memoirs of the Chinese delegation’s interpreter undoubtedly bear out this variation. According to Shi Zhe, Mao told Liu during their telephone conversation that both options—withdrawal and intervention—should be considered. Mao leaned toward the latter, saying that the best solution would be to wait a little until the counter-revolutionaries burned themselves out, and action should be taken only when the people could see more clearly.
According to Shi’s memoirs, Khrushchev met the Chinese delegation at the airport before their flight home on the evening of 31 October, where he informed them that he had decided on armed intervention in Hungary. He said that
“we have so many units there that, if we throw Hungary aside now, under these circumstances, and allow the counter-revolutionaries to claim victory, revolutionaries and communists of the entire world will chide us and call us fools. This is why we have chosen in favor of intervention.”
Any comparison between the Polish and Hungarian situation seems to have been utterly unimportant in either Soviet or Chinese tactics. It seems to have been primarily a matter of the bilateral relationship between the two.
On 30 October the Soviet leadership issued its famous declaration, according to which the Soviet Union, in its ongoing policy with socialist countries, regarded respect for the principles of full equality, respect for territorial integrity and state sovereignty, as well as non-interference in one another’s domestic affairs as being authoritative. Chinese authors read the declaration as irrefutable proof that the Chinese had brought pressure to bear on the Soviet leaders to break with the policy of great-power chauvinism, in the interest of recognizing the principles of Pancha Shila. We do not know the details of the Chinese role in the formulation of the declaration, but they may have played a part in its publication, for which they promised immediate support.
The Chinese leadership’s reaction to the declaration, setting out new foundations for the relationship between the Soviet Union and socialist countries, was immediate. The Chinese statement appeared in Renmin Ribao on 1 November which, given the time difference, was less then 24 hours after the Soviet declaration was made public. The reason behind the unusually swift reaction may have been that by the end of October, Mao had already formulated a strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union. His April article in Renmin Ribao, his speech on the ten major relationships, and the Hundred Flowers campaign launched during the spring, were all elements of this strategy that sought to restrict direct Soviet influence on Chinese culture and science.
The Chinese statement condemned Soviet “great-power chauvinism,” which “seriously harms the solidarity and common affairs of socialist countries.” One would have good reason to presume that Mao, who strove for the distinction of becoming theorist and leader of the international communist movement, was not motivated primarily by concern over Hungarian events at that time, but by concern for the future of his own policies. His emphasis was on the fact that “the leaders of our government, its officials, and the whole people must be vigilant to forestall the errors of chauvinism in relations with socialist and other countries,” and that “we must engage in non-stop education of our officials, and of our whole nation, in firm opposition to great-power chauvinism. Thus our responsibility is the promotion of peaceful coexistence among all nations [emphasis mine: PV] and in the cause of world peace.” This was nothing other than a criticism of Soviet policy, a highly refined formulation of Chinese independence from the Soviets, and a possibly high-handed countenance against Soviet military intervention.
From the PRC’s point of view, the statement was crucial because it furthered the principles of Pancha Shila. From his home in Hong Kong, László Ladányi, a Hungarian Jesuit and former missionary who had edited the weekly China News Analysis newsletter since 1953, reviewed the Chinese statement in detail. According to “China watcher” Ladányi, this was the first time the expression “chauvinism” (shawenzhuyi) appeared in Chinese in print.
After 1 November, the Chinese leadership, having criticized the Soviets, lined up behind the Soviet Union or, more precisely, and according to its own intentions, lined up alongside it.
— Péter Vámos: "Sino-Hungarian Relations and the 1956 Revolution", Cold War International History Project Working Paper #54, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Washington, 2006.