Valeria Zanier. Picture:
Valeria Zanier. Photo: private

Starting in the second half of the 1950’s Mao started a strategy to empower China by promoting an intense exploration of the territory in search for crude oil and increasing the investment in the petroleum industry. The deployment of capital and human resources led by a group of Mao’s most loyal men, brought to the discovery of oilfields in the northeast and central parts of the country. During the 1960s’ China reduced its oil imports, eventually reaching self-reliance. Although this status could only be maintained for slightly more than a decade, as the country had to go back to importing in order to fuel the huge economic development process started by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China’s self-reliance has been saluted as a great achievement. The official Party narrative has highlighted the selfless work of the Chinese people. An exemplary tale is the development of the Daqing oilfield in Northeastern China, which has been frequently used to strengthen PRC’s revolutionary discourse. Where did the Chinese obtain the technology which enabled them to attain such glorious – though temporary – achievements? This is a crucial point to explore, as in the early 1960s’s China had split from the Soviet alliance, and this hampered contributions from Eastern Bloc countries.

The paper will provide evidence of the intense contacts that Chinese officials developed with some of the major chemical, petrochemical and energy companies of western Europe during the early 1960’s. It will especially deal with the case of the Italian state-owned energy holding ENI, that was the first western company to sell complete plants to Maoist China (1963). As this case study shows, the involvement of Western business acquires a wider importance when we consider the political events of those years: France was pushing to perform a stronger role antagonizing the US (and as a result, De Gaulle recognized China in early 1964). The US themselves showed some signals of distension, as it emerged from the Cuba missiles crisis (1962) and was further acknowledged by the uncertainty and ambivalence in the American China policy, as a consequence of the debate on American business interests (1963). 

ENI president Enrico Mattei with Chen Yi in Beijing, 1958. Source: ENI Historical Archives