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History of the People's Republic of China

Right: China's third generation leaders paying homage to those who died for the revolution: 16th Party Congress, 2002.

See also History of China for events before the establishment of the People's Republic.

Table of contents

Mao Era

Founding of the People's Republic of China

In Beijing, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China. The new government assumed control of a people exhausted by two generations of war and social conflict and an economy ravaged by high inflation and disrupted transportation links. A new political and economic order modeled on the Soviet example was quickly installed. The Soviet Union and the PRC signed a mutual defense treaty on February 15, 1950.

In the early 1950s, the PRC undertook a massive economic and social reconstruction. The new leaders gained popular support by curbing inflation, restoring the economy, and rebuilding many war-damaged industrial installations. The Chinese Communist Party's (CPC) authority reached into almost every phase of Chinese life. Party control was assured by large, politically loyal security and military forces; a government apparatus responsive to party direction; and ranks of party members in labor, women's, and other mass organizations.

The "Great Leap Forward" and the Sino-Soviet Split

In 1958, Mao broke with the Soviet model and announced a new economic program, the "Great Leap Forward," aimed at rapidly raising industrial and agricultural production. Giant cooperatives (communes) were formed, and "backyard factories" dotted the Chinese landscape. The results were disastrous. Normal market mechanisms were disrupted, agricultural production fell behind, and mainland China's people exhausted themselves producing what turned out to be shoddy, unsalable goods. Within a year, starvation appeared even in fertile agricultural areas. From 1960 to 1961, the combination of poor planning during the Great Leap Forward and bad weather resulted in famine.

The already strained Sino-Soviet relationship deteriorated sharply in 1959, when the Soviets started to restrict the flow of scientific and technological information to China. The dispute escalated, and the Soviets withdrew all of their personnel from China in August 1960. In the same year, the Soviets and the Chinese began to have disputes openly in international forums.

The Cultural Revolution

In the early 1960s, President Liu Shaoqi and Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping took over direction of the party and adopted pragmatic economic policies at odds with Mao's communitarian vision. Dissatisfied with mainland China's new direction and his own reduced authority, Party Chairman Mao launched a massive political attack on Liu, Deng, and other pragmatists in the spring of 1966. The new movement, the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," was unprecedented in Communist history. For the first time, a section of the Chinese communist leadership sought to rally popular opposition against another leadership group. Mainland China was set on a course of political and social anarchy, which lasted the better part of a decade.

In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his "closest comrade in arms," National Defense Minister Lin Biao[?], charged Liu, Deng, and other top party leaders with dragging the country back toward capitalism. Radical youth organizations, called Red Guards, attacked party and state organizations at all levels, seeking out leaders who would not bend to the radical wind. In reaction to this turmoil, some local People's Liberation Army (PLA) commanders and other officials maneuvered to outwardly back Mao and the radicals while actually taking steps to rein in local radical activity.

Gradually, Red Guard and other radical activity subsided, and the Chinese political situation stabilized along complex factional lines. The leadership conflict came to a head in September 1971, when Party Vice Chairman and Defense Minister Lin Biao reportedly tried to stage a coup against Mao; Lin Biao allegedly later died in a plane crash in Mongolia.

In the aftermath of the Lin Biao incident, many officials criticized and dismissed during 1966-1969 were reinstated. Chief among these was Deng Xiaoping, who reemerged in 1973 and was confirmed in 1975 in the concurrent posts of Politburo Standing Committee member, PLA Chief of Staff, and Vice Premier.

The ideological struggle between more pragmatic, veteran party officials and the radicals re-emerged with a vengeance in late 1975. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and three close Cultural Revolution associates (later dubbed the "Gang of Four") launched a media campaign against Deng. In January 1976, Premier Zhou Enlai, a popular political figure, died of cancer. On April 5, Beijing citizens staged a spontaneous demonstration in Tiananmen Square in Zhou's memory, with strong political overtones in support of Deng. The authorities forcibly suppressed the demonstration. Deng was blamed for the disorder and stripped of all official positions, although he retained his party membership. This demonstration and its suppression is generally known as the Tiananmen incident.

Mao's Legacy The large number of deaths during the period of consolidation of power after victory in the Chinese Civil War paled in comparison to the number of deaths caused by famine, anarchy, war, and foreign invasion in the years before the Communists took power.

Supporters of Mao point out that before 1949, for instance, the illiteracy rate in Mainland China was 80 percent, and life expectancy was a meager 35 years. At his death, illiteracy had declined to less than seven per cent, and average life expectancy had increased to more than 70 years. In addition, China's population which had remained constant at 400 million from the Opium War to the end of the Civil War, mushroomed to 700 million as of Mao's death.

Ironically, other critics of Mao fault him for not encouraging birth control and for creating a demographic bump to which later PRC leaders responded by implementing the so-called one child policy. The one-child limit usually pertains to overpopulated urban areas. In rural areas restrictions are usually more lenient.

The immediate cause of the post-Mao birth control policy was the demographic bump of people born in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1949 the population of the PRC was about 400 million. In 1970, the population was 700 million. In the late 1970s, the Chinese leadership was alarmed by the fact that the "demographic bump" would soon begin entering childbearing years, and so it was decided to encourage family planning for this generation.

Since the mid-1990s there has been considerable relaxation in family planning policies in the People's Republic of China, largely due to the fact that the "demographic bump" of people born in the 1960s is now moving out of fertility age.

The People's Republic of China, unlike virtually any other Third World nation, no longer has to fear the prospects of over-population[?], malnutrition, and famine in spite of the doubling of life expectancy during the Mao years. With population growth stabilized, mainland China is sustaining one of the world's highest rates of per capita economic growth in the world.

The ideology surrounding Mao's interpretation of Marxism-Leninism, also known as Maoism, has influenced many communists around the world, including third world revolutionary movements such as Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, Peru's Shining Path and the revolutionary movement in Nepal. Ironically, the PRC has moved sharply away from Maoism since his death, and most of Mao's followers regard the Deng Xiaoping reforms to be a betrayal of Mao's legacy.

China after Mao

Deng Xiaoping consolidates power

Mao's death in September 1976 removed the "great helmsman" from the scene. Former Minister of Public Security Hua Guofeng was quickly confirmed as Party Chairman (he had succeeded Zhou as Premier upon his death). A month after Mao's death, Hua, backed by the PLA, arrested Jiang Qing and other members of the "Gang of Four." After extensive deliberations, the Chinese Communist Party leadership reinstated Deng Xiaoping to all of his previous posts at the 11th Party Congress in August 1977. Deng then led the effort to place government control in the hands of veteran party officials opposed to the radical excesses of the previous two decades.

By carefully mobilizing his supporters within the Chinese Communist Party, Deng was able to outmaneuver Mao's named successor Hua Guofeng, who had previously pardoned him, and oust him from his leadership positions. In contrast to previous leadership changes, Deng allowed Hua to quietly retire and helped to set a precedent that losing a high level leadership struggle would not result in physical harm. As Deng Xiaoping gradually regained control over the CPC, Hua was replaced by Zhao Ziyang as Premier in 1980, and by Hu Yaobang as Party Chairman in 1981. Until the mid-1990s, Deng was the most influential Chinese leader although his sole official title was that of chairman of the Communist Party's Central Military Commission.

While reforming and opening up the economy, Deng attempted to strengthen the power of the Communist Party by regularization of procedure but is widely regard has having undermined his own intentions by acting contrary to party procedure. Originally, the President was conceived of as a figurehead head of state with actual state power resting in the hands of the Premier of the People's Republic of China]] and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China]] both of which were conceived of as being separate people. In the original plan, the Party would develop policy, the state would execute it, and the power would be divided to prevent a cult of personality from forming as it did with the case of Mao Zedong.

After 1979, the Chinese leadership moved toward more pragmatic positions in almost all fields. The party encouraged artists, writers, and journalists to adopt more critical approaches, although open attacks on party authority were not permitted. In late 1980, Mao's Cultural Revolution was officially proclaimed a catastrophe.

"Reform and Opening-up"

Relations with the West improved markedly. In February 1972 American President Richard M. Nixon made an unprecedented eight-day visit to the PRC and met with Mao Zedong. Then on February 22, 1973 the United States and the People's Republic of China agreed to establish liaison offices. Although both sides intended to establish diplomatic relations quickly, this move was delayed until 1979 due to the Watergate scandal.

Deng traveled abroad and had a series of amicable meetings with western leaders, traveling to the United States in 1979 to meet President Carter at the White House. Carter finally recognized the People's Republic, which had earlier attained the ROC seat on the UN Security Council as the sole, legitimate government of China. One of Deng's achievements was the agreement signed by Britain and China on December 19, 1984 under which Hong Kong was to be returned to China in 1997. With the end of the 99-year lease on the New Territories expiring, Deng agreed that China would not interfere with Hong Kong's capitalist system for 50 years. This "one country-two systems" approach has been touted by the Mainland as a potential framework within which Taiwan could be reunited with the Mainland. Deng, however, did not improve relations with the Soviet Union, continuing to adhere to the Maoist line of the Sino-Soviet Split era that the Soviet Union was a superpower equally as "hegemonist" as the United States, but even more threatening to China because of its closer proximity.

Socialism with Chinese Characteristics

The new, pragmatic leadership emphasized economic development and renounced mass political movements. At the pivotal December 1978 Third Plenum (of the 11th Party Congress Central Committee), the leadership adopted economic reform policies known as the Four Modernizations aimed at expanding rural income and incentives, encouraging experiments in enterprise autonomy, reducing central planning, and establishing direct foreign investment in China. The plenum also decided to accelerate the pace of legal reform, culminating in the passage of several new legal codes by the National People's Congress in June 1979.

The goals of Deng's reforms were summed up by the Four Modernizations, the modernization of agriculture, industry, science and technology and the military. The strategy for achieving these aims, of becoming a modern, industrial nation, was the socialist market economy.

Deng argued that China was in the primary stage of socialism and that the duty of the party was to perfect "socialism with Chinese characteristics". This interpretation of Chinese Marxism[?] reduced the role of ideology in economic decision-making and emphasized policies of proven effectiveness. Downgrading Mao's idealistic, communitarian values but not necessarily Marxism-Leninism, Deng emphasized that socialism does not mean shared poverty. Unlike Hua Guofeng, Deng believed that no policy should be rejected out of hand simply for not having been associated with Mao, and unlike more conservative leaders such as Chen Yun[?], Deng did not object to policies on the grounds that they were similar to ones which were found in capitalist nations.

Although Deng provided the theoretical background and the political support to allow economic reform to occur, few of the economic reforms that Deng introduced were originated by Deng himself. Typically a reform would be introduced by local leaders, often in violation of central government directives. If successful and promising, these reforms would be adopted by larger and larger areas and ultimately introduced nationally. Many other reforms were influenced by the experiences of the East Asian Tigers.

This is in sharp contrast to the pattern in Perestroika undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev in which most of the major reforms where originated by Gorbachev himself. Many economists have argued that the bottom-up approach of the Deng reforms, in contrast to the top-down approach of Perestroika, was a key factor in the former's success.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, Deng's reforms included introduction of planned, centralized management of the macro-economy by technically proficient bureaucrats, abandoning Mao's mass campaign style of economic construction. However, unlike the Soviet model or China under Mao, this management was indirect, through market mechanisms, and much of it was modelled after economic planning and control mechanisms in Western nations.

But this trend did not impede the general move toward the market at the micro level. Deng sustained Mao's legacy to the extent that he stressed the primacy of agricultural output and encouraged a significant decentralization of decision making in the rural economy teams and individual peasant households. At the local level, material incentives rather than political appeals were to be used to motivate the labor force, including allowing peasants to earn extra income by selling the produce of their private plots at free market. In the main move toward market allocation, local municipalities and provinces were allowed to invest in industries that they considered most profitable, which encouraged investment in light manufacturing. Thus, Deng's reforms shifted China's development strategy to an emphasis on light industry and export-led growth.

Light industrial output was a key, and vital for a developing country coming from a low capital base. With the short gestation period, low capital requirements, and high foreign-exchange export earnings, revenues generated by light manufacturing were able to be reinvested in more technologically-advanced production and further capital expenditures and investments. However, in sharp contrast to the similar but much less successful reforms in Yugoslavia and Hungary, these investments were not government-mandated. The capital invested in heavy industry largely came from the banking system, and most of that capital came from consumer deposits. One of the first items of the Deng reforms was to prevent reallocation of profits except through taxation or through the banking system; hence, the reallocation in more "advanced" industries was somewhat indirect. In short, Deng's reforms sparked an industrial revolution in China.

These reforms were a reversal of the Mao policy of economic self-reliance. China decided to accelerate the modernization process by stepping up the volume of foreign trade, especially the purchase of machinery from Japan and the West. By participating in such export-led growth, China was able to step up the Four Modernizations by attaining certain foreign funds, market, advanced technologies and management experiences, thus accelerating its economic development. Deng attracted foreign companies to a series of special economic zones where capitalist business practices were encouraged.

The reforms centered on improving labor productivity as well. New material incentives and bonus systems were introduced. Rural markets selling peasants' homegrown products and the surplus products of communes were revived. Not only did rural markets increase agricultural output, they stimulated industrial development as well. With peasants able to sell surplus agricultural yields on the open market, domestic consumption stimulated industrialization as well, and also created political support for more difficult economic reforms.

There are some parallels between Deng's market socialism, especially in the early stages, and Lenin's New Economic Policy as well as Bukharin's economic policies, in that they foresaw a role for private entrepreneurs and markets based on trade and pricing rather than government mandates of production. An interesting anecdotal episode on this note is the first meeting between Deng and Armand Hammer[?]. Deng pressed the industrialist and former investor in Lenin's Soviet Union for as much information on the NEP as possible.

1989 Student Movement and Tiananmen Square

At the same time, however, political dissent as well as social problems such as inflation, urban migration, and prostitution emerged. Although students and intellectuals urged greater reforms, some party elders increasingly questioned the pace and the ultimate goals of the reform program. In December 1986, student demonstrators, taking advantage of the loosening political atmosphere, staged protests against the slow pace of reform, confirming party elders' fears that the current reform program was leading to the kind of social instability that killed hundreds of millions between the years of the Opium War and the founding of the PRC. Hu Yaobang, a protégé of Deng and a leading advocate of reform, was blamed for the protests and forced to resign as CPC General Secretary in January 1987. Premier Zhao Ziyang was made General Secretary and Li Peng, former Vice Premier and Minister of Electric Power and Water Conservancy, was made Premier.

After Zhao became the party General Secretary, the economic and political reforms he had championed came under increasing attack. His proposal in May 1988 to accelerate price reform led to widespread popular complaints about rampant inflation and gave opponents of rapid reform the opening to call for greater centralization of economic controls and stricter prohibitions against Western influence. This precipitated a political debate, which grew more heated through the winter of 1988-1989.

The death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989, coupled with growing economic hardship caused by high inflation, provided the backdrop for a large-scale protest movement by students, intellectuals, and other parts of a disaffected urban population. University students and other citizens in Beijing camped out at Tiananmen Square to mourn Hu's death and to protest against those who would slow reform. Their protests, which grew despite government efforts to contain them, called for an end to official corruption and for defense of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution of the People's Republic of China. Protests also spread through many other cities, including Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Deng's subsequent actions caused the presidency to have much greater power than originally intended. In 1989, President Yang Shangkun was able in cooperation with the then-head of the Central Military Commission, Deng Xiaoping, to use the office of the President to declare martial law in Beijing and order the military crackdown of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. This was in direct opposition to the wishes of the Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and probably a majority of the Politburo Standing Committee.

Martial law was declared on May 20, 1989. Late on June 3 and early on the morning of June 4, military units were brought into Beijing. They used armed force to clear demonstrators from the streets. There are no official estimates of deaths in Beijing, but most observers believe that casualties numbered in the hundreds.

After June 4, while foreign governments criticized the suppression of the rebellion, the central government reined in remaining sources that were a threat to order and stability, detained large numbers of protesters, and required political re-education not only for students but also for insubordinate party cadre and government officials. Zhao Ziyang to this day is still under house arrest for his insubordinate behaviour.

Political aftermath

It must be noted that the inflation characteristic of the years leading up to the Tiananmen protests has subsided. Political institutions have stabilized, thanks to the institutionalization of procedures of the Deng years and a generational shift from peasant revolutionaries to well-educated, professional technocrats. Social problems have eased as well, as China rapidly becomes more of a modern, prosperous nation each year. In short, another similar rebellion is extremely unlikely as Chinese society progresses every year under CPC rule.

Following the resurgence of conservatives in the aftermath of June 4, economic reform slowed until given new impetus by Deng Xiaoping's dramatic visit to southern China in early 1992. Deng's renewed push for a market-oriented economy received official sanction at the 14th Party Congress later in the year as a number of younger, reform-minded leaders began their rise to top positions. Deng and his supporters argued that economic liberalization and further reform were necessary to raise China's standard of living.

Subsequent to the visit, the Communist Party Politburo publicly issued an endorsement of Deng's policies of economic openness. Though not completely eschewing political reform, China has consistently placed overwhelming priority on the opening of its economy.

Deng's Legacy

As mentioned, Deng's policies opened-up the economy to foreign investment and market allocation within a socialist framework. Since his death, under Jiang's tutelage, mainland China has sustained an average of 8% GDP growth annually, achieving one of the world's highest rates of per capita economic growth, if not the highest.

Also as mentioned, due in part to socialist measures and price/currency controls, the inflation characteristic of the years leading up to the Tiananmen protests has subsided. Political institutions have stabilized, thanks to the institutionalization of procedure of the Deng years and a generational shift from peasant revolutionaries to well-educated, professional technocrats. Social problems have eased as well, as the PRC rapidly becomes more of a modern, prosperous nation each year.

Deng's reforms, however, have left a number of issues unresolved. As a result of his market reforms, it became obvious by the mid-1990s that many state-owned enterprises (owned by the central government, unlike TVEs[?] publicly owned at the local level) were unprofitable and needed to be shut down to prevent their being a permanent and unsustainable drain on the economy. Furthermore, by the mid-1990s most of the benefits of Deng's reforms, particularly in agriculture, had run their course; rural incomes had become stagnant, leaving the PRC's leaders in search of new means to boost economic growth or else risk a massive social explosion. A progressive tax system, however, could reallocate capital from the prosperous urban areas along the Pacific coast to the rural interior.

Finally, the Dengist policy of asserting the primacy of pragmatism over communitarian Maoist values, while maintaining the rule of the Communist Party, raised questions in the West. Many observers both within China and outside question the degree to which a one-party system can indefinitely maintain control over an increasingly dynamic and prosperous Chinese society. The gravity of these concerns, however, pales in comparison to the social ills faced by China as late as the Tiananmen rebellion of 1989, not to mention the days of mass famine and civil war before the founding of the People's Republic.

According to journalist Jim Rohwer[?], "the Dengist reforms of 1979-1994 brought about probably the biggest single improvement in human welfare anywhere at any time." This improvement was due to the fact that the reforms effected hundreds of millions of people.

Jiang Zemin's emotional eulogy to the genuinely beloved late revolutionary and Long March hero captured the mood of many in the nation. Jiang, wiping away tears, declared, "The Chinese people love Comrade Deng Xiaoping, thank Comrade Deng Xiaoping, mourn for Comrade Deng Xiaoping, and cherish the memory of Comrade Deng Xiaoping because he devoted his life-long energies to the Chinese people, performed immortal feats for the independence and liberation of the Chinese nation."

Third Generation of Leaders

Jiang Zemin was a compromise candidate chosen by Deng Xiaoping and other party elders to replace the then-party chief Zhao Ziyang, who was considered too conciliatory to student protesters. Although not directly involved with the crackdown, he was elevated to central party positions after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 for his role in averting similar protests in Shanghai.

Deng's health deteriorated in the years prior to his death in 1997. During that time, President Jiang Zemin and other members of his generation gradually assumed control of the day-to-day functions of government. This "third generation" leadership governs collectively with President Jiang at the center.

In March 1998, Jiang was re-elected President during the 9th National People's Congress. Premier Li Peng was constitutionally required to step down from that post. He was elected to the chairmanship of the National People's Congress. Zhu Rongji was selected to replace Li as Premier.

In Zhu's term country's economy grew steadily. He launched several major economic reforms including regrouping of state-owned coporations and reforms of government from the top level. The PRC joined World Trade Organisation in 2002 after 12 years of negotiation.

The Fourth Generation of Leaders and the 16th Party Congress

Although Jiang stepped down from the powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party to make way for a younger "fourth generation" of leadership led by Hu Jintao, there has been speculation that Jiang will continue to wield significant influence , prompting some to question whether or not Hu will truly be in charge. Six out of the nine new members of the all-powerful Standing Committee, Wu Bangguo, Jia Qinglin, Zeng Qinghong, Huang Ju, Wu Guanzheng[?], and Li Changchun[?] are linked to Jiang's "Shanghai clique[?]" and considered his "protégés"; Hu is not associated with this clique. The 22-member Politburo is elected by the Party's central committee. Real power in the PRC lies with this committee, which works as a kind of inner cabinet and groups together the country's most influential leaders. At the 2002 16th Party Congress, the Standing Committee was expanded to include nine members.

Speculation has centered on Zeng Qinghong, considered Jiang's right-hand-man, as a potential rival to Hu. Thus, it remains uncertain if Hu will emerge as the "core of the forth generation of leadership".

Nevertheless, the effects of leadership differences should not be overstated. Within the top leadership of the PRC, there is widespread agreement that Chinese economic reform should continue and policy differences are confined to relatively minor matters.

Hu, a hydraulic engineer who graduated from China's prestigious Qinghua University, is believed to be highly intellegent and have a photographic memory. His career is remarkable for his rapid ascendancy to power, attributed to his moderate views and careful attention not to offend or alienate his older backers. He is the first party chief to have joined the Communist Party after the Revolution over 50 years ago. In his 50s, Hu was the youngest member by far of the then seven-member Standing Committee.

See also: Politics of China, Timeline of Chinese history



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