History of Modern China

History of Modern China

This is a continued history of China from Imperial times. Please follow this link if you would like to read more about the history of Ancient China.

The Modern Era

Frustrated by the Qing court’s resistance to reform and by China’s weakness, young officials, military officers, and students began to advocate the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and creation of a republic.

A revolutionary military uprising, the Wuchang Uprising, began on October 10, 1911 in Wuhan. The provisional government of the Republic of China was formed in Nanjing on March 12, 1912 with Sun Yat-Sen as President. However, Sun was forced to turn power over to Yuan Shikai, who commanded the New Army and was Prime Minister under the Qing government, as part of the agreement to let the last Qing monarch abdicate (a decision he would later regret). Yuan Shikai proceeded in the next few years to abolish the national and provincial assemblies and declared himself emperor in 1915. Yuan’s imperial ambitions were fiercely opposed by his subordinates, and faced with the prospect of rebellion, Yuan abdicated and died shortly afterwards in 1916, leaving a power vacuum in China. His death left the republican government all but shattered, ushering the warlord era when China was ruled by shifting coalitions of competing provincial military leaders.

Mao Zedong - ESL in ChinaPhoto to the right: Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Communist Party

In 1919, the May Fourth Movement began as a response to the insult imposed on China by the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I, but quickly became a protest movement about the domestic situation in China. The discrediting of liberal Western philosophy amongst Chinese intellectuals was followed by the adoption of more radical lines of thought. This in turn planted the seeds for the irreconcilable conflict between the left and right in China that would dominate Chinese history for the rest of the century.

In the 1920s, Sun Yat-Sen established a revolutionary base in south China, and set out to unite the fragmented nation. With Soviet assistance, he entered into an alliance with the fledgling Communist Party of China (CPC). After Sun’s death from cancer in 1925, one of his protégés, Chiang Kai-shek, seized control of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party or KMT) and succeeded in bringing most of south and central China under its rule in a military campaign known as the Northern Expedition. Having defeated the warlords in south and central China by military force, Chiang was able to secure the nominal allegiance of the warlords in the North. In 1927, Chiang turned on the CPC and relentlessly chased the CPC armies and its leaders from their bases in southern and eastern China. In 1934, driven from their mountain bases such as the Chinese Soviet Republic, the CPC forces embarked on the Long March across China’s most desolate terrain to the northwest, where they established a guerrilla base at Yan’an in Shaanxi Province.

During the Long March, the communists reorganized under a new leader, Mao Zedong. The bitter struggle between the KMT and the CPC continued, openly or clandestinely, through the 14-year long Japanese invasion (1931-1945), even though the two parties nominally formed a united front to oppose the Japanese invaders in 1937, during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) portion of World War II. The war between the two parties resumed following the Japanese defeat in 1945. By 1949, the CPC occupied most of the country.

At the end of WWII in 1945 Japanese troops in Taiwan surrendered to Republic of China troops giving Chiang Kai-shek effective control of Taiwan. As Chiang was defeated by the CPC, he fled with the remnants of his government to Taiwan in 1949.

1949–1976: Socialist transformation under Mao Zedong

Following the Chinese Civil War and the victory of Mao Zedong’s Communist forces over the Kuomintang forces of General Chiang Kai-shek who fled to Taiwan, Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Mao’s first goal was a total overhaul of the land ownership system, and extensive land reforms. China’s old system of landlord ownership of farmland and peasant workers was replaced with a distribution system in favor of less wealthy peasants. Mao laid heavy emphasis on class struggle and theoretical work, and in 1953 began various campaigns to suppress former landlords and capitalists. Foreign investment was largely wiped out. Many cultural and historical buildings and artifacts were destroyed by the Maoist regime, since they were considered reminders of the past.

Chinese Civil War - ESL in ChinaPhoto to the left: The Chinese Civil War between the Communists and the KMT

Mao believed that socialism would eventually triumph over all other ideologies, and following the First Five-Year Plan based on a Soviet-style centrally controlled economy, Mao took on the ambitious project of the Great Leap Forward in 1958, beginning an unprecedented process of collectivization in rural areas. Mao urged the use of backyard iron smelters to increase steel production, pulling workers off of agricultural labor to the point that large amounts of crops rotted unharvested. Mao decided to continue to advocate these smelters despite a visit to a factory steel mill which proved to him that high quality steel could only be produced in a factory; he thought that ending the program would dampen peasant enthusiasm for the leap forward.

The implementation of Maoist thought in China may have been responsible for over 70 million excessive deaths during peacetime, with the Cultural Revolution, Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-58, and the Great Leap Forward. Because of Mao’s land reforms during the Great Leap Forward, which resulted in famines, thirty million perished between 1958 and 1961. By the end of 1961 the birth rate was nearly cut in half because of malnutrition. Active campaigns, including party purges and “reeducation” resulted in imprisonment and/or the execution of those deemed contrary to the implementation of Maoist ideals. [6] Mao’s failure with the Leap reduced his power in government, whose administrative duties fell on Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.

Supporters of the Maoist Era claim that under Mao, China’s unity and sovereignty was assured for the first time in a century, and there was development of infrastructure, industry, healthcare, and education, which raised standard of living for the average Chinese. They also claimed that campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were essential in jump starting China’s development and “purifying” its culture. More nuanced arguments claim that though the consequences of both these campaigns were economically and humanly disastrous, they left behind a “clean slate” on which later economic progress could be built. Supporters often also doubt statistics or accounts given for death tolls or other damages incurred by Mao’s campaigns, attributing the high death toll to natural disasters, famine, or other consequences of political chaos during the rule of Chiang Kai-Shek.

Critics of Mao’s regime assert that Mao’s administration imposed strict controls over everyday life, and believe that campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution contributed to or caused millions of deaths, incurred severe economic costs, and damaged China’s cultural heritage. The Great Leap Forward in particular preceded a massive famine in which 20–30 million people died; most Western and many Chinese analysts attribute this to poor agricultural and economic planning.

To impose socialist orthodoxy and rid China of “old elements”, and at the same time serving certain political goals, Mao began the Cultural Revolution in May 1966. The campaign was far reaching into all aspects of Chinese life. Red Guards terrorized the streets as many ordinary citizens were deemed counter-revolutionaries. Education and public transportation came to a nearly complete halt. Daily life involved shouting slogans and reciting Mao quotations. Many prominent political leaders, including Liu and Deng, were purged and deemed “capitalist-roaders”. The campaign would not come to a complete end until the death of Mao in 1976.

1976–1989: Rise of Deng Xiaoping and economic reforms

Deng Xiaoping - ESL in China

Mao Zedong’s death was followed by a power struggle between the Gang of Four, Hua Guofeng, and eventually Deng Xiaoping. Deng would maneuver himself to the top of China’s leadership by 1980. At the 3rd Plenum of the 11th CPC Congress, Deng embarked China on the road to Economic Reforms and Openness (Gaige Kaifang), policies that began with the de-collectivization of the countryside, followed with industrial reforms aimed at decentralizing government controls in the industrial sector. On the subject of Mao’s legacy Deng coined the famous phrase “7 parts good, 3 parts bad”, and avoided denouncing Mao altogether. Deng championed the idea of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), areas where foreign investment would be allowed to pour in without strict government restraint and regulations, running on a basically capitalist system. Deng laid emphasis on light industry as a stepping stone to the development of heavy industries.

Supporters of the economic reforms point to the rapid development of the consumer and export sectors of the economy, the creation of an urban middle class that now constitutes 15% of the population, higher living standards (which is shown via dramatic increases in GDP per capita, consumer spending, life expectancy, literacy rate, and total grain output) and a much wider range of personal rights and freedoms for average Chinese as evidence of the success of the reforms.

Although standards of living improved significantly in the 1980s, Deng’s reforms were not without criticism. Conservatives asserted that Deng opened China once again to various social evils, and an overall increase in materialistic thinking, while liberals attacked Deng’s unrelenting stance on the political front. Liberal forces began manifesting with different forms of protest against the leadership, which in 1989 resulted in the Tiananmen Square protests during which China’s government was condemned internationally. Critics of the economic reforms, both in China and abroad, claim that the reforms have caused wealth disparity, environmental pollution, rampant corruption, widespread unemployment associated with layoffs at inefficient state-owned enterprises, and has introduced often unwelcome cultural influences. Consequently they believe that China’s culture has been corrupted, the poor have been reduced to a hopeless abject underclass, and that the social stability is threatened. They are also of the opinion that various political reforms, such as moves towards popular elections, have been unfairly nipped in the bud. Regardless of either view, today, the public perception of Mao has improved at least superficially; images of Mao and Mao related objects have become fashionable, commonly used on novelty items and even as talismans. However, the path of modernization and market-oriented economic reforms that China started since the early 1980s appears to be fundamentally unchallenged. Even critics of China’s market reforms do not wish to see a backtrack of these two decades of reforms, but rather propose corrective measures to offset some of the social issues caused by existing reforms.

1989–2002: Economic growth under the third generation

Hong Kong Skyline - ESL in ChinaPhoto to the right: Hong Hong returned to Chinese hands in 1997 and still continues to prosper.

After Tiananmen, Deng Xiaoping retired from public view. While keeping ultimate control, power was passed onto the third generation of leadership led by Jiang Zemin, who was hailed as its “core”. Economic growth, despite foreign trade embargoes, returned to a fast pace by the mid-1990s. Jiang’s macroeconomic reforms furthered Deng’s vision for “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. At the same time, Jiang’s period saw a continued rise in social corruption in all areas of life. Unemployment skyrocketed as unprofitable SOE’s were closed to make way for more competitive ventures, internally and abroad. The ill-equipped social welfare system was put on a serious test. Jiang also laid heavy emphasis on scientific and technological advancement in areas such as space exploration. To sustain vast human consumption, the Three Gorges Dam was built, attracting supporters and widespread criticism. Environmental pollution became a very serious problem as Beijing was frequently hit by sandstorms as a result of desertification.

The 1990s saw two foreign colonies returned to China, Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, and Macau from Portugal in 1999. Hong Kong and Macau mostly continued their own governance, retaining independence in their economic, social, and judicial systems. Jiang and President Clinton exchanged state visits, but Sino-American relations took very sour turns at the end of the decade. Much controversy surrounded the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, which the U.S. government claimed was due to bad intelligence and false target identification (DCI statement). (Conflicting reports have alternately claimed that the bombing was deliberate or accidental.) Inside the US, the Cox Report stated that China had been stealing various top US military secrets. And in 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a US spy plane, inciting further outrage with the Chinese public, already dissatisfied with the US.

On the political agenda, China was once again put on the spotlight for the banning of Falun Gong in 1999. Silent protesters of the spiritual movement sat outside of Zhongnanhai, asking for dialogue with China’s leaders. Jiang saw it as threatening to the country’s political situation, and outlawed the group altogether, while using the mass media to denounce it as an evil cult.

Conversely, Premier Zhu Rongji’s economic policies held China’s economy strong during the Asian Financial Crisis. Economic growth averaged at 8% annually, pushed back by the 1998 Yangtze River Floods. After a decade of talks, China was finally admitted into the World Trade Organization. Standards of living improved significantly, although a wide urban-rural wealth gap was opened, as China saw the reappearance of the middle class. Wealth disparity between East and the Western hinterlands continued to widen by the day, prompting government programs to “develop the West”, taking on such ambitious projects such as the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The burden of education was greater than ever. Rampant corruption continued despite Premier Zhu’s anti-corruption campaign that executed many officials.

2002 – Present

Beijing 2008 Olympics - ESL in China

Photo to the left: Beijing held the 2008 Olympics with great success.

The first major crisis faced by China in the 21st century as a new generation of leaders led by Hu Jintao after assuming power was the public health crisis involving SARS, an illness that seemed to have originated out of Guangdong province. China’s position in the war on terror drew the country closer diplomatically to the United States. The economy continues to grow in double-digit numbers as the development of rural areas became the major focus of government policy. In gradual steps to consolidate his power, Hu Jintao removed Shanghai Party Chief Chen Liangyu and other potential political opponents amidst the fight against corruption, and the on-going struggle against once powerful Shanghai clique. The assertion of the Scientific Perspective to create a Harmonious Society is the focus of the Hu-Wen administration, as some Jiang-era excesses are slowly reversed. Although the administration continues to face pressure to reform the political system and the party, the Hu-Wen administration is comparatively better received than the Jiang administration. In the years after Hu’s rise to power, respect of basic human rights in China continue to be a source of concern.

The political status and future of Taiwan remain uncertain, but steps have been taken to improving relations between the Communist Party and several of Taiwan’s pro-unification parties, notably former rival Kuomintang.

The continued economic growth of the country as well as its sporting power status has gained China the right to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. However, this had also put Hu’s administration under intense spotlight. While the 2008 Olympic is commonly understood to be a come-out party for People’s Republic of China, in light of the March 2008 Tibet protests, the government received heavy scrutiny. The Olympic torch was met with protest en route. Within the country these reactions were met with a fervent wave of nationalism with accusations of Western bias against China.

In May 2008, a massive earthquake registering 8.0 on the Richter scale hit Sichuan province of China, exacting a death toll officially estimated at approximately 70,000. The government responded more quickly than in it did with previous events, and has allowed foreign media access to the regions that were hit the hardest. The adequacy of the government response was generally praised, and the relief efforts extended to every corner of Chinese life.

In May and June 2008, heavy rains in southern China caused severe flooding in the provinces of Anhui, Hunan, Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong, with dozens of fatalities and over a million people forced to evacuate.

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