CHAPTER IX 

The People’s Republic of China (1949 to the Present)

The Chinese people have stood up Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation,” Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed upon his arrival in Beijing in the autumn of 1949. The Chinese Communist Party had risen to power on three converging currents of public opinion: (1) Chinese nationalism that had been building since the Opium Wars; (2) class resentment, mainly of peasants against landlords; and (3) growing frustration shared by all classes over the corruption, incompetence, and financial collapse of the Nationalist government. As the civil war had begun in earnest in 1947, the Communist Party had changed its tactics in vast stretches of countryside under its control. No longer feeling any need for a united front of all social classes against the Japanese enemy, the Party launched a violent rural revolution.

In the wake of the rapid victories of the People’s Liberation Army, Communist Party work teams now spread over the entire nation, extending to the remotest villages, to organize peasants, recruit leaders, and categorize everyone as poor, middle-class, or rich peasants or as landlords. In public “struggle sessions,” peasants denounced landlords and pressured them to confess their past crimes and give up their land and property. These struggle sessions served to humiliate all the members of the rural upper classes and to destroy the prestige they had enjoyed in the past. Gradually, from 1949 to 1957, all the land in China was “collectivized,” or put under the supervision of cooperatives called “production teams.” Individual families were allowed to keep small plots of land for their own use, though the sum of these “private plots” could not exceed 10 percent of the total land held by the production team, which usually consisted of all the members of one village. The land was worked collectively, and the state took 5 to 10 percent of the grain production as a tax. Each family received a portion of the agricultural produce based on a work-point system administered by the village head, who was now a representative of the Communist Party. The state bought the rest of the produce at whatever price it set.

One of the first acts of the new government in 1950 was to issue its New Marriage Law, which forbade arranged marriages and awarded women the rights to divorce and to inherit property. Equally momentous was the move of the Chinese Communist Party to promote the legitimacy of women working outside the home and to facilitate that work by providing child care. Even in the early twentieth century, to be employed outside the home was seen by many as shameful for a woman. With their own incomes, women gained more influence over family decisions and more independence than ever before.

In the early 1950s, the Communist Party also took control of the urban economy, with less violence than in the countryside but with equal thoroughness. Former capitalists who cooperated with the Party were allowed to remain as state-employed managers of the enterprises they once owned. Many capitalists and Nationalist Party members fled to Taiwan or the British colony of Hong Kong, escaping persecution and leaving their factories and properties behind. Private commerce and private enterprise were effectively outlawed.

Party chairman Mao and state premier Zhou Enlai traveled to Moscow in early 1950 to negotiate a treaty of friendship and to secure Soviet aid in China’s modernization. As a result, 20,000 Chinese young people went to the Soviet Union for training, and the Soviets sent 10,000 scientists and engineers to China to give technical aid and advice in the building of new roads, dams, bridges, and factories.

The United States realized the Communist revolution in China represented a stunning defeat for American foreign policy, but the Truman administration concluded by the late 1940s that Chiang Kai-shek had completely lost the support of the Chinese people and no longer deserved American aid. In 1950, as Communist military forces were preparing to invade Taiwan and finish the civil war once and for all, the U.S. government was reconciled to watching the last chapter of the Chinese civil war from the sidelines. The Korean War abruptly changed all that.

After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Korea, which had been a Japanese colony since 1910, had been divided and occupied by Soviet forces north and American forces south of the 38th parallel. Near the end of World War II, the United States had agreed to this in order to enlist Soviet help to hasten the defeat of Japan. Kim Il-sung, the Communist leader of North Korea, was determined not to tolerate a permanently divided Korea. On June 25, 1950, with Soviet equipment and probably with the permission of Stalin, Kim launched an invasion across the 38th parallel in an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula under Communist control. The United States quickly sent American troops to Korea under the banner of the United Nations and the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur.

Against a background of modern industrial plants with smokestacks, Mao Zedong holds blueprints for the future in this 1953 poster, which reads, “Chairman Mao leads us to build a great country."

Against a background of modern industrial plants with smokestacks, Mao Zedong holds blueprints for the future in this 1953 poster, which reads, “Chairman Mao leads us to build a great country." These popular posters, painted in the style of “revolutionary romanticism," communicated state goals and policies to the general populace, always portraying the Communist Party and Chairman Mao in the most positive light possible. Hoover Political Poster Collection, CC 202

When MacArthur’s forces pushed the North Korean troops back behind the 38 th parallel and then proceeded toward the Yalu River (marking the Korea-China border), hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops surged into North Korea and entered the war. The United States and China were now in direct military conflict, with each side prepared to believe the worst of the other’s motives. The United States assumed China was behind the Korean War in the first place, proving that Communism was a dangerous uncontainable virus. The Chinese Communist leaders believed the United States wanted to use Korea as a launching pad from which to invade China, reverse the Communist revolution, and restore Chiang Kai-shek to power. At the outbreak of war, President Truman ordered the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait, reversing the United States’ earlier policy of nonintervention in the Chinese civil war.

Against the overwhelming technological superiority of the U.S. forces, the Chinese compensated by sending wave after wave of foot soldiers into battle against American tanks and artillery units. Despite incredibly high casualties—one million Chinese combat deaths—the People’s Liberation Army fought the American and United Nations forces to a stalemate near the 38 th parallel. A truce was finally signed in 1953. The Korea War had dire consequences for U.S.-Chinese relations. For two decades, the United States refused to recognize the People’s Republic of China and forbade American citizens to travel to or trade with China. During those years, Chiang Kai-shek’s government sat as China’s permanent representative on the United Nations Security Council, as if the People’s Republic did not exist. Chinese Communist leaders, despite their alliance with America during World War II, now assumed America was their premier enemy in the world.

Chairman Mao had come to power as a great military leader and strategist, and he continued to look at the challenge of governing the country as though politics was simply warfare by other means. If external enemies did not actually invade China, Mao was quick to find internal enemies to be rooted out, exposed, and destroyed. The Communist Party controlled all aspects of the government and military and all communications media. Mao’s preferred style of governance was through a succession of massive campaigns, mobilizing the entire population to carry out Party policies. Early campaigns included attacks on prostitution, venereal disease, drug addiction, illiteracy, and bribery and corruption. These were largely successful in educating people in the ideals and national goals of the Party. There were also strong pressures in some more destructive campaigns to find, expose, and attack “enemies” of the Party and the Chinese people within their own midst.

Everyone in the nation now belonged to a “work unit” (danwei). Factories, schools, trading companies, villages, and farms were all organized into work units, and every work unit was under Communist Party supervision. The work unit controlled every aspect of a person’s life: salary, housing, medical care, and so on. No one could move, change jobs, or travel any distance without permission of the work unit. Thus, the Chinese Communist Party exercised a degree of control over people’s lives that was never imaginable under the strongest emperors of the past.

In 1956, Mao was startled by the uprising of the Hungarian people against the Soviet Communists and their Hungarian collaborators. Mao argued that the Chinese Communist Party needed to remain close to the masses of the people in order to prevent such a rebellion against its rule in China. Under the slogan “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” Mao and the Party leadership invited all people to write their criticisms of the Party and the government, so that its leaders might “learn from the masses” and get in closer touch with the people. At first, people were reluctant to speak up in the Hundred Flowers Campaign, but after a few received public praise for their criticisms, many began to express their unhappiness with heavy-handed Party control over all aspects of intellectual work, including art, literature, and historical scholarship. In June 1957, Mao changed course dramatically and called for harsh criticism and suppression of all these “class enemies” who had attacked the policies of the Chinese Communist Party.

In the blink of an eye, the Hundred Flowers Campaign turned into an antirightist campaign that sent 400,000 to 700,000 intellectuals to labor camps, ending their careers and robbing the country of many of its best educated minds. At the same time that he was lashing out at intellectuals, Mao was growing impatient with shortcomings in the economy. In 1958, he called for a massive new economic campaign.

Presiding over a mostly agricultural economy, the government had to finance its industrialization by extracting every possible surplus from agricultural production. Some surpluses were achieved in the early 1950s by the restoration of peace, collectivization, and reclaiming new land. But the economy was not growing fast enough to satisfy Mao, and he was disturbed by what he saw as a growing gap between the urban industrial economy and the rural agricultural one. He was frustrated that China’s private plots (only 10 percent of the land) were producing much more than 10 percent of its agricultural product, suggesting that people had not really learned the beauty and utility of collectivization. Mao was also growing increasingly impatient with China’s Soviet partner, particularly after the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin (who died in 1953) at a Soviet Congress in 1956. This was easily interpreted in Beijing as an attack on Mao.

Thus, in 1958 Mao announced a new campaign, the Great Leap Forward, which he promised would launch China into the leading ranks of the industrialized world within a few years. The Chinese Communist Party moved to collectivize agriculture completely, abolishing all private plots, and called for the self-industrialization of the countryside by the peasants themselves. Rural cadres mobilized peasants in the winter months to build dams, roads, irrigation canals, and terraced fields. They directed peasants to make their own machinery, to smelt steel in their own backyard furnaces—to industrialize the nation from the bottom up all at once.

To further increase economic efficiency, all women were freed from the cooking of meals by having everyone eat in mass cafeterias. Child care likewise was completely collectivized, freeing more mothers for productive labor. Peasants had to hand over all their own draft animals to the collective. Soviet leaders were so horrified by the madness of the Great Leap Forward and its implicit criticism of the Soviet model that they withdrew all Soviet aid from China, and the 10,000 Russian engineers and scientists returned to the Soviet Union, taking their plans, blueprints, and technical expertise with them. Mao soon denounced the Soviet Union as bitterly as he denounced the United States.

The Great Leap Forward is a textbook example of how badly a dictatorship can go wrong when it believes its own propaganda and all criticism is forbidden. The Party organization was so strong and so all-pervasive in society that no one could safely call attention to the unrealistic goals and promises of the Great Leap Forward. Everyone was pressured to work longer hours and to increase production. Since no one could admit that this was madness, every local leader did his duty and reported increases in annual production in 1958. Since the state based its own allotment of the crop on reported yields, it took more and more of the harvest for urban areas, leaving rural villages with little to eat.

In fact, grain production was rapidly plummeting. Peasants resented the loss of their private plots and in some cases butchered their draft animals rather than hand them over to the collective. The mass cafeterias produced poor-quality food that everyone resented and that caused massive waste. The backyard steel furnaces produced nothing but useless brittle pig iron, and the massive labor mobilizations took peasants away from the fields at crucial times in the planting and harvesting cycle. All these mistakes cumulatively produced the largest man-made famine in world history. In the “three hard years,” 1959-61, an estimated thirty million Chinese starved to death or died from disease and other complications of malnutrition.

The Great Leap Forward was the first catastrophic failure of Mao Zedong’s leadership. At a high Party meeting in the summer of 1959, defense minister Peng Dehuai wrote Mao a private letter expressing his concern about the disastrous mistakes of the misguided campaign. Mao reacted with bitterness, circulated the letter to other leaders, threatened to go “back to the mountains” and organize another Red Army to seize power anew, and demanded Peng Dehuai’s resignation for his “betrayal” of the revolution. No one else was willing to resist Mao or speak up for Peng, who was dismissed from his posts. Mao did step down from his position as president of the People’s Republic, and he turned over the daily administration of the government to the new president, Liu Shaoqi, and his deputy, Deng Xiaoping. They relaxed the Great Leap policies, disbanded the cafeterias, and restored private plots. The economy made a slow recovery as Mao backed away from his utopian policies, at least for the time being.

In the 1960s, China became increasingly isolated diplomatically both from the West and from the Soviet Union. In 1959, Tibetan Buddhists rose in open revolt against Beijing, and the People’s Liberation Army sent troops into Tibet. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, fled to India. China had tolerated most practices of Tibetan Buddhism in the 1950s but now began to close monasteries and temples and to forbid the open practice of Buddhism. China bitterly criticized the Soviet Union in 1960 for its policy of peaceful coexistence with the United States. In 1962, China soundly defeated India in a border dispute in the Himalayan Mountains. These actions all served to alarm the Western world about China’s power and its expansive intentions. To further feed such fears, China detonated its first atomic bomb in 1964, thanks to the work of Western-trained Chinese physicists who had returned to China in 1949.

From 1962 to 1966, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping tried to restore a sense of order and predictability to Chinese life. During these few years, some intellectuals in Beijing felt secure enough to write critical and satirical essays about the excesses of Mao. The very appearance of such writings suggested that Mao had lost much of his former power, but Mao was not about to recede quietly into the background. He countered these trends by building up his image in the armed forces. Lin Biao, a career military man, had replaced Peng Dehuai as minister of defense, and in 1964, Lin created an edition of some of Mao’s writings, the Quotations of Chairman Mao. Known as the “Little Red Book,” it became required reading for all members of the People’s Liberation Army.

In 1966, Mao made a dramatic move to restore his power within the Chinese Communist Party. Adopting his guerrilla warfare model to political competition within the Party, with Lin Biao’s help, Mao began to spread the cult of Mao from the army to all of society. Mao needed other allies, particularly in the mass media, and for this he turned, with the help of his wife, to Shanghai. Mao had divorced his third wife in about 1939 to marry a Shanghai actress, Jiang Qing. Jiang Qing had great ambitions but had been frustrated for years because the Party leadership had insisted that she not be deeply involved in political affairs.

Now Jiang Qing’s ambitions and Mao’s desire to regain power were linked as Jiang made an alliance with several radical intellectuals in Shanghai, where they published a virulent attack on criticisms of Chairman Mao as “counterrevolutionary” (a very strong term implying a capital crime). When a student at Beijing University posted a big-character poster criticizing professors as unprogressive for putting too much emphasis on technical knowledge and not enough on Communist ideology, Mao responded with his own big-character poster giving students the exhilarating message that “to rebel is justified.” Mao called on all young people to organize themselves into Red Guard units to find and expose all examples of “capitalist-roader” sympathies or Soviet-style “revisionism” in the universities and in society at large. Mao further declared that revisionists and capitalist-roaders existed at the very highest levels of the Communist Party, an accusation people quickly understood as directed at none other than Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping.

Mao and his radical Shanghai comrades dubbed this nationwide movement the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. All schools were closed in 1966, and young people were given free rein to “smash the four olds”—old ideas, habits, customs, and cultures. In a poisonous atmosphere in which anyone could be accused of counterrevolutionary thoughts or deeds at any time, youthful bands of Red Guards raided people’s homes to find evidence of revisionism, foreign influence, or secret anti-Maoist sentiment. Red Guard factions quickly became polarized as each one tried to prove it was more revolutionary than its rivals. In 1968, Liu Shaoqi was removed from office, expelled from the Party, beaten, and denied medical treatment. He died of pneumonia in prison in 1969. Deng Xiaoping was sent into exile in south China to “reform himself through labor” by working in a tractor plant.

For a time Mao tolerated the chaos of the Red Guards, but by the summer of 1968, when anarchy and civil war seemed close, he retreated and called in the People’s Liberation Army to restore order. He proclaimed that the Cultural Revolution was a great success but said the Red Guards had gone too far. As if simply concluding one phase of the revolution and moving on to the next “higher stage,” Mao now urged that all former Red Guards be sent to the countryside themselves, to live with the peasants and to be reformed through hard labor, just as they had sent their victims to a similar fate. For thousands of young people who had been members of the Red Guards, this was a sudden awakening from the dream of the glorious Cultural Revolution.

This 1967 poster glorifies young Red Guards carrying the banner of Chairman Mao and attacking the “four olds” (“old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits of the exploiting classes”), trampling traditional Confucian virtues, Buddhism religion, and foreign influences alike.

This 1967 poster glorifies young Red Guards carrying the banner of Chairman Mao and attacking the “four olds” (“old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits of the exploiting classes”), trampling traditional Confucian virtues, Buddhism religion, and foreign influences alike. In the heady atmosphere of unprecedented freedom from adult supervision and the intense propaganda about class struggle and the evils of revisionism, young people often beat and tortured their teachers and anyone else they could identify as revisionists or secret enemies of Chairman Mao. Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-3346

In poor rural villages, these “sent-down” youth discovered how poor China really was, and they were often resented by the peasants who saw them with their soft hands and city ways as burdensome intruders. More shocks followed in quick succession. Actual shooting between Russian and Chinese troops occurred at two points on the long Soviet-Chinese border in 1969, and there were rumors that the Soviet military might actually strike China’s nuclear facilities. In part to counteract the Soviet threat, Mao and Zhou Enlai now decided to resume official contacts with the United States. In early 1972, in perhaps the most dramatic diplomatic reversal in the twentieth century, the avid cold warrior President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, visited Beijing for extensive talks with Premier Zhou Enlai and an ailing Mao Zedong. Nixon had his own reasons for seeking improved relations with China, both to help the United States find a graceful way out of its war in Vietnam and to play off China against the Soviet Union.

It was difficult for Maoists to explain to the Chinese people how the United States could go in one day from being China’s greatest enemy to being a potential friend, and another development at almost the same time was even more difficult to explain. In 1972 it was officially announced that defense minister Lin Biao, the hero of the Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao’s “closest comrade-in-arms,” was a traitor. He had plotted to kill Mao, and when his plot was discovered, he died in a plane crash on September 13, 1971, along with his wife and son, as they were trying to escape to the Soviet Union. No one knew if this report was true, but everyone had to ask how such “traitors” as Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao could ever have risen to such heights of power if Mao was as wise as always claimed.

From 1949 onward, Mao dominated the People’s Republic of China as no one else, so when his health steadily worsened in the early 1970s (from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), anxieties mounted over who could possibly replace him. Zhou Enlai had survived the Cultural Revolution only by backing Mao and sacrificing some of his own closest associates. Surprisingly, when Zhou fell ill in 1974, Mao brought Deng Xiaoping back from political exile to assume the reins of government. Zhou died in early 1976, and in April there were riots in Tiananmen Square when police removed memorial wreaths dedicated to Zhou. Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and the other leaders of the Cultural Revolution blamed this open defiance of the Communist Party on Deng Xiaoping, and Mao agreed once again to Deng’s dismissal. Then in July, one of the most severe earthquakes on record devastated the coal-mining town of Tangshan, near Tianjin, killing as many as 600,000 people. Many Chinese could not help seeing such a natural disaster as foretelling a change of the Mandate of Heaven.

As if to confirm such an interpretation, Mao Zedong died on September 9, 1976, a momentous event that left everyone feeling anxious and uncertain about the future. Before his death, with high party leaders increasingly polarized into moderate and radical camps, Mao had appointed a little-known provincial official, Hua Guofeng, as his successor. Within one month after Mao died, Hua arrested Jiang Qing and her three Shanghai associates. They were now labeled the Gang of Four—Mao had once cautioned his wife not to form a “gang of four” with these three. In November 1980, they were put on trial and convicted for wrongfully persecuting millions during the Cultural Revolution. Hua Guofeng had few strong supporters in the Party, and Deng Xiaoping soon returned from political exile to replace him as Party leader. After all the purges, policy reversals, and persecutions of the Maoist era, Deng moved quickly to try to restore some level of popular faith in the Chinese Communist Party.

Curious crowds absorb the fall of the “Gang of Four,” caricatured in Shanghai wall posters in mid-October, 1976.

Curious crowds absorb the fall of the “Gang of Four,” caricatured in Shanghai wall posters in mid-October, 1976. The closest associates of Chairman Mao, his wife and three of her Shanghai colleagues, were arrested in early October, about one month after Mao’s death, and their fall from power was first announced, beginning October 15, in a flurry of wall posters covering the streets of Shanghai, the city they had controlled for the past decade. Photo by Paul Ropp

Nearly all the victims of the Cultural Revolution, including some who had been killed or committed suicide, were now pronounced innocent and restored as Communist Party members in good standing. Deng ended the Maoist-style political campaigns, opened China to foreign investment, and allowed people for the first time in more than a decade to enjoy their private lives without being swept up into political campaigns. He never explicitly repudiated Maoism, but in effect he reversed almost every Maoist policy. He quickly reprivatized agriculture through a “responsibility system” by which peasants were given lifetime tilling rights to land that they could pass on to their descendants. Peasants were responsible for their own production, and after meeting a minimal state quota, a tax in effect, they could sell any surplus in private markets based on supply and demand.

Deng Xiaoping called his reforms the Four Modernizations (in agriculture, industry, science and technology, and the military) and argued that the main goal of the Communist Party was to make China prosperous. The government implemented business and contract laws to attract foreign investors and assure them that their investments would be safe. Deng created special economic zones with low tax rates along the coast to attract foreign investment and speed economic development. For the first time since 1949, individual Chinese were again free to invest in business enterprises. Foreign investment poured into China in the 1980s, and the country began a remarkable thirty-year economic boom of unprecedented proportions. Chinese universities quickly expanded to resume training the best students in China, now recruited by entrance examinations on academic subjects rather by class background or political ideology. Tens of thousands of Chinese students began studying abroad in the United States and Europe.

In some ways, Deng Xiaoping brought more radical changes to Chinese society than Mao had. For example, one aspect of Maoist rule in China had been to promote a very puritanical (one might almost say Confucian) attitude toward sexuality and sexual freedom. From 1949 until after the death of Mao, women wore long, baggy pants and baggy shirts, as all China adopted a kind of peasant unisex look. Makeup and jewelry were condemned as wasteful bourgeois products, and advertising for anything but revolutionary politics was forbidden. Romantic love was regarded as a bourgeois sickness, and adultery was treated much as under the Confucian family system.

After Mao died, Deng Xiaoping promoted drastic changes in allowing capitalist style advertising and in allowing men and women to dress as they pleased. Western-style dress became the accepted mode of attire in China’s cities. Fiction writers in the 1980s began to write candidly about romantic love, and some even wrote erotic or pornographic stories, evading censors by publishing in underground publications sold on street corners by highly mobile hawkers. Advertisers once again used beautiful scantily clad women to sell products. Art schools allowed drawing from human nudes; the cosmetics industry took off; fashion shows became commonplace in large cities; and some urban women began to have their eyelids cut to make them look more “Western.”

Despite the promises of the Marriage Law of 1950, the Communist Party had aggressively discouraged divorces in the Maoist era and had set up mediation committees to mobilize troubled couples’ families and friends to pressure them not to divorce. In the post-Mao era, these regulations were greatly relaxed, and divorce rates quickly rose in China’s cities in the 1980s and 1990s. In the countryside changes were less drastic, as old attitudes continued to hold sway.

Upon his return to power in 1978, Deng Xiaoping encouraged people to write honestly and truthfully about their mistreatment in the Cultural Revolution. He himself had suffered at Mao’s hands, and he thought the cathartic sharing of such feelings would unite people behind his leadership. However, when people went beyond condemnation of the Gang of Four to question the entire system, Deng turned against them. One of the most outspoken critics to emerge in 1978-79 was Wei Jingsheng, a young electrical engineer. At an intersection in Beijing that became known as Democracy Wall, where people could post their criticisms, Wei was shockingly direct in mocking Deng Xiaoping’s “four modernizations”: “Democracy, freedom and happiness are the only goals of modernization. Without this fifth modernization, the four others are nothing more than a new-fangled lie.”

Wei Jingsheng was arrested in March 1979 and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Democracy Wall was abruptly closed down, and the Party announced Deng Xiaoping’s doctrine of the Four Principles (to counterbalance the Four Modernizations): it would tolerate no opposition to socialism, to the proletarian dictatorship, to Communist Party leadership, or to Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. Deng, like Mao before him, tended to alternate between competing factions in the Party. On the one hand, he hoped to free people from the deadly political campaigns of the Maoist era and to liberate China’s economy from the waste and inefficiency of state socialism. On the other hand, he was determined to maintain the Party’s monopoly on political power, and he resisted some of his younger associates when they began to argue for gradual moves toward a multiparty state with open political competition.

In a brief period of relaxation in the mid-1980s, students demonstrated in Beijing and elsewhere for more personal freedom and against rampant corruption within the Communist Party. Fang Lizhi, a famous astrophysicist and president of a major university, openly spoke to students as no one had dared since 1949: “I am here to tell you that the socialist movement, from Marx and Lenin to Stalin and Mao Zedong, has been a failure. I think that complete Westernization is the only way to modernize.” Deng Xiaoping responded to these demonstrations with another round of crackdowns and arrests and the dismissal of one of his top associates, Hu Yaobang, who had pushed for more intellectual freedom and was thus blamed for the demonstrations. Fang Lizhi and several other dissident intellectuals were expelled from the Party.

In the spring of 1989, there was increasing unrest in China’s cities as prices on more and more commodities were deregulated and wages fell behind inflation. As managers could now fire workers to cut costs, unemployment rose, producing new inequalities. Students were becoming frustrated by corruption within the Communist Party and by their own lack of freedom to choose where to work after they graduated from college. This combustible mix was ignited by the sudden death of Hu Yaobang of a heart attack on April 15. Immediately students at Beijing University and other campuses began holding rallies to commemorate Hu Yaobang, to criticize the Communist Party for having dismissed him from office, and to call for immediate reforms. They urged the government to open up China’s political system, to rehabilitate critics like Wei Jingsheng who were in prison, to publicize the salaries of top Party leaders, and to crack down on nepotism and corruption.

The designated heir to Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang, saw in these demonstrations an opportunity to edge his more conservative opponents out of power. But his opponents saw the demonstrations as proof that Deng’s reforms had gone too far and should be rolled back. When a People’s Daily editorial used the word “turmoil” to describe the demonstrations, the students were outraged, for they saw themselves as true patriots calling for much-needed improvements in Chinese life. The international news media came to Beijing in mid-May to cover the much-anticipated visit of Soviet leader and reformer Mikhail Gorbachev to China. Both Deng and Gorbachev were anxious to repair relations between their two countries, but for the reporters from around the world, massive student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square easily overshadowed Gorbachev’s visit.

Zhao Ziyang argued for a more conciliatory approach to the students, but when students learned of Zhao’s sympathies, they optimistically intensified their protests, confirming to the hard-liners that Zhao’s approach would backfire. Some students began a hunger strike to demonstrate their determination to die for their cause if necessary. Even worse, from the Party’s perspective, hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets in Beijing and other major cities to express their support for the students. For weeks the Communist Party leadership seemed paralyzed and unable to respond effectively to this growing crisis. Deng Xiaoping, who had seen Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing as the crowning event of his reforms, felt humiliated by this open show of disrespect for his leadership.

As soon as Gorbachev departed on May 18, Deng sided with the hard-line faction in the leadership and agreed to end the demonstrations by force. Zhao Ziyang refused to declare martial law and was expelled from the Party a few days later. Premier Li Peng went on national television to declare martial law on May 20. Even at this point, many remained hopeful, as citizens filled the streets and turned back the first attempts of the People’s Liberation Army troops to enter Beijing. On May 30, students assembled a plaster model they called the Goddess of Democracy in the middle of Tiananmen Square, directly facing the portrait of Chairman Mao, a final symbolic defiance of the Chinese government.

Many student leaders argued in late May for the evacuation of Tiananmen Square and a return to their campuses. They could declare victory in having peacefully demonstrated for six exhilarating weeks and vow to continue their crusade more quietly. But in the heat of the moment, the most radical students had come to believe that bloodshed was needed to move China forward by discrediting the Chinese Communist government once and for all. Not very familiar with the democratic principle of majority rule, the students refused to leave the square as long as some students insisted on staying.

In the early dawn of June 4, after six weeks of hope and uncertainty, army troops entered Beijing by force, shooting live bullets at unarmed crowds. It was a night of horror, bloodshed, and anger, as many in the crowds fought back with rocks and homemade Molotov cocktails.

Everyone publicly associated with the demonstrations was ordered arrested. Although the government cut off the satellite feed to kill live broadcasting from China, television reporters smuggled videotapes out of China showing the world horrific scenes of carnage. Some rioting occurred in other Chinese cities as well, but China’s newscasters, who had been free to cover the demonstrations during much of the spring, now praised the brave soldiers for putting down an uprising of “bad elements.” Near dawn, the remaining students evacuated Tiananmen Square just before the tanks and troops rolled in, so no one was killed in the square itself, as the government was quick to point out. Yet in the bloody streets of Beijing somewhere between four hundred and eight hundred civilians had been killed and perhaps 10,000 wounded.

The government urged people to turn in friends and neighbors who might have participated in the demonstrations, but in contrast with the Cultural Revolution era, most people refused to cooperate with the witch hunt. Thousands of ordinary people helped to hide students and other demonstration leaders from the authorities and to smuggle them safely out of the country.

Some hard liners in the Communist Party hoped that the 1989 demonstrations would enable them to reverse the entire direction of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, but Deng stuck to his economic policies. For about a year, foreign businesses cut their investments in China because they feared for its stability. Once it became clear that the regime was not going to collapse in chaos, foreign investment again came pouring into China, sending the economy into another rapid burst of growth.

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union convinced Deng and his successors that they made the right decision in 1989. Deng died in 1997, the same year that Hong Kong was returned from British to Chinese control. Because Britain had colonized Hong Kong as part of the Opium War, this was a highly symbolic transfer of power that all Chinese, including many Hong Kong residents, took pride in. Deng Xiaoping’s successor, Jiang Zemin, who had supported Deng in 1989, maintained Deng’s dual emphasis on strict political control and greater economic openness. In 2002, Jiang Zemin retired and was replaced by Hu Jintao in the first relatively smooth generational transfer of power in the People’s Republic. Hu has continued to push economic growth and repress political dissent.

China today is the world’s sixth largest economy and its third most active trading nation after the United States and Germany. Between 1978 and 2004, China’s GDP grew by a factor of four. With China’s enormous domestic market, deep talent pool, and vast supply of disciplined and skilled workers, the country’s economic takeoff may have been the most important single world event in the last half of the twentieth century. In 2004, China produced 325,000 engineers, five times the number produced in the United States.

In its capitalist form, albeit with a one-party political system, China has much more impact on American life than Mao Zedong ever did. By mobilizing its vast workforce to become the manufacturing capital of the world, China is now creating tremendous new demand and thus driving up prices for the world’s natural resources, including oil, rubber, timber, cotton, and all types of precious metals. While Chinese workers replace American workers in manufacturing jobs, Chinese productivity has had a profound impact in lowering prices on a vast array of consumer goods. China’s rise also has profound implications for the global environment, as China is competing with the United States to lead the world in emission of carbon dioxide gases.

There are many uncertainties in China’s future. Its population continues to grow, despite a one-child policy since 1979. With at least 1.3 billion people today, China will probably have 1.5 billion by 2015, in part because the one-child policy is difficult to enforce in rural areas and is now being relaxed to address the problem of an increasingly aging population. There are serious resentments of Chinese control of traditionally non-Chinese regions, particularly in Muslim Xinjiang and in Buddhist areas of Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Buddhist and Islamic practices are tolerated in China today (in contrast to the Cultural Revolution era), but any sign of challenge to the Chinese government is met with quick and severe repression. When 10,000 practitioners of Falun Gong, a form of meditation and spiritual and physical exercise, demonstrated outside the living quarters of top government leaders in 1994, the Communist Party immediately cracked down on the movement, even though it had encouraged it in the 1980s as a traditional, cost-effective way to promote health and well-being.

Nanjing Road in Shanghai is the busiest shopping street in China, with an estimated 1.7 million visitors on a single weekend day.

Nanjing Road in Shanghai is the busiest shopping street in China, with an estimated 1.7 million visitors on a single weekend day. Whether or not that figure is accurate, the density of Chinese shoppers on Nanjing Road reminds us that China in the first decade of the twenty-first century has by far the world’s largest middle class. Photo by Brad Stern

Deng Xiaoping and his successors have made a gamble that the Chinese people will be willing to tolerate a one-party political system as long as they have relative economic and cultural freedom, and freedom from the forced political participation of the Maoist era. Chinese fiction, art, music, film, and fashion are thriving today as never before under Communist rule. There is once again room for subtlety and irony in Chinese art, as long as artists make no frontal attacks on the Chinese Communist Party.

In some ways, the status of women, ironically, has declined in China since the Maoist era. Prostitution has returned, and in very poor regions, women are sometimes kidnapped and forced to marry into families that could not persuade any women to join them willingly. Social inequalities usually impact women especially, and when some people are desperately poor in a society where some are rich, those at the bottom easily find themselves in degrading circumstances, such as prostitution, for the sake of their own survival. Nonetheless, despite this seamy side of the post-Mao reforms, few women (or men) today would advocate returning to the Maoist era.

The Chinese government has promoted rapid economic development in such “minority regions” as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia and has also sponsored massive Chinese migration there, making the minority cultures more difficult to maintain. The most immediate threat to China’s economic stability is the more than one hundred million rural migrants who have flocked in recent years to the cities, where they often live in poverty and look for jobs. The industrial economy needs to create so many new jobs every year to employ this floating population that anything below 8 percent annual economic growth could present serious problems. Should an economic crisis lead to rapid inflation or rising unemployment, the resulting labor unrest could make the student demonstrations of 1989 look mild by contrast. In response to the U.S. and global financial crisis, the Chinese government in late 2008 announced a two-year, $586 billion (7 percent of China’s GDP each year for two years) economic stimulus program of infrastructure building to help maintain rapid economic growth.

The environment also presents a steep challenge to the People’s Republic. In its rush to industrialize, China tries to use every energy source it can, including its abundant reserves of low-grade soft coal, which—along with its rapidly growing automobile industry—has made China’s major cities today among the most polluted in the world. At the same time, the government is investing heavily in wind and solar power and in building environmentally efficient buildings, putting China on par with Western Europe and considerably ahead of the United States in green technology.

In the last twenty years, Taiwan has become a functioning democracy. From 2000 to 2008, the Nationalist Party in Taiwan lost power to the Democratic Progressive Party, which at times called for an independent Taiwan, despite threats from Beijing that China would invade Taiwan if it ever declared formal independence. Taiwanese businesses have invested billions of dollars in factories in China, and both sides have become highly dependent on their economic ties. The twenty-five million people of Taiwan now enjoy a fully modern industrial economy with one of the highest standards of living in Asia, making the ambivalent status quo with China quite attractive. Appealing to the need for stability and improved relations with the People’s Republic, the Nationalist Party’s Ma Ying-jeou won the presidency in Taiwan in 2008.

In the summer of 2008, Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics, with 10,500 athletes participating from 204 countries. Spending an estimated $42 billion on new infrastructure, including the architectural marvels of the Beijing National Stadium (the “Bird’s Nest”) and the National Aquatics Center (the “Water Cube”), the Chinese government was determined to demonstrate to the world the wealth and cutting-edge modernity of today’s China. While hosting the Olympics did not visibly change the Chinese Communist Party’s tight control of information and intolerance of political dissent, it was clearly a source of pride to the Chinese people to host such a successful Summer Olympics and to see Chinese athletes win more gold medals (fifty-one) than any other nation.

The United States and China have developed a relatively cooperative relationship over the past twenty years, despite lingering suspicions on both sides. The United States often criticizes China’s human rights record, but since the 1990s, economics has trumped human rights in U.S.-China relations. China and America have become, surprisingly, deeply interdependent. As the largest holder of U.S. debt in the world, China props up the U.S. dollar, thereby enabling Americans to keep interest rates low, despite a ballooning national debt, and to purchase Chinese products with money borrowed from China. The American banking crisis of 2008-09 is likely to speed China’s relative rise, because China is unburdened by debt and can readily encourage more domestic consumption to keep its economy growing despite the worldwide recession.

Today it is much more than cheap labor that draws investors to China from all corners of the world. With a relatively new industrial plant, China now has the world’s most modern productive processes with cutting-edge efficiency, and any entrepreneurs who want to enjoy the benefits of this technology are in China or feel they need to be there.

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao proclaimed China Washington’s ally in the “war on terror” that was proclaimed by U.S. president George W. Bush (as they see separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang as terrorist). Since then, America’s preoccupation with the Middle East, coupled with China’s economic boom and the American financial crisis, has led many Asian countries, for the first time since World War II, to see China as politically and economically more important than the United States.

No history is predetermined. The past 3,000 years of Chinese history have been shaped by millions of choices by the Chinese people. For about two hundred years, starting in the late eighteenth century, China was seen by the world as weak, poor, and backward. Now China has reemerged as one of the world’s most powerful countries, as it was through much of its 3,000-year history. China has many problems and many shortcomings, as well as an immensely talented and energetic population. Whether it can continue its rapid economic growth without changing its political system or suffering serious instability is a major question. Whether, in the process, it can avoid an environmental catastrophe, is another.

One of the key principles of the ancient Chinese classic the Book of Changes is sure to apply still today: change is an unavoidable constant in human history. The past is never a straitjacket, and the Chinese people will continue to make choices in the future as they have in the past. The pace of change in China has been accelerating for the past century, and Chinese society today is more open to outside influences than at any time since the Tang dynasty. The Chinese people may continue to seek out and embrace new values and new roles, yet the Chinese cultural identity has proven remarkably strong and enduring. The history of China and its interactions with the world, with its deep patterns four millennia in the making, will surely continue to shape Chinese life.

China has the world’s largest population, 1.3 billion, approximately four times the size of the United States and one-fifth of the entire world population of 6.6 billion. It is the largest authoritarian state in the world, and for the past thirty years it has had by far the most rapidly growing economy in the world. More Chinese are traveling, studying, and working abroad than at any previous time in China’s long history. In this light, it seems clear that China in the future will have a more profound impact on the rest of the world than ever before.

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