Lecture Thirty-Six

China and the World in a New Century

Scope: Mao’s death in September 1976 was quickly followed by the abandonment of his revolutionary vision and by a reorientation of China’s economic and political development. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping led China to adopt an aggressive program of modernization and openness to the outside world. Economic changes gave rise to widespread corruption and unequal access to opportunity, with the members of the Party gaining disproportionate wealth and power. The student-led protests of 1989 vented deep social grievances. Yet despite the violence of their suppression, the CCP has retained legitimacy in the eyes of most Chinese because it has continued to deliver a rising standard of living for the vast majority of the people. As China enters the 21st century and the World Trade Organization, it is perhaps on the threshold of regaining its traditional place as one of the great powers of the world.


I. Within two years of Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping remerged as the top leader in China.

A. In October 1976, just a month after Mao died, the members of the Gang of Four were arrested.

1. A coalition of pragmatists and conservative Party leaders moved to isolate and remove the last of the radical elements.

2. Mao’s designated successor, Hua Guofeng, held on to office, but real power began to flow to Deng.

3. Military leaders and the technocrats in the state-planning apparatus supported Deng’s return to leadership.

4. In November 1978, Deng was named vice premier, and his control over policy making was assured.

B. The political and economic orientation of China changed as Mao’s policies were abandoned.

1. Deng wanted to emphasize technical expertise over political considerations.

2. He began to dismantle collective ownership in agriculture.

3. He adopted strong family-planning measures to bring population growth under control.

4. He expanded opportunities for private economic activity.

5. China opened its doors to direct foreign investment.

II. The 1980s was a great period of development, as China became more engaged with the global economy, but stresses also built up domestically.

A. As foreign capital flowed into China, the economy began to grow rapidly.

1. Special Economic Zones were set up to encourage investment.

2. Market reforms began to be introduced in both agriculture and industry.

3. Private enterprises grew in number, but Party and government oversight created many opportunities for corruption.

B. A new strata of wealthy entrepreneurs began to emerge, often with links to the Party, while many workers in state enterprises saw their incomes stagnate.

1. As some Chinese became wealthier, they began to engage in conspicuous consumption.

2. Workers in some state sectors, especially in education and professions, did not share in the rising wage scales of private-sector workers.

3. Public perceptions of growing inequities and corruption began to create social tensions.

III. In 1989, student-led protests challenged the leadership of the CCP.

A. Protests had taken place throughout the 1980s, especially from 1986 on.

1. Some of these took the form of anti-Japanese demonstrations.

2. Others more directly criticized the Patty leadership.

3. Some Party leaders, such as Hu Yaobang, quietly supported such protests.

B. When Hu died in April 1989, students used his funeral as a forum to launch new protests.

1. The visit of the reformist Russian leader Gorbachev gave protesters access to the global media.

2. The CCP leadership was taken by surprise by the extent of the demonstrations in Beijing.

3. Deep divisions in the leadership delayed any effective response, positive or negative.

4. When Deng Xiaoping finally resolved to suppress the demonstrations, the use of force was unavoidable.

C. On June 4, the army regained control of Beijing, but hundreds of people were killed in the process.

1. Most students had given up their occupation of Tiananmen Square.

2. The majority of people in central Beijing were from out of town and had nowhere else to go.

3. Fighting in the streets was brief but intense.

4. Beijing was placed under martial law.

IV. In the years since 1989, the CCP has managed to maintain its legitimacy by delivering rising living standards, but the need for eventual political change cannot be ignored forever.

A. China is, today, perhaps the most rapidly developing country in the world.

1. The economy continues to grow at exceptionally fast rates.

2. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have seen dramatic improvements in their material conditions of life.

3. But problems have also grown in health care and education, as well as other social services.

4. The Marriage Law of 1950 was a strong effort to equalize the status of men and women in Chinese society. In the era of economic reform, however, the status of women has deteriorated.

5. Crime, while still much less of a problem than in the West, has been growing.

B. On the threshold of the 21st century, China is poised for continuing growth and is likely to resume its ancient role as a great world power.

1. Although China has undergone dramatic and often traumatic change in the modern age, it has also retained strong links to its past.

2. In the post-Communist age, many elements of traditional society have begun to reemerge.

3. Even Confucian values are finding new life in today’s China.

4. How China will assume its place in the world in the decades ahead remains unclear, but there can be little doubt that it will be a force to be reckoned with.

5. Understanding China’s long and complex history is important, not only for its inherent interest, but for each of us as participants in the public life of our country and our world.

Essential Reading:

Bruce Gilley, Tiger on the Brink.

Supplemental Reading:

Roderick MacFarquhar, ed., The Politics of China: The Eras of Mao and Deng.

Jun Jing, The Temple of Memories.

Questions to Consider:

1. How will China’s historical experience of the last 200 years shape its relationship with the West in the future?

2. Based on China’s role in East Asia and the world in the past, is there any reason to anticipate that China will be a militarily expansionist power?

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