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Social Sci LibreTexts

10.2: Emerging China

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  • Learning Objectives

    1. Summarize the main steps China has taken to transition from a strict Communist country established in 1949 to a more open society with a capitalist type of economy today.
    2. Outline the location of the political units of China with the autonomous regions and special administrative units. Establish the connection between the autonomous regions and ethnicity.
    3. Understand the population dynamics of China. Learn about the one-child-only policy and evaluate how it has affected Chinese society and culture.
    4. Describe how China has shifted its economic policies and structure in the past few decades. Outline the changes in economic development with China’s open door to Western trade.
    5. Sketch out the historical geopolitical objectives of China and how they relate to China today.

    The Emergence of Modern China

    China is the world’s largest Communist country. Isolated from Europeans and Central Asians by the Himalayas and other high mountain ranges, Chinese culture has endured for thousands of years. Rich in history, adventure, and intrigue, a tour through China would reveal a people with a deep, longstanding love of the land, traditions as old as recorded history, and a spirit of commerce and hard work that sustains them to this day. China is about the same land size as the United States, although technically it is slightly smaller than the United States in total area, depending on how land and water areas are calculated. China only has an eastern coast, whereas the United States has both an eastern and a western coast. If you recall the climate types and the relationship between climate and population, you can deduce the location of the heavily populated regions of China.

    The form of Communism promoted by Mao Zedong was not the same as the type of Communism practiced in the Soviet Union. Various Communist experiments were forced upon the Chinese people, with disastrous results. For example, in 1958, the Great Leap Forward was announced. In this program, people were divided into communes, and peasant armies were to work the land while citizens were asked to donate their pots and pans to produce scrap metal and increase the country’s industrial output. The goal was to improve production and increase efficiency. The opposite occurred, and millions of Chinese died of starvation during this era.

    Another disaster began in 1966 and continued until Mao died in 1976. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc on four thousand years of Chinese traditional culture in a purge of elitism and a drive toward total loyalty to the Communist Party. Armies of indoctrinated students were released into the countryside and the cities to report anyone opposing the party line. Schools were closed, universities were attacked, and intellectuals were killed. Anyone suspected of subversion might be tortured into signing a confession. Violence, anarchy, and economic disaster followed this onslaught of anti-Democratic terror. Estimates vary, but most sources indicate that about thirty million people lost their lives during the Mao Zedong era through purges, starvation, and conflict.

    During the early decades of Communism in China, all travel into or out of China was severely restricted by the so-called Bamboo Curtain. The United States had backed the nationalist movement during the Chinese Civil War and continued to support Chiang Kai-shek in Formosa (Taiwan). The United States did not recognize Communist China; the US embassy was in Taiwan, not in Beijing. As China was experiencing its disastrous experiments with Communism, the core economic areas of the world were advancing with commercial technology and high-tech electronics and sending rockets to the moon. China lagged behind in its industrial activities and became a country based on agriculture. A visit to China by US president Richard Nixon in 1972 signaled the opening of diplomatic relations with the United States and was also viewed as a Cold War move against the Soviet Union.

    • 1949 – Communist China
    • 1958 – Great Leap Forward (Backward)
    • 1966 – Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
    • 1972 – Richard Nixon visits China (open door)
    • 1980s – Four Modernizations (Deng Xiaoping)
    • 1990s – Growth of Enterprise and Industry
    • 2000+ – A New Century (Trade with the West)

    The Chinese Communist Party’s approach when it took power was to institute a “planned economy.” A planned economy, sometimes called a command economy, stands in marked contrast to a market economy. In a planned economy, the government controls all aspects of the economy, including what goods and products should be produced, how much of each should be produced, how products will be sold or distributed and for what (if any) price, who should have jobs and what jobs they should have, how much people will be paid, and all other decisions related to the economy. In a planned economy, businesses are nationalized; that is, businesses are owned by the government rather than by any private entity. By contrast, in a market economy, businesses are privately owned, and most decisions are driven by consumer and investor behavior.

    The decade of the 1980s was a transition for China in that there was a shift of focus from China’s Communist economy to a more market-oriented economy. The economic collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s coincided with the opening of China to trade with the West. In 1992, China announced that it would transition to a socialist market economy, a hybrid of a Communist-planned economy and a market economy. A series of statements by China’s political leaders suggested that in order for China to enjoy a more mature form of socialism, greater national wealth was needed. They further indicated that socialism and poverty should not be considered synonymous and that the country was ready to turn its attention to increasing the wealth and quality of life of its citizens. During the next decade, China experienced an enormous growth in its economy. At the beginning of this century, China was ranked in the top five of the world’s largest trading nations, joining ranks with the United States, Germany, Japan, and France. The sheer size of China’s population contributes to the magnitude of its economy. This does not, however, mean that most of China’s population has a high standard of living.

    Political Units

    China can be divided into regions utilizing various criteria: political regions, economic regions, natural regions, and climatic regions to name a few. The Communist government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is made up of a number of types of political units. The main region of China Proper includes twenty-two provinces, including the island province of Hainan in the south. The island formerly known as Formosa, now called Taiwan, is considered by China to be its twenty-third province but in actuality remains under its own government—the Republic of China (ROC). Mainland China includes five autonomous regions, each with a designated minority group; four municipalities; and two special administrative regions (SARs) that hold considerable autonomy. All but Taiwan are included in the region called mainland China, except the SARs Hong Kong and Macau.

    The autonomous regions exist as a kind of a compromise between China and the regions that would prefer to be totally independent and that have large non-Han or ethnic minority populations. These five autonomous regions are Tibet, Guangxi, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Ningxia. It should be noted that “autonomous” is how China would describe these regions, but that description is arguable. In reality, the autonomous regions have very little legal ability to govern themselves and, in fact, have in some ways less autonomy than the provinces to pass their own legislation.

    Four of China’s cities have governance structures that are roughly on par with that of the provinces. The directly controlled municipalities are Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing and encompass large geographic areas well beyond the city limits, including towns, villages, and rural areas.

    The two SARs of China are Hong Kong and Macau. Hong Kong was part of the British Empire and later a British protectorate until its governance reverted to China in 1997. Known informally under Chinese law as “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong and Macau are guaranteed a great degree of autonomy for at least the first fifty years after the transfer from Britain to China. China is responsible for defense and some portions of foreign affairs, while Hong Kong and Macau are responsible for most other matters of state, including their legal systems, law enforcement, immigration laws, monetary systems, customs policies, and others.

    Figure 10.12 China and Its Administrative Divisions, Including Autonomous Regions, Municipalities, and SARs


    China’s Communist government is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, which is protected and guaranteed power by the country’s constitution. Compared to the more open democratic political systems of Western Europe and North America, China is considered an authoritarian state, complete with heavy restrictions on the Internet, the press, freedom of assembly, reproductive rights, and freedom of religion. Economic trade with the West has created more openness with travel and business, which has begun to challenge or erode the hard-line politics of decades past.