Introduction: Ancient State, Modern Global Superpower
China’s history, reaching back more than 4,000 years, begins long before most modern nations and states had even an outline of their existence. Despite civil unrest and recurring external invasion, China took the shape of a unified power defined by its ancient traditions, as well as structures of bureaucratic rule which continue to influence modern day China’s society and politics. Indeed, for most of the past two thousand years, China’s state was by far the most centralized and continuous in its patterns of rule. While empires in other regions rose and fell, a succession of imperial dynasties ruled China. A state bureaucracy run by a partly merit based civil service carried out the policies of rulers. Confucian principles of order, harmony, and the interests of the community over the individual provided cultural continuity across dynasties. A principle of legitimacy—the mandate of heaven—both promoted obedience to authority but could also became the basis for challenging the legitimacy of corrupt or inept rulers who lost the “mandate.”
The rise of European colonialism in the18th and 19th century provided the challenges that finally ended imperial rule in 1911. Several decades of internal conflicts culminated in the Chinese Revolution, which led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Long regarded as a “sleeping giant” by Westerners, the emergence of China as global superpower since the 1980s has been the most important development since the end of the Cold War. In moving the country forward, the Chinese Communist Party has continually reminded its people of the “century of humiliation” when China fell under the dominance of imperial powers. As recently as 1980, China was often classified as “developing” or “third world” – insulting labels for a country that was far more advanced in political, economic and technological terms than other regions, including Europe, for most of the past two millennia. The Chinese leadership justifies its policies as necessary to ensure China never again suffersthe same fate. In this chapter, we will examine that history—dynastic rule, imperialism, revolution, and the reestablishment of global prominence, more closely.
Foundations of Imperial Rule
China’s cultural history spans back more than 4,000 years. During the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), China experienced political centralization by establishing sovereignty, the appointment of nonhereditary officials to government provinces, the minting of currency, development of standard weights and measures, and the creation of public works including roads, canals, and even the production of portions of the Great Wall. These were all enormous advances in comparison to the rest of the world at this time. Sovereign power was further expanded by the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). These dynasties laid the foundation for an imperial system, which lasted until its overthrow in 1911. While dynasties of Chinese rulers rose and fell, patterns of institutional rule and the foundations of legitimate authority provided a strong degree of political and cultural continuity.
Confucian principles: harmony and community
While sometimes described as a religion, Confucianism is more accurately thought of as a social and civic philosophy oriented toward promoting the most healthy, harmonic social order. Confucian ideals of community and harmony have provided the ethical foundation and underlying motivation for many socio-political consolidation efforts throughout Chinese history. Established in the 6th-5th century BCE, Confucianism has also fostered a base for the development of Chinese civil service. Confucian thought was emphasized in schools and was a main testing point for educational entry exams Confucianism’s ethical values not only influenced the country’s many imperial leaders, they also remain at the core of Chinese tradition, values, and social codes today. The Confucian emphasis on harmony and community are still evident, for example, in the Chinese Communist Party's rejection of liberal democracy because of what it views as an overemphasis on the rights of the individual. While the Party is officially atheistic and represses all forms of religious expression, the strongly secular orientation of Confucianism towards order and harmony in earthly relations has reinforced its own political values.
The Bureaucracy of Mandarins
The development of Chinese civil service resulted in a class of educated men chosen on the basis of a rigorous series of competitive exams that tested their familiarity with Confucian thought. These exams lasted several days, were taken in isolation, and the test results would determine a man’s status.This system provided a small degree of upward mobility for exceptional young people from lower classes. The establishment of a meritocratic, professional bureaucracy emerged centuries before anywhere else in the world. This notion came hand-in-hand with the country’s advanced understanding of citizenship that was promoted by the institutionalization of its bureaucracy. The successful candidates shared a common language and culture. The mandarins formed a scholar-bureaucrat society that endured throughout each Chinese dynasty, despite any rule-related differences. Despite frequent transitions from ruler to ruler, China’s political system remained intact due to each dynasty’s reliance on the cultural, political, and institutional continuity which the Mandarins provided.
Mandate of Heaven: Legitimacy and Revolution
The Mandate of Heaven, a teaching of Confucianism, served as the divine source of authority and justification for the right to rule China. This divine right to rule brought with it the responsibility to be a ‘just ruler’ with a moral obligation to use this bestowed power for the good of the Chinese people. A ruler who was corrupt, inept, or too authoritarian could lose this mandate, giving the people a right to overthrow an unjust ruler. It was this principle which provided the moral and political basis for the overthrow of dynasties and their replacement with a new one over the two thousand years of imperial rule.
The Rise of Western Colonialism and the Chinese Response.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), China was the most advanced region of the world in science, economics, communication, technology and public works. It also had the largest economy in the world. How, then, did the oldest political system and largest economy fall into what became known as the “century of humiliation" during the 19th century? Towards the end of the MIng Dynasty, European merchants and missionaries came to China seeking markets and converts. The response of the Qing dynasty, which began in 1644, was to move strongly to limit the access of foreigners to China. While China was enduring internal unrest and uprisings, as well as a population explosion that its productive forces could not keep up with, Western Europe was in the early stages of what became the Industrial Revolution. In search of new markets and sources of raw materials, Western states and merchants aggressively demanded that China open its markets and accept the emerging principle of free trade. As foreign enclaves emerged in India and in ports along the South China sea, the trade in opium became increasingly lucrative. European merchants, and particularly British merchants, used the military power of the British Navy to open regions of Eastern India to the cultivation of the crop. China, with a population of over 200 million by 1800 provided a huge market for European merchants. When China attempted to ban the import of opium, European merchants used the banner of “free trade” to demand that China let them operate freely. These clashes led to the Opium Wars, a series of conflicts in which Britain and France used their superior military technology to impose a humiliating peace on the Qing rulers. Under the terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, the British took control of Hong Kong, which they maintained until 1997, and Britain received concessions that lowered the level of export taxes they had to pay and effectively exempted the country from the Chinese legal system. Other European powers later obtained similar concessions; the effect was to carve up China into zones of foreign economic influence.
Internal Conflict and the End of Imperial Rule
These foreign encroachments occurred alongside internal conflicts rooted in China’s growing economic weakness. The legitimacy of the Qing dynasty was shaken by a series of internal conflicts and revolts. The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) resulted in the deaths of over 30 million people, making it one of the most violent conflicts in human history. Hong Xiuquan, a young man who failed his imperial examinations for the third time in 1847, initiated it. He developed an ideology that mixed Christianity and elements of Chinese religious traditions with opposition to the corruption and weakness of the Qing dynasty. Hong’s followers consisted of China’s poorest and outcast residents who were looking for a way to end their socio-economic suffering. This group, historically overlooked, formed a large army/political organization that swept across all of China. This movement was strong and popular enough that it cost 15 years and more than 20 million lives to defeat Hong and his followers. While the rebellion failed, some of its principles shaped the ideas of later Chinese revolutionaries, including land reform, gender equality and the beginning of a modern notion of nationalism.
Anger about the impact of foreign influence from merchants and missionaries also fueled the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. After 1860, the treaty settlement of the second Opium War had granted Western missionaries and other foreigners the right to travel and proselytize within China. Christianity began to permeate Chinese villages and attract peasants. Under declining economic conditions, made worse by drought, Chinese peasants began attacking Christian missionaries as well as Chinese converts. The movement that emerged called themselves Yihequan (Righteous and Harmonious Fists), Westerners referred to the groups as Boxers because of their use of martial arts techniques. Boxer attacks against foreigners began to spread across rural China and eventually to Beijing. While eventually put down by troops drawn from eight foreign armies, the rebellion further weakened the legitimacy of imperial rule and strengthened the view of a growing movement of nationalists that fundamental political change was necessary.
Revolution and Civil War
The Opium Wars, foreign economic domination, and internal rebellions of the 19th century gradually destroyed the authority of the Chinese state. Defeating the Taiping Rebellion had required allowing the creation of local military forces, a tacit admission that the central government had lost authority. The Boxer Rebellion defeat by foreign armies provided the final nail in the coffin of imperial rule. In 1911, military uprisings swept away imperial rule after 2000 years and on January 1, 1912, the Republic of China was established. One of the leaders of the nationalist movement, a US educated doctor named Sun Yat-Sen, became the President. However, in the process of negotiating the abdication of the child emperor Pu Yi, Sun agreed for Yuan Shikai, a military officer who had sought to promote modernization of the Qing Dynasty, to become president. Opposed to democratic reforms, Yuan tried to establish himself as emperor and repressed the KMT and other forces seeking political modernization. Yet, effective power remained in the hands of the military forces that had ultimately brought down the Qing Dynasty and had significant regional bases. Yuan was forced out by early 1916 and rivalries among military leaders caused China to fall into more than a decade of violent internal conflict. The fall of a system long in power always produces a version of the problem that faced Humpty Dumpty: how to put things back together after they have fallen apart. While China was never directly ruled by colonial powers in the way that India was, the impact of foreign influence was far more destabilizing, destroying a 2000 year old political order and leaving a political vacuum in its wake.
With the central government in Beijing unable to restore unity, Sun Yat-Sen established an alternative government in Guangzhou in 1921 and sought support from the newly established Soviet Union after other countries had rejected his requests for aid. The Soviet leaders encouraged Sun to work with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which was founded in 1921 by a group of intellectuals who had been inspired by the Russian revolution in 1917 and by the anti-imperialism of the Soviet Union. The party grew out of the May 4th movement of 1919 which emerged in response to Chinese anger at the actions of Western nations during the negotiation of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I. Chinese representatives had asked for the end of nearly a century of special privileges and concessions that had been granted to western powers and that areas previously under German control that were given to Japan be returned to Chinese control but these requests fell on deaf ears.
While embracing Marxism, the party was strongly nationalistic in its orientation as well, a characteristic it retains into the present day. While some Marxists reject nationalism as way to divide workers, the CCP sought to restore Chinese unity and recover the international power that Western colonialism had taken away. The CCP joined with Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist party in 1924, acting on advice from the Soviets, with the shared goal of fighting the warlords holding power throughout China. By 1925 they had defeated the warlords and reestablished central control. Following Sun Yat-sen’s death in 1925, a KMT general, Chiang Kaishek took over leadership of the party and became head of state. Relations between the KMT and CCP became tense and eventually unraveled. Chiang violently suppressed the CCP, killing tens of thousands of Communist members, including 5,000 in the Shanghai Massacre in April 1927. All communist were expelled from the Party that summer; in response to the "Red Army," led by Mao Zedong and China was again engulfed in war.
Maoism: Reinventing Marxism/Leninism in a rural country
Nationalist repression had devastated the ranks of the CCP. It also forced the party to rethink its approach and the most important intellectual force behind that was Mao Zedong. Mao had been one of the founders of the CCP and, as one of the few leaders from a peasant background, had strongly challenged the traditional Marxist skepticism about the peasantry, whereas Marx had written about the “idiocy of rural life” and seen the urban proletariat as the revolutionary force within capitalist society. However, Mao was facing a different challenge than the one envisioned by Marx. He was not making revolution in a highly industrialized nation like Germany or Britain or even a semi-industrialized one like Russia. China was a country whose long-standing state structures had been weakened and its economy made subordinate to foreign economic powers. The CCP’s working class base in the cities, among a relatively small and foreign controlled industrial base, was devastated by KMT repression. In many ways, if a communist revolution were going to come to China, it would have to come about by winning the support and building an army of the more populous peasant class. This theory provided the basis for what later became known among Latin American revolutionaries like Fidel Castro as foquismo, a strategy based on building a movement in the countryside, surrounding the cities, and eventually toppling the center from the periphery. Like Lenin, Mao has had far more practical significance than Marx in adopting theory to the demands of specific political contexts.
However, in 1934, this seemed far-fetched to all but Mao and his fellow party leaders. KMT attacks continued to force the CCP to flee westward into the hinterland. Seemingly weakened beyond the point of recovery, the party began what became one of the legendary and mythologized events in Chinese political history: the Long March. After being encircled and in a position to nearly be eliminated, Mao's forces had been able to retreat from KMT forces and live to fight another day. The Long March was a nearly 4,000 miles journey through some of China’s most unforgiving geography. At the end of this march, the CCP established a base in Yanan, a remote and impoverished area of northwestern China. The human cost of the march was enormous, reducing CCP forces by as much as 90% by some estimates, and the interactions with the peasants were far more brutal than in the official version presented by the CCP. It did two important things, however: it enabled the CCP to survive, and Mao emerged as the dominant political and ideological force within the party.
Foreign Invasion and Revolution
The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 began World War II in Asia, pushing the Nationalist government to the far southwestern section of the country. This essentially eliminated the party as a combatant against Japanese aggression. In contrast, the CCP base in Yanan was on the front line up against Japan’s troops in northern China. Mao and the CCP successfully mobilize their peasant base utilizing guerilla warfare to fight off the Japanese and increase their popular support. As important for the long run success of the revolutionary movement and the stability of the post-revolutionary state, the war effort led to the creation of the People’s Liberation Army as a strong effective military force. In the wake of the KMT’s retreat, the CCP was seen as more committed to defeating Japan and fighting for China’s sovereignty and interests. While some historians have challenged this version of events, there is no question that the war against Japan greatly strengthened the CCP and weakened the KMT in both military and political terms. After the defeat of Japan by US forces, the civil war continued with the Communist forces in a much stronger position. Despite United States support for the KMT, the majority of Chinese viewed Chiang Kai-shek as a corrupt and repressive leader of a regime beholden to foreign powers, while the CCP was stronger and more popular than ever.
After the Truman Administration concluded it was a lost cause and declined to offer direct military support to the Nationalist, the CCP took power on October 1, 1949. Mao Zedong, standing on a podium in Tiananmen Square, where the May 4th Movement had protested 30 years before, Mao officially declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The KMT had to retreat once again, this time to the island of Taiwan. In spite of their military loss, the KMT continued to hold China’s seat in the UN until 1971, following the normalization of relations between the PRC and the United States. The PRC has never officially recognized Taiwan’s sovereignty and maintains that the island will return to the mainland PRC’s control at some point in the future, an idea completely rejected by Taiwan and not accepted by most other national governments.
Comparing Communist Revolutions
Before looking more closely at how the CCP transformed China after 1949, a comparison of the Chinese and Russian Revolutions can bring to light important differences between the two processes, differences that in turn help explain why the CCP is still in power in the PRC today and the Soviet Union ended in 1991. Both revolutions were made possible by destructive wars that weakened the pre-revolutionary state and created openings for the revolutionary movement to take power. Without the Japanese invasion of China, it is quite possible that Chiang Kaishek’s forces would have been able to consolidate their power while the CCP remained a marginal force. However, the Communists did have a base among the peasantry and if the character of the KMT regime had not changed in ways which more effectively addressed the needs of the population, Mao’s combination of nationalism and the revolutionary potential of the peasantry could have made for revolution without the war with Japan.
Thus, as a mass movement, the CCP came to power with the support of the majority of the population and this provided a degree of political legitimacy that the Communist Party in Russia never possessed. The CCP certainly used vicious repression against those identified as political enemies. Yet, they also possessed the political support to carry out successful mass campaigns against a range of social ills. In Russia, on the other hand, without World War I and the collapse of the Tsarist state, it is very difficult to imagine credible scenarios by which the Bolsheviks take power. Lenin and many other leaders were in exile or in prison. With the collapse of the Russian state, the abdication of the Tsar and the effort of the Provisional Government leaders to continue the war, a political vacuum was created that Lenin and the Bolsheviks effectively took advantage of. Under the policy of War Communism, they effectively seized the state and built the military means to defeat their enemies and consolidate control.
Unlike in China, however, th Bolsheviks had not built a mass movement. Lenin recognized this in the establishment of the New Economic Policy, which was designed to bring the peasants along with the goals of the revolution. Stalin ended the NEP and replaced it with perhaps the most ruthless state policies ever imposed on a society, but they were not all that less repressive than what would be done by Mao. However, without the legitimacy that a mass movement built for the Chinese revolution, the Soviet leaders had to rely more exclusively on repression. When Gorbachev liberalized the USSR in the 1980s, the long-term consequences of that lack of legitimacy became apparent. The Chinese revolutionaries presented communism as the means to restore China’s loss of national power; its policies fused nationalism and communism. Even in the wake of some disastrous policies Mao promoted which we will explore below, the legitimacy of the Party remained strong with the majority of the population because of the ways their lives improved materially after the revolution. The Soviets repressed nationalist movements in the name of a “union of socialist republics” a fiction that never gained in legitimacy or traction with the public.
Transforming China: Policies and Conflict in the 1950s and 1960s
After defeating the nationalists, Mao and the Chinese Communist Party quickly turned their attention to some of China’s most pressing issues. Among these issues was a massive land reform campaign that redistributed property from the rich to the poor, increasing productivity in the countryside. Another successful campaign strove to eliminate opium addiction and prostitution from the cities. A national law enhanced the legal status of women in the family and allowed many Chinese women to liberate themselves from arranged marriages and other traditional practices. While the party did gain considerable additional legitimacy with the Chinese masses from its successful social policies, it did not hesitate to use violence against "class enemies"; during the campaign of land reform in which the Party made good on its promise to free peasants from oppressive landlords, well over a million and perhaps as many as 5 million were killed. Unlike in the Soviet Union, these killings were often not carried by state security agents but by the peasants themselves.
In economic policy, the Party initially adopted Soviet style Five Year Plans with the goal of boosting agricultural and industrial production. By the mid-1950s, China had become a Command Economy in which state planners took the place of private owners and market forces. While these policies produced significant economic growth and industrial development, they conflicted with Mao’s vision of a nation driven by the revolutionary power of peasants and gave too much power, in his view, to bureaucracies and party elites. In 1956, Mao called on the Chinese people to “let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” He called for the public to offer their opinions and criticisms of CCP, believing it would strengthen his hand against party officials who sought a more conventional path to industrialization. When the results of this campaign demonstrated significant public discontent, Mao led an "Anti-Rightist" campaign designed to identify “class enemies” and “capitalist roaders” within the ranks of the party which Mao charged had sought to undermine the revolution.
In 1958, Mao pushed his conception of permanent revolution and opposition to bureaucracy further when he proposed the Great Leap Forward, a policy of radical decentralization in which local communes and village committees would replace economic managers and experts as the principal economic decision makers. Villages were encouraged to develop their own industrial products and processes. Mao presented this as a path toward rapid industrialization that would conclusively demonstrate that mobilization of the revolutionary will and fervor of the masses could accomplish far more than experts. The results, however, were disastrous, producing upheaval in the countryside that caused one of the worst famines of the 20th century and the death of at least 30 million people.
Mao’s policies were discredited and the economic policy went back to the more conventional and pragmatic policies that had preceeded Mao’s experiments. One of Mao’s policy rivals Deng Xiaoping, famously noted “Whether a cat is black or white makes no difference. As long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.” Translated into the Chinese context this meant that if the application of technical expertise and limited market incentives could stimulate more wealth, it was a good thing even if it seemed to conflict with conventional Communist ideas. These debates reflected the dilemma that countries who sought to establish communism faced in societies that had not fully industrialized. Marx’s writings did not provide much guidance because he had assumed that communism would be established after capitalism had already reached an advanced stage. Deng’s policies acknowledged the fact that capitalism had demonstrated unparalleled capacity for generating wealth and that some of the mechanisms of that system could be used, under the careful leadership of the CCP, to do the same. In this way, it was a policy more consistent with the logic of Marx's theory. The full potential of this idea was not realized until after Mao’s death, when Deng oversaw the establishment of economic reforms that transformed China.
Mao fights back: The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
While the massive failure of the Great Leap Forward discredited Mao’s policies for a few years, he still has enormous influence within the party. The publication of Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, or “The Little Red Book" encouraged the spread of “Mao Zedong Thought”. In response to the failures of his policies, Mao asserted that they had not gone far enough. Soviet style bureaucracy and hierarchy, he argued, had hindered the progress of revolution and previous failures only indicated how far the counterrevolutionary process had been allowed to go. His supporters accused the CCP of following a capitalist path and encouraged the public to challenge the bureaucracy at all levels. Student radicals, known as the Red Guards, violently attacked and imprisoned any they considered enemies of the revolution through what became the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards targeted intellectuals of any kind, including teachers and other public officials, attacking, imprisoning and exiling any authority figure viewed as the enemy. Mao pushed students to report “revisionist” ideas expressed by their teachers, and children were even encouraged to report enemies within their families. At the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 and 1967, when party officials were identified as enemies of the revolution they were sent to the countryside to learn to be true revolutionaries by working alongside peasants in communes feeding pigs and planting crops. Experts' estimates of total deaths during this campaign range from 500,000 to 3 million, though an final figure will likely never be known. The Red Guards destroyed libraries and burned books including invaluable historical works.
By 1968, even Mao realized things had gotten out of hand. The pursuit of political purity had left the economy once again in shambles. The Army reasserted control over the Red Guards and the worst atrocities ceased. Mao never again attempted another version of the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution. Until his death, party policy remained stuck between the poles of Maoism and pragmatists like Deng Xiaoping. While economic growth remained stagnant, the early 1970s brought important changes in the international status of the PRC. Relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated throughout the 1960s as the two communist countries fought for leadership among the communist movement globally. A brief war flared up in 1969. Observing these divisions, United States President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger saw an opportunity to isolate the USSR globally by improving US relations with the People’s Republic. After secret negotiations, President Nixon announced the normalization of relations between the United States and China and made a historic visit to the country in 1972. This initiative began a period of improved relations between the two countries that continued over the next several decades
After Mao: Economic Reforms and the Reemergence of China as a Global Power
After Mao’s death in 1976, some of his allies, led by Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, attempted to assert authority. This power struggle ended quickly with the arrest of the “Gang of Four.” With the memory of the Cultural Revolution still present, there was no appetite for a return to Maoism. By 1978, Mao’s old rival, Deng Xiaoping, had emerged as the most influential leader within the party, though he never took the position of Party Chairman. Under his leadership, a series of economic reforms introduced market incentives that have transformed China into an economic powerhouse over the past three decades. Deng also carried out political reforms designed to prevent the kind of outsized leadership by one person that Mao had been able to exercise. A new constitution established clear lines of authority between state and party institutions. While the CCP retained complete political dominance, mechanisms for political transitions among the leadership and the establishment of a President with fixed terms of office were designed to prevent the unpredictability and volatility of the Mao era. While western governments have continued to criticize human rights violations in China, China was granted membership in the World Trade Organization in 2001 and its economy has become a principal driver of global economic growth over the last two decades and especially since the global recession of 2008-9. As a relatively resource poor nation, China has become a major purchaser of global commodities and thus, a major economic player globally, and especially in Latin America and Africa were it now rivals global lenders like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as a source of development capital.
In 1979 Deng also became the first leader of the PRC to visit the United States as relations between the two countries continued to improve until recent years. Observers in the US often compared Chinese economic reforms favorably to those undertaken in the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev. Deng’s policies went much further in creating a market economy and offered more economic opportunities to Chinese citizens that Gorbachev's very limited reforms. Observers also often assumed that China would initiate political liberalization in the manner of Gorbachev’s glasnost policy. The Chinese leadership did introduce some quite limited opportunities for Chinese citizens to register grievances and problems, but Deng and other Chinese officials consistently stated that they would not relinquish the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power in the way that Gorbachev permitted in the last years of the Soviet Union. That Deng was serious became clear after the Party’s violent crackdown on student protest in Tiananmen Square in June 1979, just as Soviet backed regimes in Eastern Europe were beginning to crumble. The pursuit of market oriented economic growth by a one party state led observers to coin the term “Market-Leninism” to describe the Chinese hybrid of capitalist economics policy under a classically Leninist vanguard state. Under the leadership of current President Xi Jinping, central control has grown stronger and the space for dissent has tightened, processes we will look at more closely in later readings.