A Concise History of China
Chapter 7: CHINA SINCE 1949
This chapter covers the following topics:
The Establishment of the People's Republic
Upon assuming power in 1949, the Communists faced the formidable task of governing a vast nation in ruins. Over a century of foreign invasions, civil warfare, exploitation and natural calamities had ravaged China's cities and villages, destroyed much of its economic infrastructure, and left its population physically exhausted and deeply demoralized. The confidence of Mao and the Communist leaders that they could build a better future did much to lift spirits and rally popular support for the ambitious projects of the new regime.
The Communists could also draw on the enthusiastic support of those peasants, students, and soldiers who had already lived in Communist-controlled areas before 1949. In these zones, land reforms had already been put into effect, mass literacy campaigns had been mounted, and young people, both male and female, had enjoyed opportunities to rise in the party ranks on the basis of hard work and personal talents. Thus, in contrast to the Bolsheviks, who seized power in 1917 in Russia quite easily but then had to face years of civil war and foreign aggression, the Communists in China claimed a unified nation from which foreign aggressors had been expelled. Also unlike the Bolsheviks, the Communist leadership in China encountered less domestic resistance to their plans and could move directly to the tasks of social reform and economic development that China so desperately needed.
Although deep social divisions remained, the Chinese faced far less trouble with its different religious and ethnic groups than most Third World nations. Millennia of common history and common cultural development had given the peoples of China a sense of identity and a tradition of political unity. The long struggle against foreign aggressors had strengthened these bonds and impressed upon the Chinese the importance of maintaining a united front against outsiders if they were to avoid future humiliations and exploitation. The Communists' "Long March" to power had left the party with a strong political and military organization that was rooted in the party cadres and the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
Tolerating no opposition, Mao concentrated all power in the Communist party, which was led by the People's Central Committee. This group held all major civil and military positions. The day-to-day work of the central committee fell to a smaller politburo, headed by Mao, the chairman of the republic. The continuing importance of the army was indicated by the fact that most of China was administered by military officials for five years after the Communists came to power. But the army remained clearly subordinate to the party, with cadre advisors attached to military contingents at all levels and the central committees of the party dominated by nonmilitary personnel. When there were no border tensions, Mao kept the army busy at tasks normally left for civilians, like harvesting rice on the communes.
With a strong political framework in place, the Communists moved quickly to restore China's traditional position as the most powerful nation in Asia. Between 1950 and 1958, Moslem insurgencies, mainly supported by three minority groups (the Hui, Salar, and Dongxiang), were put down in the western provinces. Potential secessionist movements were also forcibly repressed in Inner Mongolia and Tibet, though resistance in the latter has erupted periodically and continues to the present day. China was at first reluctant to intervene in the conflict between North and South Korea, but when South Korean and UN (largely American) forces approached the Yalu River, on the Sino-Korean border, 400,000 PLA soldiers got involved (November 1950). A war of attrition followed, in which the Chinese seemed to expend men the way the other side expended bullets; the anticommunist coalition was quickly pushed back to the 38th parallel, and two and a half years later it agreed to settle for a stalemate and a lasting division of the peninsula. Because the United States had been fought to a standstill, China proved it could hold its own against the world's strongest military power.
Refusing to accept a similar, but far more lopsided, two-nation outcome of the struggle in China itself, the Communist leadership has periodically threatened to invade the Nationalists' refuge on Taiwan. In the late 1950s they frequently fired mortars at Quemoy and Matsu, two islands just off the coast that are still held by Taiwan; that prompted the United States to station its Seventh Fleet between Taiwan and the mainland.(1) In December 1962 the Chinese flexed their very considerable military muscle by thrashing India in a brief border war. To the Third World, China sent arms and agents. They humiliated the French by giving substantial aid to anti-French rebels in both Vietnam and Algeria. Technicians went to African nations like Guinea, Tanzania, and Zaire; in Latin America, they recruited leftist students for guerilla armies, like the Shining Path Movement in Peru.
Mao and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin got along because they saw the United States as a common enemy.(2) Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was less successful at persuading the Chinese to toe the Soviet line. Mao was disappointed at the meager economic assistance provided by the Soviet "comrades" and felt that, with the passing of Stalin, he was now the number-one theoretician and leader of the Communist world; he also was shocked at Khrushchev's criticisms of Stalin, which called into question his own authority. Ideological disputes over the true nature of Communism became open international squabbles; soon China was demanding the return of all the lands taken by Russia in the nineteenth century. In 1959 the USSR stopped supporting China's nuclear program, since Mao declared he planned to use any weapons produced by it to destroy the capitalist countries, even if two thirds of the world's population was wiped out; this callous attitude toward human life alarmed Khrushchev, who was looking to reduce tensions with the West. A year later the last Soviet advisors and technicians were withdrawn from 200 cooperative projects in China; a war of words began, and China and Russia went separate ways, each claiming to be following the one true communist path. The immediate causes of the split have long passed, but various incidents (the worst was a major border skirmish on the Amur River in 1969) kept tensions high and relations bad for a generation. Since both countries are under more moderate leadership today, the verbal criticism of each other has declined considerably in recent years.
On the domestic front, the new leaders of China moved with equal vigor, though with a good deal less success. Here they launched a series of social experiments that have affected more people than any others attempted in world history. Their actions did not bring a smooth, steady progress; more often the government's heavy-handed policies reflected Mao's mercurial temperament, producing stop-and-go results. First came two mass campaigns: The Three Antis Campaign against corruption, waste, and excessive bureaucracy; and the Five Antis Campaign against bribery, tax evasion, theft of state property, cheating on government contracts, and stealing economic information. Since most of the practices of capitalism were classified as crimes under the Five Antis Campaign, capitalism as an institution was liquidated. People accused of those crimes often had to sell investments like stocks to the state in order to pay large fines, giving the government more control over industry; others were executed in a "settling of accounts." At the same time opium use/trafficking, gangsterism, gambling and prostitution were stamped out.
Then Mao began to apply the Soviet model of the 1930s to China. As more than 70 percent of farmland was owned by 10 percent of the rich landlords, the first priority of the government became the completion of the social revolution in the rural areas that had been started in Communist controlled areas before 1949. Between 1950 and 1952, the landlord class and the large landholders, which included even prosperous peasants, were dispossessed and purged. Village tribunals, overseen by party cadre members, gave tenants and laborers a chance to get even for decades of oppression; they were encouraged to take part in "speak bitterness" meetings where the landlords were denounced. Perhaps as many as three million people were executed in this campaign. At the same time, the land taken from the landowning classes was distributed to peasants who had little or no land, and the party organized farms into huge collectives. Within three years, nearly all peasants had become members of rural collectives in which, although individual land ownership was retained in theory, all labor, farm equipment, and land were pooled. For a brief time at least, one of the central pledges of the communists was fulfilled: China became a land of peasant small holders.
Communist planners, however, saw rapid industrialization, not peasant farmers, as the key to making the nation successful. With the introduction of a Soviet-style Five Year Plan in 1953, the Communist leadership turned away from the peasantry, which had brought them to power, and concentrated on the urban workers as the hope for a new China. With no foreign assistance from the West, and nothing but advisors from the Soviet bloc, the state resorted to stringent measures to draw resources from the countryside to finance industrial growth. The Chinese built on their own experience, rejecting parts of the Soviet model.
Though some advances were made in industrialization, particularly in heavy industries such as steel, the shift in direction had consequences that Mao and his more radical supporters in the party found unacceptable. State planning and centralization were stressed, party bureaucrats greatly increased their power and influence, and an urban-based privileged class of technocrats began to develop. These changes and the external threat to China posed by the American intervention in Korea and continuing United States-China friction led Mao and his followers to force a change of strategies in the mid-1950s.
Mao had long nurtured a deep hostility toward the educated, whom he associated with the discredited Confucian system. He had little use for Lenin's vision of revolution from above, led by a disciplined cadre of professional political activists. He distrusted intellectuals, disliked specialization, and clung to his view that the peasants, not the workers, were repositories of basic virtue and the driving force of the revolution. Acting to stem the trend toward an elitist, urban-industrial focus, Mao and his supporters introduced the Mass Line approach, beginning with the formation of agricultural cooperatives in 1955. In the following year, cooperatives became farming collectives that soon accounted for more than 90 percent of China's peasant population. The peasants had enjoyed their own holdings for less than three years. As had occurred earlier in the Soviet Union, the leaders of the revolution that had originally won the land for the mass of the peasants, later took it away from them through collectivization.
In 1955 Mao struck at the intellectuals through what was either a miscalculation or a clever ruse. Mao encouraged professors, artists and writers to speak out freely by declaring, "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend." The result was a storm of angry protest and criticism of communist schemes. Posters went up denouncing party members as arrogant and insensitive; some went so far as to demand an end to one-party rule. Having flushed the critics into the open, if the campaign was indeed a ruse, or having been shocked by the response, Mao abruptly shifted gears, calling the intellectuals whose opinions he had just invited "poisonous weeds." The party struck with demotions, prison sentences, and banishment to hard labor on the collectives. The flowers rapidly wilted in the face of this betrayal, and China was robbed of its best teachers and professional workers for a generation.
With the initial support of planners such as vice chairman Liu Shaoqi, Mao scrapped the Second Five Year Plan and launched the Great Leap Forward in 1958. This program represented a further effort to revitalize the flagging revolution by restoring its mass, rural base. It began with a huge propaganda campaign that galvanized millions of urban and rural workers into a frenzied effort to increase tremendously the production of steel, electricity, and coal. Everyone was told to "go all out, aim high, and achieve greater, faster, better, and more economical results"; three years of very hard work, the party claimed, would bring about 1,000 years of happiness. Rather than huge plants located in the cities, industrialization would be pushed through small-scale projects integrated into the peasant communes. Instead of siphoning off the communes' surplus to build steel mills, industrial development would be aimed at producing tractors, cement for irrigation projects, and other manufactures needed by the peasantry. Enormous publicity was given to efforts to produce steel in small, backyard blast furnaces, relying on labor, rather than machine-intensive techniques. The Chinese boldly predicted that their industrial production would surpass that of Britain in fifteen years. Mao preached the benefits of backwardness and the joys of mass involvement, and looked forward to the withering away of the meddling bureaucracy.
In the countryside Mao installed the People's Communes. The state created some 26,000 of these units, each averaging 5,000 households, or about 25,000 people. The heads of the communes collected taxes and ran schools, childcare centers, dormitories, communal kitchens, and even cemeteries in this massive attempt at social experimentation. Emphasis was placed on self-reliance within the peasant communes, and all aspects of the lives of their members were regulated and regimented by the commune leaders and the heads of the local labor brigades. In effect what Mao tried to do was convert the peasants into a rural proletariat paid in wages. All land, dwellings, and livestock were effectively owned by the communes until the late 1970s. During the two decades in which the People's Communes functioned, they helped produce improvements in medical care and literacy.
Madness resulted. To reduce the importance of the family, farm workers wasted hours trudging to communal mess halls where they ate cold, unappetizing food. To keep seed-eating birds from eating grain, the population was ordered to chase them by banging pots until the birds died of exhaustion. When unusually good weather yielded a good 1958 harvest, the government set even higher production goals for 1959, diverted many peasants from farming to grand construction projects, and left large amounts of farmland fallow, thinking that there would not be enough places to store the anticipated surplus. No activity was spared. When a dance troupe was put together in Tianjin, its organizers boasted: "It takes seven years to train a ballerina in the West, and we have done it in seven days."
Within months after it was launched, all indicators suggested that the Great Leap Forward and rapid collectivization were leading to disaster. Peasant resistance to collectivization, the abuses of commune leaders, and the dismal output of the backyard factories combined with the failure of the rains to turn the Great Leap into a giant step backward. The world's worst famine of the twentieth century spread across China in 1959 and 1960, forcing the Chinese to import large amounts of grain. And the numbers of Chinese continued to grow at an alarming rate. Defiantly rejecting Western and United Nations proposals for family planning, Mao and like-thinking radicals charged that socialist China could care for its people, no matter how many they were. Birth control was viewed as a symptom of capitalist selfishness and inability to provide a decent living for all of the people.
Advances made in the first decade of the new regime were lost through amateurish blunders, excesses of overzealous cadre leaders, and students' meddling; errors in the allocation of resources and capital caused China's national productivity to fall 25 percent. The steel and iron produced in the backyard furnaces, made from scrap iron and fueled by timber from houses, turned out to be worthless. At the same time the Great Leap was failing, the Soviet Union withdrew its technological and financial support. From 1959 to 1961 Chinese industry lacked essential raw materials and millions of people went without adequate food. Between 1960 and 1962 the combination of bad weather and chaos bequeathed by the failure of the Great Leap Forward resulted in malnutrition and the premature death of between 16 and 30 million people; for two years China's population actually decreased.
In June 1959, against a background of worsening tensions with the Soviet Union and the bloody suppression of an insurrection in Tibet, Defense Minister Peng Dehuai wrote a private letter to Mao listing the follies of the Great Leap forward. Mao saw this letter as a personal attack; it did not help that some of the criticisms were the same as those leveled by Soviet leader Khrushchev, whom Peng had visited just a month before. Mao accused Peng of being a Soviet sympathizer and a member of an antiparty clique, and in September Peng was dismissed from his post and replaced by the radical general Lin Biao.
Despite this cabinet shuffle, it soon was clear even to Mao that the Great Leap must be ended and a new course of development adopted. Mao lost his position as State Chairman (though he remained the head of the party's Central Committee). The "pragmatists," including Mao's old ally Zhou Enlai along with Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, came to power determined to restore state direction and market incentives at the local level. In the communes social experimentation and centralized control were relaxed. Working conditions improved and private plots in which peasants were allowed to keep or sell the crops and animals they raised were used as incentives to increase agricultural production. Between 1961 and 1964 industry also recovered, and the discovery of petroleum provided new energy sources. China made advances in light industry, especially in consumer goods and cotton production. Signs of technological progress included the detonation of a nuclear device in 1964 and a hydrogen bomb in 1967, the first nuclear devices developed by a nonindustrial nation.
In the face of the environmental degradation and overcrowding that this leap in population inevitably produced, even the party ideologues came around to the view that something must be done to curb the birthrate. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the government launched a nationwide family planning campaign designed to limit urban couples to two children and those in rural areas to one. By the 1980s, just one child per family was allowed. There is considerable evidence of official excesses: undue pressure for women to have abortions, and reports of the killing of daughters, sometimes when they were as much as four years old (sons are seen as an asset and daughters as an expense, so every family prefers a son if they can only have one child). The result was an entire generation of only children, and a serious shortage of women resulted; by the end of the twentieth century the male-female ratio was 120 men for every 100 women.
The population control program continued into the twenty-first century because it had greatly slowed China's overall population increase. However, the Chinese learned that when children without siblings start a family, they are inclined to have just one child as well. Consequently the workforce has started to shrink, and the rising median age (now at 35) is now making it more difficult to increase the number of births. You need a birthrate around 2.5 children per woman to maintain a stable population, and because China's birthrate has been below that since the 1980s, at some point the death rate will catch up with the birthrate, and after that the population will shrink instead of grow. Currently it looks like under these trends, China's population will peak around 2030, so the government has started to relax the one-child policy; in 2013 it became legal for couples to have two children if one of the parents is an only child. Then in October 2015 it dropped the one-child policy completely; all couples can now have two children.(3)
In Mao's struggles to renew the revolutionary fervor of the Chinese people, his third wife, Jiang Qing (1914-91), played an increasingly prominent role. Mao's reliance on her, which had become dependence in his final years, was quite consistent with his career-long commitment to the liberation of Chinese women. As a young man he had been deeply moved by a newspaper story about a young girl who had committed suicide rather than be forced by her family to submit to the marriage they had arranged for her with a rich but very elderly man. From that point onward, women's issues and the support of women for the Communist movement became important parts of Mao's revolutionary strategy. Here he was drawing on a well-established revolutionary tradition, for women had been very active in the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-19th century, as well as the Boxer revolt in 1900 and the 1911 revolution that had toppled the Manchu regime. One of the key causes taken up by the May Fourth intellectuals, who had a great impact on the youthful Mao Zedong, was equality for women. Their efforts put an end to foot-binding; they also did much to advance campaigns to end female seclusion, win legal rights for women, and open educational and career opportunities to them.
The attempts by the Nationalists in the late-1920s and 1930s to reverse many of the gains made by women in the early revolution brought many women into the Communist camp. Led by Chiang's wife, Madam Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist counteroffensive (like comparable movements in the Fascist countries of Europe at the time) sought to return Chinese women to the home and hearth. Madam Chiang proclaimed a special Good Mother's Day, and declared that "virtue was more important [for women] than learning." She taught that it was immoral for a wife to criticize her husband (an ethical precept she herself apparently ignored).
The Nationalist campaign to restore Chinese women to their traditional domestic roles and dependence on males contrasted sharply with the Communists' extensive employment of women to advance the revolutionary cause. Women served as teachers, nurses, spies, truck drivers, and laborers on projects ranging from growing food to building machine-gun bunkers. Though the party preferred to use them in these support roles, in moments of extreme crisis women became soldiers on the front lines, where many won distinction for their bravery under fire. Some rose to become cadre leaders, and many were prominent in the anti landlord campaigns and agrarian reform. Their contribution to the victory of the revolutionary cause truly bore out Mao's early dictum that the energies and talents of women had to be harnessed to the national cause because, as he put it, "women hold up half of the heavens."
As was the case in many African and Asian countries, the victory of the revolution brought women legal equality with men--in itself a revolutionary development in a society like China. Women were expected to choose marriage partners without family interference. But arranged marriages persist today, especially in rural areas, and the need to have party approval for all marriages represents a new form of control beyond the couple's choice.
Women were also expected to work outside the home. Their opportunities for education and professional careers have greatly improved. As in other Socialist states, however, openings for employment outside the home have proved something of a burden for Chinese women. Until the late 1970s, traditional attitudes toward child rearing and home care prevailed. As a result, women were required not only to hold down a regular job, but also to raise a family, cook meals, clean, and shop--all without the benefit of the modern appliances available in Western societies. Though a considerable number of women hold posts at the middle and lower levels of the party and bureaucracy, the upper echelons of both are overwhelmingly controlled by males.
As in other developing societies, the brief but very considerable power amassed by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, in the early 1970s ran counter to the overall dominance of males in politics and the military. In any case, like female heads of state in other Asian countries, Jiang Qing got to the top because she was married to Mao. She exercised power mainly in his name and was toppled soon after his death when she tried to rule in her own right. Women have come far in China, but, as is the case in most other societies, they have by no means attained full equality with males in career opportunities, social status, or political power.(4)
Mao believed that many in the party had lost their revolutionary zeal. He advocated a continuous revolution in which the masses should be kept in motion lest the revolution die. In late 1965, Mao decided that his support among the students, peasants, and military was strong enough to launch what would turn out to be his last campaign, the Cultural Revolution.
The storm troopers of the Cultural Revolution were the nation's students. On May 16, 1966, Mao issued a circular attacking party moderates that was interpreted as an attack against Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Ten days later, a philosophy teacher at Beijing University put up a poster denouncing the university authorities. Adopting the slogan "To rebel is justified," tens of thousands of students followed her example, and soon the walls were thick with messages. In June the Beijing University president was fired, and it was announced that all schools would be closed for six months so that a new educational system emphasizing ideological conformity, rather than academic knowledge, could be worked out. Now Jiang Qing organized the students into a radical militia, the Red Guards, and launched an assault on the "capitalist roaders" in the party.
At first Mao stayed out of sight in central China, leaving Liu Shaoqi trying to contain the situation in Beijing. But then the 72-year-old chairman made a spectacular reappearance. On July 16, photographs were published of him swimming in the Yangtze River, which was intended to prove he had extraordinary vigor. The Red Guards reacted as if they had seen the Messiah walking on water, and Mao returned to Beijing in triumph, packed a Central Committee meeting with his supporters, and demoted Liu to the eighth position in the Politburo; Defense Minister Lin Biao took his place.
Mao's next public appearance was in Tiananmen Square, where he wore a PLA uniform, donned an armband of the Red Guards, and received the adulation of thousands of young supporters. The rally ended with cries of "Ten thousand years to Chairman Mao," a salute once given only to emperors. Allowed to travel free of charge on China's railways, some ten million Red Guards converged on the capital to attend six major rallies staged between August and November. Mao worship, encouraged by Lin Biao, reached fanatical proportions, with hysterical youngsters weeping, waving flags or copies of Mao's "little red book," and singing "The East is Red"--an anthem that compared Mao with the sun.
Inspired by his call to eliminate the "four olds"--old culture, old ideas, old customs and old habits--the infamous Red Guard student brigades went on a rampage, destroying anything associated with pre-1949 China or the West. Targets included tight trousers, jazz records, silk clothes, mah-jongg sets, antiques, classical and foreign literature, religious objects, and even pets. Then, since they did not have to go back to school, the Red Guards spread out across the countryside. Tibet's heritage, for example, was devastated, with nearly 90 percent of its monasteries destroyed.
Wanton destruction of property was followed by acts of personal cruelty. The Red Guards publicly ridiculed and abused Mao's rivals. Liu Shaoqi was imprisoned, where he died wretchedly in 1969; Deng Xiaoping was also put in jail, and Zhou Enlai was driven into seclusion.(5) The aroused students and the Peoples Liberation Army were used to pull down bureaucrats from their positions of power and privilege. They forced Maoist orthodoxy on party members and populace alike. In all areas, from surgery to nuclear physics and beyond, Mao's words were law. Application of the wisdom of Chairman Mao, as contained in the little red book, Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, was to lead to miraculous achievements. Placing political purity above economic growth, the Red Guards hampered production and research. Their rallies and demonstrations disrupted the entire educational system. College professors, plant managers, and the children of the bureaucratic elite were berated and forced to confess publicly their many crimes against "the people."
Many victims were publicly humiliated at "struggle" sessions where they were forced to wear dunce caps and confess their "crimes" before crowds of baying tormentors. At the trial of Jiang Qing and her accomplices in 1980, it was reported that nearly 800,000 people had been "framed and persecuted," of whom 34,900 were "persecuted to death" (this figure does not include those who committed suicide). Those who were not imprisoned or killed were forced to do manual labor on rural communes to enable them to understand the hardships endured by China's peasantry. In cities such as Shanghai, the workers seized control of the factories and local bureaucracy. As Mao had hoped, the centralized state and technocratic elites that had grown steadily since the Communists took over were being torn apart by the rage of the people.
However satisfying for advocates of continuing revolution like Mao and Jiang Qing, who saw their power grow by leaps and bounds as Mao's former compatriots were purged, it was soon clear that the Cultural Revolution threatened to return China to the chaos and vulnerability of the pre-revolutionary era. By 1967 industrial production had plummeted and basic education and research had ceased; Red Guards burned down the British legation and attacked other foreign embassies in Beijing, and some areas of the country were approaching anarchy. Into this void stepped the People's Liberation Army, which Mao used to call off the campaign in late 1968. The heads of the armed forces moved to bring the rank and file back into line; the Red Guards and other student and worker movements were disbanded and in some cases forcibly repressed. When the Communist Party held its Ninth Party Congress in April 1969, the students' holiday was clearly over; two thirds of the delegates were in military uniform, and almost nobody represented the radical youth. In the early 1970s, some of Mao's old rivals, like Deng Xiaoping, began to surface again, and their comeback represented a setback for Jiang Qing and her three allies, who made up the notorious "Gang of Four" that contested for power on behalf of the aging Mao.(6) But while Mao lived, the radicals controlled most of the upper levels of the party and the army, and through them the government; Lin Biao, for example, was named Mao's official successor at the Ninth Party Congress. Thus, while Mao declared the Cultural Revolution over in 1969, today's history books state that it really ended with his death.
Mao's longtime associate, Premier Zhou Enlai, restored the country's industrial productivity. Confident that he had most of the Politburo on his side, Zhou proposed a major economic program called the Four Modernizations--in agriculture, industry, defense, and science. In 1973 Zhou learned he was dying of cancer, so he had Deng Xiaoping rehabilitated from the tractor factory where he had been working and promoted to vice premier. Preferring production to class struggle and foreign technology over self-reliance, Deng successfully continued the Four Modernizations for the rest of the 1970s and 80s.
The return to political stability was more difficult, but Zhou managed to hold the country together while rival factions intrigued for power. Zhou also removed China from the diplomatic isolation in which it had resided since 1958. He responded to a diplomatic initiative made by the Nixon administration in 1971 and invited the US president for an official visit a year later. Normalization of relations with the nation which radicals had once called the "paper tiger" or "imperialist running dogs" took longer, but results came immediately. In October 1971 the US stopped opposing China's membership in the United Nations, and the People's Republic joined at once, replacing Taiwan as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In addition, China sought to bring in foreign industrial technology and foreign currency, both through an expanded banking system based in the British crown colony of Hong Kong; a tourist industry was also developed.
Summer saw the death of Zhu De, Mao's oldest comrade. Not long after that a devastating earthquake struck the city of Tangshan in Hebei Province, killing more than a quarter million people. While rescuers dug in the rubble, the Gang of Four exhorted the survivors to study the works of Mao. Then on September 9, the "Great Helmsman" of the Chinese people also died.(7) According to an official assessment of the dead leader's career published five years later, his achievements outweighed his mistakes until the late 1950s, when he launched the catastrophic Great Leap Forward. As he grew older he became senile, for the report continued by saying he could no longer make a "correct analysis" of the situation, and by "confusing right and wrong and the people with the enemy," he unleashed the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.
Mao's death also cleared the way for an open clash between the rival factions. While the Gang of Four plotted to seize control of the government, the pragmatists acted in alliance with the military. The Gang of Four were arrested, and their supporters' attempts to foment popular insurrections were easily foiled. Later tried for their crimes against the people, Jiang Qing and the members of her clique were brought to a televised show trial, purged from the party and imprisoned for life, after having death sentences commuted (1980).
Hua Guofeng, a leftist, took the jobs of both Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in 1976, but he was unable to consolidate his position. The moderates immediately rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping, and campaigning under the slogan "Seek truth from facts," Deng launched a power struggle behind the scenes that filled the ranks of the party with his own supporters and ousted Hua in 1979.
Deng Xiaoping (1904-97) was a political survivor, whose roots in the party went back to the 1920s. He survived political exile and the Cultural Revolution to introduce a reformed variant of Marxism that emphasized economic reform over class struggles. His moderation(8) caused radicals to denounce him as a "capitalist roader" and expel him from the party three times (1934, 1966 and 1976), but every time he came back and rose to a higher office than the one he had lost--a feat unheard of anywhere else in the communist world. Aided by his liberal chief lieutenants, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, Deng introduced a pragmatic series of economic reforms. Deng never held a position higher in the party than the #3 spot, but behind the stage he pulled all the strings, and everyone who reached the Politburo did so with his approval.
The government continued to keep the cost of medicine low and supplemented wages with accident insurance, medical coverage, day-care centers, and maternity benefits. Party interference in the day-to-day activities of industry was reduced; managers were allowed to give pay raises as incentives and hire/fire workers, a drastic change from the previous policy which guaranteed jobs for life and sometimes even passed them down from parent to child.
The educational system changed drastically under the communists. In the 1930s only 20 percent of the people had been literate. By the end of the 1980s, the figure had risen to 75 percent. Across China, a crash program of schooling was initiated, and "spare-time" schools with work/study programs for those unable to attend school full-time were established. Thousands of Chinese students went abroad to study science, technology, and business management techniques, including some 40,000 who went to the United States.
The standard of living in China improved, but the removal of price controls on food and other staple items, coupled with increasing consumer demand, led to inflation. People on fixed salaries, such as teachers, doctors, and members of the government, were squeezed by rising prices, and came to resent those who were profiting under the new system. The wife of a party official lamented: "It is ironic. The rich have become poor, and the poor have become rich."
When Beijing attempted to put back the price controls on food, many farmers simply withdrew their produce from the markets and sold it at higher "backdoor" prices. Uncontrolled development combined with a substandard infrastructure to cause serious pollution problems, a shortage of raw materials, and the production of shoddy goods that no one wanted. Though the economic progress of the 1980s was impressive, to reach the standard of living in industrialized countries, China still had a long way to go.
In this situation corruption grew dramatically. Managers found ways to sell goods made from state-subsidized raw materials on the open market at non-subsidized prices, cheating both the consumer and the state. Party officials either ignored such activities, or participated in them by demanding bribes, appointing family and friends to jobs, and by evading taxes. Even when caught, few were punished; one party member got only a salary cut and a reprimand for misappropriating more than $20 million in government funds. "Such things will certainly cause popular indignation and disgust," warned a veteran Communist in 1987. "As a popular saying goes, 'A piece of rotten meat may ruin the whole pot of soup.'"
As early as 1978, a Red Guard turned dissident named Wei Jingsheng argued that the Four Modernizations would not succeed unless China adopted a Fifth Modernization: democracy. For a while Deng Xiaoping allowed free expression in the form of posters on the so-called Democracy Wall in Beijing, but like Mao Zedong during the Hundred Flowers Movement, he abruptly cracked down on the dissidents when he became a target. In 1979, soon after publishing an article calling for elections to ensure that "Deng Xiaoping does not degenerate into a dictator," Wei was arrested, charged with betraying state secrets, and jailed for fifteen years.
In 1987 the students began to express discontent, this time against high prices, poor teaching, and poor student accommodations. At first the party exercised restraint, but then it struck back. For example, Fang Lizhi, an astronomer who supported the students, was removed from his post; now a dissident leader, he would be forced to emigrate to the United States after the events of 1989. The most prominent victim, however, was party general secretary Hu Yaobang. Hu had criticized the educational system, and was viewed by other party leaders as having encouraged the students. Hu was forced to resign, and the protests temporarily subsided. But there remained unrest among the country's more than fifty ethnic minorities, who resented the total domination of China's Han majority; in March 1989, yet another bid by Tibet for self-determination was bloodily suppressed and that province was placed under martial law.
In the spring of 1989, three events combined to make students demonstrate all across China: (1.) the death of premier Hu Yaobang on April 8, (2.) the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, and (3.) the visit of a foreigner widely known for political reform, Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union. It began with a series of posters at Beijing University that praised Hu and scorned his rivals at the same time. "A true man has died. False men are still living," said one. Soon the crowds of students were joined by workers, journalists, and even some policemen and party workers. On the day of Hu's funeral (April 22), 100,000 demonstrators occupied the ceremonial center of modern China, Tiananmen Square, forcing Deng and other party leaders to enter the Great Hall of the People through side entrances. This demonstration was technically illegal, but the same security forces that had brutally stopped civil rights demonstrations in defenseless Tibet a month earlier stood by and did nothing. Hard liners such as the new premier, Li Peng, wanted the protests crushed, but Zhao Ziyang urged restraint and Deng kept silent.
The party was hesitating because it did not want to cause an international incident while Gorbachev was in China, since this was the first summit meeting between Chinese and Soviet leaders in three decades. The result was more demonstrations and a tremendous loss of face. Several hundred young men and women set up a makeshift encampment and started a hunger strike--a form of protest new to China--right in the middle of Tiananmen Square. The powerful impression this made brought more than a million sympathizers into the square. A tearful appeal from Zhao Ziyang's associates to clear the square was ignored; Gorbachev's welcoming ceremony had to be switched to Beijing Airport, and he was escorted through back streets to the Great Hall of the People. The protests also crippled public transportation, bringing normal urban life to a standstill.
The truth was far different. On May 17, Gorbachev's last full day in China, Deng summoned the Politburo to approve his decision to call in the army. Zhao, who still advocated accommodation, was outvoted by the hardliners. At dawn on May 19, Zhao made one last attempt to resolve the situation peacefully, making a personal visit to the hunger strikers. "We have come too late," he apologized. "No matter how you have criticized us, I think you have been right to do so. You are not like us. We are already old. It really doesn't matter."
His appeal to clear the square nearly worked. Rumors that the People's Liberation Army was coming had unsettled the protestors, but when the first unit arrived, thousands of ordinary people blocked the streets; having no orders to use their weapons, the soldiers could do nothing, so they just sat there in their trucks. On May 23 they returned to their barracks. While Zhao and the hardliners debated what to do next, the students erected a 30-foot-high replica of the Statue of Liberty, to symbolize their demands for democracy and an end to corruption. Placed right in front of the giant portrait of Mao that decorates the gate between the square and the Communist Party's offices in the Forbidden City, the image was a gross provocation to the party leaders. By the end of May the students had not only won the enthusiastic support of the workers and citizens of Beijing, but those of Shanghai and Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan) as well.
On June 2 the PLA made another attempt to clear Tiananmen Square. 5,000 unarmed soldiers jogged through the suburbs, only to be stopped before they reached their goal by a crowd of civilians. The soldiers were clearly bewildered, and some burst into tears. Another PLA unit, this one armed, was surrounded and stripped of its weapons without putting up any resistance. The protesters proclaimed that there could be no return to the dictatorship of the past and that the People's Liberation Army, true to its name, would never turn on them.
They were proved wrong just 24 hours later. At 8:00 P.M. on June 3, a final warning was issued for the "thugs" to leave Tiananmen Square, and when the first troops in riot gear were thrown back by civilians, their place was taken by soldiers with AK-47s, who were allowed to--and did--shoot into the crowds. One armored personnel carrier was crippled by firebombs, and another was set on fire after it stranded itself on a barrier, but otherwise the PLA advance was steady. Reinforcements joined them, and at 3:30 A.M. one column entered the square. As the remaining students around the Monument to the People's Heroes debated whether to flee or die where they stood, the lights went out. When the lights came back on again, the students were surrounded by troops. "Your time is up," said a political commissar, who allowed the last students in the square to leave unharmed. By 5:30 the evacuation was complete, and in the words of Beijing's mayor, the square was "handed back to the people."
The government insisted that no civilians had been killed in the clearing of Tiananmen Square. But in a hurry to get the last protestors out, armored personnel carriers charged into the tail of the retreating column, leaving eleven bodies in the wreckage of a bicycle rack. All that day and the next, other army units around Beijing fired randomly at groups of civilians, apparently following orders to cow the population. Nobody knew precisely what was happening, for television news had been suspended. When the news came on again, pictures of the violence had been edited so that only scenes of crowds attacking soldiers were shown. Grim pictures of dead soldiers appeared frequently, but not a single image of a civilian corpse. The official commentaries praised the PLA soldiers who bravely defended themselves with tanks and machine guns against hordes of unarmed civilians. Officials later admitted that 200 civilians were killed and 3,000 wounded, but the true number of fatalities may have been as many as 3,000; furthermore, the official figure does not include the hundreds of casualties from the crushing of similar protests in other Chinese cities.
By the end of 1989, two thousand counter-revolutionaries had been arrested, of whom twenty were executed with a bullet to the back of the head. Deng Xiaoping heaped more praise on the PLA for a job well done, calling it China's "Great Wall of iron and steel" when he finally broke his silence on June 9.
When questioned about the events of 1989, Chinese leaders showed no regrets, saying that military action was needed to stop the turmoil caused by hostile foreign powers. This was a fine example of traditional Chinese xenophobia. It also showed that the aging Deng had lost touch with both the outside world and his longsuffering subjects. Before 1989 was over, Deng stepped down as Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and in 1992 he retired from the other positions he held.
The Tiananmen massacre shocked world opinion and compelled foreign governments and corporations to review the agreements they had signed with Beijing. For the next three years, hardliners were in charge and the outside world avoided dealing with China whenever possible. However, this did not mean China was going to retreat into another period of diplomatic isolation; Deng Xiaoping had integrated the country too firmly into the world economy for that. It showed when the government tried to revive Maoist ideology and propaganda, and the public responded with apathy; the collapse of communism in Europe, Mongolia and the Soviet Union was also a message to the hardliners that they were on the wrong side of history. Three weeks after the Tiananmen massacre, Jiang Zemin, the former mayor of Shanghai, replaced Zhao Ziyang as General Secretary of the Communist Party, and in March 1993, the annual session of the National People's Congress elected Jiang Zemin president as well; Li Peng was re-elected premier for another five years, despite--or perhaps because of--his politics.(9) The following November saw the conversion of state-owned enterprises into joint-stock companies, allowing China to set up its first stock market.
Just as Mao Zedong had run the People’s Republic for the first generation of its existence, and Deng Xiaoping had been in charge during the second generation, so Jiang Zemin would be its face for the third generation. But Deng and Li Peng were the last Chinese communists who showed any personality to the outside world; all the leaders who have emerged since 1989 have been well-educated but colorless technocrats, who wear Western-style business suits rather than the green "Mao jackets" that had once been so common. If Mao had been around to see this transition, he would have felt that his worst nightmare was coming true--his ultimate goal was to create some kind of peasant utopia, not a state run by a bureaucracy. Indeed, he launched the Cultural Revolution to stop a movement away from Marxist ideals, like the one that has occurred since his death. By contrast, Jiang Zemin and his successors have responded to events by acting cautiously. Part of this is because present-day China needs Western (especially American) business, science and technology, and knows it. The other part is that because the government no longer has a communist ideology to justify holding on to power, it now depends on a steady improvement of the economy to maintain its legitimacy.
Among the coastal enclaves seized by European nations in the past, the last to be returned to China were British-ruled Hong Kong, and Portuguese-ruled Macao.(10) Negotiations to return those territories were conducted in the 1980s. Deng Xiaoping called the main concession on China’s side "One Country, Two Systems," meaning the former colonies would keep capitalism and their legal systems; the mainland would only control foreign policy and defense, and make no major changes for at least fifty years. For a while after Tiananmen, it looked like the agreements reached would be undone, but everybody stuck to them and the enclaves were handed over on schedule: Hong Kong was returned in 1997, and Macao in 1999. Since then there has been an ongoing debate over how much democracy is actually permitted in the enclaves, but otherwise the arrangement has worked out. This gives hope that someday a reunification of the mainland and Taiwan will take place, under similar terms.(11)
The current flags of Hong Kong and Macao.
Sources: http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/hk.html and Wikimedia Commons.
1995 was a year of embarrassing events for Beijing. It began on a good note, when Jiang launched an anti-corruption drive to clean house. This time the campaign focused on the lavish lifestyle of the corrupt officials; for example, they were accused of dropping $2,000-$3,000 to pay for a meal, or tipping a karaoke bar hostess $1,000 for singing a favorite song. Before it was over Beijing party boss and Politburo Member Chen Xitong was dismissed and one of his associates, Beijing executive vice mayor Wang Baosen, committed suicide. Then in May Harry Wu, a former political prisoner who had emigrated to the US, returned to gather information on two charges he had made--that the Chinese government uses prisoners for slave labor and harvests their organs for transplants. Wu sneaked into Xinjiang from Kazakhstan, was promptly arrested by the authorities, and detained until enough protests came in from the outside world to compel his release two months later. In June the president of Taiwan visited the US, a move which greatly the mainland government (more about that in the last section of this chapter). Then the United States charged China with intellectual piracy (the copying of foreign CDs, videos, and software without the copyrighter's approval) and selling nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan, both violations of international law. And in September Beijing hosted the fourth UN Women's Conference; participants at the conference considered it a success, but for China it was a public relations disaster.(12)
US-Chinese relations improved in the second half of the 1990s, but various incidents made sure it was not a smooth process. First, in 1996, the Chinese government was accused of making illegal contributions to the re-election campaign of President Bill Clinton. Then during the 1999 war in Europe over Kosovo, US-led NATO warplanes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. The Americans officially declared this an accident, but China was unconvinced. Finally, in April 2001, a US spy plane collided with a Chinese military jet near the island of Hainan; the Chinese pilot was killed, while the American plane and crew were detained after they made an emergency landing. These incidents may have contributed to Chinese moves at the same time, to end decades of bickering with the Russians. In 1996 China joined a new alliance with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan, first called the Shanghai Five; this was renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001. Also in 2001, China and Russia signed a twenty-year friendship treaty that promised to settle border disputes, and replace previous competition with cooperation.
Whereas the Deng and Jiang administrations put the pedal to the metal on economic development/modernization, the Hu-Wen administration pulled back a bit. This was done to deal with the growing social problems, especially corruption. The idea now was to give a more balanced approach to Chinese society, rather than concentrating the government’s attention on one sector. Hu and Wen called this a "Scientific Outlook on Development," with the goal being to create a "socialist harmonious society." One result of this shift was that the farmers now got equal time; development in rural areas had been largely neglected previously. However, the same policy was used to justify continued restrictions on political freedoms, which now included censoring political content on the Internet.(13) And when it came to disease epidemics (e.g., SARS, the avian flu and AIDS), China learned the hard way that restricting the flow of information, or spreading misinformation, makes it harder to deal with those crises.
China pulled off two impressive technological achievements during the Hu-Wen decade. The first was the Three Gorges Dam. Located on the Yangtze River in western Hubei Province, this is not the largest dam in the world, but it generates by far the most electricity (22,500 megawatts). Construction on it began in 1994; the dam itself was finished in 2006, and the last hydroelectric generator became operational in 2012. All that remains is a ship lift, which may be finished as we go to the press. But while the dam promises to control the age-old problem of floods on the Yangtze, and increase the energy supply without increasing pollution, the project has generated considerable controversy, both domestically and abroad. The lake created by the dam flooded several archaeological sites, and the homes of 1.3 million people, forcing the need to relocate them. Also, there is an increased risk of landslides, especially when a major earthquake strikes, like the one that killed nearly 70,000 in Sichuan in May 2008.
The other achievement is China’s entry into the field of manned space flight. China had invented the rocket centuries ago, and used it for fireworks and occasionally as a weapon ("fire arrows"). However, the Chinese were late in the game, when it came to developing modern-day rockets as launch vehicles. The first Chinese rocket scientist, their equivalent of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard and Werner von Braun, was Qian Xuesen (1911-2009), who went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1935 to study mechanical engineering, and then because of the Cold War, the Americans did not let him return to China until 1955.(14) Upon his return, Qian founded the Chinese missile program, which at first developed ballistic missiles to carry the nuclear weapons China would soon produce. Then in 1970 China successfully put its first satellite in orbit. While China and the Soviet Union got along in the 1950s, the Soviets shared their experience in building rockets, and after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, the Russians helped again by selling space technology. At other times, however, Chinese rocket scientists had to work alone; NASA and the European Space Agency refused to cooperate, fearing that the Chinese were going into space strictly for military purposes--to give their armed forces the advantage on earth. The successful test of a "killer satellite" in 2007, where one Chinese satellite was deliberately crashed into another Chinese satellite, helped to confirm these suspicions.
The first launch of a rocket capable of carrying a man took place in 1999; that rocket was called Shenzhou 1. After four unmanned test launches, the Shenzhou 5 put the first Chinese astronaut, Yang Liwei, in orbit on October 15, 2003.(15) Up to this point only the Americans and Russians had launched people on spacecraft, so this was a major propaganda victory for the Chinese; it showed that by twentieth-century standards, China was now a superpower. By 2013 a total of five missions had been completed, putting a total of eight men and two women in space. If the Chinese news media can be trusted, all of the missions have gone flawlessly, with a spacewalk and successful docking experiments. Currently the goal is to assemble a space station in earth orbit by 2020, with possible trips to the moon after that.
Because of current term limitations and a mandatory retirement age of 68, it looks like Beijing will see a generational turnover every decade. The next one came on schedule, when Xi Jinping succeeded Hu Jintao as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2012, and as president in 2013; likewise, Li Keqiang became the new premier in 2013. Xi and Li also inherited the second largest economy in the world. Because both the Japanese and American economies have been stuck in long-term recessions (Japan since 1990, the United States since 2008), China’s economy became a top contender sooner than expected. In 2011 China’s gross domestic product (GDP) pulled ahead of Japan’s, and if current trends continue, it is only a matter of time before China catches up with the United States. In one regard this is simply a recovery to what had been normal in the past; until about 1830, China had the world’s largest economy (see Chapter 5).
China’s status as the newest superpower, and the US preoccupation with other parts of the world (mainly the Middle East), have encouraged China to become more assertive in its foreign policy. One sign of it is the building of a modern navy; for most of the twentieth century, China had no navy worth speaking of, and this fleet could be a long-term threat to Taiwan (see below). More alarming is how China has claimed the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Both of these archipelagoes are uninhabited, but believed to contain significant oil and natural gas reserves; Japan currently holds the Senkaku Islands, while the Spratly Islands are claimed by everyone around them (Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as China). Recently China has increased its presence in the Spratly Islands by enlarging one of the atolls, piling enough sand on it to support a runway and a military base; close passes to the island by US naval vessels and B-52 bombers in late 2015 were seen as challenges to the Chinese claim, and military provocations. Finally, there have been incidents where the People’s Liberation Army launched cyberattacks against public and private computer networks in the United States. With its newfound wealth and strength, China over the next few years can become peaceful and democratic--or nationalist and nasty. For Western nations, the big question is: Will China be a strong friend or a strong foe?
However, the growth has been uneven. Most of it has been on the coast, in places like Shanghai, Xiamen (formerly Amoy), Guangzhou and the island of Hainan. Two really spectacular examples are Shenzhen and Dongguan; before the 1980s these were unimportant towns on the railroad between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, but now they are China’s 3rd and 6th largest cities, with 12 million and 6.5 million people respectively. The inland provinces, by contrast, did not see much growth, and most of their residents remain poor. Also, the nation has seen increasing levels of inflation, crime, unemployment and pollution; these are likely to be China’s biggest challenges as the twenty-first century continues.
While growth is expected to continue, it probably won’t be at the rates seen between 1980 and 2010. The most visible sign of this is the bust in construction projects. In present-day China there are at least ten communities that have been built up from nothing, but falling real estate values meant that the people expected to move in never showed up, so those communities became the world’s largest ghost towns. The most notorious of these is Kangbashi, also called Ordos City, in Inner Mongolia. Large deposits of coal, natural gas and rare earths were discovered in the Ordos district in the 1990s, and because China now needs those minerals more than ever, a lot of people in the area suddenly became rich.(16) In the first decade of the twenty-first century, a city was built to accommodate the new industries, with housing for a million people and every facility those future residents might need or want. However, only 20,000 came, meaning that only 2 percent of the buildings were filled; in the rest of the city construction stopped, and those buildings started to decay before they were finished. The current residents are optimistic that more will come, and they will eventually turn Kangbashi into a thriving city; we shall wait and see.
A key demographic milestone was reached in 2012, when the government reported that for the first time ever, more than 50 percent of the Chinese population lived in urban areas. In the past, most Chinese were farmers, but now China can be considered more of an industrial nation than an agricultural one.
The Chinese government has shown a heavy-handed approach on matters of religion. Since past communist campaigns against Buddhism, Confucianism, etc. left a spiritual void in the population, millions have turned to Christianity, or to New-Age philosophies called Qi Gong. Since the late 1990s the government and media has cracked down on "heterodox faiths," especially Falun Gong, the most popular Qi Gong movement, seeing them as unhealthy to society, and potentially subversive. And in what may be the most absurd example of totalitarianism ever, the government announced in 2007 that Buddhist monks will not be allowed to reincarnate unless they fill out an application first and get it approved! No doubt Beijing did this to break Buddhism’s hold on Tibet when the Fourteenth Dalai Lama passes away. The Dalai Lama replied that he plans on reincarnating in North America instead, if China still rules Tibet at that time.(17)
For the US, the challenge is make China a responsible member of the world's community of advanced nations. The history of Asian countries with booming economies suggests that when authoritarian states grow rich--South Korea and Taiwan are the best examples--political freedom follows. But China is too big for anyone to expect it to behave like its neighbors, and memories of past humiliations are strong enough to make the Chinese terribly sensitive when foreigners disagree with them on human rights, product safety standards, Taiwan, and Tibet.
Part of the reason for the "sweet & sour" relationship between China and the West stems from the fact that the two cultures are so fundamentally different; despite the best efforts of globalists, we are not "one world" just yet. For example, the West discussed democracy and human rights long before it developed a civil service bureaucracy; in China the opposite happened. Many Americans view China as an outlaw state for its human rights abuses and the selling of weapons to irresponsible governments. But it looks like we can find it easier to reach an understanding than we did in the Cold War years. There are also economic interests at stake. The United States and China have invested billions of dollars in each other, so if relations between the two countries went bad, it would jeopardize an awesome amount of business.
In most of the cases where nations tried communism, the result has been a misguided failure; still, the achievements of the Communist regime in China since 1949 have been considerable. Despite severe economic setbacks, political turmoil, and a low level of foreign assistance, there has been a truly revolutionary redistribution of the wealth of the country. Though the population is still poorer than the population of other developed countries, in terms of education, health care, housing, working conditions, and the availability of food, they are far better off than they were before 1949.(18) And the Chinese have improved their standard of living with much less foreign assistance than most Third World nations. Therefore it looks like China is no longer a mismanaged, mysterious monster, the way Westerners used to see it. You may have heard the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times!" and following that line of thinking, the current hope is that the future will be more comfortable, and less "interesting," than the past has been.
For the rest of his life Chiang Kai-shek continued to claim legal sovereignty over all of China and promised a future "recovery of the mainland," a policy more popular with the "mainlander" refugees than with native-born Taiwanese. The United States supported Taiwan's claims and in 1954 signed a mutual security pact for the defense of Taiwan and the Pescadores. The Kuomintang (KMT, spelled Guomindang on the mainland), however, has been much more successful with its economic programs. Here the Nationalists carried out the land reform they never got around to doing before 1949, and what was once a backward agricultural island blossomed into an industrial giant. By successfully imitating the Japanese economic system, Taiwan became one of the "Four Dragons" of the Far East (the others are Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea). The per capita GDP for Taiwan's 23.5 million people is now $46,036, the fourth highest in Asia and the 19th highest worldwide. By contrast, the per capita GDP of the mainland's 1.4 billion is not even one third as much: $13,224.
Chiang Kai-shek was succeeded as president in 1975 by his vice-president Yen Chia-kan, but real power and leadership of the KMT passed to Chiang's eldest son, Chiang Ching-kuo. Domestically, Taiwan's economic success contributed to mounting demands for political liberalization. Chiang Ching-kuo, who was then elected president in 1978 and re-elected in 1984, launched a policy of gradual democratic reform before his death in 1988. Martial law, in effect since 1949, was formally lifted on July 14, 1987, and bans on travel to and trade with the Chinese mainland were eased.
For thirty years the United States recognized the Taipei government as the legitimate government of China. But as far as the mainland was concerned, Taiwan was nothing more than a renegade province. That has made Taiwan's foreign policy very difficult; no country or international organization can have full diplomatic relations with both governments. In 1971 Taiwan became the only country ever expelled from the United Nations--even though it was one of the five permanent Security Council members--to make room for China. Other nations have transferred their embassies from Taipei to Beijing since then, making Taiwan a pariah nation of sorts. It lost additional international support in 1978 when the U.S. terminated the United States-Taiwan security pact and transferred diplomatic recognition to Beijing, although the United States and Taiwan continued to maintain unofficial (mainly economic) ties. For nearly twenty years afterward Taiwan was ignored by the rest of the world.
Lee Teng-hui (1923-), who succeeded Chiang Ching-kuo as president and head of the KMT, was Taiwan's first native-born president. He continued the process of political liberalization. In 1991, he lifted the state of emergency imposed in 1948, which had granted the president broad powers, and signed a document technically ending four decades of "civil war" between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. As of 1992, it was no longer a crime to discuss Taiwanese independence or advocate Communism. KMT members elected on the mainland, who had held power indefinitely, were ordered to retire in 1991, so that Taiwan's first full elections could be held. In the December 1992 elections for the Legislative Yuan--the first time the entire body had been elected on Taiwan--the KMT retained control, winning 96 of 161 seats. The leading opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won 50 seats. Finally, Lee permitted a process of localization, where just the culture and history of Taiwan was promoted, rather than the pan-China viewpoint of the KMT, and restrictions were lifted on the use of non-Mandarin dialects in the media and in schools.(20) One result of these new policies was that in 1993, the KMT appointed Lien Chan to be Taiwan’s first native-born prime minister.
The United States was able to normalize diplomatic relations with Beijing because it accepted Mao Zedong's declaration that there is only one China, without asking which China he meant. Mao also compromised by not demanding immediate reunification, satisfied to let Taipei drift in diplomatic limbo. "I say we can do without Taiwan for the time being," he told US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "and let it come after 100 years." And the transfer of Hong Kong and Macao to mainland rule showed that if Beijing can get a territory that it claims without a fight, it will wait for as long as that process takes. But as time went by, treating Taiwan as if it didn't exist became increasingly awkward. By the mid-1990s, Taiwan had the world's second highest reserves of foreign currency (more than $79 billion), and boasted a $44 billion trade relationship with the US, compared with $53 billion between the US and Beijing. Taipei's open press and rambunctious democratic politics also won it many friends in the US Congress, especially Republicans like Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich.
Taiwan and China held their first high-level talks in 1993. But being a US-educated Presbyterian, Lee Teng-hui disliked communism for many of the same reasons the Chiang family did. In 1995, Lee tested the limits of Beijing's patience by raising Taiwan's international profile. He offered the financially strapped United Nations $1 billion to restore Taiwan's membership, an offer that might have been accepted if Beijing did not hold one of the Security Council's five vetoes.(21) Then he came to the United States to attend a class reunion at his alma mater, Cornell University. Beijing was outraged, as you might expect. Convinced that Lee was about to declare Taiwan an independent nation, the People's Republic mustered 200,000 troops along the coast, started large-scale military exercises intended to make Taiwan think twice about declaring independence, and asked the US in strong diplomatic language if it no longer recognized the "One China" policy that had been followed previously. Instead of calling for Taiwan’s independence, Lee said he supported China's unification, but not until after the mainland becomes democratic, free and prosperous. However, he also stated that China is a divided country, with the mainland and Taiwan ruled by separate, sovereign political entities, and Beijing thought that steered dangerously close to what it didn’t want--a call for two Chinas.
In March 1996 Taiwan held the first free presidential election in Chinese history. Tensions rose to their highest level since the 1950s, as China continued to hold wargame exercises in the waters between Taiwan and the mainland, and test-fired missiles that landed just 11 miles off Taiwan's shore. The United States also got involved, putting an aircraft carrier nearby to monitor the situation. China’s actions were supposed to make Taiwan vote for somebody less provocative than Lee, but it had the opposite effect; the Taiwanese people figured they needed a leader who was not afraid of the mainland, so they gave Lee a resounding victory against his three opponents; also, Lien Chan was elected vice president. The People's Republic immediately changed its tone and started talking peace again; all sides had too much to lose if it came to war, starting with more than $20 billion that Taiwan had invested in the mainland economy.
The 2000 election was a major landmark, because it meant the end of KMT rule. Lien Chan was the KMT presidential candidate, but many of his voters instead went for James Soong, a former KMT member who ran as an independent. This allowed the opposition candidate, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP to win. Afterwards, Soong founded the People First Party (PFP). Because Taiwan now had more than two political parties, the KMT and PFP have cooperated in a center-right coalition since 2000, called Pan-Blue; their platform favors good relations with the mainland and eventual unification. In response, the DPP formed a centrist coalition with three smaller parties, called Pan-Green, which prefers to see Taiwan go it alone.
The 2004 election results were the most controversial to date. To avoid repeating the vote-splitting from last time, Pan-Blue put together a coalition ticket that ran Lien Chan as the presidential candidate and James Soong as the vice presidential candidate. However, the day before Election Day, both Chen Shui-bian and his vice president, Annette Lu, were shot while campaigning. The wounds weren’t serious and both were only in the hospital for a day, and when the voting took place, Chen and the Pan-Green coalition were re-elected by a narrow margin, winning with just 0.22% more votes than Lien. Pan-Blue claimed there were voting irregularities, and a recount was held, but it did not change the results. Later in the same year, Pan-Blue won a slim majority in legislative elections; thus, Chen’s second term saw political stalemate most of the time, and he had to fight off allegations about corruption in the first family more than once.
The Communists on the mainland did not like the idea of a pro-independence president running Taiwan, and in March 2005 they responded by passing a law authorizing force if Taiwan declares independence. However, this did not make war between the two governments more likely; both Taiwan and the Western nations disapproved of the law. And after a summit meeting with PFP chairman Soong, President Chen conceded that reunification with the People’s Republic was an eventual possibility.
2008 saw the KMT make a comeback; the KMT candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, won with 58.48% of the vote. He was re-elected in 2012 with a smaller majority: 51.6%. So far the main event of Ma’s presidency has been a November 2015 summit meeting with President Xi Jinping of the mainland, the first meeting between KMT and Communist leaders since the one between Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong, almost seventy years earlier. Ma and Xi met behind closed doors in Singapore, and while they agreed that improved political relations should accompany the many economic agreements signed across the Formosa Strait in recent years, neither head of state made any concessions.
One issue not mentioned in discussions about a possible reunification between Taiwan and China is the amount of time they have been separated. That separation first occurred when Japan took Taiwan in the aftermath of the First Sino-Japanese War, and in the 120+ years that have gone by since then, Taiwan and China were united for only four of those years (1945-49). Thus, unlike the mainland provinces that came under the rule of warlords in the early twentieth century, Taiwan has been away from the central government long enough to develop a national identity of its own; it shows in the dynamic democracy that has developed on the island in the past generation. This means that if reunification comes in the future, it won’t happen quickly, and it is too soon to determine what sort of nation a reunited China will be.
A Concise History of China
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