China is the oldest continuous major world civilization, with records
dating back about 3,500 years. Successive dynasties developed a system
of bureaucratic control that gave the agrarian-based Chinese an advantage
over neighboring nomadic and hill cultures. Chinese civilization was further
strengthened by the development of a Confucian state ideology and a common
written language that bridged the gaps among the country's many local languages
and dialects. Whenever China was conquered by nomadic tribes, as it was
by the Mongols in the 13th century, the conquerors sooner or later adopted
the ways of the "higher" Chinese civilization and staffed the bureaucracy
The last dynasty was established in 1644, when the Manchus overthrew
the native Ming dynasty and established the Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty with
Beijing as its capital. At great expense in blood and treasure, the Manchus
over the next half century gained control of many border areas, including
Xinjiang, Yunnan, Tibet, Mongolia, and Taiwan. The success of the early
Qing period was based on the combination of Manchu martial prowess and
traditional Chinese bureaucratic skills.
During the 19th century, Qing control weakened, and prosperity diminished.
China suffered massive social strife, economic stagnation, explosive population
growth, and Western penetration and influence. The Taiping and Nian rebellions,
along with a Russian-supported Muslim separatist movement in Xinjiang,
drained Chinese resources and almost toppled the dynasty. Britain's desire
to continue its illegal opium trade with China collided with imperial edicts
prohibiting the addictive drug, and the First Opium War erupted in 1840.
China lost the war; subsequently, Britain and other Western powers, including
the United States, forcibly occupied "concessions" and gained special commercial
privileges. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in 1842 under the Treaty of
Nanking, and in 1898, when the Opium Wars finally ended, Britain executed
a 99-year lease of the New Territories, significantly expanding the size
of the Hong Kong colony.
As time went on, the Western powers, wielding superior military technology,
gained more economic and political privileges. Reformist Chinese officials
argued for the adoption of Western technology to strengthen the dynasty
and counter Western advances, but the Qing court played down both the Western
threat and the benefits of Western technology.
Early 20th Century China
Frustrated by the Qing court's resistance to reform, young officials,
military officers, and students--inspired by the revolutionary ideas of
Sun Yat-senbegan to advocate the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and creation
of a republic. A revolutionary military uprising on October 10, 1911, led
to the abdication of the last Qing monarch. As part of a compromise to
overthrow the dynasty without a civil war, the revolutionaries and reformers
allowed high Qing officials to retain prominent positions in the new republic.
One of these figures, Gen. Yuan Shikai, was chosen as the republic's first
president. Before his death in 1916, Yuan unsuccessfully attempted to name
himself emperor. His death left the republican government all but shattered,
ushering in the era of the "warlords" during which China was ruled and
ravaged by shifting coalitions of competing provincial military leaders.
In the 1920s, Sun Yat-sen established a revolutionary base in south
China and set out to unite the fragmented nation. With Soviet assistance,
he organized the Kuomintang (KMT or "Chinese Nationalist People's Party"),
and entered into an alliance with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party
(CCP). After Sun's death in 1925, one of his protégés, Chiang
Kai-shek, seized control of the KMT and succeeded in bringing most of south
and central China under its rule. In 1927, Chiang turned on the CCP and
executed many of its leaders. The remnants fled into the mountains of eastern
China. In 1934, driven out of their mountain bases, the CCP's forces embarked
on a "Long March" across some of China's most desolate terrain to the northwestern
province of Shaanxi, where they established a guerrilla base at Yan'an.
During the "Long March," the communists reorganized under a new leader,
Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). The bitter struggle between the KMT and the
CCP continued openly or clandestinely through the 14-year long Japanese
invasion (1931-45), even though the two parties nominally formed a united
front to oppose the Japanese invaders in 1937. The war between the two
parties resumed after the Japanese defeat in 1945. By 1949, the CCP occupied
most of the country.
Chiang Kai-shek fled with the remnants of his KMT government and military
forces to Taiwan, where he proclaimed Taipei to be China's "provisional
capital" and vowed to reconquer the Chinese mainland. The KMT authorities
on Taiwan still call themselves the "Republic of China."
The People's Republic of China
In Beijing, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of
the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.). The new government assumed control
of a people exhausted by two generations of war and social conflict, and
an economy ravaged by high inflation and disrupted transportation links.
A new political and economic order modeled on the Soviet example was quickly
In the early 1950s, China undertook a massive economic and social reconstruction
program. The new leaders gained popular support by curbing inflation, restoring
the economy, and rebuilding many war-damaged industrial plants. The CCP's
authority reached into almost every aspect of Chinese life. Party control
was assured by large, politically loyal security and military forces; a
government apparatus responsive to party direction; and the placement of
party members into leadership positions in labor, women's, and other mass
The "Great Leap Forward" and the Sino-Soviet Split
In 1958, Mao broke with the Soviet model and announced a new economic
program, the "Great Leap Forward," aimed at rapidly raising industrial
and agricultural production. Giant cooperatives (communes) were formed,
and "backyard factories" dotted the Chinese landscape. The results were
disastrous. Normal market mechanisms were disrupted, agricultural production
fell behind, and China's people exhausted themselves producing what turned
out to be shoddy, unsalable goods. Within a year, starvation appeared even
in fertile agricultural areas. From 1960 to 1961, the combination of poor
planning during the Great Leap Forward and bad weather resulted in one
of the deadliest famines in human history.
The already strained Sino-Soviet relationship deteriorated sharply in
1959, when the Soviets started to restrict the flow of scientific and technological
information to China. The dispute escalated, and the Soviets withdrew all
of their personnel from China in August 1960. In 1960, the Soviets and
the Chinese began to have disputes openly in international forums.
The Cultural Revolution
In the early 1960s, State President Liu Shaoqi and his protégé,
Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, took over direction of the party
and adopted pragmatic economic policies at odds with Mao's revolutionary
vision. Dissatisfied with China's new direction and his own reduced authority,
Party Chairman Mao launched a massive political attack on Liu, Deng, and
other pragmatists in the spring of 1966. The new movement, the "Great Proletarian
Cultural Revolution," was unprecedented in communist history. For the first
time, a section of the Chinese communist leadership sought to rally popular
opposition against another leadership group. China was set on a course
of political and social anarchy that lasted the better part of a decade.
In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his "closest
comrade in arms," National Defense Minister Lin Biao, charged Liu, Deng,
and other top party leaders with dragging China back toward capitalism.
Radical youth organizations, called Red Guards, attacked party and state
organizations at all levels, seeking out leaders who would not bend to
the radical wind. In reaction to this turmoil, some local People's Liberation
Army (PLA) commanders and other officials maneuvered to outwardly back
Mao and the radicals while actually taking steps to rein in local radical
Gradually, Red Guard and other radical activity subsided, and the Chinese
political situation stabilized along complex factional lines. The leadership
conflict came to a head in September 1971, when Party Vice Chairman and
Defense Minister Lin Biao reportedly tried to stage a coup against Mao;
Lin Biao allegedly later died in a plane crash in Mongolia.
In the aftermath of the Lin Biao incident, many officials criticized
and dismissed during 1966-69 were reinstated. Chief among these was Deng
Xiaoping, who reemerged in 1973 and was confirmed in 1975 in the concurrent
posts of Politburo Standing Committee member, PLA Chief of Staff, and Vice
The ideological struggle between more pragmatic, veteran party officials
and the radicals re-emerged with a vengeance in late 1975. Mao's wife,
Jiang Qing, and three close Cultural Revolution associates (later dubbed
the "Gang of Four") launched a media campaign against Deng. In January
1976, Premier Zhou Enlai, a popular political figure, died of cancer. On
April 5, Beijing citizens staged a spontaneous demonstration in Tiananmen
Square in Zhou's memory, with strong political overtones of support for
Deng. The authorities forcibly suppressed the demonstration. Deng was blamed
for the disorder and stripped of all official positions, although he retained
his party membership.
The Post-Mao Era
Mao's death in September 1976 removed a towering figure from Chinese
politics and set off a scramble for succession. Former Minister of Pubic
Security Hua Guofeng was quickly confirmed as Party Chairman and Premier.
A month after Mao's death, Hua, backed by the PLA, arrested Jiang Qing
and other members of the "Gang of Four." After extensive deliberations,
the Chinese Communist Party leadership reinstated Deng Xiaoping to all
of his previous posts at the 11th Party Congress in August 1977. Deng then
led the effort to place government control in the hands of veteran party
officials opposed to the radical excesses of the previous two decades.
The new, pragmatic leadership emphasized economic development and renounced
mass political movements. At the pivotal December 1978 Third Plenum (of
the 11th Party Congress Central Committee), the leadership adopted economic
reform policies aimed at expanding rural income and incentives, encouraging
experiments in enterprise autonomy, reducing central planning, and attracting
foreign direct investment into China. The plenum also decided to accelerate
the pace of legal reform, culminating in the passage of several new legal
codes by the National People's Congress in June 1979.
After 1979, the Chinese leadership moved toward more pragmatic positions
in almost all fields. The party encouraged artists, writers, and journalists
to adopt more critical approaches, although open attacks on party authority
were not permitted. In late 1980, Mao's Cultural Revolution was officially
proclaimed a catastrophe. Hua Guofeng, a protégé of Mao,
was replaced as premier in 1980 by reformist Sichuan party chief Zhao Ziyang
and as party General Secretary in 1981 by the even more reformist Communist
Youth League chairman Hu Yaobang.
Reform policies brought great improvements in the standard of living,
especially for urban workers and for farmers who took advantage of opportunities
to diversify crops and establish village industries. Literature and the
arts blossomed, and Chinese intellectuals established extensive links with
scholars in other countries.
At the same time, however, political dissent as well as social problems
such as inflation, urban migration, and prostitution emerged. Although
students and intellectuals urged greater reforms, some party elders increasingly
questioned the pace and the ultimate goals of the reform program. In December
1986, student demonstrators, taking advantage of the loosening political
atmosphere, staged protests against the slow pace of reform, confirming
party elders' fear that the current reform program was leading to social
instability. Hu Yaobang, a protégé of Deng and a leading
advocate of reform, was blamed for the protests and forced to resign as
CCP General Secretary in January 1987. Premier Zhao Ziyang was made General
Secretary and Li Peng, former Vice Premier and Minister of Electric Power
and Water Conservancy, was made Premier.
1989 Student Movement and Tiananmen Square
After Zhao became the party General Secretary, the economic and political
reforms he had championed came under increasing attack. His proposal in
May 1988 to accelerate price reform led to widespread popular complaints
about rampant inflation and gave opponents of rapid reform the opening
to call for greater centralization of economic controls and stricter prohibitions
against Western influence. This precipitated a political debate, which
grew more heated through the winter of 1988-89.
The death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989, coupled with growing economic
hardship caused by high inflation, provided the backdrop for a large-scale
protest movement by students, intellectuals, and other parts of a disaffected
urban population. University students and other citizens camped out in
Beijing's Tiananmen Square to mourn Hu's death and to protest against those
who would slow reform. Their protests, which grew despite government efforts
to contain them, called for an end to official corruption and for defense
of freedoms guaranteed by the Chinese constitution. Protests also spread
to many other cities, including Shanghai, Chengdu, and Guangzhou.
Martial law was declared on May 20, 1989. Late on June 3 and early on
the morning of June 4, military units were brought into Beijing. They used
armed force to clear demonstrators from the streets. There are no official
estimates of deaths in Beijing, but most observers believe that casualties
numbered in the hundreds.
After June 4, while foreign governments expressed horror at the brutal
suppression of the demonstrators, the central government eliminated remaining
sources of organized opposition, detained large numbers of protesters,
and required political reeducation not only for students but also for large
numbers of party cadre and government officials.
Following the resurgence of conservatives in the aftermath of June 4,
economic reform slowed until given new impetus by Deng Xiaoping's dramatic
visit to southern China in early 1992. Deng's renewed push for a market-oriented
economy received official sanction at the 14th Party Congress later in
the year as a number of younger, reform-minded leaders began their rise
to top positions. Deng and his supporters argued that managing the economy
in a way that increased living standards should be China's primary policy
objective, even if "capitalist" measures were adopted. Subsequent to the
visit, the Communist Party Politburo publicly issued an endorsement of
Deng's policies of economic openness. Though not completely eschewing political
reform, China has consistently placed overwhelming priority on the opening
of its economy.
Third Generation of Leaders
Deng's health deteriorated in the years prior to his death in 1997.
During that time, President Jiang Zemin and other members of his generation
gradually assumed control of the day-to-day functions of government. This
"third generation" leadership governed collectively with President Jiang
at the center.
In March 1998, Jiang was re-elected President during the 9th National
People's Congress. Premier Li Peng was constitutionally required to step
down from that post. He was elected to the chairmanship of the National
People's Congress. Zhu Rongji was selected to replace Li as Premier.
Fourth Generation of Leaders
In November 2002, the 16th Communist Party Congress elected Hu Jintao,
who in 1992 was designated by Deng Xiaoping as the "core" of the fourth
generation leaders, the new General Secretary. A new Politburo and Politburo
Standing Committee was also elected in November.
In March 2003, General Secretary Hu Jintao was elected President at
the 10th National People's Congress. Jiang Zemin retained the chairmanship
of the Central Military Commission.
China is firmly committed to economic reform and opening to the outside
world. The Chinese leadership has identified reform of state industries
and the establishment of a social safety network as government priorities.
Government strategies for achieving these goals include large-scale privatization
of unprofitable state-owned enterprises and development of a pension system
for workers. The leadership has also downsized the government bureaucracy.