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People's Republic of China (1949-Present)

Major Events and People:

After decades of warlord rule, Japanese occupation and a debilitating civil war, the China the Communist government inherited was bankrupt and in shambles. Despite the difficulties, Mao’s government made impressive improvements in their early years. Central to their political ideology was land reform, where land was taken from landlords and redistributed among the peasant population. Already implemented in Red Army controlled areas, after liberation it was extended to the rest of the country.

In the cities, the Communists steered industrial production toward heavy industries and formed state-controlled unions. Workers were promised the "iron rice bowl" of lifetime employment, housing, health care, pension plans and education for their children.

By 1953, land reform was complete and collectivization of land began. By 1958, agricultural production was unable to keep up with population increases. Dissatisfied with the slumping agricultural production and slow pace of industrialization, Mao turned to mass mobilization to speed things up. He called upon every man, woman and child in China to help increase China’s industrial and agricultural output. The resulting Great Leap Forward during which Mao promised China would surpass Britain in steel production in 15 years, and the US in 20, resulted in disaster. Huge cooperatives replaced small communes, and the infamous backyard steel furnaces which produced unusable steel, were built in order to produce vast amounts of steel.

By 1963, the disastrous effects of the Great Leap Forward, compounded by bad weather in much of the country, became too clear to ignore. CCP leadership backed away from the idea of huge collectives and once again gave land back to the peasants. However, it was not until the mid-1960s that the country was back on its feet.

Beginning in 1966, China was once again rocked by revolution. The Cultural Revolution was ultimately the product of Mao’s desire to purge the party of all corrupt cadres and consolidate his power base. His troops in this revolution were the Red Guards. University and middle school students formed Red Guard units on their campuses. They were called upon to "bombard the headquarters" and hunt out all subversive elements not adhering to Mao Zedong Thought, as his ideology was known. Thousands of people - party cadres, the wealthy, former KMT supporters, intellectuals, businessmen etc. - were accused of being a "capitalist" or a "revisionist". Often violent struggle sessions were held against the accused and confessions extracted. Thousands of party members were purged and sent to hard labor camps. In inciting revolution, Mao hoped to train the younger generation to be visionaries and trigger revolutionary sentiment among the older generation who were getting too "soft". The Red Guards were called upon to carry our campaigns such as ridding Chinese culture of the Four Olds - old ideas, old customs, old habits and old culture.

By 1967, the violence had gotten out of control. Schools and Universities were shut down and most of the teachers were either in disgrace or at hard labor camps. In the Red Guards’ quest to destroy the Four Olds, many historic sites had been ransacked and priceless artifacts destroyed. The Red Guards had devolved into gangs fighting each other in the streets. Each faction claimed to represent the true interpretation Mao Zedong Thought as quoted in his little red book. Mao’s personality cult reached its all time high in 1967-1968.

Once it became apparent that the Red Guards were beyond his control, Mao called in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to quell the fighting. Order had to be forcibly restored. With the majority of schools closed, teachers disgraced and the Red Guards disillusioned after being told to disband, Mao sent millions of former Red Guards to the countryside. Nominally, the students were to be re-educated by the peasants, the cornerstone of the communist revolution. However, Mao was, in effect, exiling them once they had served his purpose.

Although the violent phase of the Cultural Revolution lasted only until late 1968, the Cultural Revolution did not end until 1976. Until then, China’s citizens were called upon to carry out campaign after campaign aimed at exposing rightist tendencies in the Party. Throughout the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution thousands of party leaders were sent into exile or imprisoned. In 1969, Deng Xiaoping was imprisoned and forced to perform menial labor. He was rehabilitated in 1971, however, he was again declared a rightist in the final months of the Cultural Revolution and was only brought back to power after Mao’s death in September 1976.

Although the Red Guards decried western culture as bourgeois and rightist, and during the Cultural Revolution western influences were forbidden, the early 1970s say a new era of friendship begin between the United States and China. In 1972, Nixon paid a state visit to China in the hopes of bettering relations. It was as a consequence of this visit that the United States signed an agreement stipulating that they would recognize the Mainland and not Taiwan as the only government of China.

The Cultural Revolution ended finally with Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976. The Gang of Four, part of Mao’s inner circle and led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, had tried to keep the fires of revolution burning in China. They had tried to position themselves as successors to Mao. In 1976, they were arrested and each eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Once the Gang of Four had been disposed of, Mao’s handpicked successor, Hua Guofeng emerged as China’s new leader. He was not well received. China’s citizens were disaffected with him and were eager to see a more moderate leader, rather than one who would blindly continue Mao’s policies. They called for the reinstatement of Deng Xiaoping.

Once in power, Deng moved quickly away from Mao’s radical policies. Reform, not revolution was to be the new path. It was, however, reform in the economic and not the political sphere. Though Deng set out to modernize industry, agriculture, science and defense, he did not tolerate calls for democracy.

Deng set out to improve the Chinese economy. He de-collectivized the communes and introduced the household responsibility system. Under this system, farmers were allowed to sell their surplus crops on the open market. Agricultural production immediately rose.

In the cities, Deng opened China’s markets to the west. Joint ventures were formed and competition increased efficiency. The first half of the 1980s was a time of dramatic economic growth in China.

Socially and culturally, gone were the drab blue Mao suits of the Cultural Revolution era. Western fashions were no longer forbidden, indeed they were enthusiastically embraced. Students were allowed to study abroad and intellectuals were encouraged to exchange ideas with foreign scholars.

Deng’s famous words – for which he was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution – "I don’t care if the cat is white or black as long as it catches mice", highlights Deng’s pragmatic approach to economic policy. Market forces were allowed to determine what goods were produced and western production methods experimented with. These policies vastly improved the standing of many of China’s citizens.

Jiang Zemin, who succeeded Deng after his death in 1997, has carried on with Deng’s commitment to reform. The pursuit of a "market economy with Chinese characteristics" seems to be working well for China. China is a huge market with equally huge economic potential, and it is growing fast. The state is retreating ever more from areas of private life. People are now allowed to chose where they live and work. The private sector makes up about a 1/3 of the economy, and privatization of state-owned companies is continuing in force.

In 1997, China regained control of Hong Kong, the former British colony. Hong Kong has retained a great deal of autonomy under the "one country, two systems" principle. Early in March 2000, Macau, the former Portuguese colony was, without incident, handed back to China.

At the dawn of the 21st century China is poised to enter the new millenium in force. Her expected entry into the World Trade Organization in the near future will only brighten her long-term economic prospects. The vote by the United States Congress to grant China Permanent Normal Trading Relations signals a commitment from each side to treat the other as a partner rather than an adversary. As events in China unfold, the only certainty is that China will be a force that must be reckoned with

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