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Simply... Modern Chinese History


new internationalist
issue 170 - April 1987

[image, unknown] modern chinese history

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1 [image, unknown] A feudal empire

The picture below has an idyllic quality but China under the emperors was a harsh place. The emperors ruled on the conservative principles of Confucius whereby everyone and everything had their designated place in the universe - and the whole social order depended on the feudal exploitation of the peasantry. The landowners (dizhu or 'masters of the earth') charged rents which were always greater than half the harvest and evaded taxes while the peasants were forced to pay. Private armies kept them in control.


2 [image, unknown] Opium and missionaries

[image, unknown] The 'Great Powers' became seriously interested in China during the period of imperialist expansion in the nineteenth century. Britain, for instance, smuggled opium from India into China and fought two wars rather than relinquish a 'trade' that paid for half the cost of its Royal Family and domestic Civil Service. Defeat in the Opium Wars between 1839 and 1860 forced the Chinese to legalize the trade and cede the island of Hong Kong.

By the end of the century, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the US were all squabbling for influence as the emperors lost control and China began to disintegrate. In practice this meant special trading concessions and the right to permanent military bases on Chinese soil - as well as control of key services such as customs, salt taxes and the post office.

In 1900 a decade of peasant Chinese resentment at the influence of Christian missionaries spawned the I Ho T'uan Movement or Boxer Rebellion - the foreign areas in Beijing were besieged for 50 days. The incident shocked the world but was insignificant except as a measure of popular Chinese resistance to Western values - a sentiment which must have been strengthened by the looting which Western troops inflicted on Beijing in retribution.


3 [image, unknown] The long march to power

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The 1911 Revolution led by Sun Yatsen declared China a republic. But despite the end of the Manchu imperial dynasty Sun's presidency lasted only a year and the disintegration of China continued. Warlords vied for control of the different regions, financing their campaigns by practising every kind of extortion on the peasantry from forced labour to pillage.

But other forces were on the move. The Communist Party was formed in 1921; while in 1924 Sun Yatsen turned his nationalist party, the Kuomintang, into an organization aiming for mass support. Encouraged to compromise by the Soviet Union, the Communists initially accepted that internal unification under the Kuomintang would have to precede any socialism. But in 1927, after a successful joint campaign against the warlords, new Kuomintang leader Chiang Kaishek turned on the Communists.

From then on the civil war intensified. By 1934 the Communists were encircled in their bases in the south and centre of the country and were forced to retreat northward on the Long March. This lasted for two years, leading across mountainous country for thousands of miles. It became a potent revolutionary symbol. The Japanese invaded China in 1937 and the Communists and the Kuomintang were forced to put their differences aside and form a Popular Front. Their uneasy accord lasted beyond Japan's defeat in the Second World War - Chiang Kaishek and Mao Zedong were still negotiating about a possible coalition government as late as 1947. But those 10 years had seen the Communists grow from under 30,000 members to 2,700,000. City after city fell to the Red Army and the Kuomintang retreated until they were left governing just the island of Taiwan under US protection.

On 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong announced the new government of the People's Republic of China with the words 'the Chinese people have stood up!'


4 [image, unknown] Leap into communism

[image, unknown] In the early 1950s the first Five-Year Plan aimed to use Soviet aid to push industry ahead while introducing a form of co-operative agriculture. But Mao was impatient for progress and between 1958 and 1960 thrust on rural areas the 'Great Leap Forward', a sort of crash course in communism which involved forming the 750,000 farming co-operatives into 26,500 'People's Communes', each of which could contain as many as 50,000 people. The Great Leap Forward was a disaster - not because of the commune structure itself, which was to last through two decades and offer great benefits, but rather because of the enormous disruption caused by trying to do everything at once. The aim was to transform China into an industrialized giant with one enormous collective effort: 'hard work for three years, happiness for a thousand' was one slogan. Instead it combined with floods and droughts to produce a famine which is still not fully admitted by the Chinese but which current research indicates claimed the lives of at least 13 million people.

However the claim that under the Communists the Chinese ate better than ever before was certainly justified. China had always suffered regular famines yet, with the notable exception of the Leap, they became a thing of the past. This was both because agriculture was a top priority and because food was distributed more fairly. The communes themselves were feats of social organization unique in human history. Each was a world unto itself with its own schools and clinics, dams and irrigation systems. These collective resources could be created partly because labour could be easily mobilized but also because any business profits could be used to benefit the whole community instead of a few individuals.


5 [image, unknown] The Cultural Revolution

[image, unknown] Mao and the leftists in the Party launched the 'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution' in 1966. Aimed at removing those in power who had taken 'the capitalist road' it encouraged ordinary people, and particularly the young, to rebel against authority. The hope was that this would stop the revolution stagnating.

Students and intellectuals were sent to work in the fields and 'learn from the peasants'; and everyone was required to take part in political meetings, campaigns and Marxist study sessions. The picture on the right is typical of the stylized idealism of the time: its official Chinese caption said it showed the young worker Yang Minchu describing how she fought off 'counter-revolutionary class enemies' who had gone on the rampage in support of the discredited Deng Xiaoping.

If the Great Leap Forward was a greater mistake than the Chinese Government has acknowledged, the Cultural Revolution was probably less disastrous than is currently claimed, at least in economic terms.


6 [image, unknown] The opening door

[image, unknown] Mao's death in 1976 triggered spontaneous demonstrations of mass grief that the 'Great Helmsman' had finally gone. The new leader was Hua Guofeng but real power seemed to lie in the hands of the Left, led by Mao's wife Jiang Qing - the bespectacled woman in the middle of the photo below. But she and the rest of the 'Gang of Four' were arrested a month later and have been in prison ever since.

In practice the initiative had been seized by the Right and Deng Xiaoping's return from exile eventually resulted in the removal of Hua Guofeng and a radical change of direction. In rural areas the commune structure has been replaced by the 'responsibility system' which allows individuals to keep the profits they generate. Special economic zones and open ports have been set up to encourage Western business to invest in China and a much greater openness to the world has, for better or worse, been one result.

Student protest at the end of 1986 in favour of more democracy led to a new crackdown on dissent and the dismissal of Party leader Hu Yaobeng, who was said to have erred on the side of 'bourgeois individualism'. Whether this constitutes another sea change in China's unpredictable politics is anybody's guess.

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Born in 1893 in Hunan, Mao was one of the dozen founder members of the Chinese Communist Party. First noticed for his belief that the revolutionary potential in China lay with peasants rather than cityworkers (a notion new to Marxism), he became leader during the Long March.

After the Revolution, while his technical title was often unclear, Mao was always in the political driving seat. By the mid-1970s, though, he was physically ailing and may well have lost effective control long before his death in 1976. He was unquestionably one of the twentieth century's greatest political leaders.

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Deng studied in both Paris and Moscow before returning to China to dedicate himself to the Communist cause and take part in the Long March. After the Revolution he had a meteoric rise through the Party ranks, becoming a Vice Premier in 1952. He was loyal to Mao throughout the 1950s but after the Great Leap Forward incurred the leader's wrath by supporting the reappearance of free markets and private farming plots.

Deng was one of the first victims of the Cultural Revolution and spent years as a waiter and a labourer in a tractor factory. Since his final rehabilitation in 1977 Deng has, like Mao, avoided the official title of head of state but is just as certainly the driving force behind China's new policies. Now 82, he is doubtless giving much thought to ways of ensuring more effectively than Mao did that his policies outlive him.

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New Internationalist issue 170 magazine cover This article is from the April 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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