China began the 20th century in disarray and ended it as world’s second most important power, behind the United States. That is quite a journey in only a century, and to understand how this came about we need to look back. China boasted the world’s most advanced civilization through the seventeenth century. In technology, philosophy, statecraft, and trade, the world had much to learn from China, and the Chinese knew it. By the eighteenth century, however, Europe had caught up. Developments in this area between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries particularly in science, technology, and economic life made even single European states such as Britain more capable of projecting power around the globe than the vast Chinese Empire. This may have been due to growing Chinese introspection: they thought there was nothing to learn outside their borders. Thus, although China invented steel and gunpowder centuries before anyone in Europe, the Chinese did not consider the ways those inventions could be put to use. Moreover, the Chinese navy and merchant fleet were extremely advanced, and China never struck out into the wider oceans, seemingly happy to remain the center of world civilization.
China began to lag well behind European states by the middle of the nineteenth century. Between the rise of industry and the centuries-old imperial competition among states, Europeans proved able to project power around the globe. The British and French, for example, first began exploiting China fully in the wake of the Opium Wars. The British fought the first war alone from 1839 to 1842. The second, which saw the British and French allied against China, went from 1856 to 1860. After losing these wars, China essentially lost control of its borders, as French and British merchants controlled the terms of China’s trade with the outside world. More powers soon joined Britain and France, and by the end of the nineteenth century, China had essentially been dismembered into multiple spheres of influence.
As I noted in a previous lecture, only Japan among the Asian states proved able to resist the onslaught of Europe’s aggressive, industrialized powers. Unfortunately for Asia, Japan soon behaved just as badly as the rest and also carved out its own sphere of influence in China. Seen from the perspective of Japan’s growing power, the two world wars were Japan’s attempt to evict western powers from its perceived sphere. Japan, ultimately, lost that competition, and it was not until after 1945 that China determined its own destiny again and asserted itself as a world power.
In this lecture, I am going to divide Chinese history in the twentieth century into two parts. The first will cover the period from 1911 to 1949. The second will begin with 1949 and end in 1989. I begin with 1911, the year of China’s first revolution. In 1911, the weakened Imperial Regime decided to nationalize China’s railway system. This inspired revolts throughout China, and large regions of the country became independent of the central authority. This revolution marked the end of an epoch, as roughly 2,000 years of imperial Chinese tradition came to an end. The nineteenth century had stripped the monarchy and Chinese tradition of its authority, and many Chinese began to feel that the only way to save China was to follow western examples. The revolution’s main problem, however, was that it soon descended into factionalism.
On February 12, 1912, the last Chinese Emperor abdicated and Yüan Shih-k’ai, a powerful imperial minister was elected president. A Chinese parliament was set up and in the next year China’s nationalist party, the Kuomintang, was formed. Sun Yat-sen, a powerful member of the Kuomintang who is today considered the father of modern China, collaborated with Yüan until 1913, when the latter attempted a coup d’etat, and Sun had to flee to Japan. In response, Sun reorganized the Kuomintang on the model of a secret society and later a revolutionary party. Yüan remained in power until 1916, when political pressures defeated him. Yüan was never able to solve China’s biggest problem: in the absence of a strong central authority, warlords had taken over much of China. Between 1912 and 1928, for example, there were over 1300 of them controlling various parts of the country.
For the next decade the regional warlords divided China up. There was a government in Peking, but since it was made up of warlords, anyone outside the ruling clique did not have to listen to it. Sun returned to China in 1917, but was chased out again by a warlord. He returned again in 1923 and was able to make himself China’s de facto leader, thanks to the increasing power of the Kuomintang, though he died of cancer in 1925, leaving China in a state of flux.
Sun was important in popularizing the nationalist cause in China, but its intellectual leadership and the future came from elsewhere. Whereas, Sun spent most of his time in exile, fomenting revolution, new ideas and currents were beginning to appear in Peking. In 1916, a Chinese intellectual Chen Duxiu founded a journal called New Youth that preached the rejection of Chinese culture and the acquisition of western skills. Chen’s magazine was not a notable success. Chinese nationalism was as likely to turn on the west, as it was to embrace it. And Chen never had a solution to China’s real problem that the peasants could not have cared less one way or the other. The strongest impetus for change in change came with the end of World War I, with Japan’s acquisition of a mandate in China’s Shantung province. As you will recall from the lecture on Japan, Germany had controlled this province, but the Japanese took it from them. Given Japan’s strength, there was little that the European powers could to dislodge them. The Chinese government was so outraged by Japan’s mandate that the government refused to sign the treaty.
Public opposition to Versailles sparked a national movement that became know as “The May 4th Movement.” Beginning with students in Peking, this movement spread across China and morphed into a series of strikes and boycotts against Japanese goods. All sorts of city dwellers, from intellectuals, to politicians, to workers joined the movement. The movement failed to dislodge the Japanese, but it showed that new intellectual currents were forming.
It is in this context that we must consider the rise of Communism in China. In 1918, a Marxist study group appeared at the University of Peking in response to the Russian Revolution. Many members of the May 4th Movement joined this group, and one important name among them—though he was not important at the time—was Mao Zedong. By July of 1921, the group of intellectuals in Peking founded China’s Communist Party in Shanghai. This party actively fought Chinese inertia, and it became an important weapon against the west, since it was officially against capitalism, which was a western import.
During the 1920s, China slowly reacquired control over its territory. The western powers and Japan gave back their mandates, though they retained their commercial rights. Still it appeared that China was emerging again as an independent state. China’s new status was, however, only as good as the United States’ willingness and ability to guarantee it. And after 1919, the United States spent more energy disengaging from the world than engaging in it. In this context, Marxism became an ever more powerful force in China. Even Sun Yat-sen began moving closer to Marxism, believing that its collectivist vision was appropriate for China’s history and economy. Sun was fond of saying that the nation always had to be more important than the individual.
Sun Yat-sen’s attitudes and his willingness to take advice from the Soviet Communist Party made cooperation with the Chinese Communists possible. China was not yet united, and for dogmatic reasons, the Soviets did not want a Communist revolution in China at that point. Believing that a nationalist bourgeois revolution was necessary first, the Soviets ordered the Chinese communists to make common cause with the Kuomintang. The Kuomintang accepted members of the Communist Party in their ranks. One of them was Mao Zedong. And Sun’s chief deputy Chiang Kai-shek went to Moscow to study. Sun also founded a military academy that created soldiers for the new China.
Sun’s death in 1925 changed the fundamental situation. Sun’s lieutenant, Chiang, accepted Soviet help, but was determined not to allow the Soviets to interfere in Chinese politics. Unity persisted initially, as the Kuomintang’s army had eliminated most of the warlords by 1927. Indeed, as the Kuomintang became more powerful, the British even gave up their trade concessions in China, and the United States gave up its share of the indemnity from the Boxer Rebellion. The nationalists seemed to be winning the day.
Nonetheless, while Chiang was organizing the army and the cities, the Chinese Communists were busy in the countryside. Mao Zedong, one of the party’s leaders wanted the Communists to organize the peasants, because he believed that they were an untapped source of power. This required a break with Marxist dogma, since only the proletariat could lead the revolution according to Marx. Peasants were out of the picture. Nonetheless, by 1927, the Communists had organized over 10 million peasants. They gained peasant loyalty through practical things such as forcing landlords to lower the rents and forgive excessive debts.
The differences in emphasis between Chiang and Mao led to new conflicts. Chiang had allied himself with capitalist and merchant powers within Chinese cities. With access to money and having control of China’s finest military forces, by 1927 he felt that it was time to deal with the Communists. He attacked the Communists militarily, decimating their armies, and outlawed the Communist Party. This put the Soviets in an interesting position. They wanted a state that was hostile to Britain, but also had to follow Marxist dogma. After the Kuomintang appeared to win, the Soviets withdrew their advisers from the Chinese Communists.
Chiang’s attack merely led to a Civil War, as the Communists retreated to the countryside. This had two important consequences. First, the war allowed the remaining Chinese warlords to flourish, as Chiang did not have sufficient forces to take on all his enemies at once. Second, the war weakened China just as Japan embarked on its policy of aggression. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. In 1932, Japanese forces invaded Shanghai. In 1937, Japanese forces took much of China’s coast and began moving inland. The Kuomintang retreated to Nanking. At this moment, however, the Nationalists became more conservative and authoritarian, reaching back into Chinese traditions to justify their policies. This led China’s intellectuals to withdraw their support.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party continued its work in the countryside, deposing warlords and organizing peasant soviets. By 1930, the Communists had organized a large peasant army in the province of Kiansi and declared the foundation of the Chinese Soviet Republic. The Kuomintang responded in 1934 by attacking the Communists in their sanctuary in Kiansi and forcing them to flee south. This is the famous “Long March,” during which Mao Zedong led a few thousand followers on a difficult retreat to Shengsi. The Chinese Communists seemed to be finished as a force, but the march made Mao a hero to his movement and cemented his authority. The in 1937, the Japanese attacked and China was once again thrown into chaos.
The war was a disaster for the Chinese economy and the Kuomintang. By 1940 the Burma Road that the British and Americans had been using to supply the Kuomintang was closed. By 1941, inland China was completely cut off from the outside world. The basic problem was that Chiang refused to use his troops against the Japanese invaders. He expected the United States to defeat Japan and wanted to keep his army whole for the fight against the Communists. This was a stupid policy on two levels. First, his army got soft. So when the battle did come, his soldiers did not fight well. Second, Communist guerilla activity against the Japanese gained them enormous national prestige in China. When the Japanese were finally defeated, the Communists looked like national heroes.
After Japan’s defeat in 1945, China was plunged into another civil war. This time, however, the Communists had the better of it, inflicting a series of defeats on the Nationalist forces. By late 1948, Chiang was forced to flee the mainland for the island of Formosa. He took with him most of China’s gold reserves and the artifacts in the National Palace Museum, promising to continue the fight against the Communists from the island. (The appropriation of the national museum collection remains a major sticking point between the two countries.) In the end, Chiang was merely able to found a small authoritarian state with an incredibly productive economy that is now called Taiwan. It has had the military support of the United States since 1955, when President Eisenhower gave Taiwan a military guarantee. Taiwan occupied the Chinese seat in the United Nations until 1971, when the People’s Republic of China was admitted and Taiwan was expelled.
Mainland China’s modern history begins with Mao Zedong’s declaration on October 1, 1949 of the People’s Republic of China. This marked the end of multiple historical epochs. First, it represented the final end of the Confucian bureaucratic tradition. The Communists, borrowing from Europe, developed a wholly new vision of the individual and his or her relationship to the state. Second, the industrialized, imperial powers were finally thrown out of China after 150 years of interference. Europe, the United States, and Japan no longer had any influence over China’s internal politics. Of course, the irony is that China was now ready to interfere in everyone else’s business.
The Communist Party’s radical program for social and political change required it to monopolize power. A Central Committee controlled the People’s Congress and the Politburo controlled the Central Committee. On top of that, the people who controlled the Communist Party controlled the Politburo. The man who controlled the party was, of course, Chairman Mao. An example of how important this position was is that Mao was Chairman of the People’s Republic of China only until 1959, but he controlled the Party until his death in 1976. His influence on policy making will be apparent throughout this lecture. Mao created a top-down, dirigiste system, in which dissent and individual rights were not respected. Between 1948 and 1951, he and the Communists instituted a vicious purge of all Nationalist elements, sending tens of thousands of their enemies to work camps, where they usually died. In economic and social terms, the government insisted on rapid collectivization of the land and industrialization. In 1955, following Soviet models, the Chinese instituted the first Five Year Plan, which set priorities for the entire Chinese economy.
China decided to spend its money on developing infrastructure, building roads and power plants, as well as heavy industrial plants that produced steel and chemicals. In this project they received valuable assistance from the Soviets, who sent advisers and built entire plants for the Chinese. Unfortunately, China also reorganized farming along Soviet lines, taking over all land and controlling the food market. In 1958, Chairman Mao announced what he called the “Great Leap Forward.” This policy was as big a disaster as Stalin’s collectivization had been. Taking away the peasants’ land and controlling the food market meant that less food was produced. Perhaps 20 million people died as a result of this policy and a series of floods that made a critical situation worse.
The Communists break with the past was not all bad. There were some policy changes that seem advanced to modern eyes. The government extended healthcare and education deeply into the countryside. Millions of people now had access to doctors and books. What was in those books may not always have made sense, but to the people experiencing the change it seemed like a gain. In addition, the Communists officially extended equal rights to women—theoretically, at least. They also outlawed the tradition of forced marriages and the ancient practice of food binding, and legalized divorce and abortion. The latter policy would have its dark side, too, as later Chinese governments practiced forced abortions as part of their population policy.
At the same time as these domestic changes were going on, the Chinese government changed the foreign policy landscape in Asia. China and the Soviet Union immediately moved closer after the revolution. In 1950, the two powers signed a Sino-Soviet Treaty that guaranteed thirty years of aid and friendship. In this context, China accepted a secondary role in the Communist hierarchy, in exchange for Soviet military and industrial equipment. Much of this equipment then made its way to Korea, where the Chinese troops pushed a US-led UN force out of Communist North Korea. For their part, in addition to giving aid, the Soviets promised to campaign for China to receive the UN seat that Taiwan was occupying.
Troubles soon began, however, as the Soviets often subordinated their friendship to China to other foreign policy concerns. China routinely felt slighted. They were sending 50% of their exports to the Soviets and seemed not to be getting as much as other powers were. For example, the Soviet Union arranged a loan for the Indian government that dwarfed the size of the loans they had extended to China. In addition, the Soviets often acted arrogantly toward the Chinese, telling them what to do, rather than providing technical advice. Part of the problem was ideological differences. Mao’s revolution had been based on the peasants. The Soviets believed that revolution had to come from the proletariat. Chinese hurt feeling became important as a border dispute arose between the People’s Republic and India.
In 1951, Chinese troops re-occupied Tibet. The Tibetans had won their independence early in the twentieth century thanks to the force of British arms. This period was now over. In response, the Tibetans started a resistance movement, and the Chinese blamed the Indians for supporting it. The Soviet Union declared its neutrality in the dispute, and this angered the Chinese even more. In 1959, the dispute degraded into border conflicts. To make matters worse, in 1960 the Soviet Union withdrew its aid from China. So now China was confronting famine and a border conflict. In 1962, a war broke out that the Indians lost very badly. By 1964, China had become openly hostile to both India and the Soviet Union.
China’s shift was crucial on two levels. First, India, which had claimed some leadership over the Third World, now had a Chinese rival, as the Chinese offered their support to resistance movements everywhere. Second, China challenged the Soviet Union in the Cold War, even going so far as to explode a nuclear device, also in 1964. The way was now open for one of the biggest diplomatic shifts of the post-war period, the rapprochement between China and the United States. That would come a little later. First, there was more killing to do.
The Great Leap Forward hurt Chairman Mao’s reputation badly. Voices began to rise within the party to allow more competition and reward for initiative within the system. Mao dealt with the problem by removing the dissenting voices from power and instituting what he called the Cultural Revolution. This Revolution ran from 1966 to 1969 and it involved the complete denigration of intellectuals as a class, lest they think differently from Mao. Mao closed the universities and made everyone engage in physical labor, as a way of enforcing solidarity. He also unleashed his Red Guards on society, which were essentially a group of thugs that went around knocking the heads of anyone who might think differently. All thought was to be subordinate to Mao’s, who had become something of a communist prophet. By 1969, even Mao realized that the campaign had gone too far and he shut it down.
At this point, we must return to the level of international relations. Tensions between China and the Soviet Union opened a door for the United States. The United States had been opposed to the People’s Republic from the beginning. The government was, after all, Communist. Indeed, there was a vicious fight within the US government over who had “lost” China to the Dark Side that ended a few government careers. The rapprochement between China and the US was the product of two important diplomats, Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger. Zhou was a long-time Mao ally and an important figure in the Communist hierarchy. Only he had the social and political standing to reach out to the United States. Henry Kissinger was the US Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon. Here the president was most important. As an ardent anti-Communist in the 50s and 60s, only he had sufficient prestige to reach out to the Chinese. In July of 1971, Kissinger visited China to negotiate the President’s subsequent visit. In February 1972, Richard Nixon made his dramatic and historic visit to China. The Soviets hated this, and it was an important backdrop to what was called Détente between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1970s. We’ll talk about that in another lecture.
Zhou Enlai was an important figure not only for his diplomatic role but also for his activities within the party. Zhou was never quite as doctrinaire as Mao, and he worked hard to rehabilitate some of the party leaders who had crossed Mao by calling for economic reform. One of the rehabilitated was Deng Xioaping, the architect in effect of today’s China. Deng was a long-time Communist. He had studied in France during the 1920s, where he joined the Communist movement. He participated in the Long March, and served in many key Party offices during the 1940s and 50s. He was, however, something of a pragmatist on policy and his response to the Great Leap Forward led to conflict with Mao. Deng was one of those people who wanted more incentives for production. Deng came under attack during the Cultural Revolution and lost all his high party posts. In 1973, Zhou rehabilitated him, and Deng rose to join the Politburo. When Zhou died in January 1976, however, Maoist elements purged Deng again. He was out until September 1976, when Mao, died. At this point, the establishment turned on the remaining Maoists and the path was clear for Deng. By 1980, Deng had assumed Mao’s former position of Chairman. Deng’s supporters became Premier and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.
Deng instituted a number of fundamental reforms in the economy. He decentralized economic management and made centralized planning more flexible. Essentially, regional managers and factory heads now had more freedom to institute policies and seek profits. China’s farmers got control over their own production and were allowed to keep their profits. Food production promptly exploded. Deng also expanded cultural contacts with the west and allowed foreign investment in Chinese enterprises. Not everything was now rosy in China, however. Deng was also responsible for the most aggressive population control policy in the world, which included forced abortions for those women who wanted to have more than one child. In addition, when Deng’s policies created a yearning for greater freedoms among the young, he supported the traditionalists in cracking down. Although Deng stepped down from the Chinese Central Committee in 1987, he gave his blessing to the use of forces against student demonstrators in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
So Deng has created, in no small measure, the China that we are left with. Economically prosperous and militarily powerful, China now plays a full role in the international game. Their recent launching of a man in space suggests that they will be the next great rival for the United States. The United States vanquished the last one. We will see how things go with this one.