“Although depicted in Western sources as a moral evil and tyranny, the People’s Republic of China was in fact born in a crucible of instability, turmoil and upheaval in the country which saw a 2000 year long Imperial system decline in the face of western domination and spur a new wave of thinking about China’s own place and position in the world”
In the Imperial era, China was one of the longest continuous empires in history. Although it was ruled by numerous dynasties and sometimes by external forces, including the Mongols and the Manchus. Still, the system that had been implemented by Qin Shi Huang in 221 BC stood the test of time for over thousands of years. The aforementioned groups who had conquered the vastness of China did not displace this order with one of their own, but they were in fact absorbed into it and sinified. The empire of China was known as “The Middle Kingdom” that is the center of all things in the world, the seat of virtue, righteousness and piety.
The emperors were known as “The Sons of Heaven” and overseen a vast, bureaucratic and hierarchical political order coated within longstanding traditions of political and social thought. Every official was required to learn and memorize the works of Confucius, who taught that individual’s outward and ritualistic obligation towards their parents, rulers and ancestors were paramount in sustaining a harmonious and stable society. Man was perfectable. On the other hand, the school of “legalism” by Han Fei argued that man’s nature must be kept in check through incentives and disincentives through a harsh use of the law.
However, the 19th century would prove to be a turning point in world history. The Qing Dynasty would fifnd itself up against rising, industrialized European colonial empires who sought expand their influence in East Asia. These empires did not see China as something superior, as it perceived itself, but in fact something inferior, to be civilized, tamed and shaped to the western vision, as well as profited from. They did not respect its political system. In the 1830s, the British Empire had ascended to a position of dominance on the Indian Subcontinent and sought to expand their commercial power into the vast Chinese realm, particularly through the export of opium.
China however, refused to submit to trade and diplomacy with Britain as it did not perceive itself in terms of modern statecraft. The Emperor moved to ban the sale of opium in the country and had its stocks thrown into the sea. This outraged the British Empire, who saw the move as an opportunity to wage war against the Qing to subjugate it to its demands. The non-industrialized China was defeated in what would become a series of “opium wars”. Victorious, the British imposed the treaty of Nanking on the Chinese, which not only annexed Hong Kong as a crown colony, but forced the Empire to comply with foreign trade, open up its ports and give British nationals exemption from local laws. Other European powers soon jumped on the bandwagon; China descended into a state of semi-colonialism.
The process of this instigated political and social shifts within the country which changed it forever. The ideology and legitimacy of the Qing Dynasty began to decline and the country became increasingly unstable. The Taiping Rebellion in 1850, a theocratic movement against the Dynasty by Hong Xiuquan, who claimed to be the brother of Jesus, cost millions of lives. But as the country was ravaged, new ideas and concepts were imported from the west which changed the consciousness of its population concerning politics, such as the “nation state”, “democracy”, “constitutions”, “socialism” and so on. The demise of Imperial rule effectively led to a bonanza of political thinking as locals dreamed of re-establishing China, modernizing the country and standing up to the nations were subjugating it.
In 1911, the Qing Dynasty collapsed and its last emperor, Puyi abdicated as a baby. In its place, the first Republic of China was proclaimed. The political theorist Sun Yat Sen, who became its first President, dreamed of reinventing China as a modern, democratic state. However, this proved easier said than done. The new state was chaotic, divided and dysfunctional and there was no real centre of power, with powerful warlords ruling over provinces and competing with each other. The west still did not respect the new republic or treat it as an equal party, which would in the following years lead to another turning point. Despite the fact that China earnestly offered support to the allies in World War I, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 controversially transferred German held land in Shandong province to the Empire of Japan, who had in previous years annexed the island of Taiwan in the Sino-Japanese war and secured its rule over the Korean Peninsula.
The treaty created outrage in China and an overwhelming sense of betrayal against the west. Seeing their country so humiliated by the west yet again on the global stage, young Chinese people became quickly disillusioned with their leaders and grew to believe that their own country’s backwardness rooted in its traditions was failing them. On May 4th, 1919, thousands of young students took to Tiananmen Square protesting and demanding change in China and angrily denouncing their leadership. The outcome of the war had radicalized them and embedded one solid belief within them: That China needed to modernize itself and stand up for its own interests against Western powers. This became known as the May 4th movement.
The legacy of May 4th unleashed powerful ideological currents in China and the final product was to create two broad political parties who would struggle for the country’s destiny. Those were the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) and the Communist Party (Gongchandang). Although their ideologies were bitterly opposed to one another, their goals and dreams for the country were nevertheless the same, that is to establish China as a modern, sovereign, capable and industrialized country. It was merely the “how” of this was to be done, which truly differed between the two. The Communist Party was formed in 1921 in Shanghai, joined by a young Mao Zedong.
The Nationalists would be the first to attain power, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. The two parties would nevertheless engage not in a democratic debate, but a bitter civil war emerging in the late 1920s. Yet their feud would be interrupted by a new common enemy, that was from across the sea in Tokyo. The Empire of Japan, a country which had industrialized itself much earlier than China and allied itself with the west was expanding its dominion in East Asia and in 1931, invaded and annexed China’s North East from Korea. The emergence of World War II would see a full blown war between China and Japan break out, with the latter annexing swathes of the country. The Communists and the Nationalists put aside their differences and fight together.
In August 1945, as atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin’s Soviet Union invaded Japanese held Manchuria to gain ground in the emerging strategic conflict with the United States. The USSR handed over the territory to the Communist Party of China and with China liberated, the conflict between the two political parties exacerbated again. Although militarily inferior, Mao Zedong’s forces waged a guerrilla campaign against the nationalists which exploited their incompetence and organizational failures. The tide of the war soon turned in the Communists’ favour, which saw them gain gradual control of all of mainland China. The Guomindang under Chiang Kai Shek retreated to the island of Taiwan, where the legacy government of the Republic of China remains to this day.
Thus on October 1st, 1949, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed with Mao Zedong as its leader. Mao created a one party Leninist state led by the Communist Party and famously proclaimed that “The Chinese People had stood up”. Having unified the country and ended decades of civil war and foreign invasion, Mao thus sought to impose what he believed was his vision to modernize China and reverse what was described as a “century of humiliation”. Driven by such sentiment, he believed like many growing up under the May 4th movement, that China’s traditions had been responsible for its decline and sought to impose revolutionary changes on the country’s society and economy.
These changes commenced with mass purges and reforms. Mao’s government destroyed China’s longstanding feudal structure by purging the country’s landlords and redistributing land, later collectivizing it. He also persecuted intellectuals, former bureaucrats and forcefully removed foreign influence from the country, chasing out western businessmen, religious missionaries and other organizations. Such changes also included new rights for women including the banning of arranged marriages and dowries. The economy was completely nationalized and based on a planned model imported from the Soviet Union, who China leaned to for support in building a new state in the early days.
In the meanwhile, Mao sought to establish himself as the leading figure in the Communist world and hold his own against the west. In 1950, war broke out on the Korean Peninsula as the leader of fellow Communist state “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (North Korea) sought to reunify the peninsula under his rule, following division in 1945 which was considered illegitimate. However, Kim had miscalculated and his invasion was thwarted by a massive intervention from the United States and a coalition of western powers. General Douglas MacArthur proceeded to attempt to conquer the North, something which contravened China’s own strategic interests.
As UN forces captured Pyongyang and headed towards the Chinese border, ignoring warnings from Beijing, China responded by entering the war and confronted the coalition with millions of troops, recapturing North Korea and attempting unsuccessfully to capture Seoul. The war ended in an armistice in 1953 with little change to the status quo, freezing Korea’s division. However, the conflict, now known in China as “The War to end American aggression in Korea” proved to be a massive boost for the country’s confidence, establishing China PRC as a major power and player in the world.
Mao however, struggled to moderate his revolutionary ambitions with the realities of building a modern bureaucratic state and in the process, initiated several disasters of his own making. The first was known as the “Great Leap Forward”- whereby Mao sought to achieve superhuman increases in growth and agricultural production in China by unscientific methods. The result was a catastrophic famine which claimed millions of lives in rural provinces. This development put Mao in contention with the more pragmatic voices in his government who he refused to listen to, which led to further instability.
Geopolitics also played a role. The death of Stalin and the rise of Khrushchev, who pursued a dismantling of his predecessor’s legacy (Destalinization) and reform in the USSR, put China on a collision course with the Soviet Union, with Mao perceiving the Soviets as a threat to his power. Thus, seeking to differentiate himself from Russia and immortalize his own authority over China, in 1966 Mao in conjunction with the “gang of four” proclaimed “the great proletarian cultural revolution” in the argument that China’s revolutionary politics was being subverted by “revisionists” and radicalized young people against the apparatus of the state.
Mao encouraged young people, organized in groups known as “red guards” to smash “the four olds” which held China backwards and thus instigated a state of mass disorder and chaos across the country, which saw the destruction of historical sites and artifacts, sporadic violence and desecration of cemeteries. The period is looked back on as one of deep regret in the country. By 1968, its peak had passed but it would not be until 1976 with the death of Mao Zedong that the Cultural Revolution would be declared as “officially over”. Yet change was already in the wings…
Although initially antagonistic towards Communist China, Mao’s conflict with the Soviet Union in the long run drew the interests of the United States, who saw an opportunity in utilizing Beijing as a strategic counterweight to Moscow. In 1972, President Richard Nixon made a shock visit to China and met with Mao Zedong in an unprecedented event. It lay the foundations for a change what was to come which would follow on after Mao’s passing.
In doing so, this concludes the origins and early history of the People’s Republic of China. The key takeaways are this: Although depicted in Western sources as a moral evil and tyranny, China PRC was in fact born in a crucible of instability, turmoil and upheaval in the country which saw a 2000 year long Imperial system decline and spur a new wave of thinking about China’s own place and position in the world. Subjugated and exploited by western powers, Communism in China subsequently emerged as one of two leading strands of thought on how to re-establish the country as a modern, sovereign state, driven by a conviction the country’s own traditions had inhibited it.
As a result, the era of Mao Zedong should be assessed as an effort to reinvent China which whilst having some initial accesses, at large made some catastrophic and costly mistakes. Mao’s own desire to push for drastic and uncompromising revolution clashed deeply with feasible reality and it was subsequently his refusal to heed to the advice to others which saw tragedy emerge and thus lead to his reputation in the west as a megalomaniac. Yet, in the bigger picture such simple moralizations tell us little about what was a process of painful transformation in China and its search for a new identity in the world. The country would build on his achievements, but also it would learn from his mistakes.
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