History of China and the World since 1949

Published by Antoine Labeyrie on

What you want to understand… 🤔

  • How did Mao Zedong establish a communist regime in China in 1949?
  • What was China’s position during the Cold War?
  • How did Mao’s communist China turn into a global capitalist power?
  • What are the characteristics of the Chinese model of governance?

Let’s keep in mind that during World War Two (WW2), China fought alongside the USSR and the USA against Japan. The latter invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria in 1931 and occupied Chinese major cities until its defeat in 1945. During this occupation, Japanese soldiers committed war crimes and crimes against humanity like torture and large-scale rapes. The war resulted in the death of between 10 and 25 million Chinese civilians.

In the wake of WW2, China had to cope not only with under-development, inflation, malnutrition and corruption of the elites, but also with a civil war…

Chinese Civil War summary (1945-1949):

In the 1920s, the Kuomintang (nationalist political party) and the Communist Party of China formed an alliance to defeat warlords and unify China.

However, rivalries rapidly emerged between them. The Kuomintang eventually unified China under its control in 1928. China became the Republic of China (ROC). Nevertheless, the Communist Party organised its resistance around the newly created Red Army.

At the time Taiwan was under Japanese rule. After its defeat in 1945, Japan yielded Taiwan to the ROC.

In 1949, after years of rivalries and confrontations, the Kuomintang lost control of mainland China to the Communist party that established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Only Taiwan remained under control of the Kuomintang. Taiwan is called the Republic of China (ROC) while China is called the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Nowadays, relations between the ROC and the PRC are still conflictual and no peace treaty has been signed.

Map evolution of the Chinese civil war between 1947 and 1950

I. China awakens: building its power on a communist basis (1949-1976)

A. The USSR, a model for China

On October 1, 1949, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong, announced the establishment of the Popular Republic of China which was based on the Soviet model.

Cult of the personality of Mao
“Comrade Mao Zedong is the greatest Marxist-Leninist of the present age” (1969)

From a political perspective, China implemented an authoritarian regime with a unique party led by Mao Zedong who received a cult of his personality. He was nicknamed “Chairman Mao” or even “The Great Helmsman”. Police repression, penal labour in concentration camps (Laogai = “reform through labour”) and censorship were also important components of the Chinese model of governance. Moreover, every state institution was doubled by an institution within the party: there was (and still is) a fusion between the communist party and the Chinese state.

Map of the Laogai camps in China in 1992
Map of Chinese laogai in 1992. In 2006, the Laogai Research Foundation estimated they were 4,000 over the country.
Harry Wu detained in a labour camp
Harry Wu was a dissident who criticized the 1956 invasion of Hungary by the USSR. He was detained in a labour camp between 1960 and 1979.

State interventionism was at the core of China’s economy. Five-year plans gave priority to heavy industry and ore extraction. However, unlike the USSR’s economic model that glorified factory workers, Chinese propaganda emphasised the role of peasants and farmers. As a matter of fact, in the 1950s, 75% of Chinese people worked in agriculture. Lands were collectivised and big land owners lost their possessions and often were killed. Besides, the Chinese economy was closed to the West that had exploited its resources and had attempted to colonize its territory during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th centuries.

Besides, the new Popular Republic of China started cooperating closely with the USSR. For instance, on February 14, 1950, Stalin and Mao signed a treaty of friendship, alliance and mutual assistance. The USSR provided an economic and technical support to address the difficulties that emerged from WW2 and the civil war. In fact, it sent thousands of engineers and technicians and lent money to develop the young Chinese industry.

Chinese stamp with Stalin adn Mao in 1950
Chinese stamp representing Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong (1950)

Progressively, China became the armed wing of the USSR in Asia. In fact, during the Korean war (1950-1953), China reinforced the Korean communist ranks with thousands of “volunteers” to fight South Koreans who benefited from American support. Likewise Mao’s China helped communist Viet-Minh against the French during the First Indochina War (1946-1954) and then fought alongside North-Vietnamese against South-Vietnam and the USA until 1975.

In order to exist internationally, China had no other choice but to align itself with the USSR since it wasn’t officially recognized by Western powers except Great Britain due to its special relation with Hong Kong (which lasted until 1997).

B. Maoist emancipation from the USSR in the 1960s

In 1956, China started denunciating the Khrushchev’s revisionism after the death of Stalin in 1953. In fact, Khrushchev also attempted to limit the Cold War to an economic, cultural and scientific competition with the USA while Mao wanted to keep fighting fiercely and directly against the Western bloc. At the end of the 1950s, tensions were mounting between Chinese and Soviet leaders. Therefore, in 1960, the USSR recalled the engineers it sent few years before to help industrialise China. During the 1962 Cuba crisis, the Chinese Communist Party criticized the removal of Soviet missiles and two years later China managed to make explode its first atomic bomb. In 1969, the world held its breath as it witnessed a seven-month armed conflict between China and the USSR along their common borders.

1st Chinese nuclear test (1964)
China achieves its first nuclear test on 16 October 1964.

As a result, China started promoting its own model of development. The maoist model seduced intellectuals and students in Europe since it appeared to be a remedy for the typical Eastern bureaucracy. In 1964, the Chinese Communist Party published the book “Quotations from the Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” (aka The Little Red Book) which was a collection of statements and writings by Mao Zedong. It was translated in 64 languages and sold by militants worldwide. This book was a means to expose the Chinese model of development that relied on 2 pillars: a rural society and the political action of the masses. In order to implement this model, the Chinese society underwent two major reforms. The first one was named the “Big Leap Forward” (1958-1962) and aimed at industrialising the countryside and increasing agricultural yields. However, it disorganised the Chinese agricultural system and resulted in what was called the “Great Chinese Famine” that killed at least between 20 and 30 million people. The second reform took place between 1966 and 1976 and was known as the “Cultural Revolution”. It mobilised the youth (“the red guard”) to discredit and ultimately destroy “bourgeois” practices and culture (architecture, music, theatre, opera…). Every kind of hierarchy, including within the Chinese Communist Party, that was deemed too traditional and bourgeois became the target of a national purge.

Red Guard reading the Little Red Book
Members of the Red Guard reading Mao’s Little Red Book during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

The discord between China and the USSR led to a concurrence for the leadership of the Third World made up of non-aligned countries in the Cold War. Indeed, China endeavoured to create its own sphere of influence apart from the US and the USSR. Zhou Enlai, the Chinese head of government and foreign minister, qualified the two superpowers as imperialist and neo-colonialist during the Bandung Conference of the non-aligned in 1955.

Imperialism is the process by which a state imposes its control over the land, resources and population of another territory. It implies economic, political, cultural and military control.

Social imperialism describes governments that have a socialist appearance while pursuing imperialist ambitions.

China especially denounced the fact that the USSR didn’t promote revolution in colonized countries because it feared that it might influence back its own people. On October 22, 1963, the Chinese Communist Party published a comment on the Open Letter of the Central Committee of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) entitled “Apologists of Neo-Colonialism”. Aside from denouncing the social imperialism of the USSR, China pointed out that the Cold War was just a structure that enabled the US and the USSR to gain power by extending their respective zone of influence. Later, in 1974, Deng Xiaoping, who became the Chinese leader in 1978, developed his theory of the Three Worlds. The first one gathered the two superpowers fighting for global hegemony (the URSS and the US). The second world represented developed countries (Canada, Europe and Japan) that were considered as satellites of the first world’s countries. Developing countries were part of the third world that shared the will to free themselves from imperialist chains. China had the ambition to lead this third world. Nonetheless, China’s influence worldwide was limited to few countries like Tanzania that reproduced the Chinese agricultural system or Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge who adopted the Maoist model.

C. Time for international recognition of the People’s Republic of China

Since Chinese foreign policy was a failure because the USSR dominated the communist world, China decided to change its strategy and sought international recognition before anything else.

In 1964, de Gaulle’s France officially recognised the People’s Republic of China in a context when France was seeking independence from the US, NATO and the European community. In 1971, China managed to obtain a permanent siege at the UN Security Council and Taiwan was expulsed.

China also changed its position in the game of the Cold War. It started getting closer to the US because they had a common adversary: the USSR. In 1972, the US President Richard Nixon even visited China which put an end to 25 years of no diplomatic cooperation and thus started normalising the Sino-American relationship.

Nixon in China in 1972
The US President Richard Nixon visited China on February 21, 1972.

Furthermore, the US withdrew their troops from Taiwan. The American objective was to take advantage of the rivalry between China and the USSR in order to withdraw itself from Asia and let China limit the soviet influence in the region. It worked to a certain extent because in 1979 the pro-USSR Vietnam attacked Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge who were supported by China and who managed to repelled Vietnamese troops.

II. China emerges: building power on a socialist market economy (1976-2000s)

When Mao died on September 9, 1976, China was not a great international power yet and still suffered from under-development. Deng Xiaoping imposed himself at the head of the country in 1978 and put China on the rails of economic liberalism, thus setting aside Marxism.

A. Priority given to economic growth: economic liberalism and globalisation

Deng Xiaoping invented the paradoxical concept of socialist market economy which is an ideal combination of communism and the law of market forces. He undertook the “Four modernisations” which consisted of reforming 4 sectors of activity: agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defence. In 1980, China became a member of the World Bank and of the International Monetary Front (IMF).

Besides, China was motivated by the example of its capitalist neighbours, the four Asian Tigers. Indeed between the 1960s and the 1990s, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore rapidly industrialised their economies and experienced high growth rates.

Map of the 4 Asian Tigers

On the opposite, the communist model of the USSR didn’t obtain similar results and its economic production was stagnant. China decided to progressively set up Special Economic Zones (SEZ) to attract foreign investments and then develop exportations. Foreign companies that implemented their factories in these zones benefited from tax alleviations and administrative help in exchange for mandatory transfers of technologies to China. The SEZs associated with a large workforce gave China the status of “the World’s Factory”. Its ports grew and rapidly took a global importance which favoured the development of its exports.

The 5 Chinese Special Economic Zones

Moreover, private enterprise was encouraged and central planning, especially regarding prices, was partly abandoned. Small entrepreneurial projects were facilitated and big industrial groups were privatised such that in 1999 the Chinese state owned half of the Chinese large and medium-size companies.

B. Maintaining an authoritarian power at home

As a matter of fact, Deng Xiaoping’s liberal reforms only applied to the economic realm, not the political one. While in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev (the Soviet leader) launched his policy of “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring), which was characterised by the end of a unique party, free elections and a relative freedom of speech, China took an opposite stance.

Indeed, any demand for democracy was violently dismissed. In 1978-1979, during the “Beijing Spring”, the Chinese population expressed its opinion about the “Four modernisations”. The government tolerated this movement as long as it only demanded an acceleration of the reforms. However, when the dissident and former member of the Red Guard, Wei Jingsheng, started calling for the 5th modernisation, that is to stay a democratisation of the Chinese society, he was arrested and became a political prisoner and the movement of popular expression was immediately repressed.

Ten years later, students gathered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing where the main governmental buildings were located in order to voice their discontent and ask for an acceleration of political and social reforms. For instance, they demanded the end of bureaucracy and nepotism, more respect of human rights and a better access to education. Even though slogans didn’t criticize the Chinese communist regime, Deng Xiaoping condemned the movement which actually reinforced it. As a result, on June 4, 1989, the government sent the army that shoot on the crowd and killed 2,000 protesters.

Western countries immediately cut their ties with China while the UN condemned the repression. However, private companies that had activities in China pressured their governments in order to re-establish relations with “the World’s Factory”. Consequently, in 1992 the diplomatic situation was back to normal between China and the Western world.

Tank Man during the Tiananmen Square
“Tank Man” was an unidentified protester who stood in front of tanks on June 4 1989. He was not the only one to do it but he was the only one to be photographed.

C. Abandonment of social issues: rise of inequalities and worsening of living conditions

The advent of a capitalist economy increased the level of inequalities within the Chinese population and the overall improvement of living conditions was counterbalanced by a rampant inflation.

Socio-spatial inequalities surged between inland and coastal China as well as between the countryside and cities. In fact, life expectancy in Eastern China became closer to the European one whereas in the West it remained at the level of developing countries. Urban populations also enjoyed a better access to health care and education. Therefore, an important rural exodus took place at the end of the 20th century in China : millions of Mingongs came to work in cities while dwelling in slums.

Mingong in a slum
Mingong in Anhui province.

Furthermore, the pollution level in Chinese cities at the end of the 1990s was barely bearable due to the lack of environmental norms that would have constrained foreign companies that used fossil fuel as their principal source of energy. Besides, factories threw away their waste in rivers which degraded water drinkability.

III. China dominates: broadening the basis of its power (2000’s- 2021)

At the beginning of the 2000s, China turned into an emerging economic superpower. Its annual growth exceeded 10% of its GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Nonetheless this power remained fragile and incomplete.

A. An economic giant: a new pole of the world’s economy

The Chinese economy ranks second behind the US today because it took advantage of globalisation to get a GDP growth rate around 10% per year between the 1990s and the 2000s. Nonetheless, this apparent economic success hides another reality: China’s nominal GDP per capita ranks 63rd in the world in 2020.

As “The World’s Factory”, many companies called on to China in order to manufacture their product. For instance, Apple’s iPhone is assembled in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chengdu and Wuhan by 2 Taiwanese firms, Pegatron and Foxconn. Indeed, transnational firms seek to take advantage of a large and cheap Chinese labour force as well as flexible and reactive outsourcing partners.

Besides, Chinese public authorities invested massively in emergent sectors such as telecommunications, transport infrastructures and renewable energies (e.g. the Three Gorges Dam in 2012).

Three Gorges Dam

B. An increasing political power: asserting its international ambitions

The two tenets of the Chinese foreign policy are: get respected by established powers (US, UE and Japan) and show solidarity with Southern countries.

Beside sitting at the UN Security Council since 1971 (which implies that it has a veto power), China has participated in several UN peace-keeping missions especially in Africa like in South Sudan where it has energy interests (currently more than 1,000 Chinese soldiers in this country). Furthermore, as said before, China possesses nuclear weapons since 1964 thus increasing its weight in international negotiations.

In its objective to build alliances with Southern countries, China invests in Africa at a pace of +40%/year. This money is used for the construction of hospitals and transport networks in exchange for lands and natural resources. African countries prefer China to Western powers since China doesn’t put pressure on them to democratise and respect human rights. Likewise, unlike the IMF, China lends to South-American countries without asking for political reforms in exchange.

Chinese investments in Africa

Regionally, China’s political power is consequential. First of all, it is tightening its grip on Hong-Kong and Macao that were respectively ceded by the UK and Portugal in 1997 and 1999. Furthermore, it is a major member of the ASEAN+3, an economic and political association created in 1967 and that gathers 13 South-East Asian countries. Additionally, China attempts to assert its power over its neighbours and notably Taiwan and Japan in the conflict that oppose them regarding the ownership of the islands Diaoyu/Senkaku in the East China Sea. Besides, since India is becoming a serious competitor for the leadership of the Asian continent, China seeks to reinforce its historic partnership with Pakistan.

Map maritime dispute between China, Japan and Taiwan over EEZ borders in the East China Sea

C. The limits of Chinese power

China remains an authoritarian regime which degrades its image overseas. The successive General Secretaries of the Communist Party of China Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989), Jiang Zemin (1989-2002), Hu Jintao (2002-2012) and Xi Jingping (2012-now) successively dismissed political liberalism: the 5th modernisation didn’t take place. In fact, the communist party doubles every state institution with its own and directly controls the only worker union in the country. The latter generally doesn’t support strikes… surprise! Moreover, the Internet and social networks are under surveillance and some websites are blocked and replaced by Chinese ones like Tencent Video for Youtube, WeChat is a more sophisticated version of Facebook and Sina Weibo replaces Twitter. Furthermore, the Chinese image abroad is tarnished by the violent repression of the Tibetan independence movement and the internment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. However, Western countries and transnational firms seem to accommodate themselves to Chinese abuses of power over its population when it comes to implementing new factories there. Human-right criticisms do not measure up to economic imperatives.

Map of China with the Xinjiang and the Tibet regions

China’s global influence is also limited by its army’s inability (for the moment) to compete with occidental armed forces. Even though it is the biggest army in the world with a total number of soldiers amounting to 2.4 million, its technological and logistical capacities don’t match yet those of the USA and Japan. Nonetheless, the time when China will vie with western military powers can’t be far off… It is building aircraft-carriers and nuclear submarines and takes advantage of Russian technologies and military equipment within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning
The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning accompanied by several warships. It was built in 2012. Currently, China has 2 aircraft carriers and is about to get a third one.

From a social standpoint, poverty is still rampant and socio-economic inequalities keep increasing since the death of Mao in 1976. For instance, China’s Human Development Index ranks only 116th in the world and 0.5% of its population owns 70% of its wealth. In addition, there is a considerable development gap between the inland and the coast which has caused massive movement of population towards the big cities in the East.

According to Joseph Nye (founder of the concept of hard and soft power), “the Chinese soft power is a failure” (2004).

Hard power is the use of military and economic means to coerce others and make them do something that they wouldn’t have done otherwise.

Soft power is the use of diplomatic and cultural means to shape others’ decisions by resorting to appeal and attraction.

In fact, the Chinese soft power is limited to its 525 Confucius Institutes and its diaspora (60 million of which roughly 45 million live in Asia) whose cultural influence is far from being as strong as its economic power.

Confucius Institutes are public partnerships between China and foreign schools and universities. The goal of this educational program is to teach Chinese and spread Chinese culture overseas.

Map of Confucius Institutes by continent in 2018
In 2018, there were 525 in the world.

Even though it has made efforts and organised the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai and signed the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, China is more receptive to the western cultural influence than the Western world is to the Chinese way of live.

The theme of the 2010 World Expo was “Better city, better life” and it welcomed more than 73 million visitors.

You may be interested in my article on Economic Development and Democracy !


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