China’s emergence as a global power has been one of the most compelling stories of our time. As the world’s oldest major continuous civilization, with records dating back about 3,500 years, it is also the world’s most populous country, with more than 1.3 billion people. To curb growth of that population and conserve resources, China famously introduced its ‘‘one-child policy’’ in 1979. The law has been softened over the years, and enough exceptions added that only about one-third of the population is still restricted to having one child.
After decades of internal political and social struggle and an emergence into the global economy, China continues to experience significant changes and challenges, from economic to social and political. Yet, with its rapidly growing economy and immense size, it stands as a key nation to watch and a potential superpower.
The country’s recent history is tumultuous. On October 1, 1949, Communist Party of China (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and, not long after, began a massive economic, social and political reconstruction modeled, in part, on the Soviet communist example. The ruling party took control of a nation suffering from decades of civil war and social conflict, and a resulting bleak economy. After the creation of the PRC, the party’s heavy influence on every aspect of Chinese life was and is maintained by large, loyal security and military force.
Mao’s reforms, often driven by political intent, turned several bad situations to worse. Under his watch, the nation suffered a devastating famine from 1960 to 1961 that killed millions, spurred by thrill-planned ‘Great Leap Forward’ aimed at rapidly raising industrial and agricultural production. Bad science and ruined crops left millions without basic food and necessities.
In 1966, with the country still weak from the Great Famine, Mao initiated the ‘‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,’’ a forceful campaign to battle his political opposition, which set China on a course of political and social anarchy that lasted the better part of a decade. Today’s China is rife with reminders of the Cultural Revolution, with many of its social customs and niceties driven out forcefully with the mandate to destroy everything old.
Following Mao’s death in September 1976, a new, pragmatic leadership under successor Deng Xiaoping – a former political exile during the Cultural Revolution – initiated a new model of economic development and renounced mass political movement. Deng’s 1978 policy to engage in trade and dialogue with the outside world brought great improvements in the standard of living, especially for urban workers and for farmers who were able to diversify crops and establish village industries.
Literature and the arts blossomed, and Chinese intellectuals established extensive links with scholars in other countries. Throughout this period, Chinese leadership adopted a more practical perspective toward many political and economic problems, and reduced the role of ideology in economic policy.
However, political dissent as well as social problems such as inflation, urban migration, and prostitution began to re-emerge. Years of growing conflict between party hardliners in the central government and students and intellectuals with pro-market, pro-democracy, and anti-corruption visions, escalated, then erupted in the late 1980s. On May 20, 1989, martial law was declared in Beijing, following weeks of peaceful protests that drew in more than 1 million residents of Beijing and swept through other cities across China. The conflicts culminated with a bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4, when the People’s Liberation Army retook Beijing and the square by force, killing an estimated hundreds of unarmed civilians in the process.
Following the Tiananmen crackdown, many countries severed diplomatic and economic involvement with China. The country’s economic progress was stilted and made slow recovery throughout the early 1990s with a number of younger, reform-minded leaders beginning to rise to top positions. In the late 1990s, Premier Zhu Rongji, second in command to President Jiang Zemin, led a renewed push for economic development and engagement, and has been credited as being the primary architect of models that helped create China’s current economic success.
Reform of state industries through the large-scale privatization of unprofitable state-owned enterprises and the establishment of a social safety net were key government priorities throughout the 1990s and the early part of this decade. Mass privatization has not been without problems, however, as millions have protested since the 1990s elimination of the ‘‘iron rice bowl,’’ the CCP’s promised cradle-to-grave pension and health-care systems for all Chinese workers. The country is currently without basic health care coverage for all citizens, but is engaged in a massive reform effort. Pension reform is also on the table.
In March 2003, General Secretary Hu Jintao was elected President at the 10th National People’s Congress and remains leader of the country. Since the Tiananmen crackdown, and resulting economic stall, China worked vigorously to reengage with foreign countries. By the late 1990s, it had resumed normal relations with almost all nations. Under Hu’s tenure, the country moved to become the world’s leading destination for foreign direct investment.
China’s economic growth and reform over three decades has dramatically improved the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese. For many, there is increased social mobility, and new opportunities for employment and vastly improved quality-of-life. At present, China has the world’s highest number of internet users, at an estimated 253 million (2008) people with online access to information. Yet the Internet in China remains heavily censored.
In recent years, China has also passed new criminal and civil laws that provide higher protection of its citizens. Village elections have been carried out in over 90 per cent of China’s estimated one million villages, although the procedures behind these have been criticized. Vast problems remain, however, because of rampant government corruption, lack of the rule of law and a growing wealth gap between urban and rural residents.
Religion is more widely tolerated than at any time in the past 60 years, with an estimated 100 million adherents of Buddhism, along with traditional Taoism. Official figures indicate there are also 20 million Muslims, 15 million Protestants, and 5 million Catholics.
However, political and social repression are often said to be at extremely high levels in the modern age. Historians say China made a deal with its citizens in the post-1989 world: Behave, don’t ask for too much politically, and you will benefit from aggressive economic reforms. The government now faces the challenge of maintaining economic expectations while tempering citizens’ expectations about political involvement. Mass protests have mushroomed in recent years, with thousands reported every year across China, over everything from environmental poisoning to labor rights.
Along with economic and social progress has come a serious negative consequence of China’s development: increased pollution and degradation of natural resources. China is now the world’s largest emitter of climate-change causing carbon emissions.
China is a participant in climate change talks and other multilateral environmental negotiations, but wants to remain labeled a ‘‘developing nation,’’ not subject to binding targets or emissions caps. President Hu Jintao attended the 2009 G8 Climate Change Summit in New York and said his nation takes environmental challenges seriously. China continues to push for the developed world to help developing countries to a greater extent in this arena, but has not committed its own financial resources as it still wishes to be considered a developing nation in this regard.
China’s military expenditures are moderate but growing fast. It currently ranks 25th in the world for military spending. China was the first state to pledge ‘‘no first use’’ of nuclear weapons. It joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1984 and pledged to abstain from further atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in 1986.
China continues to face international criticism for its political oppression and censorship policies. These practices include the government’s monitoring, intimidation and arrest of journalists, bloggers lawyers, political and religious activists, and political critics. The Internet remains heavily censored. The activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also continue to be restricted. Foreign media in China continue to be subject to restrictions not seen in other countries of China’s size and clout. Reports indicate a steady stream of harassment and intimidation against foreign reporters, while Chinese domestic media remains heavily censored.
Kathleen E. McLaughlin, China Correspondent