The People's Republic of China was proclaimed in the aftermath of the Communist Party's triumph in the Chinese Civil War by Mao Zedong on October 1, 1949.
The Mao era
The new government assumed control of a people exhausted by two generations of war and social conflict and an economy ravaged by high inflation and disrupted transportation links. A new political and economic order modeled on the Soviet example was quickly installed. The Soviet Union and the PRC signed a mutual defense treaty on February 15, 1950.
In the early 1950s, the PRC undertook a massive economic and social reconstruction. The new leaders gained popular support by curbing inflation, restoring the economy, and rebuilding many war-damaged industrial installations. The Communist Party of China's (CPC) authority reached into almost every phase of Chinese life. Party control was assured by large, politically loyal security and military forces; a government apparatus responsive to party direction; and ranks of party members in labor, women's, and other mass organizations.
New China is born: Mao Zedong proclaims the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949.
In 1958 Mao broke with the Soviet model and announced a new economic program, the "Great Leap Forward," aimed at rapidly raising industrial and agricultural production. Giant cooperatives (communes) were formed, and "backyard factories" dotted the Chinese landscape. The results were disastrous. Normal market mechanisms were disrupted, agricultural production fell behind, and Mainland China's people exhausted themselves producing what turned out to be shoddy, unsellable goods. Within a year, starvation appeared even in fertile agricultural areas. From 1960 to 1961, the combination of poor planning during the Great Leap Forward and bad weather resulted in famine.
The already strained Sino-Soviet relationship deteriorated sharply in 1959, when the Soviets started to restrict the flow of scientific and technological information to China. The dispute escalated, and the Soviets withdrew all of their personnel from China in August 1960. In the same year, the Soviets and the Chinese began to have disputes openly in international forums.
In the early 1960s, President Liu Shaoqi and Party General Secretary Deng Xiaoping took over direction of the party and adopted pragmatic economic policies at odds with Mao's communitarian vision. Dissatisfied with mainland China's new direction and his own reduced authority, Party Chairman Mao launched a massive political attack on Liu, Deng, and other pragmatists in the spring of 1966. The new movement, the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," was unprecedented in Communist history. For the first time, a section of the Chinese communist leadership sought to rally popular opposition against another leadership group. Mainland China was set on a course of political and social anarchy, which lasted the better part of a decade.
In the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his "closest comrade in arms," National Defense Minister Lin Biao, charged Liu, Deng, and other top party leaders with dragging the country back toward capitalism. Radical youth organizations, called Red Guards, attacked party and state organizations at all levels, seeking out leaders who would not bend to the radical wind. In reaction to this turmoil, some local People's Liberation Army (PLA) commanders and other officials maneuvered to outwardly back Mao and the radicals while actually taking steps to rein in local radical activity.
Gradually, Red Guard and other radical activity subsided, and the Chinese political situation stabilized along complex factional lines. The leadership conflict came to a head in September 1971, when Party Vice Chairman and Defense Minister Lin Biao reportedly tried to stage a coup against Mao; Lin Biao allegedly later died in a plane crash in Mongolia.
In the aftermath of the Lin Biao incident, many officials criticized and dismissed during 1966-1969 were reinstated. Chief among these was Deng Xiaoping, who reemerged in 1973 and was confirmed in 1975 in the concurrent posts of Politburo Standing Committee member, PLA Chief of Staff, and Vice Premier.
The ideological struggle between more pragmatic, veteran party officials and the radicals re-emerged with a vengeance in late 1975. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and three close Cultural Revolution associates (later dubbed the "Gang of Four") launched a media campaign against Deng. In January 1976, Premier Zhou Enlai, a popular political figure, died of cancer. On April 5, Beijing citizens staged a spontaneous demonstration in Tiananmen Square in Zhou's memory, with strong political overtones in support of Deng. The authorities forcibly suppressed the demonstration. Deng was blamed for the disorder and stripped of all official positions, although he retained his party membership. This demonstration and its suppression is generally known as the Tiananmen incident.
China's first generation Communist leaders: (from left to right) Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, Chen Yun, Liu Shaoqi, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping
The large number of deaths during the period of consolidation of power after victory in the Chinese Civil War paled in comparison to the number of deaths caused by famine, anarchy, war, and foreign invasion in the years before the Communists took power.
Supporters of Mao point out that before 1949, for instance, the illiteracy rate in Mainland China was 80 percent, and life expectancy was a meager 35 years. At his death, illiteracy had declined to less than seven per cent, and average life expectancy had increased to more than 70 years. In addition, China's population which had remained constant at 400 million from the Opium War to the end of the Civil War, mushroomed to 700 million as of Mao's death. Under Mao's regime, China ended its "Century of Humiliation" and resumed its status as a major power. Mao also industrialized China to a considerable extent and ensured China's sovereignty during his reign.
Skeptics will observe that similar gains in life expectancy occurred in the East Asian Tigers most notably Taiwan which was ruled by Mao's opponents, the Kuomintang. Some of the gains may have simply been the result of a country no longer at war, so even an incompetent regime could achieve such improvements. Furthermore, the experiences of the Tigers and the Deng Xiaoping reforms suggest that Mao's economic policy led to far poorer economic outcomes than a more decentralized approach. Other critics of Mao fault him for not encouraging birth control and for creating a demographic bump which later Chinese leaders responded to with the one child policy. The one-child limit usually pertains to overpopulated urban areas. In rural areas restrictions are usually more lenient.
The immediate cause of the post-Mao birth control policy was the demographic bump of people born in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1949 the population of the PRC was about 400 million. In 1970, the population was 700 million. In the late 1970s, the Chinese leadership was alarmed by the fact that the "demographic bump" would soon begin entering childbearing years, and so it was decided to encourage family planning for this generation.
Since the mid-1990s there has been considerable relaxation in family planning policies in the People's Republic of China, largely due to the fact that the "demographic bump" of people born in the 1960s is now moving out of fertility age.
The People's Republic of China, unlike virtually any other Third World nation, no longer has to fear the prospects of over-population, malnutrition, and famine in spite of the doubling of life expectancy during the Mao years. With population growth stabilized, mainland China is sustaining one of the world's highest rates of per capita economic growth in the world.
The ideology surrounding Mao's interpretation of Marxism-Leninism, also known as Maoism, has influenced many communists around the world, including third world revolutionary movements such as Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, Peru's Shining Path and the revolutionary movement in Nepal. Ironically, the PRC has moved sharply away from Maoism since his death, and most of Mao's followers regard the Deng Xiaoping reforms to be a betrayal of Mao's legacy.
Last updated: 02-07-2005 11:06:06
Last updated: 05-06-2005 01:27:49