As modern archeology gradually confirms ancient records of the coun try’s earliest times, it seems that, however fir back you go, China’s his tory is essentially the saga of its dynasties, a succession of warring rulers who ultimately differed only in the degree of their autocracy. Although this generalized view is inevitable in the brief account below, bear in mind that. While the concept of being Chinese has been around for over two thousand years, the closer you look, the less ” China ” seems to exist as an enti ty right from the start, and regionalism played an important part in the coun try’s history. And while concentrating on the great events, it’s also easy to for get that the lot of those ruled was often appalling. The emperors may have lived in splendor while their courts produced talented writers, poets and artisans, ‘Lit among the peasantry taxes, famine and early death were the norm. While lie Cultural Revolution, ingrained corruption, and clampdowns on political dissent in Beijing and Tibet may not be a good track record for the people’s Re public, it’s also true that only since its birth in 1949 – which seems like yes terday in China’s immense timescale – has even the possibility of a decent qual ity of life been imaginable for the ordinary citizen.
Prehistory and the Three Dynasties
Chinese legends hold that the creator, Pan Ku, was born from the egg of Laos and press to fill the space between Yin, the earth, and Yang, the heav ens,. For eighteen thousand years Pan Ku chiseled the earth to its present ire with the aid of a dragon, a unicorn, a phoenix and a tortoise. When died, his body became the soil, rivers and rain, his eyes the sun and moon, bile his parasites transformed into human beings. A pantheon of semi-di vine rulers known as the Five Sovereigns followed, each reigning for a hundred years or more and inventing fire, the calendar, agriculture, silk-breeding and marriage Later a famous triumvirate included Yao the Benevolent who abdicated in favor of Shu. Shu toiled in the sun until his skin turned black and then lie abdicated in favor of Yu the Great, tamer of floods and said to be the founder of China’s first dynasty, the Xiao. The Xia was reputed to have lasted 439 years until their last degenerate and corrupt king was overthrown by the Shang dynasty The Shang was in turn succeed ed by the Zhou, who ended this legendary era by virtue of leaving court histories behind them. Together, the Xia, Shang and Zhou are generally known as the Three Dynasties.
As f ar as archeology is concerned, homo erectus remains from Liaoning, Anhui, Beijing and Yunnan provinces indicate that China was already broadly occupied by human ancestors well before modern mankind began to emerge 200,0 00 years ago. Excavations of more recent Stone Age sites show that agricultural communities based around the fertile Yellow River and Yangzi basins, such as Banpo in Shanxi and Homudu in Zhejiang, were producing pottery and silk by 5000 BC. It was along the Yellow River, too, that solid evidence of bronze-working Three Dynasties first came to light, with the discovery of a series of large rammed-earth palaces at Erlitou near Luovang, now believed to have been the Xia capital in 2000 BC.
Little is known about the Xia, though their territory apparently encompassed Shanai, Henan and Heibei. The events of the subsequent Shang dynasty, however, were first documented just before the time of Christ by the historian
Sima Qian, and his previously discredited accounts have been supported in recent years by a stream of finds. Based over much the same area as their predecessors and lasting from roughly 1750 BC to 1040 BC, Shang society had a king, a class system and a skilled bronze technology which permeated beyond the borders into Sichuan, and produced the splendid vessels found in today’s musums. Excavations on the site of – Yin, the Shang capital, have found tombs stuffed with weapons, jade ornaments, traces of silk and sacrificial vic tims – indicating belief in ancestor worship and an afterlife. The Shang also practised divination by incising questions onto tortoiseshell or bone and then heating them to study the way in wh ich the material cracked around the w ords. These oracle bones provide China’s earliest written records, cover ing topics as diverse as rainfall, dreams and ancestral curses.
Around 1040 BC a northern tribe, the Zhou, overthrew the Shang. expand ed their kingdom west of the Yellow River into Shanxi and set up a capital at Xi’an. Adopting many Shang customs, the Zhou also introduced the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven, a belief justifying successful rebellion by declar ing that heaven grants ruling authority to leaders who are strong and w ise, and takes it from those who aren’t – still an integral part of the Chinese political perspective. The Zhou consequently styled themselves “Sons of Heaven” and ruled through a hierarchy of vassal lords, whose growing independence led to the gradual dissolution of die Zhou kingdom from around 600 BC.
The decline of the Zhou dynasty
Driven to a new capital at Luoyang, later Zhou rulers exercised only a sy mbol ic role: real power was fought over by some two hundred city states and kingdoms, during the four hundred years known as the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods. This time of violence was also a time of vitality and change. As the feudal system broke down, traditional religion gave way to new ideas based on the writings of Kong Fuzi, or Confucius, and also oil Tao ism and Legalism. As the warring states rubbed up against one another, agriculture and irrigation, trade, transport and diplomacy were all
galvanized; iron was first smelted for weapons and tools, and great discoveries made in medicine, astronomy and mathematics. Three hundred years of war and annexation reduced the competitors to seven states, whose territories, collec tively known as Zhong Grio, the Middle Kingdom, had now – expanded west into Sichuan, south to Hunan and north to the Mongolian border.
The Qin dynasty
The fighting of the Warring States period came to an end only in third century BC with the rise of a new dynasty – the Qin. For five hundred years the state of Qin – originally based on modern Shanxi – had gradually been gobbling up its neighbors. In 221 BC its armies conquered the last pocket (if resistance in the Middle Kingdom, cast-coast Qi (Shandong), uniting the Chi nese as a single centralized state for the first time, and implementing system of currency and writing that were to last millennia. The rule of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, was absolute: ancient literature and
historical records were destroyed to wipe out any ideas that conflicted with his own, and peasants were forced off their land to work as laborers on his massive construction projects, which saw thousands of kilometers of roads, canals and in early version of the Great Wall laid down across the new empire. Burning with ambition to rule tile entire known world, Huang’s armies gradually pushed beyond the Middle Kingdom, expanding Chinese rule, if not absolute control, west and southeast. but, though he introduced the basis of China’s enduring legacy of bureaucr atic government, Huang’s 37-year reign was ultim ately too self-centered – still apparent in the massive tomb (guarded by the famous Terracotta Army) he: had built for himself at his capital, Xi’an. When hr died in 210 13C the provinces rose in revolt, and his heirs soon proved to lack the personal authority which had held his empire together.
The Han dynasty
In 306 BC the rebel warlord Liu Bang took Xi’an, and Founded the Han dynasty. Lasting some four hundred years and larger at its height than contemporary imperial Rome, the Hall was the first great empire, one that experienced a flowering of culture and a major impetus to push out frontiers and open them to trade, people and new ideas. In doing so it defined the national identity to such an extent that the main body of the Chinese people still style themselves “Han Chinese” after this dynasty.
Liu Bang maintained the Qin model of local government, but to prevent oth ers from repeating his own Military takeover, he strengthened his position by handing out large chunks of land to his relatives. This secured a period of sta bility, with effective taxation financing a growing civil service and the building 4 a huge and cosmopolitan capital, Chang’an, at today’s Xi’an. Growing rev enue also refueled the expansionist policies of later ruler Wu. From 13.5 to 90 13C he extended his lines of defense well into Xingjian and Yunnan, opening up the Silk Road for trade in tea, spices and silk with India, west Asia and Rome. He used his sons and competent generals to beat off northern tribes, enter Korea, and to subdue and colonize the unruly southern states, including Guangdong and even parts of Vietnam. At home Wu stressed to Confucian m odel for his growing civil service, beginning a two-thousand-year institution of Confucianism in government offices.
But, eventually, the empire’s resource, and supply lines were stretched to b reaking point, while the burden of taxation led to unrest and retrenchment. Gradualle the ruling house became decadent and was weakened by power str uggles between rival fictions of imperial consorts, eunuchs and statesmen, un til Wang Mang, regent for a child emperor, usurped the rule to found his own brief dynasty in 9AD. Fifteen years later the Eastern Han was re-establ ished from a new capital at Luoyang, where the classical tradition was re-imposed under Emperor Liu Xiu, though after his reign the dynasty was again gradually undermined by factional intrigue. Internal strife was later fomented by the Yellow Turbans, w ho drew their following from Taoist cults, while local governments and landowners began to set up as semi-independent rulers, with the country once again splitting into warring states. But by this trine two ~ major schools of philosophy and religion had emerged to survive the ensuing
chaos. Confucianism’s ideolop – of a centralized universal order had crystallized imperial authoritc: and Buddhism, introduced into the country from India, began to enrich aspects of life and thought, especially in the fine arts and lit erature, while itself being absorbed and changed bv native beliefs.
The Three Kingdoms
Nearly four hundred years separate the collapse of the Han in about 220 AD and the return of unity under the Sin in 589. China cc – as under a single gov ernment for only about fifty years of that time, though the idea of a unified empire was never forgotten.
From 300 All the three states of Wei, Wu and Shu struggled for supremacy in a protracted and massively complicated -ear (later immortalized in the saga Romance of the kingdoms ) that ruined central, China and encour aged mass migrations southwards. The following centuries saw China’s regional ism becoming entrenched: the Southern Empire suffered weak and short-lived dynasties, but nevertheless there was prosperity and economic growth, with the capital at Nanjing becoming a thriving trading and cultural centre. Meanwhile, with the borders unprotected. The north was invaded in 386 by the Tobas, who established the northern Wei dynasty after their aristocracy adopted Chinese manners and customs – a pattern of assimilation that would recur with other invaders. At their first capital, Datong, they created wo nderful series of Buddhist carvings, but in 534 their empire fell apart. After grabbing power from his regent in 581, general Yang Jian unified the fragmented northern states and then went on to conquer southern China b% land and sea, founding the Sui dynasty.
The Three Kingdoms period was in some ways a dark age of war, violence and genocide, but it was also a richly formative one and, when the dust had settled, a very different society had emerged. For much of this time many areas produced a food surplus which could support a rich and leisured ruling class in the cities and the countrys ide, as w ell as large armies and burgeoning Buddhist communities. So culture developed, literature flourished, calligraphy and sculpture, especially Buddhist carvings, all enriched by indian and central Asian elements, reached unsurpassed levels. This was a rich legacy for the ensu ing Sui and Tang dynasties to build on.
The Sui get short shrift in historical surveys. Their brief empire was soon eclipsed by their successors, the Tang, but until the dynasty over-reached itself on the military front in Korea and burnt out, two of its three emperors could claim considerable achievements. Until his death in 604 Yang J ian himself – Emperor Wen -was an active ruler who took the best front the past and built on it. He simplified and strengthened the bureaucracy, boug ht in a new le g al code. Recentralized civil and military authority and made tax collection more efficient. Neat Xi’an his architects designed a new capital, Da Xing Cheng (City of Great Prosperity), with a palace city, a residential quarter of 1(l8 walled compounds, several vast markets and an outer wall over 35kin round – quite probably the largest city in the world at that time. After Wen’s death in 604, Yang Di elbowed his elder brother out to become emperor. Yang improved administration, (‘no ” Ill aged a revival of Confucian learning and promoted a strong foreign policy. But his engineering works – or rather the forced labor needed to complete them have left him portrayed as a proverbially “Evil Emperor”, principally for ordering the construction of the two-thousand-kilometer Grand Canal to transport produce between the rice bowl of the southern Yangzi to his capital at Xi’an. Half of the total work force of 5,500,000 died, and Yang was assassinated in 618 after popular hatred had inspired a military revolt led by General Li Yuan.
Medieval China : Tang to Song
The seventh century marks the beginning of the medieval period of Chinese, history. This was the age in which Chinese culture reached its most cosmopolitan and sophisticated peak, a time of experimentation in literature, art, music, and agriculture, and one which unified seemingly incompatible elements.
Having changed his name to Gao Zu, Li Yuan consolidated his new Tang dynasty by spending the rest of his eight-year reign getting rid of all his rivals. Under his son Tai Zong, Tang China expanded: the Turks were crushed, the Tibetans brought to heel and relations established with Byzantium. China kept open house for traders and travelers of all races and creeds, who settled in the mercantile cities of Yangzhou and Guangzhou, bringing with them their religions, especially Islam, and influencing the arts, cookery, fashion and entertainment China’s goods flowed out to India, Persia, the Near East and many other countr ies, and her language and religion gained currency in Japan and Korea. At home, Buddhism remained the all-pervading foreign influence, with Chinese pilgrims traveling w idely in India. The best known of these, Xuanzang, set off in 629 and returned after sixteen years in India with a mass of Buddhist sutras, adding greatly to China’s storehouse of knowledge.
Xi’an’s population swelled to over a million and it became one of the world’s, great cultural centers, heart of a centralized and powerful state. A decade after Tai Zong’s death in 649, his short-lived son Gao Zong and China’s only empress, Win Zetian, had expanded tile Tang empire’s direct influence from Korea to Iran, and south into Vietnam. Wu Zetian was a great patron of Buddhism, commis sioning the famous Longmen carvings outside Luoyang, and, though widely unpopular, she created a civil service selected on merit rather than birth. Her suc cessor, Xuan Zong, began well in 712, but his later infatuation with the beautiful concubine Yang Guifei led to the An Lushan rebellion of 755, his flight to Sichuan and Yang’s ignominious death at the hands of his mutineering army. Xuan Zong’s son, Su Zong, enlisted the help of Tibetan and Uigur forces and recaptured Xi’an from the rebels; but though the court was re-established, it had ~~It its authority and real power was once again shifting to the provinces.
The following two hundred years saw the country split into regional Polit ical and military alliances. From 907 to 960 Five Dynasties succeeded each then all too short-lived to be effective. China’s northern defenses were perm anently weakened, While her economic dependence on the south increase and the dispersal of power brought sweeping social changes. The traditional elite whose fortunes were tied to the dynasty gave way to a military and mer chant class who bou ght land to acquire status, Plus a professional ruling class sele cted by examination. In the south the Ten Kingdoms (some existing side by side) managed to retain what was left of the Tang civilization, their greater stability and economic prosperity sustaining a relatively high cultur al level.
Finally, in 960, a disaffected army in the north put a successful general. Song Tai Zu, on the throne. His new ruling house, know as the Northern Song, made its capital at Kaifeng in the Yellow River basin, well placed at the head of the Grand Canal for transport to supply its million people with grain from the south. By skilled politicking rather than military might the new dynasty consolidated its authority over surrounding petty kingdoms and re-established civilian primacy. But in 1115, northern China was occupied by the Jin, who pushed the imperial court south to Hangzhou where, guarded by the Yangzi River, their culture continued to flourish from 1126 as the Southern Song. Developments during their 150 year dynasty included gunpowder, the mag netic compass, fine porcelain and moveable type printing. But the Song pre occupation with art and sophistication saw their military might decline and led to them underrating their aggressive “barbarian” neighbours, whose own expansionist policies culminated in the thirteenth-century Mongol Invasion.
The Yuan dynasty
In fact, Mongolian influence had first penetrated China in the eleventh centu ry, when the Son, emperors paid tribute to separate Mongolian states to keep their armies from invading. But these individual fiefdoms were unified by Genghis Khan in 1206 to form an immensely powerful army, which swiftly began the conquest of northern China. Despite Chinese resistance and dilatory Mongol infighting, by 1278 the Yuan dynasty was on the Chinese throne, with Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, at the head of an empire that stretched was beyond China’s borders. From their capital at Khanbalik (mod ern Beijing), theYuan’s emperors’ central control boosted China’s economy and helped repair five centuries of civil war. The country was also thrown wide open to foreign travellers, traders and missionaries; Arabs and Venetians were to be found in many Chinese ports, and a Russian came top of the Imperial Civil Service exam of 1341. The Grand Canal was extended from Beijing to Hangzhou, while in Beijing the Palace of All Tranquillities was built inside a new city wall, later known as the Forbidden City. Descriptions of much of this were brought back to Europe by Marco Polo, \x ho put his impressions of Yuan lifestyle and treasures on paper after living in Beijing for several }-ears and serving in the government of Kublai Khan.
The Yuan retained control over all China only until 1368, their power ulti mately sapped by a combination of becoming too Chinese for their northern brethren to tolerate, and too aloof from the Chinese to assimilate properly. After northern tribes had rebelled, and famine and disastrous floods brought a series of uprisings in China, a monk-turned-bandit leader from the south, Zhu Yuanzhang, seized the throne from the last boy emperor of the Yuan in 1368.
The Ming dynasty
Zhu Yuanzhang took the name Hong Wu and proclaimed himself first emper or of the Ming dynasty, with Nanjing as his capital. Zhu’s s influences on China’s history were far-reaching. Aside from his extreme despotism, which saw two appalling purges in which thousands of civil servants and literati died, he also initiated a course of isolationism from the outside world which lasted throughout the Ming and Qing eras. Consequently, Chinese culture became inward-looking, and the benefits of trade and connections with foreign powers were lost. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Ming construction of the current Great Wall, a grandiose but futile attempt to stern the invasion of northern tribes into China, built once military might and diplomacy began to break down in the fifteenth century.
Yet the period also produced fine artistic accomplishments, particularly porcelain from the imperial kilns at Jingdez6en, which became famous worldw ide. Nor were the Ming rulers entirely isolationist- During tile reign of Yongle. Zhu’s 26th son, the imperial navy (commanded by the Muslim e unuch, Admiral Zheng He) ranged right across the Indian Ocean as far as the cast coast of Africa on a fact-finding mission. But stagnation set in after Yongle’s death in 1424, and the maritime missions were cancelled as being incompatible with Confucian values, which held a strong contempt for foreigners. Thus initiative for world trade and explorations passed into the hands of the Europeans, with the great period of world voyages by Columbus, Magellan and Vasco da Gama. In 1514, Portuguese vessels appeared in the pearl River at the southern port of Guangzhou ( Canton ), and though they were swiftly expelled from here, Portugal was allowed to colonize nearby Macao in 1557. Though all dealings with foreigners were officially despised by the imperial court, trade flourished » Chinese merchants and officials were eager to milk the profit from it.
In later years, the Ming produced a succession of less able rulers who allowed power to slip into the hands of the seventy thousand inner court officials where it was used, not to run the empire, but for intriguing among the “eunuch b ureaucracy”. By the early seventeenth century, frontier defenses had fallen into decay, and the Manchu tribes in the north were already across the Great Wall. A series of peasant and military uprisings against the Ming began in 1627, and when the rebel Li Zicheng’s forces managed to break into the capital in 1644, the last Ming emperor fled from his palace and hanged himself – an ign oble end to a 300-year-old dynasty.
The Qing dynasty
The Manchus weren’t slow in turning internal dissent to their advantage. Sweeping down on Beijing, they threw out Li Zicheng’s army, claimed the capital as their own and founded the Qing dynasty. It took a further twenty years for the Manchus to capture the south of the country, but on its capitula tion China seas once again under foreign rule. Like the Mongol Yuan dynasty before them, the Qing initially did little to assimilate domestic culture, ruling the people as separate overlords. Manchu became the official Language, the Chinese were obliged to wear the Manchu pigtail and intermarriage between a Manchu and a Chinese was strictly forbidden. Under the Qing dynasty the distant areas of Inner and Outer Mongolia, Tibet and Turkestan were fully incorporated into the Chinese empire, uniting the Chinese world to a greater extent than during the Tang period.
Soon, however, the Manchus proved themselves susceptible to Chinese cul ture, and u4tiuaareh- became deeply influenced by it. Three outstanding Qing emperors also brought an infusion of new blood and vigour to government early – on in the dynasty. Kangxi, who began his 61-year reign in 1654 at the age of 6, was a great patron of the arts, leaving endless scrolls of famous callig raphy and paintings blotted with his seals stating that he had seen them. He assiduously cultivated his image as the Son of Heaven by making royal pro gresses throughout the country and by his personal style of leadership. He did much to bring the south under control and by 1683 the southern Rebellion of Three Federations (led by three military governors) had been savagely put do\ti n. His fourth son, the Emperor Yungzheng (1678-1735), ruled over what is considered one of the most efficient and least corrupt administrations ever enjoyed by China. This was inherited by Qianlong (1711-99), whose reign saw China’s frontiers widely extended and the economy stimulated by peace and prosperity. In 1750 the nation was perhaps at its apex, one of the strongest, wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world.
But during the latter half of the eighteenth century, China began to experi ence growing economic problems. Settled society had produced a population explosion, putting pressure on food resources and causing a land shortage. This in turn saw trouble faring as migrants from central China tried to settle the country’s remoter western provinces, dispossessing the original inhabitants. Meanwhile, expanding European nations were in Asia, looking for financial opportunities. From about 1660, Portuguese traders in Guangzhou had been joined by British merchants shopping for tea, silk and porcelain, and during the eighteenth century the British East India Company moved in, eager for a monopoly. But China’s rulers, immensely rich and powerful and convinced of their o-,vii superiority, had no wish for direct dealings with foreigners. When Lord Macartney arrived in 1793 bearing the usual gifts in order to propose a political and trade treaty between King George III and the emperor, lie refused to kowtow in submission and his embassy was unsuccessful. The king’s “tribute” was accepted but the emperor rejected totally any idea of alliance with one who, according to Chinese ideas, was a subordinate. Macartney was impressed by the vast wealth and power of the Chinese court, but later wrote perceptively that the empire was “like an old crazy first-rate man of war which its officers have contrived to keep afloat to terrify by its appearance and bulk”.
The Opium Wars and the Taiping Uprising
Foiled in their attempts at official negotiations with the Qing court, the East India Company decided to take matters into their own hands and create a clandestine market in China for Western goods. Instead of silver, they began to pay for tea and silk with opium, cheaply imported from India. As addicts and demand escalated during the early nineteenth century, China’s trade surplus became a deficit, as silver drained out of the country to pay for the drug. The emperor pronounced an edict strictly forbidding the trade, then, when this was ignored, suspended the traffic in 1840 by ordering the confiscation and destruction of over twenty thousand chests of opium – the start of the first Opium War. After two years of British gunboats shelling coastal ports, the Chinese were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing, whose humiliating terms included a huge indemnity, the opening up of new ports to foreign trade, and the cession of Hong Kong. This was the first in a long series of concessions extracted by Britain and other nations tinder various unequal treaties.
It was a crushing blow- for the Chinese, who failed to understand how alien techniques and organization had secured European superiority. Furthermore, the country now suffered major internal rebellions inspired by anti-Manchu feeling and economic hardship – themselves fuelled by rising taxes to pay off China’s war indemnity. While serious uprisings occurred in Guizhou and Yunnan, the most widespread was started by the Chinese Christian evangelist Hong Xiuquan, who, backed by his million strong Taiping army, stormed through central China in the 1850s to occupy much of the rich Yangzi Valley. Having captured Nanjing as his “Heavenly Capital”, however, Hong’s reign was weakened by internal dissent; and as the Taipings began to make military for ays towards Beijing, the European powers decided to step in, worried that Hong’s anti-foreign government might take control of the country. With their support, Qin, troops forced the Taipings back to their capital in 1864 and butchered them. Hong Xiuquan committed suicide and the Taiping Uprising was at an end, leaving t wenty million people dead and five provinces in ruins.
It was during the uprising that the Empress Dowager Wu Cixi first took over the reins of power in China, ruling from behind various emperors from 1861 until 1908. Ignorant, vain and certain that reform would weaken the Qings’ grasp of power; she pursued a deep conservatism at a time when China needed desperately to overhaul its ineffectual political and economic structure. On the home fro nt, profitable industries because owned by foreigners – who channeled their \%wealth out of the country – and increased Christian missiona ry after in undermined the traditional concepts on which Chinese society was based. In response, radical advisers persuaded Emperor Guangxu to instigate the Hundred Days Reform of 1898, an attempt to modernize agriculture, industry arid gov ernment institutions. But it was crushed by opposition from the Confucian establishment, backed by Cixi, who imprisoned Guangxu, exe cuted the advisers of reform and repealed their measures.
During this period, China’s colonial empire was fist disintegrating. France took the former vassal states of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in 1883-5; Britain gained Bunna; and Tibet, which had nominally been under China’s control since Tang rime,, began to assert its independence. But perhaps most important1y, in 1894 China sent two thousand troops to support the king of Korea when a rebellion broke out. In reply, Japan dispatched ten thousand to keep the rebel lion going, and within a few months Chinese and Korean forces were beaten. Under the treaty that followed, China was forced to cede the island of Taiwan, the Pescadores and the Liaodong Peninsula to Japan. This didn’t go down well on the international scene. France, Germany and Russia, fearful of Japan’s snowballing power, forced the country to return the Liaodong Peninsula to China. By way of reward the Chinese allowed Russia to build a rail line through Manchuria to their port at Lushun. With the ability to move troops quickly along this line, Russia effectively controlled Manchuria for the next ten years.
The Boxer rebellion – the end of imperial China
By the 1890s the whole of China was in chaos. For fifty years, the Qing rulers had spent fortunes on ruinous w ars, allowed foreigners to take control of business-and stood idle while the countryside was ravaged by civil strife. A popular organization was all that was needed to realize the support of the peasants, and it came w ith the Boxers, more fully known as the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists”. Claiming invulnerability to bullets for all who followed their mystical faith, they stated their aims as “Overthrow the Qing, destroy the foreigner’s- goals whi ch were understandably close to the peasants’ hearts. The Boxers suffered an initial defeat at the hands of Cixi’s troops in 1899, but Cixi’s government then decided that the Boxer army might in fact make a useful tool, and set them loose to slaughter missionaries, Christian converts and any other foreigner they could lay their hands on. By the summer of 1900 the gov ernment had made a wild declaration of war on all foreign powers on its lands, and the Boxers were in Beijing besieging the foreign legation compound. The German and Japanese ministers were killed, but the British and others managed to hold out until an international relief force arrived on August 14. In the massacre, looting and confusion which followed, during which the Boxers were totally routed, Cixi and the emperor disguised themselves as peasants and fled to Xi’an in a cart, leaving her ministers to negotiate a peace.
Though they clung feebly on for another decade, this was the end of the Qing, and internal movements to dismantle the dynastic system and build a new China proliferated. The most influential of these was the Tong Meng Hui society, founded in 1905 in Japan by the exile Sun Yatsen, a doctor from a wealthy Guangdong family. Cixi died three years later, and, in 1911, opposition to for eigners constructing railways drew events to a head in Wuchang, Hubei Province, igniting a popular uprising which finally toppled the dynasty. Two thousand years of dynastic succession ended almost quietly, and Sun Yatsen returned to China to take the lead in the provisional Republican Government at Nanjing.
From republic to communism
Almost immediately the new republic was in tr ouble. Though a parliament was duly elected in 1913, it lacked any real political or military farce; in addition, northern China was controlled by the former leader of the Imperial Army, Yuan Shikai (who had forced the abdication of the last emperor, Pu Yi). Sun Yatsen, faced with a choice between probable civil war and relinquishing his presidency at the head of the newly formed Nationalist People’s party, the Guomindang, stepped down, Yuan promptly dismissed the government, forced Sun into renewed exile, and attempted to centralize power – clearly with a view to establ ishing a new dynasty. But his plans were stalled by his generals, who wanted private fiefdoms of their own, and Yuan’s sudden death in 1916 marked the last time in 34 years that China Would be united under a single authority. While bickering betw een Yuan’s generals plunged the north into civil war, Sun Yatsen returned yet again, this time to found a southern Guonundang government.
Thus divided. China was unable to stein the increasingly bold territorial incursions made by Japan and other colonial powers as a result of World War I. Siding w ith the Allies, Japan had claimed the Gernian port of Qingdao and all German shipping and industry in the Shangdong Peninsula on the outbreak of war, and in 1915 presented China with Twenty-One Demands, many of which Yuan Shikai, under threat of a Japanese invasion, was forced to accept. After the w ar, hopes that the 1919 Treaty of Versailles would end Japanese aggression (as well as the unequal treaties and foreign concessions) were dashed w hen the Western pow ers, who had already signed secret pacts with Japan, con firmed Japan’s rights in China. This ignited what became known as the May 4 Movement, the first in a series of anti-foreign demonstrations and riots.
The rise of the CCP
As a reflection of these events, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) formed in Shanghai in 1931, its leadership drawn from two groups who had been active for several years. The first centered around Li Dazhao, former librarian at Beijing university, along with the voting Mao Zedong and Zhang Gutao, both students. The second was headed by Zhou Enlai, who had organized a Marxist study group in Tianjin. The party was guided by Russian advisers, w hose instructions, besides concentrating on the Russian example of an Urban proletarian revolution – of dubious value given China’s largely rural population invariably included a measure of Soviet foreign poli cy. When Mosco asked the CCP to support the Cuomindang in its military campaigns against the northern warlords, the reality was that Soviet fear of Japan attacking their eastern lands required a strong China, and they consid ered the Guonrindang the most likely party to achieve this.
While the CCP duly joined the Guomindang, they made unlikely bedfellows, especially after Sun Yatsen died in 1925. He Was succeeded by his brother-in law and military chief Chiang Kaishek (better known in China as Jiang Jieshe), an extreme nationalist who had no time for the CCP or its plans to end China’s class divisions. Under his leadership, the combined Communist and Guomindang forces, as the National Revolutionary Army (NRA), successfully crushed the rogue warlords oil the Northern Expedition, but then refused to join Chiang in his new headquarters in Nanchang. Moving on to capture Shang hai on March 21, 1927, Communist elements in the NRA organized a general strike against Chiang, seizing the military arsenal and arming workers. But industry bosses and foreign own ers quickly retaliated, financing Chiang to disguise hundreds of thugs as members of the NRA, who then turned on the workers’ militia and massacred the Communists, along with anyone else Chiang had decided to eradicate. Around five thousand were murdered; Zhou Enlai escaped only by luck, and Li dazhao was executed by slow strangulation.
With the army now on his side and much of the original Communist hier archy summarily executed (including Mao’s second wife Yang Kaihui), Chiang quickly achieved supremacy and was declared head of a national gov ernment in 1928. Under him, the Guomindang became a military dictatorship, ignoring the country general poverty and Japanese encroachments in favour of subduing all internal opposition by brute force. In this Chiang was aided substantially by Western powers – including the Soviet Union, who never let up on the line that the Communists should maintain their alliance with the GMD. Chiang’s domestic power base, however, was small, and, despite attempts at limited social reform, the Party quickly came to represent die interests of a social elite. Those Communists who hid escaped Chiang’s purges regrouped in remote areas across the country, principally at Jinggang Shan in Jiangxi Province, under the leadership of Mao Zedong.
Mao Zedong, the Red Army and the Long March
Son of a well-off Hunanese farmer, Mao believed social reform lay in the hands of the peasants, a belief hardened by his time as a teacher at the Peasant Training Institute in Guangzhou during the early 1920s. Despite the over throw of the emperors, peasants still had few rights and no power base. Chron ic poverty was rife, caused by taxation, and dissent was crushed by the land lords’ private armies. Drawing from Marx’s analyses, Mao recognized the paral lels between nineteenth-century Europe and twentieth-century China – and that a mass armed rising was the only -way the old order could be replaced.
After events in Shanghai, Mao organized the first peasant-worker army in Chang sha, in what was later to be called the Autumn Harvest Uprising. Moving southeast to the Hunan- Jiangxi border, his troops settled into Jinggang Shan, where they were met by the forces of Zhu De, a Guonundang comm ander from Nanchang who had joined the Communists. Using guerrilla tactics their combined Red Army of peasants, miners and Guomindang desert ers achieved unexpected successes against the Nationalist troops sent against them during the early 1930s, until Li Lisan_ the Communist leader, ordered Mao out of his mountain base to attack the cities. The ensuing open assaults against the vastly superior Guomindang forces were disastrous, and Chiang Kaishek, following tip these defeats, mobilized half a million troops and encir cled Jinggang Shan with a ring of concrete block houses and barbed-wire entanglements.
Forced between choosing to fight or flee, Mao organized eighty thousand troops in an epic retreat which became known as the Long March: a 9500 kilometre trek on foot across eighteen mountain ranges (five of them snow capped), 24 rivers and twelve provinces. Starting in October 1934, the journey took a y ear, with over sixty thousand perishing either of cold or hunger or in the innumerable battles that were fought with GMD factions. But by the time they reached safety – in Yan’an in Shaanxi province, the Communists had turned a humiliating defeat into an advance towards victory. Along the way, Mao had become undisputed leader of the CCP at the Zunyi Conference, severing the Parts from its Russian advisers, while thousands of Chinese who had never heard of communism were made aware of their struggles and beliefs. And, despite the death toll, the Long March won the Communists immense respect -an army determined enough to do this could do anything.
Japanese invasion and the United Front
Meanwhile, Japan had taken over Chinese Manchuria in 1933 and installed Pu Yi (last emperor of the Qing dynasty) as puppet leader. They were obviously preparing to invade eastern China, and Mao wrote to Chiang Kaishek (and to the warlords, bandit leaders and secret societies) advocating an end to civil war and a United Front against the threat. Chiang’s response was to move his Manchurian armies, under Zhang Xueliang, down to finish off the Reds in Shanxi. Zhang, howe v er, saw an alliance as the only way to evict the Japanese fr om his homeland, and so secretly entered into an agreement with tile Com munist Forces. On December 12. 1936, Chiang was kidnapped by his own troops in w hat became know n as the Xi’an Incident and, with Zhou Enlai as a mediator, reluctantly signed an agreement to the United Front on Christmas Day. Briefly, the parties were united, though both sides knew that the alliance would last only is long as the Japanese threat.
Full-scale war broke out in July 1937 when the Japanese attacked Beijing. The GMD, inadequately armed or trained, were rapidly forced west and south, and at the end of the year the Japanese had taken most of eastern China between Beijing and Guangzhou. With a capital-iii-occupation at Nanjing, the Japanese concentrated their efforts on routing the GMD, leaving a vacuum in the north that the Communists quickly filled, establishing what amounted to stable government of a hundred million people across the North China Plain.
The outbreak of w ar in Europe in September 1939 soon had repercussions in China. Nazi German stopped supplying the weaponry the GMD relied on, while with the bombing of Pearl Harbor two years later all military aid from the United States to Japan ceased. With the country’s heavy industry in Japanese hands, China’s United Front government, having withdrawn to Chongqing in Sichuan Province, became dependent on the Americans and British flying in supplies over the Himalayas. Chiang’s true allegiances were never far below the surface, how ever, and after h e failed to distribute the arms among the Red Army in 1941, the United Front effectively collapsed.
The end of the war …. and the Guomindang
By the time the two atom bombs ended the Japanese empire and World War II in 1945, the Red Arm was close on a million strong, with a widespread fol low ing throughout the country; Communism in China was established. It was n’t, however, that secure. Predictably, the US sided with Chiang Kaishek and the GMD but, surprisingly, so did the Soviet Union – Stalin believed that with American aid, the GMD would easily destroy the CCY All the same, peace negotiations between the Nationalist and Communist sides were brokered by the US in Chonqing, where Chiang refused to admit the CUP into governm ent, knowing that its policies w ere uncontrollable while the Red Army still existed. For their part, it was evident to the CCP that, without an army, they were nothing. The talk, ended in stalemate.
Ironically it was US military aid that decided matters in the Communists’ favour, when US equipment was captured en masse from GMD troops, providing the Communists with firepower. Buoyed by a popular support height ened by Chiang’s mishandling of the economy, in 1948 the Communists’ newly named People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began a final assault on the GMD, decisively trouncing them that winter at the massive battle of Huai Hai in Anhui Province. Demoralized, the Guomindang troops lost the will to fight, and with Shanghai about to fall before the PLA in early 1949, Chiang Kaishek packed the country’s entire gold reserves into a plane and took off for Taiwan to form the Republic of China. Here he would remain until his death in 1975, forlornly waiting to liberate the mainland with the two million troops and refugees who later joined him. Mopping-up operations against mainland pockets of GMD resistance would continue for several years, but in October 1949 Mao v,-as able to proclaim the formation of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. The world’s most populous nation was now Communist.
The People’s Republic under Mao
With the country laid waste by over a century of economic mismanagement and war, massive problems faced the new republic. Though Russia quickly offered its support, the US refused to recognize Mao’s government, maintaining that Chiang Kaishek and the Guomindang alone represented the Chinese people. China’s road and rail network w ere mostly destroyed, industrial output had slumped, much of the agricultural areas had been ravaged, and there were no monetary reserves. But the Chinese people, still in awe of their hard-won victory, took to the task of repairing the country with an obsessive energy. By the mid-1950s all industry had been nationalized and output was back at prewar levels, while, for the first time in China’s history, land was handed over to the peasants as their own. A million far mer landlords were executed, while others were enrolled in “criticism and self criticism” classes, a re-education designed to ingrain Marxism and prevent ide ologies of elitism or bourgeois deviance from contaminating the revolutionary spirit. People were forced to criticize themselves, their past and those around them -a traumatic experience and one that broke centuries-old traditions.
With all the difficulties on the home front, the Korean War of 1950 was a distraction the government could well have done without. After Communist North Korea invaded the south, US forces had intervened on behalf of the south and, despite warnings front Zhou Enlai, had continued through to Chinese territory. China declared war in June, and sent a million troops to push the Americans back to the 38th parallel and force peace negotiations. As a boost for the morale of the new nation, the incident could not have been better timed. Meanwhile, China’s far western borders were seen to be threatened by an uprising in Tibet, and Chinese troops were sent there in 1951, swiftly occu pying the entire country and instituting dc facto Chinese rule. Eight years later, a failed coup against the Occupation by Tibetan monks saw a massive clamp down on religion, and the flight of the Dalai Lama and his followers to Nepal.
The Hundred Flowers campaign and the Great Leap Forward
By 1956 China’s economy was healthy, if not burgeoning, but there were signs that the initial euphoria driving the country was slowing. Mao – whose princi ples held that constant struggle w as part of existence, and thus that acceptance of the status quo was in itself a bad thing- felt that both government and industry needed to be prodded back into gear. To this end, in 1957 he decided to loosen the restrictions on public expression, in the hope that open criticism would shake up the more complacent bureaucrats and Party officials. Following the slo gan “Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend”, intellectuals were encouraged to voice their thoughts and complaints. But the plan backfired: instead of picking on inefficient officials as Mao had hoped, the Hundred Flowers campaign resulted in blistering attacks on the very Commu nist system itself. As Mao was never one to take personal criticism lightly, those who had spoken out swiftly found themselves victims of an anti-rightist cam paign, confined to jail or undergoing a heavy bout of self-criticism. From this point on, intellectuals as a group were mistr usted and constantly scrutinized.
Agriculture and industry were next to receive a shake-up. In August 1958 it was announced that all land held privately by peasant farmers was to be pooled into collective farms, linked together as self-governing communes. Five hun dred million peasants were to be spread over 24,000 communes, with the aim of turning small-scale fanning units into hyper-efficient agricultural areas. Industry w as to be fired into activity by the co-option of seasonally employed workers, who would construct heavy industrial plants, dig canals and drain marshes. Propaganda campaigns promised eternal well-being in return for ini tial hard work and austerity; in one Great Leap Forward China would match British industrial output in ten years, and overtake American iii fifteen to twen ty years. But, front the outset, the Great Leap Forward was a disaster. Having been given their land (and in many cases having fought for it), the peasants now found themselves losing it once mare, and eagerness to work ill huge units was lo\ti -. This situation, combined with the problem of ill-trained commune man agement, led to an almost immediate slump in agricultural and industrial pro duction. In the face of a stream of ridiculous quotas supplied by Beijing – one campaign required the eradication of all agricultural pests, another that all com munes must produce certain quantities of steel, regardless of the availability of raw – materials – nobody had time to tend the fields. The 1959 and 1960 harvests both failed, and millions starved. As if this wasn’t enough, a thaw in US-USSR relations in 1960 saw the Soviet Union stopping all aid to China.
With the economy in tatters, the commune policy was watered down, each peasant was given a private house and his own land, and by the mid-1960s the country was back on its feet. Politically, though, the incident had ruined Mao’s reputation, and set some members of the Communist Party Central Committee against his policies. The two most outspoken members were Liu Shaoqi as Chief of State, and the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, who had diffused the effects of commune policy by creating a limited free-market economy among the country’s, traders. Behind them and their doctrine of material incentives for workers was a large bureaucracy over which Mao held little political sway. Liu and Deng also supported the Minister of Defense, Peng Dehuai, in what Mao considered a treasonous move to secure technological and military aid from the Soviet Union, and to free troops from non-military work – a move popular with sections of the army.
The Cultural Revolution
With his policies discredited, Mao, feeling that he was losing control of the party, sought to regain his authority. His most influential supporter was Lin Biao, Defense Minister and Vice-Chairman of the Communist party, who in 1964 formed the Socialist Education Movement to destroy the “spontaneous desire to become capitalists” among the peasants. Mao himself widened the movement’s aims to include the whole bureaucracy that Liu Shaoqi had founded and, with Lm Biao’s help, began orchestrating the youth of China in a campaign against his moderate opponents. Initially this Great Proletarian Cultural Rev olution seemed a straightforward rerun of the anti-rightist campaign following the Hundred Flowers fiasco. But in 1966 a member of Beijing University’s Phi losophy Department put up a poster there denouncing the university administra tion and supporting the Revolution. Under Mao’s guidance Beijing’s students organized themselves into a political militia – the Red Guard. Within weeks Mao had arranged their removal out of the university and on to the streets.The enemies, of the Red Guard were the Four Olds: old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. Brandishing copies of the Quotation of Chairman Mao Zedong (the famous Little Red Book), the Red Guard attacked anything redo lent of capitalism, the West or the Soviet Union. Academics were humiliated and m assaulted, books were burned, temples and ancient monuments desecrated. Shops selling any thing remotely Western were destroyed along with the gardens of the “decadent bourgeoisie”. As under the commune system, quotas were set, this time for unearthing and turning in the “Rightists”, “Revisionists” and “Capitalist Roaders” corrupting Communist society. Officials who failed to fill their quotas were likely to become the neat victims, as were those w ho failed to destroy prop erty or denounce others enthusiastically enough. With the police and army for bidden to intervene, offenders were paraded through the streets wearing placards carrying humiliating slogans; tens of thousands were ostracized, imprisoned, beaten to death or driven to suicide and, in one horrendous episode, eaten. On August 5, 1966, Mao proclaimed that reactionaries had reached the highest levels of the CCP. His targets were obvious: Liu Shaoqi was drown in prison and died there of ill- treatment in 1969; Deng Xiaopiug was dismissed from his post and condemned to wait on tables at a Party canteen and turn a lathe at a provincial tractor plant. Peng Dehuai, having been dismissed from his post at the very start of the Cultural Revolution, disappeared, and many other senior officials and army officers were demoted.
It was also during this time that China’s standing in the international community sunk to an all-time low after the Red Guard assaulted members of the British Embassy causing a general recall of foreign ambassadors. It was clear that the violence was getting completely out of control, with rival Red Guard factions turning on each other. In August 1967 Mao intervened, ordering the arrest of the most fanatical Red Guard leaders and instructing the surrender of all weapons to the army, but the Guard’s activities were not easily stopped. After nationwide street fighting broke out the following spring, order was restored only when tanks entered the cities and the army stormed the Guard’s university strongholds. To clear them out of the way, millions of former Red Guards Were rounded up and shipped off into the countryside, ostensibly to reinforce the Communist message amongst the rural community.
The fall of Lin Biao
One effect of the Cultural Revolution was the rise of a personality cult surrounding Mao Zedong, more a fatalistic acknowledgement of his absolute power over China than a popular seal of approval for his inhuman domestic policies. His very image attained quasi-religious status – in one incident, a soldier spotted a school on fire: his first thought was to save the portrait of Mao in the classrooms and only then start to save those trapped inside. More importantly, the late 1960s also saw Lin Biao, Mao’s closest ally during the Cultural 1Levolution, rise to prominence as Mao’s designated successor. But as the chaos of the revolution subsided, the role of the army and Lin, as its chief, were less crucial, and Lin began to feel his power base eroded.
What happened next is conjecture, but Lin may have attempted some form of a coup against Mao and organized an assassination attempt. In 1972 it was announced that he had died the previous year when a plane carrying him and his followers had crashed en route to the Soviet Union. The story is plausible but probably fictional: Lin might well have been executed and the tale concocted to underline his treason. What is certain is that with Lin’s removal and the uncovering of a plot, Mao needed to broaden his base of support, which he did be rehabilitating some of those who had fallen from grace during the Cultural Revolution, including Deng Xiaoping who, as Mao declined in health (he was 80 in 1973), took control of the day-to-day running of the Communist Party Central Committee.
Ping-pong diplomacy and the rise of the radicals
The US, its foreign policy determined by business and political interests that stood to gain irons the collapse of Communism, had continued to support Chiang Kaishek’s Guomindang in the postwar period, while also stirring up paranoia over the chance of a Sino-Soviet pact (despite the split between Khrushchev and Mao in 1960). But in 1964 China exploded its first atomic bomb, taking it into the league of nuclear powers not automatically friendly to Washington, and the US began to tread a more pragmatic path. In 1970, envoy Henry Kissinger opened communications between the two countries, cultural and sporting links were formed (a tactic that became known as ping-pong diplomacy), and in 1971 the People’s Republic became the official representative at the UN of the nation called China, invalidating Chiang Kaisbek’s claimss. The following year US President Richard Nixon was walking on the Great Wall and holding talks with Mao, trade restrictions were lifted and China began commerce with the West. The “bamboo curtain” had parted, isolationism was over arid the damage caused by the Cultural Revolution was slowly being repaired.
This new attitude of realistic reform derived from the moderate wing of the Communist Party, headed by Premier Zhou Enlai – seen as a voice of reason – and his protege Deng Xiaoping. Zhou’s tact had liven him a charmed political existence which for fifty years kept him at Mao’s side despite policy disagreements – several holy sites such as the carved grottoes at Dazu in Sichuan were apparently saved from the Red Guards at Zhou’s direct order. But with Zhou’s death early in 1976, the reform movement immediately succumbed to the Gang of Four, who, led by Mao’s third wife Jiang Qing, had become the radical mouthpiece of an incr easingly – absent Mao. In early April, at the time of the Qing Ming festival commemorating the dead, the Heroes Monument in Beijing’s Tian’anmen Square was filled with wreaths in memory of Zhou. On April 5 radicals removed the wreaths and moderate supporters flooded into the square in protest; a riot broke out and hundreds were attacked and arrested. The obvious scapegoat for what became known as the Tian’anmen Incident was Deng Xiaoping, and he was publicly discredited and thrown out of office for a second time.
The death of Mao and its aftermath
In Ju1y 1976 a catastrophic earthquake centred on Hebei province killed half a Million people. The Chinese hold that natural disasters always foreshadow great e\ cuts, and no one was too surprised when Mao himself died on Sep tember 9. Deprived of then- figurehead, and with memories of the Cultural Revolution clear in everyone’s mind, his supporters in the Party quickly lost ground to the Right. just a mouth after Mao’s death, Jiang Qing and the other members of the Gang of Four were arrested. Den, returned to the political scene for the third time and was granted a string of positions that included Vice-Chairman of die Communist Party, Vice-Premier and Chief of Staff to the PLA: titles aside, he was now running the country. Hua Guofeng, Mao’s lookalike and chosen successor, was ousted a couple of years later, and Deng’s associate,, Zhao Living and HuYaobang, installed as Premier and Party Chair man respectively in his place.
The move away from Mao’s policies was rapid: in 1978 anti-Maoist dissidents were allowed to display all posters in Beijing and elsewhere, some of which actu ally criticized Mao by name. Though such public airing of political grievances was later forbidden, by 1980 Deng and the moderates were secure enough to sanction officially a Cautious condemnation of Mao’s actions. His ubiquitous portraits and statues began to come down, and his cult was gradually undermined.
Yet Mao still had many powerful supporters in the Party, and his public rep utation was partially salvaged by the worst of the Cultural Revolution being attributed to the corrupting influence of Jiang Qing and her clique. In 1981 the Gang of Four were brought to trial: though the verdicts were a formality, the sentences were not, for they would be an indication both of the tenor of the nets administration_ and also how it saw the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s part in it. If the sentence was death and if this was actually carried out, Mao’s widow might easily become a martyr; if a suspended death sentence was handed down, the ability- to execute counter-revolutionaries again would be compromised. The latter course was chosen, and the Gang of Four were given twenty years to reform their ways. All have since died under arrest.
Modern China : reform and repression
Under Deng, China became unrecognizable from the days when Western thought was automatically suspect and the Red Guards enforced ideological purity. Deng’s legacy was the “open door” policy, which brought about new social (rather than political) freedoms as well as a massive rise in the trappings of Westernization, especially in the cities, where Western clothes, fast food and music – plus Japanese motorbikes – have become all the rage.
Economic success and social change
The impetus for such sweeping changes has been economic. Deng’s statement “I don’t care whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice” illustrates the pragmatic approach that he took to the economy, one which has guided policy ever since. In a massive modernization, Deng decentralized production. allowing more rational decision-making based on local condi tions. The state allowed goods to be produced and allocated according to mar ket forces, and factories contracted with each other instead of with the state. In agriculture, the collective economy was replaced and households, after meeting government targets, were allowed to sell their surpluses on the free market. On the coast. Special Economic Zones (SEZ) were set tip, where foreign invest ment was encouraged and Western management practices, such as the firing of unsatisfactory workers, cautiously experimented with.
These economic policies have had a massive impact, and there is no doubt that many Chinese are much better off now than ever before. Annual growth has stood at around seven in the 1990s, while in certain areas, such as Shenzhen (the largest SEZ), it has at times reached 45 percent, and Chinese economic planners are in the awkward position of trying to slo-,v it down. In the 1970s the “three big buys”- consumer goods that families could realistically aspire to -were a bicycle, a watch and a radio: in the 1980s they were a washing machine, a TV and a refrigerator. Today -, young urban mainland Chinese can aspire to the same lifestyle as their counterparts in Japan and Hong Kong.
But not everyone has benefited from the new system. In the country, those who farm unproductive land are probably worse off; and now that the collectives have gone, many of the poorest Chinese no longer have access to subsi dized education or health care. In the cities, with the closure of inefficient state run factories (%\hose employees once constituted the Parry’s core supporters), millions have been thrown out of work into a society that has no welfare pro vision, w hile those who have remained in their jobs are on fixed, wages and have thus suffered badly from inflation. In 2001 widespread, bitter demonstrations were staged in Dongbei by industrial workers who were out of work, or owed back pa}-, or had been laid off on a tiny stipend; these were quickly dealt with by° arresting the ringleaders and then meeting many of the marchers’ demands. Such actions by the huge and discontented urban workforce that has missed out on the boom represents possibly the biggest internal threat to the state.
With the creation of a new class of wealthy entrepreneurs, social divisions, between city and country, coast and interior, have widened to a sometimes grotesque degree. One of the more visible results of rising living costs (coupled with increased agricultural mechanization) has been the mass migration of the working class from the country to the cities, where most remain unem ployed or are hired by the day as labourers. Short-term gain has become the overriding factor in planning, with the result that the future is mortgaged for present wealth. Too little thought is given to the environmental effects of modernization and China now boast.~ eight of the top ten most polluted cities in the world.
As success is largely dependent on guanxi (connections), the potential for corruption is enormous – indeed, graft is thought to be slicing at least a per centage point off growth figures. As in the past, a desperately poor peasantry is at the mercy – of corrupt cadres who enrich themselves by setting and purloin ing local taxes. The fact that even the government’s prestige project, the Three Gorges Dam, had to be rebuilt as contractors ere enriching themselves and using cheap materials illustrates the scale of the problem. To marry ordinary Chinese, the price of modernization h as become too high, as crime, prostitut ion and unemployment, formerly seen as Western malaises, have all risen to leech perceived as epidemic.