An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

People's Republic of China 中华人民共和国 (since 1949)

The People's Republic of China (Zhonghua renming gongheguo 中华人民共和国, PRC, since 1949) is the present form of government in mainland China. The People's Republic was founded in 1949 by the Communist Party of China (Zhongguo gongchandang 中国共产党, CPC) that is still the single ruling party of China (apart from the "democratic" junior parties of the United Front).

After almost 30 years of civil war and the war against the Japanese occupation, the Communist Party and its People's Liberation Army (Renmin jiefang jun 人民解放军) were able to force the National Army under the nationalist party Kuomintang (Guomindang 国民党, KMT) into submission or to flee to the island of Taiwan, where the Republic of China continued to exist and transformed into a real democracy in the 1990s.

The history of the People's Republic can provisionally be divided into the Maoist era, and the era of Reform and Opening.

Not supported by the US, Mao decided to "lean to one side", i.e. the Soviet Union. He won the economic support of Stalin and the help of Russian engineers to reconstruct China's economy. In the early 1950s the countryside was only gradually transformed according to communist ideals. Stalin pulled Mao along into the adventure of the Korean War (1950-1953), which the CPC could use as a test field against "US imperialism". At the same time mass campaigns (like the Three-Anti and the Five-Anti Campaigns) targeted Christians, foreigners, and "counterrevolutionaries", and allowed the CPC a tighter government over all parts of the population in the countryside and the cities. Problems in the administration and in the party inspired Mao to launch the "Hundred Flowers" movement (1956-1957) to yield constructive critique from all sides. Yet instead, intellectuals heavily criticized the party, and the open-minded campaign was turned into a severe backlash with the Anti-Rightist Campaign.

In the field of foreign policy, China took over important responsibility for some states of the "Third World". It took part in the Geneva Conference in 1954 to end the Franco-Vietnamese War and managed, together with India, the Bandung Conference of 1955 in Indonesia, where the SEATO was founded. Foreign Ministers Zhou Enlai 周恩来 became a prominent figure on the international parquet. The relations with the Soviet Union cooled down with Nikita S. Khrushchev's critique of Stalinism. Ideological differences became more visible, and in 1960 the Sino-Soviet split became public, the Chinese attacking Khrushchev's "revisionist" urban communism.

Mao chose a development model different from that of the SU. Believing in voluntarism and the heroic spirit of the "masses", he launched in 1958 the Great Leap Forward (dayuejin 大跃进, 1958-1961) which was believed to turn China quickly into an industrial country. Party cadres felt inspired to report fantasy figures of output (mainly of steel and grain), while the peasantry, organized in People's Communes (renmin gongshe 人民公社), ceased to work the fields. 20 million persons are said to have starved. The idealist Mao was criticized during the famous Lushan Conference by the realist Peng Dehuai 彭德怀 and was forced to step back into the second row.

President Liu Shaoqi 刘少奇 and Secretary General Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 took over the lead and carried out the Socialist Education Campaign (shehui jiaoyu yundong 社会教育运动), with the appeal to "learn from the workers of the oil fields of Daqing". Many veteran revolutionaries had, in Mao's eyes the tendency to cement the party bureaucracy, and forgot all about revolution. He sought new allies and found one in Marshal Lin Biao 林彪. Lin induced the cult of Mao and created the famous little red book with quotations of the great Chairman. Another supporter of Mao was his wife Jiang Qing 江青 and her entourage in Shanghai. They initiated a political debate about a critical theatre play, and by this detour allowed Mao to come back to power as the leader of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (wenhua da geming 文化大革命). The movement, begun in 1966, was carried out by Red Guards, mostly students, who sought out reactionary bureaucrats and "Chinese Khrushchevs" in the party. Numerous high party cadres were purged, humiliated, or killed. Yet the revolution ended in chaos, and only the People's Liberation Army was able to bring back peace and order. Students were sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants, so that in the end, a whole generation had not received a decent education. Only with the death of Mao in 1976, his protégés of the Gang of Four (sirenbang 四人帮) were arrested and the Cultural Revolution declared ended.

In the field of foreign policy China chose a new way during that time. In 1972 President Richard Nixon visited the People's Republic and so paved the way for a new political orientation of the Communist Party.

After a short interlude under Hua Guofeng 华国锋 (1976-1981), a new politbureau under the domination of Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 proclaimed the program of Reform and Opening (gaige kaifang 改革开放) and the Four Modernizations (si ge xiandaihua 四个现代化). Private entrepreneurship was allowed first in agriculture, and then in trade and industry. In a two-track model the state-owned enterprises were gradually privatized (barring a few key industries and the financial business). Most important was the creation of special economic zones in some coastal cities where foreign enterprises were allowed to invest. China was thus able to gain access to modern technologies, and both China and foreign enterprises were able to profit immensely. The CPC, highly discredited by the disasters of the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, was able to survive, and acknowledged that Mao had also committed faults.

Yet with increasing wealth, inflation and corruption plagued the urban population. Academicians in particular claimed a "fifth" modernization, namely more democracy. In May and June 1989 protests against inflation and corruption culminated in the protest on the Tian'anmen Square that was bloody suppressed. By this over-reaction the leaders clearly showed that the Communist Party would not be willing to cede power to anyone else.

Under General Secretary Jiang Zemin 江泽民 (1989-2002) economic reforms were intensified. The Party had learnt from 1989 and convinced the people of its legitimate rule by allowing them to enjoy more wealth. While the urban population profited from the economic reform, the peasant villages remained poor and suffered from the drain of migrant workers that contributed to the prospering of the glittering cities at the coast. Entrepreneurs, the former class enemy, are invited to become members of the party.

While the economic policy was called "socialism with Chinese characteristics", General Secretary Hu Jintao 胡锦涛 (2002-2012) made use of new sentiments to win popular support for the Party: Economic strength as the world's second largest exporter, the successful launches of manned spaceships, and China's richness due to accumulated foreign reserves were important factors supporting an over-exaggerated national proud after almost two centuries of humiliation by the Western "imperialists". The new nationalism sometimes bursts in a vehement national rhetoric, particularly towards the "arch-enemy" Japan.

The so-called "harmonious society" (hexie shehui 和谐社会) is the guiding concept with which the Party tries to hide increasing social inequality and gender problems as the result of the one-child policy and traditional femicide. Technological renommé projects like high-speed trains or skyscrapers are likewise used to cover grave problems resulting from a long-term economic growth of 10 per cent p.a.: serious environmental pollution, the lack of a well-founded domestic consumption, and an extreme income inequality. Local protests against corrupt local party cadres are a threat to party legitimacy. The accumulated wealth enables the party to purchase more and more foreign enterises in their countries as a new method to gain access to latest technology.

While Hong Kong and Macao "returned" to China in 1997 and 1999, respectively, Taiwan remains a factually independent country, in spite of the PRC's "one-China policy".

Xi Jinping 习近平, General Secretary since 2012, seems to steer China into the direction of an Asian superpower, as the counterpart of the US. China's rhetoric in territorial disputes becomes harsher, and the "marketization" of China's leader resembles a kind of personality cult. Promising to fulfil each individual's "Chinese Dream" (Zhongguo meng 中国梦), the erstwhile socialist ideology is increasingly blurred.

This chapter of the encyclopaedia gives an overview of the political history of the People's Republic, the geography of China and its surroundings, provides a list of statesmen, describes the administration and political structure, and gives insight into the development and changes in fine arts, economy, literature and thought.