The human record in China can be traced back at least 1.7 million years; it begins with the discovery in southwest China of fossils known as Yuanmou man, a closely related ancestor of modern man. Another protohuman toolmaker called Peking man lived about 500,000 years ago in North China. By about 25,000 B.C., also in the vicinity of present-day Beijing (Peking). This fully advanced human, sometimes referred to as Upper Cave man, hunted and fished and made shell and bone artifacts.
Fossil remains of early humans have been discovered in various other places in China. But the North — especially the fertile region watered by the Huang He (Hwang Ho, or Yellow River) — was the nuclear area of ancient Chinese civilization. There, and also along the southeastern coast, the switch from hunting-gathering methods of food collection to an agricultural way of life first occurred in China sometime during the 6th to the 5th millennium B.C. This development was independent of the Near Eastern Neolithic revolution.
The first phase of the Chinese Neolithic Period (c.5000–2500 B.C.) was called Yangshao (Yang-shao), after the first associated site. During this period, farmers employed fairly basic techniques of cultivation. The farmers shifted their villages as the soils became exhausted. They lived in semisubterranean houses in the region of modern central Shaanxi (Shensi), southwestern Shanxi (Shansi), and western Henan (Honan) provinces. Their handcrafted, painted pottery occasionally bears a single incised sign that may be a forerunner of Chinese writing. During the second, or Longshan (Lung-shan), phase (c.2500–1000 B.C.), agriculture became more technologically advanced. Farmers lived in more permanent settlements. They began a wide-spreading cultural expansion into the eastern plains, Manchuria, and Central and South China. Longshan farmers worshiped their ancestors, a Chinese custom that still persists.
The Yangshao and Longshan cultures laid the foundations for the first true highly stratified Chinese culture, the Shang dynasty. The Shang rulers controlled a loose confederation of settlement groups in the Henan region of North China from the 16th century B.C. to c.1027 B.C. Shang culture was characterized by an advanced system of writing, a sophisticated bronze metallurgy, the first Chinese calendar, and cities. Aided by a priestly class, the Shang kings prayed to their ancestral spirits to intercede on their behalf with the most powerful of the Shang gods, Shangdi (Shang-ti), to bring rain for good crops and other blessings. Records of these priestly divinations have survived in the form of oracle bones. Until the 20th century it was believed that many of the characteristic elements of the Shang, such as bronze making and writing, were imports from the Middle East and elsewhere. It now appears that, like the Chinese development of agriculture, these were invented independently. The emergence of greatly stratified society in China was thus largely indigenous.
Zhou Dynasty and Warring States
Sometime around 1027 B.C. the Shang Chinese were conquered by the Zhou (Chou). The Zhou lived to the west in the region of modern Xi'an (Sian). The Early, or Western, Zhou period (c.1027–771 B.C.) does not represent a sharp break. The Shang supreme deity, Shangdi, was still recognized as a powerful god. Now, however, more emphasis was placed on Shangdi's abode, tian (ti'en, or "heaven"). An early Zhou statesman explained the Zhou conquest by saying that the Tianming (T'ien-ming; "Mandate of Heaven") had been transferred from the wicked Shang to the virtuous Zhou. He thus articulated the Chinese belief that the right to govern depended on a dynasty's moral qualities and heaven's continued favor.
Much like his Shang predecessors, the Zhou king, or "son of heaven," parceled out territories among family members and favored subordinates. The emphasis was on personal loyalties, the military obligations owed lords by vassals, and a chivalric code of conduct in battle was similar to that of later European feudalism. This code also had a parallel in civilian life in the form of complex rules of social etiquette and personal deportment called li. Those who practiced the li were considered civilized; those who did not, such as the peoples beyond the Zhou domains, were considered barbarians.
The military pressure of one of these barbarian peoples in concert with a rebellious Zhou vassal forced the Zhou to move the capital eastward to Luoyang (Lo-yang; modern Henan province). Thus began the period of Eastern Zhou (770–256 B.C.). From this time the Zhou kings exercised far less political and military power over their semiautonomous vassals. Beginning in the 5th century B.C., warfare among the states became endemic. This served to increase centralization and administrative efficiency within individual states.
This Period of the Warring States (403–221 B.C.) also propelled new elements to positions of authority. Talent, not birth, increasingly became the criterion for employment. During this period of great upheaval, personal feudal relationships became outmoded. A system of contractual relationships began to emerge. Bureaucrats, the forerunners of the Chinese scholar-official class, were given salaries. Peasants were expected to pay taxes to the government on their landholdings. The introduction of the ox-drawn, iron-tipped plow and the development of irrigation improved agricultural productivity and spurred population growth. A steady improvement in communications led to increased trade. A money economy began to develop. Although the late Zhou was a period of widespread physical destruction, it was also a time of enormous intellectual ferment. This period produced China's oldest surviving literature, the Classics. It also gave rise to China's golden age of philosophy. The most important schools of philosophy were Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Legalism.
Eventually, the Legalists were briefly triumphant when the Qin (Ch'in; 221–206 B.C.), a western frontier state whose ruling class had embraced the Legalist authoritarian philosophy, succeeded in conquering all of China. Shi Huangdi (Shih Hwang-ti), or "First Sovereign Emperor," presided over a centralized administrative system. The semi-independent states of late Zhou were replaced. Measures to enhance state power and control over the people were inaugurated. Weights, measures, and the Chinese writing system were unified. Defenses were strengthened by filling gaps in the northern frontier walls. This created the Great Wall. An aggressive foreign policy was pursued among the barbarians to the north and south. Thus was China's first empire formed. Those doctrines not officially sanctioned were extirpated by the Burning of the Books decree. Much of China's non-Legalist literature of the pre-Qin period was destroyed.
Opposition to the Qin's centralization measures and to its heavy requisitions for war and public-works projects was great. The Qin in turn was therefore overthrown by the Han dynasty (202 B.C.–A.D. 220). The Han established a stable and highly centralized government on the Qin model. It was, however, somewhat more sensitive to the welfare of the peasantry — a perennial Confucian concern. The apogee of Han power was reached under Han Wudi (Han Wu-ti, r. 140–87 B.C.). He waged war against the nomadic Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu) tribes to the north. He also moved westward to Central Asia to gain control of the Silk Road, upon which goods passed between China and the Roman world. Under Han Wudi, a Chinese colony was established in northern Korea.
Han dealings with barbarian neighbors, as well as subsequent Chinese relations with these peoples, were conducted within the tribute system. Under this system China granted diplomatic recognition and trading privileges only to those states and peoples acknowledging its superiority. Acknowledgment of Chinese superiority was symbolized by a payment of tribute. If Qin saw the triumph of Legalism, Han saw the advancement of Confucian doctrine to preeminence. Bureaucratic candidates were examined in Confucian wisdom; this fulfilled the Confucian dictum that only morally superior men were fit for office. Under the Han, China began to outstrip other civilizations in technology. The first true paper, protoporcelain, and a rudimentary seismograph were developed there.
The end of the Han came largely as the result of economic woes and intense political factionalism at court. Powerful landlords had shifted too much land from the tax rolls. This created an unbearable tax burden on the poorer farmers. The resulting economic hardships and governmental disintegration led to massive peasant rebellion and the dissolution of the empire. Then commenced 300 years known as the Period of Disunion (220–589). During this time North China was ruled by a series of semi-Sinicized peoples. The South was settled by Chinese colonial regimes.
With the breakdown of the Han order came a disillusionment with Confucian emphasis on the selection of morally upright men for office. An aristocratic domination of government returned. The period was one of deteriorating administrative quality, fierce racial tensions, and physical destruction. Nevertheless, it was also notable for cultural developments. One of the most notable was the transformation of Indian Buddhism into a Chinese religion. Technological innovations included the invention of the wheelbarrow and gunpowder.
Sui and Tang Dynasties
Although the Han had been destroyed, the ideal of a centralized empire had never disappeared. It was left to the short-lived, native Chinese dynasty, the Sui (581–618), to fulfill that ideal. But the labor and tax burden of the Sui public works projects — such as the reconstruction of the Great Wall and the fashioning of a Grand Canal linking the northern capital region with the newly rich agricultural centers of the Yangtze River valley — was compounded by ruinous military campaigns against northern Korea. This generated popular rebellion and led to the speedy demise of the dynasty.
Yet the Sui laid the foundations for another glorious age, that of the Tang (T'ang; 618–906). At its height the Tang controlled a pan-Asian empire stretching from Korea to the borders of Persia. Chang'an (Ch'ang-an), now known as Xi'an, the Tang capital and the greatest city in all Asia, numbered 1 million inside its walls and another 1 million in the suburbs. It welcomed tribute envoys, merchants, and devotees of religions from all parts of Asia and farther west. This is the greatest period of Buddhism in Chinese history. Islam, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Nestorian Christianity all entered China as well.
At the same time, with the advent of a recentralized empire, the fortunes of Confucianism rose. The civil service examinations reintroduced by the Sui were significantly expanded. During the reign of Taizong (T'ai-tsung; 627–49), a wide range of Confucian scholarly projects was undertaken under imperial sponsorship. Tang power and prestige reached a zenith during the reign of Tang Xuanzong (T'ang Hsuan-tsung; 712–56). Chinese lyric poetry reached a high point, and the world's first printed book was produced.
Eventually, however, military victories gave way to defeat, notably at the hands of the Arabs in 751. In 755 the revolt of An Lushan (An Lu-shan), a general in the Tang employ, transferred considerable power from the central government to military governors in the provinces. This dealt the dynasty a blow from which it never fully recovered. The persecution (841–45) of Buddhists was largely an effort to return revenues from tax-free temple lands to the state.
The military governors who brought down the Tang founded five short-lived regimes. These, in turn, were replaced by a new age of prosperity under the Song (Sung; 960–1279). This marked the beginning of China's early modern age. The Song was never so militarily powerful as the Han or Tang. It was nevertheless notable for establishing political, social, economic, and cultural patterns that remained largely unaltered in China for a millennium. The Song saw the final demise of the old aristocratic domination of government. Replacing the old aristocrats was a new group, the scholar-gentry class. The power of the scholar-gentry class came from landholding and long years of educational training. Agriculture benefited from the introduction of new, early-ripening strains of rice. Enormous advances were made in commerce. Cities based on trade and industry multiplied rapidly, especially along the southeastern coast and in the Yangtze River valley. Many of the Chinese arts, such as storytelling, drama, and vernacular fiction, became increasingly oriented toward the urban classes. Chinese landscape painting reached its full maturity. A new form of Confucianism, a syncretism of Confucian ethics and Buddhist metaphysics called Neoconfucianism, became state orthodoxy. This policy persisted until the 20th century. Not everyone benefited, however. The peasants fell ever deeper into tenantry. The status of women also declined. The latter was symbolized by the growth of concubinage and the introduction of foot-binding.
Song military weakness eventually took its toll. Even at the height of Song power, parts of northern and northwestern China were occupied, respectively, by the Khitan and Tanguts. From 1127 all of North China was conquered by the JÃ¼rchen. This left the Song in control of only a truncated southern regime, with its capital at Hangzhou (Hangchow).
A century and a half later, the Mongols conquered both the JÃ¼rchen and the Song. This marked the first time all of China had been occupied and ruled by a warlike people. The genius behind Mongol power was Genghis Khan. By the time of his death in 1227, the Mongols possessed an empire stretching from Korea to Russian Turkistan and from Siberia to northern India. Yet even then, China had still not been made part of the Mongol empire. This work was left to Genghis's successors, especially his grandson Kublai Khan. In 1279 Kublai Khan at last succeeded in conquering the Southern Song. He founded the Chinese-style Yuan (YÃ¼an) dynasty (1279–1368), with its capital at Beijing.
With the peace that settled over Asia as a result of Mongol rule, access to China became relatively easy. Another age of cosmopolitanism and broad foreign contact, particularly with the West, was begun. The Mongols supported foreign mercantile ventures in China. They welcomed foreign faiths like Nestorian Christianity and Islam and patronized Tibetan Buddhism, or Tantrism. They also employed numerous foreigners in the state bureaucracy, such as the Venetian Marco Polo. The Chinese were systematically discriminated against for government service and suffered numerous legal disabilities. Despite this repression, native arts flourished. Calligraphy and painting produced by the scholar-gentry class and two literary forms — drama and the novel — were especially popular.
Mongol rule in China was brought to an end after civil war among Mongol princes and increasing conversion to the sedentary Chinese way of life robbed the Mongol military machine of much of its effectiveness. Repeated natural disasters were followed by a massive peasant rebellion that the alien rulers could not quell. The Mandate of Heaven now shifted to one of the peasant leaders, who established the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) at Nanjing (Nanking) in the south. This man, the Hongwu (Hung-wu) emperor (r. 1368–98), placed the Chinese throne on an unprecedented despotic basis.
Ming despotism continued unabated during the reign of the third ruler, the vigorous Yongle (Yung-lo) emperor (r. 1403–24). Yongle moved the capital northward to a rebuilt Beijing. He launched large-scale maritime expeditions as far as the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and East Africa. Agricultural productivity increased with the introduction of New World crops. Population rose by the end of the dynasty to somewhere around 160 million to 260 million. Many of the great Chinese novels, each the product of centuries of work, achieved final form during this period, although the famous Dream of the Red Chamber was written in the succeeding early Qing period.
The political and intellectual vigor of the Yongle reign did not continue, however. Chinese attention turned inward. Overseas trade and contacts were reduced. Even in the realm of philosophy, China turned from the systematic investigation of things to a greater reliance on introspection and intuition. This hindered many scientific advances and the development of new technologies. A decline in imperial leadership and a debilitating court factionalism between Confucian scholar-officials and eunuchs led to administrative paralysis. Continued defense problems with the Mongols and marauding pirates along the southeastern coast led the state to the brink of bankruptcy. Natural disasters in the early 17th century gave rise to peasant rebellion, signaling the end of the dynasty.
Early Qing Dynasty
The successors of the Ming were another foreign people — the Manchus — descendants of the JÃ¼rchen. The Manchu homeland lay in the region of Manchuria and Liaodong (Liaotung). The Manchu tribes rose to power on the fringe of Chinese culture. Like the Mongols before them, they learned from China on a selective basis. In particular, they learned how to govern a sedentary Chinese state. Nurhachi (r. 1616–26) followed the tradition of Genghis Khan. He united the Manchu and JÃ¼rchen tribes under his personal authority. Gradually, he and his successors developed a civil administration on a Chinese model. They even adopted Confucianism as the basis of rule. In 1644 the Manchus seized Beijing and proceeded to occupy all of the country. The alien Qing (Ch'ing) dynasty (1644–1911) that they established, however, represented more a continuation of the Ming than any sharp break. The Qing administration succeeded largely because, politically, it was a Manchu-Chinese synthesis.
The high point of Qing was reached under the long reigns of the Kangxi (K'ang-hsi) emperor (r. 1661–1722) and the Qianlong (Ch'ien-lung) emperor (r. 1736–95). During this time Chinese rule in Asia was extended over an area greater than that of any previous dynasty except the Mongol Yuan. The Chinese Empire included Outer Mongolia; Chinese Turkistan (modern Xinjiang, or Sinkiang, province); Tibet (Xizang); and in 1683, for the first time, Taiwan. By the end of the 18th century, however, symptoms of dynastic decline had begun to appear. Military campaigns on the periphery of the empire required enormous expenditures, and corruption was rampant at all levels of government. The overwhelming impact of the West thus came at a most disadvantageous time for China.
The immediate source of conflict between China and the West was trade. The Qing had attempted to conduct diplomatic and commercial relations with the European powers within the traditional framework of the tribute system. They tried to confine foreign trade to the single port of Guangzhou (Canton) in the south. The British, the most active European traders, were also among the most active in smuggling opium into the country. The destruction by the Chinese of all foreign opium at Guangzhou precipitated the Opium War of 1839–42. At its conclusion the Qing was forced by the Treaty of Nanjing to capitulate to a British naval force, cede Hong Kong to Britain, open several ports to unrestricted trade, and promise henceforth to conduct foreign relations on the basis of equality. It was also compelled to recognize the principle of extraterritoriality. Under this principle, Westerners in China were subject only to the jurisdiction of their own country's consular court.
More concessions were wrested from China after the Anglo-French War of 1856–60. The conflict saw the foreign occupation and looting of Beijing. It resulted in the opening of all of China to Western diplomatic, commercial, and missionary representatives. This second humiliation to the Qing coincided with a series of internal rebellions sparked by the decline of central authority. The most important of these rebellions, during 1851–64, was that of the Taipings, a radical military-religious movement. After achieving initial success, the Taiping Rebellion was put down by newly created provincial militias loyal to the Qing.
These provincial forces and their Chinese leaders represented a shift of power in the provinces from Manchus to Chinese. They launched a new period of regionalism in Chinese politics. During the late 19th century, however, the provincial leaders allied with the central leadership. They sought first to restore the traditional Confucian system as a means of solving domestic disorder and foreign invasion. Later they tried to introduce into China Western industrial and military technology as part of a self-strengthening movement. Both measures were doomed to fail.
China's continuing helplessness in the face of the foreign threat was revealed most clearly by the Sino-Japanese War over Korea (1894–95). China suffered yet another defeat. It was compelled to recognize Korean independence, to cede Taiwan to Japan, and to allow the European powers and Japan to secure concessions. Yet defeat served to spark the abortive Hundred Days reform movement of 1898. It also gave added impetus to growing anti-Manchu sentiment. The reformers' failure was due in considerable measure to the corrupt and narrow-minded Dowager Empress Cixi (Tz'u-hsi), who dominated the last three decades of Qing government. Cixi found herself compelled, however, to institute a group of genuine reforms after the Boxer Uprising of 1900 precipitated yet another foreign occupation.
Ironically, reform paved the way for a more radical political transformation. As Qing rule was shown to be increasingly bankrupt, revolutionary and nationalistic uprisings gained widespread public support, even among the conservative scholar-gentry. Finally, revolution broke out at Wuchang (Wu-ch'ang) in Central China on Oct. 10, 1911. On Jan. 1, 1912, Sun Yat-sen, a longtime activist, was elected provisional president of the Chinese Republic. The last Qing emperor abdicated on February 12. Thus ended not only the Qing empire but also more than 3,000 years of Chinese monarchy. Although Sun is regarded as the father of the Chinese Republic, he was succeeded just a few months later by Yuan Shikai (YÃ¼an Shih-k'ai). This late-Qing military strongman was widely believed to be the only statesman then powerful enough to combat not only lingering Manchu reactionism but also foreign aggression.
Yuan soon dissolved parliament and attempted to restore the monarchy. After his death in 1916 and until 1928, rival groups of militarists with the support of various Western nations contended for power. China had once more entered an age of domination by warlords. Although politically retrogressive, the period 1919–21 was marked by a revolution in Chinese thought and culture collectively known as the May Fourth Movement. The result was an intensified nationalism and struggle against imperialism, an enhanced knowledge of Western liberal ideas, a spreading attack on the old Confucian hierarchical social order, and a literary renaissance that created a new vernacular writing style. The period was also marked by the introduction of Marxism into China. The first congress of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) convened in 1921, with Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) in attendance.
Russian Communists, however, decided to support the numerically superior and more influential Nationalist political party called the Kuomintang (KMT, or Guomindang), led by Sun Yat-sen, in ridding China of the warlord menace and paving the way for socialism. In 1923, Chinese Communists were ordered as individuals to join the KMT. The next year the KMT began to be reorganized along Leninist lines. This alliance of convenience between Communists and Nationalists came to a bloody end in April 1927, when KMT troops ravaged the CCP organization and labor movement in Shanghai. The architect of the Shanghai massacre was Chiang Kai-shek, a military advisor of Sun's. Trained in Japan and in Moscow, he took over the military command of the KMT after Sun's death in 1925. From July 1926, Chiang led the Northern Expedition to rid China of the warlords.
By the autumn of 1928, Chiang had succeeded in nominally reuniting China for the first time since 1916. The KMT-controlled government at Nanjing survived from 1928 to 1937. Still, it suffered considerable handicaps. Menaced by local warlords and also by CCP soviets in various parts of China, the KMT was forced to devote almost half its budget to military expenditures. Like other Chinese regimes, the KMT government was beset by ineffectual administration, corruption, factionalism, and political repression. The KMT purge of Communists and radical leftists after 1928 deprived it of the personnel and ideas that might have enabled it to cope with increasing political and economic disintegration. Finally, Chiang Kai-shek was inflexible. He lacked a comprehension of modern economic planning and did not understand politics involving the broad masses. He was less concerned with the social and economic transformation of Chinese society than with the creation of a strong national state. Whatever hopes Chiang may have had of solving the many problems facing his regime were dashed by the full-scale Japanese invasion of China that began in July 1937.
World War II and Communist Victory
The war proved a boon for the CCP. As late as 1934–35, KMT pressure had forced the CCP to quit the Henan-Jiangxi (Honan-Kiangsi) region and embark on the 8,000-km (5,000-mi) Long March to the northwestern frontier in Shaanxi. Of the 80,000 who began the journey, only 20,000 reached their destination. It was during the Long March that Mao Zedong achieved unrivaled power in the Communist party. While the KMT bore the brunt of the frontline fighting against the Japanese, Mao seized on nationalistic fervor and undertook various economic reform programs and popular mobilization in the less accessible border areas. By the end of the war in the Pacific (August 1945), the CCP was in control of a region in North China with a population of 100 million.
During the 1940s a Chinese form of Marxism-Leninism, or Maoism, built on a peasant rather than a proletarian base, was successfully tested in action. It became the new Communist orthodoxy in China. The KMT was materially supported by the United States and at first far superior to the CCP in numbers. Yet it lacked an inspiring ideology or genuine economic reform program. Its leadership grew increasingly out of touch with the masses. Defensively entrenched in the cities, it suffered the debilitating effects of wartime inflation and corruption and was increasingly outmaneuvered by the CCP.
By mid-1948 the Communists equaled the Nationalists in numbers. Finally, Mao's armies crossed the Yangtze River in 1949 and overwhelmed the Nationalists. KMT military remnants and political leaders fled to Taiwan, which the Japanese had returned to China at the end of the war. There, the Nationalists continue to claim to be the legitimate government of all of China. They presided over an economic miracle that was nurtured by U.S. aid (1950–65), a successful land reform program, and sound economic planning.
The history of post-1949 China, however, is the history of the People's Republic, proclaimed by Mao Zedong on Oct. 1, 1949, at its capital, Beijing. This history has been marked by long periods of careful, practical development interspersed with shorter periods of intense ideological mobilization. The first years were ones of thoroughgoing social and economic reorganization on the Russian model, backed by Soviet support. A nationwide land reform wiped out the landlord class and divided the land among the peasantry. Women were given full equality with men. Attacks were made on official corruption and bureaucratism. Efforts were begun to improve sanitation and to achieve universal literacy. Mobilization of the masses in these enterprises may have been facilitated by the patriotism generated by involvement in the Korean War (1950–53).
During the first Five-Year Plan (1953–57), agriculture was collectivized and industrial production expanded. Disappointing agricultural production, however, led to the frenzied Great Leap Forward of 1958–60. This program sought to make use of China's rural workforce surplus to rapidly expand agricultural and small-scale industrial productivity. Instead, it led to general economic dislocation and widespread famine. At about the same time, disagreement over the correct methods of achieving socialism led to the great Sino-Soviet split.
Growing tensions among party leaders and a feeling by Mao that the revolution was running out of steam led him to launch the Cultural Revolution of 1966–69. The Cultural Revolution was designed to replace the party-government–military-power elite with more revolutionary elements. As stability was restored after this second mass upheaval, China profited from a series of developments in foreign relations. These included its admission to the United Nations and the expulsion (1971) from that body of the Nationalist regime on Taiwan.
The death of China's revered prime minister, Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai), and of Mao himself in 1976 made that a watershed year. Soon thereafter the radical grouping known as the Gang of Four was removed from power. Under moderate leader Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-p'ing), China sought closer U.S. ties to aid in modernizing its economy. The two nations reestablished diplomatic relations in January 1979. China's leaders officially condemned (1981) the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Deng orchestrated a process of economic liberalization; it resulted in the tripling of China's real per-capita gross national product between 1978 and 1993. An overheated economy and student demands for democratic reform, however, led to the purges of party leaders Hu Yaobang (Hu Yao-pang), in 1987, and Zhao Ziyang (Chao Tzu-yang), in 1989; a military crackdown (June 1989) on the student prodemocracy movement; and the imposition of economic austerity measures from 1993 to reduce inflation and speculation. Renewed Tibetan demands for independence were suppressed. Protests by Muslim separatists in Xinjiang also were quashed.
In 1992 many leading party and military officials opposed to Deng's market-oriented reforms were "retired." Party leader Jiang Zemin (Chiang Tse-min), designated China's next paramount leader by Deng, was elected president. Deng died in February 1997. China's leaders still resisted political reform. Nevertheless, they agreed later that year to privatize most state-owned industries. The move led to widespread unemployment. New premier Zhu Rongji assumed office in March 1998. Under his leadership the government announced plans to dramatically reduce the size of the bureaucracy, reform the banking system, and institute other measures designed to help China escape the economic crisis engulfing many of its Asian neighbors. At the same time, these reforms would strengthen the central government's overall control of the economy. Despite the government's willingness to reform the economy, several leaders of a new Chinese opposition party were sentenced to long jail terms in December 1998. This indicated that the government still rejected the concept of Western-style democracy.
In foreign affairs, China and Britain reached agreement on the future of Hong Kong in 1984. Under a 1987 accord with Portugal, Macao was to be returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1999. The 1991 collapse of the USSR left China determined to maintain its position as the world's only remaining Communist superpower. At the same time, it continued to develop its economy. China resumed nuclear testing from 1992 to 1996, but it signed the 1996 nuclear test ban treaty. The expansion of democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan's efforts to pursue a more visible international role strained China's relations with Britain and the United States, particularly when China conducted missile tests close to Taiwan in March 1996.
Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997. This marked perhaps the real beginning of the post-Deng era. Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited the United States in November of that year. In June 1998, U.S. president Bill Clinton paid a state visit to China; it was the first such visit by a U.S. president since the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Later that year, Jiang Zemin visited Russia. He also became the first Chinese president since World War II to visit Japan.
Relations between China and the United States frayed in 1999 as the U.S. trade deficit with China mounted and it was disclosed that China may have illicitly obtained important U.S. nuclear and submarine-detection technology. China denied the espionage allegations. Progress in forging better relations between the two nations was further threatened after NATO forces accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in May 1999. The bombing sparked massive anti-Western demonstrations in China; subsequently the United States paid reparations for the incident. Tensions increased even further after Taiwanese president Lee Teng-Hui announced in July 1999 that he was abandoning the ambiguous "one China" policy. This policy had maintained an uneasy peace between Taiwan and the mainland for 50 years, although the United States continued to recognize the government in Beijing as the sole legal government of China. Amid fears that Lee's declaration might trigger Chinese military action, China announced that it had developed its own neutron bomb (without the use of stolen U.S. technology).
Domestically, the Chinese government launched a crackdown on Falun Gong. This popular sect was founded in 1992; its members sought to improve their moral character through exercise, study, and meditation. The sect was officially outlawed in July 1999 after its members had organized several unprecedented mass, nonviolent protests. Its swift rise in popularity was viewed as a challenge to the government's legitimacy as the country's economic woes continued. In 2001 the government launched a massive campaign by government workers, students, and other groups to denounce the outlawed movement.
On Oct. 1, 1999, China celebrated 50 years of Communist rule. There were signs that the country had assumed the important place on the world stage that it felt it merited. The following month, China successfully launched and retrieved its first experimental spacecraft. In 1999 the nation signed trade agreements with the United States, Japan, and Canada; this paved the way for entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). A similar accord with India was signed in early 2000. A bill normalizing U.S. trade links with China was approved by the U.S. government later that year. On Dec. 20, 1999, Macao was formally returned to China. In early 2001, in an attempt to improve its international image, China ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
The victory of proindependence candidate Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan's March 2000 presidential election raised tensions between Taiwan and the mainland to new levels. The Communist government threatened war if Taiwan continued to delay talks on reunification. Subsequently, the Communist government approved Taiwan's unilateral move to improve relations by lifting the long-standing ban on direct shipping links between Taiwan and the mainland. The United States reiterated its "one China" policy. At the same time, it called on both sides to resolve their differences peacefully. Meanwhile, China's long-strained relations with India, which had been aggravated by the latter's conducting underground nuclear tests in 1998, improved slightly. The presidents of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan set up a joint antiterrorism center in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in July; it was designed to coordinate their efforts to suppress Islamic separatist movements in Central Asia.
In April 2001 a Chinese fighter plane collided with a U.S. military aircraft conducting a routine surveillance patrol off the coast of China. The Chinese plane crashed, and its pilot was killed; the U.S. aircraft made an emergency landing on the Chinese island of Hainan. A subsequent tense standoff took place in the midst of Chinese objections to proposals by the new U.S. president, George W. Bush, to proceed with a global missile-defense program and to provide Taiwan with weapons and sophisticated military equipment. The crew was finally released after 11 days in custody, but the plane itself remained in Chinese hands for several months. Tensions increased after Taiwan staged a military exercise simulating the repelling of an invasion by mainland China, and the United States went ahead with its decision to sell submarines, aircraft carriers, and destroyers to the island state. China subsequently staged its own military exercises off the coast of Taiwan.
These events took place against the backdrop of Chinese domestic politics. The government continued its crackdown on the Falun Gong and other opposition groups as it prepared for the expected replacement of many of its elderly leaders. Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, and Li Peng were among those leaving the politburo in November 2002; they and a number of other top officials retired in March 2003. Vice-President Hu Jintao (Hu Chin-t'ao), the youngest member of the politburo, replaced Jiang as head of the Communist party in November 2002 and as president in March 2003, although Jiang remained influential.
Great celebration occurred throughout the country in July 2001, when Beijing was selected as the site of the 2008 Olympic Games. That same month, Russia and China signed a 20-year treaty of friendship and cooperation. After 15 years of negotiations, China's application for admission to the World Trade Organization received formal approval in September 2001. It was then poised to become the world's leading supplier of mass-produced goods. The government also began to study the possibility of a free-trade zone that encompassed Hong Kong (another WTO member) and southern China. Relations with Taiwan, which had also gained WTO admission, remained relatively calm, despite the victory of proindependence candidates in the island's late-2001 legislative elections. In fact, the Beijing government made friendly overtures to the new Taiwanese government in January 2002. Nevertheless, it still insisted that full political talks must be based on the idea of "one country, two systems." The Taiwanese government had already rejected this idea.
The Chinese government condemned the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. As U.S.-led retaliatory attacks on the Afghan Taliban regime and terrorist leader Osama bin Laden were launched in October, China closed its border with Afghanistan. In December, shortly before a new, broad-based interim government was installed in Afghanistan, China cracked down on its own Muslim extremists (mostly Uighurs). It said that its Muslim separatists had received training in bin Laden's camps and were part of the international terrorist network. The Shanghai Cooperative Organization, an alliance of China with the Central Asian states on its western border that was initiated in 1998, was given a formal structure in September 2003. It was part of China's efforts to contain the spread of fundamentalist Islam in the region.
In 2003, China called for direct talks between the United States and North Korea. At the same time, it condemned both North Korea's resumption of its nuclear program and the U.S.-led military strike on Iraq. It subsequently participated in several rounds of six-party talks that included China, Japan, Russia, the United States, and North and South Korea. As North Korea's chief source of food and energy, China also began to exert pressure on North Korea to negotiate an end to the crisis over its nuclear weapons. In June 2003, during a state visit to China by Indian president Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the two countries took steps to resolve their long-standing territorial disputes. India recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, while China did the same with regard to Indian control of Sikkim.
The following month the Chinese government faced a serious crisis in Hong Kong. Prodemocracy demonstrators there staged massive peaceful protests against a proposed internal-security bill. Although the Chinese government took a conciliatory approach to the crisis, it was unclear whether such disagreements would ultimately lead to the end of the "one country, two systems" policy that also formed the basis for the mainland government's plans for Taiwan.
Chinese national pride received a boost in October 2003 when China became the third nation, after the United States and the former Soviet Union, to send a human being into space. As further evidence of the Communist party's willingness to allow free-market reforms while maintaining control of the government, the constitution was amended in 2004 to guarantee private property rights. (These rights had been abolished when the CCP seized power 55 years earlier.) Wealthy entrepreneurs were also allowed to become party members. By early 2004, China's economic and technological successes were expanding its influence within the region (where it called for the creation of an Asian free-market zone by 2010) and on the world stage. Later that year, and three years ahead of schedule, Hu replaced Jiang as head of the powerful Central Military Commission. This completed Communist China's first peaceful transition of power since the 1949 revolution.
Hong Kong's ineffective and unpopular leader Tung Chee-hwa was retired in March 2005 without consultation with Hong Kong's people. This was generally considered evidence that Beijing still held and was prepared to exercise ultimate power in Hong Kong. That same month, the Chinese parliament passed a controversial antisecession bill; it allowed China to use force to stop any move by Taiwan toward independence. The new law sparked massive protests in Taiwan and inflamed tensions between Taiwan and the mainland.
Relations with Japan were strained following almost unprecedented mass anti-Japanese demonstrations in China in April to protest new Japanese textbooks that the Chinese believed failed to truthfully depict Japanese atrocities in China during World War II. The government's failure to crack down on the protesters was seen as a way to signal its opposition to a possible permanent UN Security Council seat for Japan. By contrast, Beijing supported a permanent seat for India. That same month, during a state visit by Wen Jiabao to India, the world's two most populous nations signed an accord designed to resolve their long-standing border disputes. India had already become China's second-largest trading partner.
In August 2005, China and Russia staged their first-ever joint war exercises. On Jan. 11, 2007, China destroyed a weather satellite. This was the first-known satellite intercept test in more than 20 years; it raised fears of a new arms race in space. Both actions were considered signs that China was prepared to counter U.S. dominance in world affairs. Subsequently, elections in Taiwan in 2008 reduced tensions between it and the mainland. In May the two held their highest-level summit since 1949. China and Russia finally, in July, resolved the last dispute over their long common border. China and Japan moved to settle a long-running disagreement over natural-gas fields in the East China Sea. Also in 2008, China and Vietnam agreed to finish demarcating their land border and resolve their maritime territorial dispute, although their agreement did not resolve the multinational claims to the Spratly Islands.
As China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and completed its first space walk, it was clear that the Communist party was determined to maintain its grip on power. It considered this essential to China's development. Earlier that year it had swiftly put down protests in Tibet, sparking worldwide protests. Rapid industrialization had already created other threats to party dominance. The nation's leaders faced tensions over widening rural-urban income disparities. It attempted to address this in October 2008 by enacting major land-use reform that allowed farmers to lease or transfer their land-use rights. In addition, escalating protests occurred over corruption, pollution, land seizures, and the erosion of social protections, such as guaranteed health care and employment. A massive earthquake in Sichuan province in May 2008 killed nearly 70,000 people, with another 18,000 still missing months later. The cost of reconstructing the quake-damaged areas was estimated at $147 billion. Although the government was praised for its swift response to this tragedy, it was estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 Chinese die prematurely each year from the effects of outdoor air pollution.
A steep worldwide economic slowdown made it harder to provide jobs for the millions of Chinese moving from rural areas to the cities. Yet the recovery in China was swift. A huge new economic stimulus plan was unveiled in November 2008. The $586 billion two-year program involved the construction of new railroads, subways, and airports as well as the rebuilding of earthquake-shattered communities. It bolstered China's economy by increasing domestic consumption and investment as well as helping to boost the world economy. The huge investments China made in infrastructure and education are likely to continue to fuel its economic boom and rising influence on the world stage.
Nevertheless, China's growing assertiveness in such areas as trade, Internet censorship, and industrial espionage increased tensions with other nations. Disagreements over transit lanes, fishing rights, territory, and undersea resources in various parts of the South China Sea continued. In 2010, Japan detained a fishing-boat captain whose vessel had collided with two Japanese coast guard ships while fishing in waters controlled by Japan but long claimed by China in the East China Sea. In retaliation, China blocked exports of rare minerals to Japan; about 93% of the world's supply of these minerals, which have many industrial uses, are mined in China. The Chinese government also reacted in anger when jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (Hsiao-po) was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Aggravating these tensions was the nation's unwillingness to curb greenhouse emissions or play a more active role in restraining the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.
The Eighteenth National Party Congress, held in November 2012, marked the beginning of another major leadership change in China. Vice-President Xi Jinping (Hsi Chin-p'ing) was named to succeed Hu as party general secretary and head of the party's Central Military Commission. In 2013, Xi became president and Li Keqiang (Li K'o-ch'iang) succeeded Wen Jiabao (Wen Chia-pao) as premier. More than many members of the elite, the pragmatic and competent Xi could claim to speak for rural Chinese. Also, he had close allies within the military. He moved swiftly to consolidate his power and influence.
As China's economic growth slowed and calls for economic and social reform mounted, the government planned to spend aggressively to create a network of new cities that would relocate millions of people into urban areas. Its one-child policy was also eased in an effort to keep a nation with a fraying social network and rising labor costs from growing old before it grew rich. A new National Security Council was created to coordinate police, intelligence, and military responses to ethnic uprisings in restive provinces and other unrest. By the fall of 2014 the central government faced a new domestic challenge from prodemocracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. The "Umbrella Revolution" arose after a late-August decision that candidates for Hong Kong's chief executive would continue to be vetted by the central government. China's rulers seemed to fear that if they allowed reforms in Hong Kong, they would lose their grip over other people and regions unhappy with the way they were being governed.
Internationally, already strained regional relations continued to deteriorate. One exception, despite China's continued claims of sovereignty, was Taiwan. In 2014 the island and mainland held their first government-to-government talks since 1949. Another exception was Russia, which in June 2014 agreed to sell natural gas to China for 30 years. Coupled with already fraying relations between Russia and the United States, the $400 billion deal marked yet another way in which China was challenging U.S. influence. That same month, China's placement of an oil rig in disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam sparked anti-Chinese riots in that country. China's expanding undersea fleet was of strategic importance in enforcing its territorial claims and thwarting U.S. intervention; it had already reported sending a nuclear-powered submarine into the Indian Ocean in December 2013. It also pushed to expand membership in the 14-year-old Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and other economic and security organizations in which it played a leading role. (The founding SCO members were China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.) In November 2014, China unexpectedly signed an agreement with the United States to eventually reduce the production of greenhouse gases.
Howard J. Wechsler