When referring to certain aspects related to China, you have to be specific and make it clear which “China” you are thinking about. Are you talking about one of the (many) Chinese dynasties? Or perhaps about the Republic of China (ROC), the “China” of 1912 to 1949* (the latter represents a more complex discussion, please read our article on the Republic of China for more details)? If, however, you are thinking about today’s China, then the People’s Republic of China represents the proper term and through this article, we will be putting it under the proverbial microscope.
First and foremost, the year 1949 is a tricky one in China’s history, as mentioned previously. This is because it represents the year in which “today’s China” war born as far as most of the world’s population is concerned, although some believe that the Republic of China is still… well, China.
To understand why, it’s important to know a thing or two about the state of China leading up to 1949 and, unfortunately, it’s not exactly a pretty picture. Let’s just say China has been around for a while (not centuries but downright millennia) and despite occasional shortcoming (primarily ones related to military inadequacies), it has always been a proud and dominant civilization. The fact that for the overwhelming majority of its history, it accounted for more than 50% of the world’s GDP along with India speaks for itself.
However, this metric can be misleading because for the majority of human history, the percentage of the worldwide GDP represented by the economy of a nation was primarily a function of its population, this is the reality that lies behind data sets such as the Angus Maddision database. Why? Simply because for a very long time, there wasn’t all that much difference productivity-wise between the average Chinese and the average let’s say Portuguese.
That eventually changed.
As the First Industrial Revolution and subsequent ones brought about massive technology-driven productivity boosts for some countries (for example, European ones), other nations failed to keep up and as such, the slice of the global pie represented by their economy went down. China is a textbook example to that effect, an example of a country that lagged behind due to being less than enthusiastic about trading with foreigners and embracing new technology.
Unfortunately, for China, it was only a matter of time until the British essentially forced themselves as trading partners upon China, with the loss of the Opium Wars being the most relevant example in this equation. Followed by other European nations and ultimately “concessions” made to the Russians and Japanese as well. As can be seen, the period following the First Industrial Revolution was a remarkably humiliating one for China and even after the Republic of China was born, problems didn’t stop, problems including civilization-threatening ones such as the invasion of China by Japan.
However, a “reset” moment followed: the end of World War II.
In light of the fact that Japan was forced to surrender, China was able to carve its own path, yet the beginnings of this path were anything but smooth. On the contrary, this newly-found freedom paved the way for the re-emergence of the conflict between the Communist Party of China (led by Mao Zedong) and the nationalist Kuomintang (led by Chiang Kai-shek).
Eventually, the communists won, whereas the nationalists were forced to retreat to Taiwan. This carved a new “binary” reality for China: on the one hand, Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China on the 1st of October 1949 and controlled the overwhelming majority of China’s territory (mainland China), whereas the Republic of China was limited to… well, Taiwan.
Which entity was the “real” China?
Let’s just say that for an extended period of time, it depended heavily on whom you asked. Eventually though, even nations such as the United States ended up accepting the People’s Republic of China as the de facto China (with Richard Nixon’s 1972 Beijing visit and his intention of establishing better ties with China so as to further weaken the USSR’s position being in the spotlight) and today, things can best be described as a combination between two realities:
- The People’s Republic of China is for the most part accepted as the “real” China
- Formally, both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China claim legitimacy, with the idea that only one China exists actually being among the few aspects the two entities agree on… with, needless to say, both entities claiming it’s them
To understand the path of the People’s Republic of China politically speaking, the most straightforward approach is represented by referring to two dimensions:
- The “Mao Zedong” or “Pre-1978” era, a period heavily dominated by ideological rigidity, with Mao Zedong being a more fervent ideologue that even Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Unfortunately for China, it’s precisely this ideological rigidity that brought about catastrophic initiatives such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. For more information about them, read our article about Mao Zedong. In a nutshell, suffice it to say that China under Mao represented a textbook example of excessive ideology leading to measures which were anything but realistic and resulted in anything from sub-optimal economic performance to even tens of millions of deaths
- The “Deng Xiaoping” or “Post-1978” era, which revolves around China replacing excessive ideology with a combination between economic pragmatism (embracing free market elements and implementing various reforms to boost trade and economic activity) and a political environment that still revolved around the dominance of the Communist Party of China. Socialism with Chinese characteristics, in other words. For the most part, the leaders who followed Deng (Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping) maintained his macro vision, despite each leader contributing with his own particularities to the ideological framework
From Mao Zedong’s China which was trying to recover after centuries of humiliation and had difficulties finding its way, to Deng Xiaoping’s China which changed course and embarked on a journey of modernization and a different type of humility (the humility it takes to take things one step at a time), to today’s China, the world’s #2 economy by nominal GDP or #1 economy by PPP GDP, a country which now has a large enough economy to become far more geopolitically assertive as well… let’s just say that the thus-far short history of the People’s Republic of China has been remarkably eventful but as complex as the puzzle may seem, wrapping your head around the realities of the PRC is not all that difficult as long as you keep things factual and logical.