The PRC officially came into existence following the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War (1945–1949). On 1 October 1949, the chairman of the Central People's Administrative Council and leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Mao Zedong, proclaimed the PRC. Zhou Enlai became premier and foreign minister. The Soviet Union and its satellites immediately recognized the PRC, followed later by Burma, India, and (on 6 January 1950) Great Britain.
Domestically, the PRC followed varied political and economic polices, combining considerable centralized political control with an increasingly decentralized market economy in the final stages of the Cold War. Helping to drive the Chinese economy was its burgeoning population, which more than doubled during 1945–1991. At the end of the Cold War, China contained nearly 1.1 billion people.
Despite the ideological rivalry with the United States, the CCP tried to convey its message to the American public through progressive writers such as Edgar Snow, Jack Belden, William Hinton, Agnes Smedley, and others even before it came to power in 1949. Nevertheless, with the growing influence of the so-called China Hands and the China Lobby in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s, American administrations supported Jiang Jieshi's rabidly anticommunist Guomindang (GMD, Nationalist) government.
This and the Korean War (1950–1953) set the stage for a Cold War freeze between the PRC and the United States that lasted for nearly thirty years. The situation was compounded by a series of restrictive trade policies enacted by the United States. As the chances of building understanding with the United States during the last years of the Chinese Civil War declined—despite the U.S. diplomatic missions of General Patrick Hurley and General George C. Marshall—from 1949 onward the PRC looked to the Soviet Union for support.
During and after the Korean War, U.S. trade embargoes on the PRC, troop deployments to East Asia, and security alliances such as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) along the peripheries of the PRC made the Chinese even more reliant on the Soviet Union. The 1950s saw massive Soviet arms sales, economic aid, and technical assistance to the PRC. After the United States and the Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) signed a mutual security treaty in 1954, cooperation between the PRC and the Soviet Union increased again.
The communist Chinese and the Soviets differed on several political and international issues, however. When Soviet leader Josef Stalin cautioned Mao against an open break with the Nationalists, PRC leaders felt slighted by the superior attitude with which the Soviets treated the PRC and other socialist states. The leaders of the PRC and the Soviet Union disagreed sharply over who should lead the world communist movement following Stalin's death. The CCP also sharply criticized the Soviet leadership for its de-Stalinization campaign and for the policy of peaceful coexistence with the United States. The Soviet handling of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and its neutral position during the 1962 Sino-Indian border clash greatly exercised the Chinese leadership. Closer to home, Soviet proposals for building a joint PRC-USSR nuclear submarine fleet and the construction of long-wave radio stations along the Chinese coast were seen by the CCP as infringements on its independence and further steps toward full PRC integration into the Soviet orbit. Likewise, the PRC refused to adhere to the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, arguing that the treaty would impede the PRC's own nuclear program and make the nation all the more reliant on the Soviet Union.
The Sino-Soviet split, which began in earnest in August 1960, along with repeated Soviet-Chinese border clashes led the PRC to distance itself from the two superpowers. The PRC leadership strongly denounced both of them, accusing the Americans of capitalist imperialism and the Soviets of socialist imperialism. This led the Chinese leadership to identify with nations in the developing world, especially countries in Asia and Africa. In 1964, China exploded its first nuclear weapon and became the world's fifth nuclear power, after the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France. The government communiqué issued on the occasion, while declaring a "no first-use principle," stated that nuclear weapons were necessary to protect the nation "from the danger of the United States launching a nuclear war." The PRC then developed long-range ballistic missiles for countering threats from either the United States or the Soviet Union.
In 1954, China announced a good neighbor policy with the aim of building bridges along its periphery to counter what it saw as American encirclement efforts. In the mid-1950s the PRC, along with other Asian countries, also promulgated "Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence," which called for mutual respect of sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, noninterference in each other's internal affairs, and economic equality. By the 1960s, the Chinese had signed border agreements with Mongolia, Nepal, Afghanistan, Burma, and Pakistan. After the Korean War, however, China's military engagements were mainly border disputes, such as in 1962 with India, in 1969 with the Soviet Union, and in 1979 with Vietnam.
During the 1970s, prompted by increasing threats from the Soviet Union, the PRC normalized its relations with the United States under the policy of yitiao xian (following one line). U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly visited China in 1971, setting the stage for the Sino-American rapprochement. The following year, President Richard Nixon made a historic visit to Beijing, opening the way for the normalization of relations. The Americans granted formal recognition to the PRC in 1978, and in 1979 both nations exchanged diplomatic legations.
Despite their differences on issues such as democracy, human rights, the environment, and labor standards, the United States and China worked together in opposing the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The 1979 trade agreement between the United States and the PRC granting most-favored nation (MFN) status to each other went a long way in fully normalizing relations in the economic sphere. U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown's visit to Beijing in early 1980 opened the prospects for American arms sales to the PRC, although President Ronald Reagan's 1982 decision to sell arms to the ROC put any such agreement on indefinite hold.
While the United States now recognized the PRC as the legitimate government of the Chinese people, the status of Taiwan remained unclear. A triangular strategic ambiguity thus came to exist in the relationship among the United States, the PRC, and Taiwan. The PRC has codified, as its minimalist policy toward Taiwan, the "three nos": no deployments of foreign troops on Taiwan, no independence movement, and no nuclear weapons on Taiwan. While the 8,000 U.S. troops stationed on Taiwan were withdrawn, the PRC's threats to use force against Taiwan and concerted military modernization efforts with a Taiwanese focus not only increased U.S. arms supplies to the island but also prompted the passage of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act by the U.S. Congress. In the late 1970s, the PRC proposed its formula of one country, two systems, that is, one China and two different systems—socialist and capitalist—for eventual reunification of the PRC. This formula was also applied to Hong Kong and Macao in Chinese negotiations with the British and Portuguese.
The U.S.-Chinese rapprochement also had an impact on the PRC's relations with Japan, Southeast Asia, and Western Europe. In August 1978, the PRC and Japan signed a peace and friendship treaty. The PRC leadership was highly critical of Japan's occupation of Manchuria and much of coastal China during World War II, the Nanjing massacre, Japanese history textbooks glorifying Japanese militarism, and visits by Japanese prime ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to honor the war dead. China badly needed Japanese financial and technological assistance, however, especially during its economic reform and modernization efforts that had begun in the late 1970s. The PRC therefore granted incentives to Japan, as well as to Taiwan and the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea), to locate industry in China.
There was a thaw in Sino-Soviet relations after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985. China conveyed to the USSR that rapprochement was possible if the Soviets were to withdraw their troop concentrations from the Sino-Soviet border and Mongolia, cease their support of Vietnam, and pull out of Afghanistan. After 1989, Sino-Soviet relations continued to warm as some of the Chinese demands were met. Other demands were realized as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In the domestic political, social, and economic spheres, the PRC initially implemented a strong command-style socialist system with the CCP as the driving political force. During the Cold War, the CCP held eight national congresses, from the Seventh Congress in April 1945 to the Fourteenth Congress in October 1992. CCP membership grew from an estimated 1.2 million in 1945 to 39.6 million during the Twelfth Congress in 1982. Still, CCP membership was small compared to the PRC's population. Three generations of top political leaders existed during the CCP's Cold War history: Mao, Zhou, and Zhu De in the first generation; Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun in the second generation; and Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and Qiao Shi in the third generation.
Although there were eight other political parties, their role was quite limited. The PRC utilized competing political organizations and their leaders in the early years of postwar reconstruction. A united front of all Chinese parties was reflected in the work of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which was formed in September 1949. It held six conferences between 1949 and 1983, although the CCP was clearly the only party that wielded political and governmental control.
Four constitutions were adopted (1954, 1975, 1978, and 1982) by the National People's Congress (NPC), the highest executive body of state power in the PRC. Six NPC congresses were held during 1954–1987. Delegates to the NPC are elected for a period of five years. They in turn elect the president, vice president, and other high-ranking state functionaries. The State Council is the executive body of the PRC and includes the premier, vice premiers, councillors, ministers, and others. A similar dual political structure is reflected at the provincial levels of the country. There are no direct national elections in the PRC, although at the village and county levels direct elections for some local officials were gradually phased in after the end of the Cold War.
During the Cold War, several political campaigns were launched, which set the PRC's political system apart from other socialist countries and indicated its willingness to experiment. The CCP carried out a campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries during 1951–1953, effectively ending opposition from remnant Nationalists, feudal lords, and other dissident groups. This period also coincided with the campaign against corruption among government officials.
In May 1956, the Hundred Flowers Movement was launched, inviting differing views from Chinese intellectuals. A barrage of criticism, however, led to the end of this program in the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957. As China crushed the Khampa Rebellion in Tibet in 1959, sending the Dalai Lama to exile in India, the Soviets withdrew nearly 10,000 of their engineers and technicians in the latter part of 1960. This coincided with the disastrous failure of the Great Leap Forward, a massive program of nationwide industrialization launched by Mao in 1958 and sharply criticized by Defense Minister Peng Dehuai at the 1959 Lushan Conference.
The 1960s brought more experiments. In May 1963, Mao began the Socialist Education Campaign to counter the growing influence of capitalism, end the corrupt practices of CCP cadres, and inculcate the idea of self-sacrifice among the population. The ultraleftist Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) was launched by Mao via a sixteen-point program that encouraged Red Guards to "bombard the headquarters" of CCP leaders and take out those following the "capitalist road." Many CCP leaders, including Liu Shaoqi, Peng Zhen, and Luo Ruiqing, were summarily purged from the party and zealously persecuted.
Although Lin Biao was anointed as Mao's heir apparent, he was killed—probably by design—in a 1971 plane crash in Mongolia. His crime was an alleged coup attempt against Mao. An anti–Lin Biao rectification campaign was launched from 1971 to 1973. The country underwent turmoil following the deaths in 1976 of Zhou in January and Mao in September, when several demonstrations were held in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, supposedly mourning Zhou but also challenging the political ascendancy of the radical Gang of Four. These leftist extremists, who included Mao's wife Jiang Qing and three Shanghai-based Communist Party members—Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao, and Yao Wenyuan—initially tried to implement strongly ideological policies harking back to the height of the Cultural Revolution. Within weeks of Mao's death in September 1976, Hua Guofeng, who became premier in April 1976, ordered the arrest of the Gang of Four, who were tried and convicted of antiparty activities in 1981. Deng, who was rehabilitated a fourth and final time, introduced pragmatic policies of "seeking truth from facts" and extensive economic reforms in 1978.
In response to rising prices, increased alienation among the people, and growing corruption among the ranks of the CCP cadre, students, peasants, and workers launched prodemocracy protests leading to the Tiananmen Square Incident of 4 June 1989, which had been triggered by the death that April of a reformist former CCP chairman, Hu Yaobang, whose sympathies with previous prodemocracy groups had caused his expulsion from the CCP. The crisis resulted in scores of deaths, the resignation of Deng as the chairman of the Central Military Commission, and the appointment of Jiang in his place. An antibourgeois liberalization campaign was launched after this incident.
In the economic arena, for most of the Cold War, China followed Soviet-style centralized Five-Year Plans designed to guide its economic and modernization activities. Given the backwardness and war-ravaged nature of the economy in 1949, when there was rampant and disastrous inflation, the PRC leadership undertook comprehensive measures in the reconstruction of the country. In the industrial sphere, private enterprise was encouraged initially to revitalize production, and 156 major projects were begun with Soviet assistance. The PRC established nearly 4,000 state-owned enterprises during 1949–1989, some allowing for the gradual incorporation of private enterprise in joint firms or state enterprises after paying interest on the private shares.
In 1958, the Great Leap Forward was launched in part to increase iron and steel production by mobilizing the enthusiasm of the masses. State-controlled industrialization, the construction of transport and telecommunication networks, and trade with other socialist countries based on import substitution have all been part of the Maoist self-reliance model of economic development at various times. While these endeavors greatly enhanced the PRC's economic prowess, they also led to waste and increased bureaucratization. In 1975 China initiated a Four Modernizations Program of opening up to the outside world. The four modernizations dealt with agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense, in that order of priority. It also adopted special policies and flexible measures to attract foreign investments and technology sharing and established special economic zones in the coastal regions for wholly-owned or joint enterprises to promote exports.
In agriculture, the PRC immediately initiated land reform with the Agrarian Law of 1950. The regime seized land from landlords and redistributed it to the landless, a process largely completed by 1952. Through this reform, some 300 million peasants acquired 46 million hectares of land. By 1953, after the end of the Korean War, the PRC introduced mutual aid teams and gradually imposed agricultural collectivization. Following the Great Leap Forward, these farming co-ops were converted into People's Communes, combining industry, agriculture, trade, education, and the militia. More than 20,000 such communes were established, although declining production and natural calamities limited their effectiveness.
In the post-1978 reform period, the collectivization and communalization process was reversed, beginning with the institution of household land contracts, rural industrialization, and incentives to private enterprises. The main features of the new reforms included contracting land to private households, which would control land use; increasing agricultural production; raising farmers' income; shifting to commodity agriculture; forming conglomerates; encouraging private enterprises to privately hire labor; and competing in international markets. Srikanth Kondapalli
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