China, After 1945

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China, After 1945

Tattered and torn from decades of Western colonial extraterritoriality and Japanese military occupation, China emerged from the ashes of World War II only to plunge full force back into civil war that had begun in the late 1920s but had been put on hold while the country struggled with the Japanese occupiers. Ferociously resumed between the Nationalists and the Chinese Communist Party, the civil war raged until October 1949 when the communists, lead by Mao Zedong, declared victory with a speech from the Forbidden City. The Nationalists retreated to the island of Taiwan by December 1949. With the establishment of the communist government, all of the extraterritorialities—a system by which the colonial powers were not bound by Chinese laws and de facto ruled portions of the country—were disbanded and virtually all westerners were expelled from China as the government began the long, and often tumultuous, task of transforming the once great, but now shattered, country.

China set on the task of rebuilding. Throughout the 1950s, the country was reorganized, with major social reforms such as the banning of multiple wives and reordering villages into communes. By the end of that decade, however, there was a major split between China and the Soviet Union, one of China's few supporters in this early phase of the Cold War, due to differences over their efforts in the Korean War (1950–1953), over ideological interpretations of communism, and over the Soviet refusal to share atomic bomb technology.

With continued boycott by all the Western powers now supplemented with hostile relations with the Soviet Union, China launched into the 1960s with a disastrous approach called the Great Leap Forward, which was an attempt to rapidly push the still the underdeveloped country into industrialization and resulted in one of the largest famines in the world history. The decade ended no more smoothly than it began with yet another devastating movement called the Cultural Revolution, from approximately 1966 to 1976. Remnants of the Cultural Revolution, a massive social and political movement meant to destroy Chinese traditions and society, lasted until the death of Mao in 1976. After a brief struggle with the Maoist faction, the notorious Gang of Four, China ushered in a more prosperous and less turbulent era.

The faction that opposed Mao's policies, initially called the "pragmatists," rose to power in 1979 through the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Deng initiated a policy of domestic reform, both politically and economically, and began opening to the West and the world. Deng not only changed the Chinese economy from a centrally controlled communist economy to a market-based economy, but also revamped the political system so that just one tyrant would no longer rule the country. The impact throughout the 1980s was a booming Chinese economy and growing political pluralism in China, which welcomed Western and Japanese investment for the first time since 1949.

The country's 1980s growth was chilled by the Tiananmen Square incident, a two-month-long demonstration in the Chinese capital city of Beijing, by student and worker protesters desiring social and political change to accompany the economic change and protesting the economic ills of inflation and unemployment as a result of these same economic changes. The government ultimately responded with force against the protesters in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989. Western governments reacted with bans on certain trade with China.

As a result of the Tiananmen Square incident, a new president, Jiang Zemin, came to power in the 1990s. Jiang continued the policies of economic growth and reform without political reform. China prospered in the 1990s, accelerating exports to the world. Although tensions with the government on Taiwan continued, China's relations with the rest of the world advanced as China became a responsible member in global organizations, such as the World Trade Organization, and took on a leadership role in Asia.

A new page in Chinese history dawned in the twenty-first century. Not only has China reemerged as a powerful global economy, but also subtle political changes were revealed in 2003 with the rise of the president, Hu Jintao, a candidate not backed by the outgoing President Jiang. China began the twenty-first century on a more level playing field with the Western powers and began building new relationships. While some scholars and politicians in the West talk about the "China threat" from this reemerging power, others believe that a stronger, more stabile China will not only help the one-quarter of the world's population that lives within its borders, but also will contribute to a more balanced world.

see also British American Tobacco Company; China, First Opium War to 1945; China, Foreign Trade; China to the First Opium War; Chinese Revolutions; Compradorial System; Extraterritoriality; Guangzhou; Hong Kong; Mao Zedong; Opium; Opium Wars; Shanghai; Taiping Rebellion; Treaties, East Asia and the Pacific.


Davis, Elizabeth Van Wie. Chinese Perceptions on Sino-American Relations, 1950–2000. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.

Fairbank, John King. East Asia: Tradition and Transformation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.

Hsu, Immanuel Chung-yueh. The Rise of Modern China, 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York: Norton, 1999.

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China, After 1945

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