The Emergence of Modern China
China is the world’s largest Communist country. Isolated from Europeans and Central Asians by the Himalayas and other high mountain ranges, Chinese culture has endured for thousands of years. Rich in history, adventure, and intrigue, a tour through China would reveal a people with a deep, longstanding love of the land, traditions as old as recorded history, and a spirit of commerce and hard work that sustains them to this day. China is about the same land size as the United States, although technically it is slightly smaller than the United States in total area, depending on how land and water areas are calculated. China only has an eastern coast, whereas the United States has both an eastern and a western coast. If you recall the climate types and the relationship between climate and population, you can deduce the location of the heavily populated regions of China.
he form of Communism promoted by Mao Zedong was not the same as the type of Communism practiced in the Soviet Union. Various Communist experiments were forced upon the Chinese people, with disastrous results. For example, in 1958, the Great Leap Forward was announced. In this program, people were divided into communes, and peasant armies were to work the land while citizens were asked to donate their pots and pans to produce scrap metal and increase the country’s industrial output.
The goal was to improve production and increase efficiency. The opposite occurred, and millions of Chinese died of starvation during this era.
Another disaster began in 1966 and continued until Mao died in 1976. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc on four thousand years of Chinese traditional culture in a purge of elitism and a drive toward total loyalty to the Communist Party.
Armies of indoctrinated students were released into the countryside and the cities to report anyone opposing the party line. Schools were closed, universities were attacked, and intellectuals were killed. Anyone suspected of subversion might be tortured into signing a confession. Violence, anarchy, and economic disaster followed this onslaught of anti-Democratic terror. Estimates vary, but most sources indicate that about thirty million people lost their lives during the Mao Zedong era through purges, starvation, and conflict.
During the early decades of Communism in China, all travel into or out of China was severely restricted by the so-called Bamboo Curtain.
The United States had backed the nationalist movement during the Chinese Civil War and continued to support Chiang Kai-shek in Formosa (Taiwan). The United States did not recognize Communist China; the US embassy was in Taiwan, not in Beijing. As China was experiencing its disastrous experiments with Communism, the core economic areas of the world were advancing with commercial technology and high-tech electronics and sending rockets to the moon. China lagged behind in its industrial activities and became a country based on agriculture. A visit to China by US President Richard Nixon in 1972 signaled the opening of diplomatic relations with the United States and was also viewed as a Cold War move against the Soviet Union.
The Chinese Communist Party’s approach when it took power was to institute a “planned economy.” A planned economy, sometimes called a command economy, stands in marked contrast to a market economy. In a planned (or command) economy, the government controls all aspects of the economy, including what goods and products should be produced, how much of each should be produced, how products will be sold or distributed and for what (if any) price, who should have jobs and what jobs they should have, how much people will be paid, and all other decisions related to the economy. In a planned economy, businesses are nationalized; that is, businesses are owned by the government rather than by any private entity. By contrast, in a market economy, businesses are privately owned, and most decisions are driven by consumer and investor behavior.
The decade of the 1980s was a transition for China in that there was a shift of focus from China’s Communist economy to a more market-oriented economy. The economic collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s coincided with the opening of China to trade with the West. In 1992, China announced that it would transition to a socialist market economy, a hybrid of a Communist-planned economy and a market economy. A series of statements by China’s political leaders suggested that in order for China to enjoy a more mature form of socialism, greater national wealth was needed. They further indicated that socialism and poverty should not be considered synonymous and that the country was ready to turn its attention to increasing the wealth and quality of life of its citizens. During the next decade, China experienced an enormous growth in its economy. At the beginning of this century, China was ranked in the top five of the world’s largest trading nations, joining ranks with the United States, Germany, Japan, and France. The sheer size of China’s population contributes to the magnitude of its economy. This does not, however, mean that most of China’s population has a high standard of living.
- 1949 – Communist China
- 1958 – Great Leap Forward (Backward)
- 1966 – Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
- 1972 – Richard Nixon visits China (open door)
- 1980s – Four Modernizations (Deng Xiaoping)
- 1990s – Growth of Enterprise and Industry
- 2000+ – A New Century (Trade with the West)
China can be divided into regions utilizing various criteria: political regions, economic regions, natural regions, and climatic regions to name a few. The Communist government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is made up of a number of types of political units. The main region of China Proper includes twenty-two provinces, including the island province of Hainan in the south. The island formerly known as Formosa, now called Taiwan, is considered by China to be its twenty-third province but in actuality remains under its own government—the Republic of China (ROC).
Mainland China includes five autonomous regions, each with a designated minority group; four municipalities; and two special administrative regions (SARs) that hold considerable autonomy. All but Taiwan are included in the region called mainland China, except the SARs Hong Kong and Macau.
The autonomous regions exist as a kind of a compromise between China and the regions that would prefer to be totally independent and that have large non-Han or ethnic minority populations. These five autonomous regions are Tibet, Guangxi, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Ningxia. It should be noted that “autonomous” is how China would describe these regions, but that description is arguable. In reality, the autonomous regions have very little legal ability to govern themselves and, in fact, have in some ways less autonomy than the provinces to pass their own legislation.
Four of China’s cities have governance structures that are roughly on par with that of the provinces. The directly controlled municipalities are Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing and encompass large geographic areas well beyond the city limits, including towns, villages, and rural areas.
The two SARs (special administrative regions) of China are Hong Kong and Macau. Hong Kong was part of the British Empire and later a British protectorate until its governance reverted to China in 1997. Known informally under Chinese law as “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong and Macau are guaranteed a great degree of autonomy for at least the first fifty years after the transfer from Britain to China. China is responsible for defense and some portions of foreign affairs, while Hong Kong and Macau are responsible for most other matters of state, including their legal systems, law enforcement, immigration laws, monetary systems, customs policies, and others.
The People of China
With four thousand years of culture to build on, China continues to press forward into the twenty-first century. In 2020, China had more people than any other country in the world, about 1.43 billion. Most of its people live in China Proper, in the eastern regions of the country. China Proper has the best agricultural lands in the country, the most fertile river basins, and the most moderate climates. For perspective, China has over one billion more people than the United States, with most of those people living in the southeastern portion of China. During Mao’s time, there was little concern for population growth, but China implemented measures to deal with its teeming population.
The government of China addressed ts growing population and the country’s ability to provide for the needs of the additional populace. In 1978, China implemented the one-child-only statute, limiting family size to one child. The policy allows for exemptions under certain conditions. Couples living in rural areas and people of minority status are two examples of exempted conditions and may be permitted more than one child, especially if the first child is a girl. Peripheral administrative regions like Macau and Hong Kong were exempt. The one-child-only policy was implemented in an attempt to address environmental, economic, and social issues related to population growth. This policy has helped reduce China’s potential population by hundreds of millions of people, but the controversial policy was not easy to implement or make effective. There were growing concerns regarding the policy’s negative impact on society. In response to the one-child-only policy, there were reports of female infanticide and a higher number of abortions.
Economic incentives pressured families to abide by the one-child-only policy. Government benefits and social programs offered incentives that could be lost if couples had more than one child. Enforcement of the policy was left to the provincial authorities with varying levels of success. Parents eager to have a boy to carry on the family name might abort a female baby. Though illegal, the use of ultrasound equipment to determine the gender of a fetus was widespread. Some provinces in China have a severe shortage of women because of the policy; men in provinces where women are scarce may have to migrate to find a wife. In China there are more boys born than girls; the ratio averages more than 10 percent more boys than girls, with some provinces reaching more than 25 percent. This imbalance creates cultural issues that may have a negative impact on traditional society. The government announced in late 2015 a reversion back to a two-child limit. There is an excellent documentary about this policy called One Child Nation.
Han Chinese is the largest ethnic group in China, with about 90 percent of the country’s population. Some of the largest minority groups include Zhuang (Tai) in the south, Manchu in the northeast, Mongolian in the north central region, Uyghur in Western China, and Tibetan in Tibet, although many other minority groups exist. The main language in China, Mandarin, is spoken in different ways in different parts of the country, particularly in the north and the south. The number of languages in China (over 290) roughly corresponds to the number of ethnic groups in the country. In Western China, where the percentage of Han Chinese is quite low, most of the population is Uyghur, a group that tends to be Muslim. There are also Kazahks, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks from Central Asia, who are also predominantly Muslim. In 2010, the precise number of Muslims in China was not known, but government reports indicated there were about twenty-one million. Minority groups like the Uyghurs have often experienced discrimination by the Chinese government, which has taken measures to marginalize minority groups to keep them in check.
Here are some of the ethnic groups in China, but there are many, many more:
There are as many as 292 living languages in China. Standard Mandarin is the official language, although other languages are recognized regionally.
As a Communist country, there is no official religion in China, nor is any supported by the Chinese government. Before Communism took control, most of the people followed a type of Buddhism. Other belief systems included Taoism and the teachings of Confucius.
Christianity does exist in China, but it is illegal to proselytize or recruit converts. Despite that, the Christian population in China has grown rapidly in recent decades. The exact number is unknown, but the CIA World Factbook estimates 3 to 4 percent of the population to be Christian, or somewhere between thirty-nine and fifty-two million adherents. There are many other sects and religious groups in China that have gained attention in recent years. Among these are the followers of Falun Gong, which emerged in the 1990s and has elements of Buddhism and Taoism in its beliefs. The group claims to be more of a science than a religion. The Chinese government believes otherwise and banned the Falun Gong in 1999 after the group staged a large protest against the Communist Party. The crackdown by the government included many arrests and stiff prison sentences. The group is currently banned by the government.
Since ancient times, Chinese culture has been heavily influenced by Confucianism. Some claim that the Communist Party’s rule has damaged the foundations of Chinese culture, especially through political movements such as the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, where many aspects of traditional culture were destroyed, having been denounced as “regressive and harmful” or “vestiges of feudalism”. Today, the Chinese government has accepted numerous elements of traditional Chinese culture as being integral to Chinese society. With the rise of Chinese nationalism and the end of the Cultural Revolution, various forms of traditional Chinese art, literature, music, film, fashion, and architecture have seen a vigorous revival
Chinese cuisine is highly diverse, drawing on several millennia of culinary history and geographical variety, in which the most influential are known as the “Eight Major Cuisines”, including Sichuan, Cantonese, Jiangsu, Shandong, Fujian, Hunan, Anhui, and Zhejiang cuisines.
In the past two decades, China has shifted its economy from a closed system with a centrally planned, government-controlled market to one with more open trade and a flexible production structure. These economic reforms have allowed capitalistic tendencies to drive production, have promoted increased involvement in private enterprise, and have increased international investment in the Chinese economy. China has phased out collective farms and has increased agricultural production; the approach to free enterprise and international trade and investment has become more open; and the Chinese economy has grown at a rapid rate.
The fast-paced growth of the Chinese economy in the past decade has brought with it some negative consequences. The exploitation of resources and the heavy utilization of the environment have resulted in serious soil erosion and air pollution.
The water table in many parts of China has decreased because of heavy demands on the nation’s water supply.
Arable land is being lost to erosion and inadequate land-use practices. Rural areas have not received consideration or resources equal to the coastal cities, so conditions remain poor for most rural people. Half of China’s population earns the equivalent of a few dollars per day, while a fortunate few earn high salaries.
Unemployment is at an elevated level for tens of millions of migrants who shift from location to location, looking for work. There is also an unfortunate degree of corruption within the government and state-run offices.
Compared to Western countries, China is an authoritarian state that does not allow labor unions, free speech, freedom of religion, or freedom of the press. There has been more openness in China’s economic reforms and in travel, but other strict rules of the state remain. There is no minimum wage law for factory workers, who work long hours and do not receive benefits or sick leave. There are fewer safety requirements or government regulations for security. China is trying to have the best of both worlds: the efficiency of an authoritarian government and an efficient market-driven capitalist economy. Sustaining the largest standing army in the world, China is geared to become a global superpower. The next great world conflict could be a cultural war between the United States and China that would involve economic, political, and human issues.
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Autonomous Region of Tibet
Located in mountainous southwestern China, Tibet is classified as one of China’s autonomous regions, a disputed political arrangement. It is debatable whether Tibet or any of the other Chinese regions are actually autonomous. The legal structures actually allow for very little self-governance, and most new initiatives require approval from the Chinese central government. Tibet had been an independent entity through much of its history and governed itself as a Buddhist theocracy. Its theocratic political system established the Dalai Lama as both the head of state and the religious leader of the Tibetan people.
Tibet has had a complicated history with China. This is as true of its early history as it is today. In its early history, Tibet was an independent kingdom with its unique type of Buddhism as its state religion. It was during this era that a system of Lamaism, a hierarchy of monks or other religious leaders, took hold. China’s influence in Tibet waxed and waned during the later years of the kingdom, in the tenth century. The Mongols subsumed Tibet into their empire during the first part of their conquests in the thirteenth century. However, in the fifteenth century, the Mongols gave considerable local authority to the Dalai Lama, making him the spiritual leader as well a powerful political figure.
Tibet came under the control of China during the Qing Dynasty. When imperialist rule ended in China in 1911, Tibet began to once again assert its independence. Chinese, British, and Tibetan officials met and came up with an agreement that partitioned Tibet into Inner Tibet, which would be controlled by China, and Outer Tibet, which would be independent. China later indicated its intention to control all of Tibet, a move greatly resented by the Tibetan people.
When Communists took control of China in 1949, the Dalai Lama was originally allowed control over domestic affairs while China would control all other governmental functions. The Chinese government then took steps to greatly reduce the powers of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama (spiritual leader). With the intention of spreading Communism to Tibet, China destroyed monasteries, religious symbols, and icons, and other long-practiced ways of life were threatened. The Tibetans considered the Chinese political dominance a cruel and invading force. Monasteries were burned, monks were beaten or imprisoned, and Buddhism was brutally suppressed.
Tibetans revolted in 1956. Backed by the United States, the revolt continued even as China indicated it would suspend the transformation of Tibet. China brutally crushed the revolt in 1959, leaving tens of thousands of Tibetans dead or imprisoned. The Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans fled to Dharamsala, India, where they established a government in exile. At this point, China had a firm grip on Tibet, and in 1965 the reorganization of Tibet into a Chinese socialist region began in full force.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, China expressed some willingness to relent in its authoritarian control of Tibet. However, they demanded that the Dalai Lama renounce claims of Tibetan independence, which he refused. Demonstrations and continued violence occurred throughout this period. Chinese-Tibetan relations were further damaged when the Panchen Lama died mysteriously shortly after criticizing socialist reform in Tibet. The Panchen Lama is the next-highest Buddhist official under the Dalai Lama. There is now a controversy with the Chinese government over the selection of the eleventh Panchen Lama. China and Tibet both claimed the authority over choosing the Panchen Lama and each named a different person to take on the role. The situation illustrates the conflict over the minds and the people of Tibet.
In 2008, a peaceful protest led by Buddhist monks turned violent. Chinese authorities responded with a harsh crackdown. The world’s attention was focused on China at the time because the Olympic Games were under way in Beijing. China has often been a target for protests because of its human rights violations against Tibetans and other minority groups. Little attention was drawn to Tibet during the 2008 Olympic Games. China wanted to showcase its advancements in industrial development and culture and did not want the world to focus on the issues with Tibet or any other part of China.
The population of Tibet is only about three million. They mainly live in the mountain valleys, below seven thousand feet. The Tibetan economy is dominated by subsistence agriculture. Due to limited arable land, the primary occupation of the Tibetan Plateau is raising livestock.
Pastoral nomads constitute about 40% of the ethnic Tibetan population.
The most important crop in Tibet is barley, and dough made from barley flour—called tsampa—is the staple food of Tibet. This is either rolled into noodles or made into steamed dumplings called momos.
Meat dishes are likely to be yak, goat, or mutton, often dried, or cooked into a spicy stew with potatoes. Mustard seed is cultivated in Tibet and therefore features heavily in its cuisine. Yak yogurt, butter, and cheese are frequently eaten, and well-prepared yogurt is considered something of a prestige item. Butter tea is a very popular drink.
Lhasa is Tibet’s main urban center as well as its capital.
In the past couple of decades, China has softened its treatment of Tibetans and restored some of the monasteries. China has also moved thousands of ethnically Chinese people into Tibet to shift the ethnic balance of the population. A major rail line now directly connects Beijing with Lhasa, Tibet. Lhasa will soon have a majority Chinese population with cultural similarities that reflect more the attributes of China Proper than Tibet. The Tibetans who live there are being compromised simply by population dilution.
China wants to maintain the mountainous, rural region—with little inhabitable land area and very few people—as a buffer state between India and the Han Chinese heartland of China Proper. Tibet is also becoming more important to the government of Beijing and the business people in Shenzhen and Shanghai. The mountains of Tibet potentially hold vast amounts of natural resources that could support the growing industrial economy in China, which is based on manufacturing goods for the global export markets. China will continue to see to it that Tibet becomes economically integrated with the rest of China in spite of the cultural differences that may exist.
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Additional information and image credits:
China map: By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31591786
Chinese workers 1958 – By Unknown author – http://politics.people.com.cn/GB/1027/9821159.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12524120
Great Leap Forward – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Leap_Forward
Chinese Liberation Army poster – By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30522776
Bamboo curtain – By Bamboo Curtain.PNG: en:Kami888 (talk)BlankMap-World6.svg: Canuckguy (talk) and many others (see File history)Vectorization: Tachymètre (talk) – Vector version of Bamboo Curtain.PNG. Created using BlankMap-World6.svg., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12609856
Automomous regions of China – By en:User:ASDFGH (talk) – Own work by ASDFGH, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9828378
Macau -By © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8983402
Hong Kong location – By TUBS – Own workThis W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Adobe Illustrator.This file was uploaded with Commonist.This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this file: China edcp location map.svg (by Uwe Dedering)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16493661
Taiwan- By JOSH tw – Own work ,based on File:BlankMap-World6.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11146591
Political china map
Ethnic groups of China – https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/10-2-emerging-china/ – Updated from University of Texas Libraries.
Han Chinese – By hanfulove – https://www.flickr.com/photos/97396721@N08/9017139265/sizes/o/in/photostream/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26599370
Uyghur girl – By Gusjer from Aranjuez, Spain – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21411273
Yi woman – By Kontrola – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63808959
Hui man – By Wlodek Cieciura – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1201594
Mongol – By Mizu basyo at Japanese Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9892026
China info – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China
Moon gate – By claire rowland from london, uk – nanjing 032Uploaded by MtBell, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26650643
Hanging scroll – By Shen Quan – Royal Academy of Arts, part of the The Three Emperors, 1662 – 1795 exhibition which ran from 12 November 2005 – 17 April 2006 in London. Website might be taken down at some point in future., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=775277
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=178645
Chinese culture – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_culture
By BCody80 – Own work by the original uploader, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63615997
Kung Pao chicken –
By Steven G. Johnson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4538129
Fried rice –
By Brücke-Osteuropa – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8380247
Steamed buns –
By Eason Lai from 上海 – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1668932
Braised spare ribs
By Rolfmueller – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Tibet By Das steinerne Herz – File:China edcp location map.svg by Uwe Dedering, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13249144
Tibet kids By Antoine Taveneaux – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9455808
yak By Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22519671
Momos By Drsoumyadeepb – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40722988
Yak yogurt By parodyfang, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Monk pouring tea
By Antoine Taveneaux – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9400170
Lhasa By Qeqertaq – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18682239