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60 Years of the People's Republic China


Michael Yahuda2

Anniversaries are occasions for celebration and for taking stock of the past problems as well as successes as a basis for looking ahead. But it is important to acknowledge first the enormity of the achievements of the People’s Republic. The sixtieth anniversary has been marked in Beijing by a display of China’s military strength and its wealth.  The “sick man” of Asia of a century ago has been transformed into one of the world’s economic power‐houses.   Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. The Chinese economy will soon be ranked as the second largest in the world. It has become one of the world’s greatest trading nations and its influence is growing in every continent. However, in assessing the significance of these sixty years I would like to focus on three themes: History; foreign relations and future prospects.


The display of national parades on these anniversaries is supposed to take place every ten years. Thus the previous one took place in 1999 and it too emphasized military and economic achievements. The first parade took place in 1959 ostensibly celebrating “ten glorious years”.   It took place at the same time that I first became a student Chinese of things and I was greatly impressed.    What I did not know at the time was that this took place after Mao Zedong, as a result of a power struggle, had decided to intensify the policies of the Great Leap Forward, even though it was known to him that they were economically destructive and that they had begun to create famine on a vast scale.  It was only some ten years after Mao’s death in 1976 that Chinese scholars were able to calculate that between 30 and 50 million people had died because of the famine.   There was no parade in 1969. The Cultural Revolution was still raging. Nor was there a parade in October 1979 due to the unresolved differences among the leaders. The impact of the Tiananmen disaster of June 4 th meant there was no parade in 1989 either. So the first parade to celebrate the New China’s actual achievements was not until 1999 – forty years after the establishment of the People's Republic China (PRC) in 1949 and 30 years after the first parade. That checkered past continues to have resonance to today, even as China has moved far ahead and has seemingly put past disruptions behind. As we consider this history, it is important to recognize that the official Chinese view is that the sixty years should be divided into two periods of thirty years each and that the current achievements are the product of the last period of thirty years of reform. In this view the first thirty years of promoting revolution are best forgotten and indeed they are glossed over in school text‐books.    As I shall argue shortly, those first thirty years still cast a shadow over the present. But it is first important to recognize that the last thirty years have not been free of turbulence. I argue that the current successes are the product of the last twenty years, rather than the thirty as claimed by PRC leaders. The decade of the 1980s was marked by intense political struggles over the pace and direction of political as well as economic reform. It led to the dismissal of Deng Xiaoping’s chosen successors, the reformers Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. In fact it was the death of the former in April 1989 that sparked off the Tiananmen demonstrations. Following the killings of June 4 th and the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, culminating in 1991 with the disintegration of the socialist motherland, the Soviet Union, the Chinese leadership was beleaguered and divided. Deng Xiaoping was blamed by his colleagues for Tiananmen and its consequences. In 1991 most of the leadership in Beijing favored closing Deng’s open door to prevent access to the alleged American policy of “peaceful evolution” begun by John Foster Dulles in the 1950s. It was argued that this policy had undermined the communist citadel from within and that China had to revert more to a command economy if it was to survive.  It was Deng Xiaoping, who virtually alone, turned the country around. Thwarted in Beijing he undertook a “southern tour” (nanxun) in the Spring of 1992 in which he advocated rapid economic growth, economic reform and a further opening to the international economy. But now he insisted that this should be based on a stability that could only be provided by tight communist party rule. In other words the economic and political model that formed the basis for China’s achievements was Deng Xiaoping in 1992 rather than in 1979, important though that breakthrough was. Indeed Deng’s contribution went further. It was he who introduced compulsory retirement ages into the Chinese system and he paved the way for institutionalization by ruling that Party leaders could only serve for two china's communist party (CCP) Congressional meetings, i.e., for ten years only.   However, Deng also perpetuated the CCP’s abuse of history as a means of legitimating its rule. To this day Chinese students do not learn of the horrors as well as the achievements of Mao’s rule and his responsibility for the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese people. The history of the CCP is carefully controlled by the Party to serve current political ends. Modern Chinese history is presented to Chinese students so as to emphasize the sense of national humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan and to encourage a mentality of “us versus them”in dealing with the outside world.

Foreign Relations

The relationship between domestic and foreign affairs is highly complex. In addition to the involvement of domestic interests in trade, investment and other foreign relationships and the interdependencies thrown up by globalization, issues of national identity are closely related to foreign relationships. The transformation of the PRC from a promoter of revolution at home and abroad in its first thirty years to an advocate of a market economy at home and a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system usually is praised in China and in the outside world. But what is little appreciated is how the transition is still greatly affected by the Maoist first thirty years. Take, for example, how China’s treatment of Japan has been shaped by the change in China’s identity.

Mao drew his historical legitimacy from having defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) and Chiang Kai‐shek in the civil war of 1946‐1949. It was a major element in his emphasis on the priority to be given to class struggle. Indeed class struggle was at the heart of his world‐view. It shaped his understanding of Chinese history, of China’s national interests and of his approach to the outside world. Central to this vision was the struggle against class enemies at home and abroad. The KMT that had established itself in Taiwan under the protection of the United States remained the archetypal class enemy. In Mao’s time, as in the present, Chinese films, televisions programs, comic books, etc., were replete with presentations about the Chinese war of resistance against Japan.   But a major difference was that in the Maoist era the main protagonist, more often than not, was the class traitor from within rather than the external Japanese enemy. Films of that period typically showed that it was only once the class traitor, usually a KMT figure with a fedora hat, was exposed as a collaborator, were the Chinese workers and peasants able to get the better of the Japanese in their local battle. Thus when diplomatic relations between China and Japan were being established in 1972, Mao stopped the Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka as he was in the middle of apologizing for Japan’s aggressive war and told him that there was no need to apologize, as without the war with Japan he would not have been able to have gained victory over the KMT.   It was only after 1979 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping that attitudes towards Japan began to harden and become central to the CCP’s claim to historical legitimacy. By ending class struggle and by emphasizing the unity of the Chinese people, including the once derided intellectuals, the attitude towards the KMT also changed fundamentally. Instead of epitomizing the core of class enmity, it was now seen as a party of fellow compatriots with whom unity could be forged. This meant that the CCP right to rule could no longer be traced to its victory over the KMT in the civil war, but it was pushed back further in time to its claim to have defeated Japan in the war of resistance (1931‐1945). It mattered little that the claim was dubious at best. This new claim for historical legitimacy coincided with the decline of the appeal of socialist/communist ideology, which had been largely discredited in the course of the Cultural Revolution and, which was ill‐suited to the new era of economic reform and openness to the international (capitalist) economy. The CCP turned to patriotism (or nationalism) as the basis on which to appeal to the Chinese people. That brought the war with Japan and the claimed CCP victory to the forefront.   The first major campaign with an anti‐Japanese focus in the history of the PRC took place in 1982 (37 years since the end of the war and 33 years since the establishment of the new China) in the guise of the first national “patriotic education campaign”.  Within the CCP leadership a conflict emerged between those, headed by the soon to be dismissed, Hu Yaobang, who saw Japan as a model for China’s economic development and those who depicted Japan as an unrequited enemy involved in the spread of “bourgeois liberalization” in China as part of the effort to undermine CCP rule through “peaceful evolution”.    As the emphasis on patriotism developed further, the first national museum to commemorate the War of Resistance to Japan was built in 1987 just outside Beijing  by the Marco Polo Bridge, the site of the Japanese invasion of China proper in 1937.  Since then more than a hundred similar museums have been opened throughout China. These developments altered Chinese relations with Japan for the worse.  The events of 1989‐1991, culminating in the disintegration of the Soviet Union and CCP fears for its survival led to a massive new attempt to enhance the nationalist credentials of the CCP. In 1993‐1995 huge campaign of patriotic education was launched, which painted the CCP as the savior of the Chinese nation after the hundred years of “national humiliation”, culminating in its defeat of the last and most cruel and vicious invaders, the Japanese.  Moreover it was pointed out that the Japanese had yet to atone properly for their aggression and that there were forces in Japan who were striving to turn the nation back to the path of militarism.   Other countries have also evinced concern about Japan’s failure to come to terms with its wars of aggression in the 1930s and 1940s.   But none has done so with the single‐minded vehemence of China. The ten years 1995‐2005 were replete with many, often violent, anti‐ Japanese incidents in China. It was only in 2006, with new leaders in both China and Japan that steps were taken to alleviate mutual hostility between these two major countries in East Asia. Interestingly, the sudden warming of relations with Japan was also related to domestic politics. In China it followed the dismissal of the Party Secretary of Shanghai – a member of a faction associated with the former leader, Jiang Zemin – which in the Japanese view was a necessary precondition for Hu Jintao to be able to change course on Japan opening the door to better relations, which have continued to this day.   Ironically, the influence of domestic politics was a factor too. The resignation of Prime minister Koizumi, who had angered the Chinese by repeatedly visiting the Yasukuni Shrine to the souls of the war dead, which included also those of 12 A‐class war criminals, brought in Prime Minister Abe, who had even greater credentials as a right‐winger. Nevertheless he proved acceptable to the Hu Jintao leadership.

By this stage China’s own economic development had reached a new level as its rapid economic rise had deepened its economic integration in the Asian region and had made it a major player in world affairs more broadly.  It was felt in Beijing that China’s interests could be damaged by continued enmity with Japan. Moreover by this stage CCP propaganda had shifted from emphasizing the role of the war with Japan to proclaiming the CCP as the embodiment of Chinese culture and historic continuity with the ancient past as indicated by the new respect for Confucius and the establishment of scores of Confucian Institutes in foreign countries to celebrate Chinese culture and promote China’s soft power.   As far as external affairs are concerned, China’s leaders display a new found confidence that allows them to acknowledge the position of the United States as the provider of the public goods of the security of sea‐lanes and the promoter of free trade, which have facilitated the rise of China. Following an approach first outlined by Deng Xiaoping his successors have been careful to avoid open confrontations with the United States.    However, China’s leaders exhibit far less confidence in domestic affairs, where they are troubled by ethnic unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet, by corruption in the Party, by widespread social protests and by the difficulties of reforming the Party in order to improve the governance of an increasingly complex modernizing society of a huge country with many disparities. The model of rapid economic growth based on state capitalism under an autocratic party which ruthlessly suppresses what it sees as challenges to its rule has worked so far, but at issue is whether the Party should and can reform to meet the new complexities of governance.   Ironically, even the nationalist card, which they had played so successfully, has now come back to haunt them as they fear being seen to be weak in the eyes of the nationalistic young, especially in their handling of foreign affairs. Apparently, Chinese leaders begin their day by scrutinizing the Internet for the blogging of netizens. Even though the leaders know that the netizens tend to take extreme positions that are unrepresentative of the public at large, they apparently fear the social disruptions that could take place if the complaints of these largely “angry youth” (fenqing) should be left unattended. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, has to take care that any concessions made in diplomatic negotiations (where no party can expect to gain all its maximum objectives) are not perceived as weakness.

Looking Ahead

Clearly from the perspectives of Beijing the main challenges in the future will continue to be domestic. Most officials and scholars expect that the current political and economic systems will undergo changes over the next decade, but few are prepared to say in what way.  In 2012 there will be another change in the generation of Party leaders to those born in the 1960s. They will have very different experiences of politics in their formative years from their predecessors. Many of them will have been educated in the West. That will make them no less patriotic than their elders, but it may make them more willing to recognize that official accountability should not be confined to their colleagues and superiors, but also and more importantly to those whom they govern.     China will also have to adapt to its new role as a global player. In a matter of four or five years China has suddenly emerged as an important economic and political player in Africa and Latin America. Its major state companies have invested and cut deals in these continents to gain access to much needed resources. At the same time Chinese companies have helped states build the infrastructure of roads, rail and various other means of modern communications as well as high profile developments such as sports stadiums. In the process China is encountering new issues in dealing with local peoples and their governments. Its approach of working with local governments regardless of their levels of corruption or disregard of their own people’s welfare, may not be sustainable. The Chinese may also have to modify their approach in view of the concerns of international and regional institutions as well as because of competition with Western countries and companies.     China’s emergence as a truly global actor has happened so quickly that Chinese scholars and officials have yet to develop new concepts and ideas to underpin China’s new role. Chinese have long argued that the current international order is unjust and that it is the product of an earlier era of Western dominance. Yet Chinese officials readily concede that their country has been the main beneficiary of that order and that they have no desire to confront the United States, the creator and upholder of that order.    The Chinese may complain about the weakness of the US$, but they do so out of their own narrow interest as the holders of huge reserves in the American currency.  Indeed even as the value of the US$ has declined the Chinese authorities have tightly pegged their currency to it, accentuating the economic difficulties of many developing countries, whose interests they sometimes claim to represent. Even within their own region of Asia, the Chinese have yet to develop a vision of an order in which their many and diverse neighbors can feel comfortable with China’s rise. To be sure the Chinese have tried to present their economic advances in the region as mutually beneficial and they have tried to provide reassurance by working within the region’s several multilateral associations, but doubts persist among neighbors as to how benign China’s rise will turn out to be. In maritime Asia in particular the American presence is welcomed as a counter weight to Chinese power.

The Chinese may reject the concept of their being a G‐2 to manage world affairs, they nevertheless are pleased to be treated by America as a partner, as long as the US does not expect China to accept American approaches as the norm they should follow. In fact China’s leaders have been quite skillful in working with the United States, while upholding their interests as they see them.   But given their elevated position in world affairs, the Chinese now face the challenge of developing their own vision of world order. There is a need to move beyond the focus on China’s narrow national interests towards a realization that these must be coordinated with what might be called international interests and perspectives.


1 The article is based on a keynote speech Mr. Yahuda presented to the conference on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi on October 7th 2009

2 Michael Yahuda is Professor Emeritus in International Relations, the London School of Economics and Visiting Scholar, Sigur Center of Asian Studies, Elliott School for International Affairs, George Washington University.