When anyone hears the word “China,” the place they are most likely to think of is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), also known in some circles as “mainland China” or “Red China.” The PRC was established on October 1, 1949, after Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government had been routed following the Chinese Civil War. The capital city was moved from Nanjing to Beijing, and Mao Zedong became the national dictator until his death in 1976.

Immediately following World War 2 and the Civil War, most Chinese people were pretty happy about some stability. Many rich Chinese and former government officials had fled to Taiwan (about 2 million total), so the new Communist government had serious problems with finding experienced bureaucrats and professors. Three things helped the Communist Party achieve relative stability in a short time:

First, they did have strong backing from the rural poor, which was – and still is – a huge majority of the population. These farmers had been oppressed in the past by the landed gentry, and were thrilled when land was more equitably divided. Next, the Communist Party offered (and required) a strong and pervasive ideology. China had been aimless for decades; Confucianism was considered the reason for Chinese weakness in the past, and the Christianity/democracy brought by the Nationalist government was not very appealing at the time. Mao’s authoritarian style resembled Confucianism in its rigid hierarchy and the centralized dictation of social mores, but at the same time it emphasized technology, progress, and enhanced national prestige. Finally, the new PRC had immense military, educational, financial, and technological support from the Soviet Union. The Soviets had been secretly supplying Chinese Communists with weapons throughout the Chinese Civil War, but now they could do so much more openly.

All things considered, Mao was a pretty terrible leader. He tried to industrialize the nation with the “Great Leap Forward” program that sought to make each village completely autarkic. Farmers were melting spoons and scrap metal to make their own plows, since there was no centralized manufacturing. Needless to say, this was disastrous and millions died of starvation. To make things worse, local officials were so terrified of retribution that they vastly inflated crop yields to make it seem like the plan was working. Hence, it continued for years and severely damaged the Chinese economy.

Mao’s next, more severe blunder was known as the “Cultural Revolution.” The failures of the Great Leap Forward caused him to lose significant prestige and power, while simultaneously leading the country down a more moderate path. Mao launched a massive propaganda campaign designed to throw the country into an extreme leftist slant and oust the reformers in power. All universities were closed and anyone with the slightest hint of wealth or power was forced to the countryside to perform tough, manual labor. Students were organized into “Red Guards” and encouraged to beat or kill anyone with capitalist or rightist leanings. Thousands of famous Buddhist and classical Confucian sites were destroyed because of their ties to Old China. Millions were killed for no reason at all. An entire generation of Chinese suffered grievously under these policies. The current Communist Party leadership in China acknowledges that this period was a total disaster, and that Mao was central to blame. Immediately following his death in 1976, his inner clique of advisers (including his wife) were imprisoned or executed by moderates returning from exile in the countryside. They rallied around a man named Deng Xiaoping.

Deng immediately initiated market reforms, and sought to make China into a normal country. Rather than throw open the doors to reform of all kinds, he developed controlled experiments to figure out the best mix of government control and capitalist innovation. To this end, he created the city of Shenzhen in 1980, once a fishing village and now one of China’s 10 largest cities. Deng was certainly an economic liberal, but he did not support political reform. The 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square is clear evidence of this. He retired all of his official positions in the mid-1980s, but continued to rule the country from retirement, up until his death.

In more recent times, Deng’s successors have continued the same policy of economic openness and political repression. President Jiang Zemin, former mayor of Shanghai, ruled for most of the 1990s. In 2003 Hu Jintao ascended to the presidency, and was “reelected” in 2008. The next president has already been chosen and, following a sham election in the parliament, will be Xi Jinping in 2012. Chinese economic growth is currently at 8%, while the rest of the developed world is mired in recession.

The PRC is an illiberal autocracy. It is illiberal because it lacks a solid, enforceable code of laws that both the public and the rulers are subject to. While the Constitution guarantees autonomy for several ethnic groups in “special autonomous regions,” the true power is always held by an ethnically Han Chinese bureaucrat, loyal to Beijing. All newspapers and television stations are owned by the national government, and act more as press releases than proper investigative organs. There are few exceptions to this rule, notably the very interesting “Southern Metropolis Daily,” who still manage to get away with veiled critiques of the government. Based on my personal experience in southern China, I would say this is the most popular newspaper among the young people I knew. They actually admired the fact that many of its editors had served jail time. Nevertheless, the law is too flexible and the press too constrained to give any sense of a liberal society. I will say though that, contrary to popular belief, the thought police are not going to arrest you for speaking your opinion in public. I’ve had many candid conversations with Chinese people, in public, about topics like Tibetan independence, corruption, and the lack of democracy. They are not a uniform bloc of yes-men and yes-women. One beer-fueled evening in particular involved a colleague of mine shouting how Taiwan should be given independence. The repression kicks in whenever there is organization, which explains why Chinese civil society is very lousy. All organizations require approval from the government, and all organizations are only permitted to function within a specific jurisdiction. This means the Knitting Club of Shanghai could never join forces with the Knitting Club of Harbin. All national organizations are seen as a threat.

China is also autocratic because it has one legal political party (the Communist Party of China), and public elections are not held. The central government skips the inconvenience of a general election by having its parliament rubber-stamp new leaders. This is interesting because it runs contrary to most other illiberal countries, which allow people to vote but already have a predetermined outcome. In China, there are no ballot boxes altogether. There is, however, a truly hilarious party organ known as the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) that sends delagates to annual meetings in Beijing. While the group has enormous potential, it is currently a joke, as their full legal capacity is to “advise” the Communist Party on extremely non-political trouble areas. During the 2008 meeting, my colleagues noted the most controversial proposal from the CPPCC was that one delegate proposed abolishing simplified Chinese in favor of traditional Chinese characters. Hardly the thing of revolutions.

Are there cracks in the system? Of course! The government has been forced to keep liberal insitutions alive in Hong Kong, as part of the 1997 agreement with Great Britain. Many of these liberal ideas have seeped across the border to Guangdong province and beyond. The election of President Ma Ying-jeou in Taiwan has also been a boon to Chinese democratic exposure. Direct travel is now permitted between the mainland and Taiwan, so more mainlanders than ever will have a chance to see the alternate history version of what life might have been like if the Nationlists won the Civil War.

In the short to medium-term, it is unlikely that there will be any massive anti-government protests or uprisings. The economy is steaming along, and people want to get rich. It’s very significant to note that 50 percent of Chinese are still farmers. It’s difficult to organize a democratic political movement with such a decentralized population. My expectation is that the government – very slowly – follows the Singapore model. Over time, people will be able to choose at least some of their leaders, though all of the eligible candidates will be Chinese Communist Party members. As a middle class develops, people will have more free time to engage in civil society, including politics. This sort of gradualist argument might claim that we could see some true democracy in 2030 or so. Of course, nothing in the world is static and events could trigger greater repression or openness before or after that time. It’s impossible to predict with great accuracy.


Series-wide Bibliography:


PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore