Global Impact of the Rise of China: the Twentieth Century

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

CTU’s Global Security Series offers background on current national and homeland security topics. Dr. Morag’s first post of this series, presented people and geography of the region. Today’s post covers crucial events of the Twentieth Century that served to shape modern China.

A Country Divided
Chinese FlagAt the dawn of the Twentieth Century, China found itself divided, weak, and subject to the predations of colonial powers.  At the time, China was still governed under the imperial system, which had been in place for millennia. These were the final years of the Qing Dynasty, comprised of Manchu people – not Han Chinese.  See last week’s post for more on Manchu and Han groups.

The Qing conquered China in the mid-seventeenth century, establishing the last of China’s imperial dynasties.  The rise of the Qing coincided with the start of the European age of exploration. China turned inward, doing its best to isolate itself from the outside world and ensuing technological advances. Throughout the period of Qing rule, China saw a steady increase in European colonial encroachment and from the mid-nineteenth century on, similar encroachment of Imperial Japan. 

By the first decade of the twentieth century, large swaths of Chinese territory were either directly or indirectly ruled by British, German, Portuguese, Russian and French powers. Warlords, or military dictators, controlled much of the rest of China. Since the Qing dynasty was Manchurian, it was, along with intervening European powers, considered foreign. This collective foreign presence, combined with the general weakness and disunity of the country, created discontent that led to the 1911 revolution. This uprising brought an end to the decrepit Qing Dynasty and led to the creation of a Chinese republic under a nationalist party known as the Guomindang.  The Nationalists however, proved ineffective in pushing the foreign powers out of China or in unifying the country and reforming its largely feudal economy. By the beginning of the 1920s, Chinese adherents to Marxism formed a Communist Party to vie for control of China. Japanese power in China continued to increase during the late-1920s to 1930s and Japan increasingly came to view China as a natural part of their “sphere of influence.” 

Sino-Japanese War Erupts
In 1937, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China’s coastal provinces while perpetrating large-scale atrocities against the Chinese population. The Sino-Japanese war lasted for eight bloody years and was engulfed in the larger Pacific Theatre of World War II. China ultimately proved far too large for Japan to swallow. During this time, Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists fought the Japanese and at times cooperated with them against their Chinese rivals. After Japan’s capitulation on August 6, 1945 and the subsequent surrender of its military forces in China, the Chinese Nationalists and Communists continued to fight each other in a widespread civil war which ended in 1949 with the victory of the Communists under Mao Zedong.  The Nationalists, under the leadership of General Chiang Kaishek, fled to the island of Formosa, now Taiwan, setting up a Nationalist Chinese government in the city of Taipei. 

Two Ruling Powers
From 1949 to the present, China has had two governments. The mainland government, based in Beijing, is ruled by the Communist Party and is known as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China (ROC), is governed under the principle that it is part of China. Initially, most Western countries did not recognize the PRC and viewed the ROC as the only legitimate Chinese government. However, that started to change in the early 1970s as the United States began to thaw out its icy relationship with the PRC. Quickly thereafter, most countries came to recognize the PRC as the legitimate Chinese state and have withdrawn recognition of the ROC. The Taiwanese are not even allowed to fly their national flag at the Olympics.  Eventually, the People’s Republic of China decided to make peace with the Republic of China. Beijing has promised not to attempt to conquer Taiwan, just so long as Taiwan remains the Republic of China and does not try to become a completely different country. The mainland Chinese still nurse the hope that Taiwan will eventually unite with the mainland.  The leadership in Beijing has also made it clear that they would consider any attempts by Taiwan to secede from China an act of war.  Given that the United States provides arms to Taiwan and has promised to assist in its defense, it is not surprising that Washington is just as opposed as Beijing to a Taiwanese declaration of independence from China.

For many of the early decades of its existence, mainland China (PRC) was ruled by Chairman Mao of the Communist Party. They underwent significant travails, such as large-scale famine brought on by forced collectivization of peasant landholdings (known as “The Great Leap Forward”) and wrenching political instability, particularly during the period of the so-called “Cultural Revolution” from 1965-1968.  After Mao died in 1976, China was ruled by a series of leaders that gradually liberalized the country’s economy, while attempting to maintain the Communist Party’s control over Chinese political life and the military and security services.  One of the most prominent of these was Deng Xiaoping, who was chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and therefore supreme leader of the country between 1982-1987. Deng was arguably the most important Chinese reformer, leading the way to the creation of a country that largely embraced free market values (although the Chinese government still plays an inordinate role in the economy) and had nearly abandoned true Communism. The changes instituted by Deng and his successors led to the transformation of China from a largely impoverished developing society into an economic powerhouse and “the world’s workshop.”

Next week, our focus will be on how China’s government operates and how the country is run. We will return to the topic of China’s economy in the weeks ahead.

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