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The year 1949 was the beginning of a cycle of transformations, led by the Communist Party, that has allowed China to lift itself out of forced underdevelopment, and overtake their former masters.
From the ‘century of humiliation’ to the ongoing economic miracle, there are few countries that have reinvented themselves quite so profoundly and dramatically as the People's Republic of China. Now celebrating its 70th birthday, it was born on this day in 1949, in a country locked into feudal poverty and carved up between eight different colonial powers.
The year 1949 was the beginning of a cycle of transformations, led by the Communist Party, that has allowed China to lift itself out of forced underdevelopment, and overtake their former masters, without resorting to the salvery and colonialism that bankrolled the creation of the West.
The period preceding the revolution, between 1839-1949 was called the ‘century of humiliation’ as the country fell victim to the ‘unequal treaties’ that led to the most important areas of the country being taken over and divided between the U.S. and European colonial powers.
The Opium Wars were the most famous, when Britain forced opium sales on China and triggered a collapse in China’s trade deficit and productive base. Eventually, the largest cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong were taken over by foreign powers.
Hong Kong was controlled by the British, Shanghai was divided between the U.S., Britain and France, each governing areas of the city which they called ‘concessions’. Other powers also held concessions scattered around the country.
Japan was particularly brutal, using its military presence to carry out some of the most infamous massacres in China’s history. The process of fracturing China to weaken it is a process that’s still in play today, amid western-backed secession attempts in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
From the ashes of poverty and fragmentation, Mao Zedong cobbled together the Red Army and led the long revolutionary war. The dire poverty and dislocation of the country rallied support to the cause and Mao proclaimed the birth of the People's Republic on the 1st of October 1949.
The country embarked on land reform and industrialization that transformed and unified the country. While such policies did cause trauma to the population through the upheavals involved in the cultural revolution and other moments, they did result in China experiencing the fastest increase in life expectancy in documented world history, lifting hundreds of millions from poverty while positioning China as one of the world's main powers in trade and technology.
In 1949 the average person lived to just 36 years old, by the time Mao died in 1976, that had increased to 65, something widely recognized to be a result of massive increases in public health provision, funded by economic growth.
Such achievements by the republic of China are often dismissed or ignored by western conventional thought and mainstream media.
What followed Mao’s death was perhaps the most important phase in the history of the People's Republic, the ‘opening up’ under Deng Xiaoping, the period of dramatic poverty reduction.
‘Opening up’ was the idea that China could unleash its full potential by gradually opening up to trade and investment, but keeping the basic model of state-led development with mobilization of resources for poverty reduction.
‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ as it was called, represented an attempt to develop productive forces in a kind of market socialism.
This phase too was presented in the West in a radically different manner to how it’s understood in China, portraying China today as site of worker exploitation and neoliberalism. This would come as news to those who work in the country’s largest companies, of China’s top 109 businesses, listed in Forbes 500, just 15 percent are privately owned.
By 2017 the average wage of a factory worker was 5 times higher than in India, the darling of neoliberal economists. Not to mention the rapid reductions in poverty, hundreds of millions, a significant chunk of the world’s population, has been lifted out of poverty in the past few decades. In fact, China now has fewer citizens below the poverty line than the U.S., despite having a vastly bigger population.
The most recent phase of transformation is underway now, and will have profound implications for the formerly U.S. dominated international system. Beginning with the election of Xi Jinping to the presidency, China now is beginning to face outwards and play a role in shaping international relations. In many of the most important sites where the U.S. is attempting to impose itself, China is acting as the counterweight, openly defying coercive sanctions in Venezuela, Cuba and Iran.
The country is also aspiring to play a leading role in the global economy, the Belt and Road Initiative is an example of the scale of their ambition. The initiative is uniting the Eurasian landmass, the world's largest landmass, and providing a first-class infrastructure to some of the world's poorest countries that are on its route.
Where the U.S. seeks to expand its influence, through invasions, coups and destabilization, China hasn’t fought a single war to fuel its rise, not funded a single coup or political movement. Whether in Pakistan or Bolivia, China’s approach has been as a partner providing investments for big development projects.
In Africa, the U.S. has military bases across the continent under its ‘Africa Command' (AFRICOM), whereas China provides interest-free loans, and has brought over a large number of mostly state companies, at which more than three-quarters of workers are locals.
Martin Jacques, a British Marxist academic, and expert on China’s rise, commented on this saying “since its rise began, it has been an extraordinarily peaceful rise. It has not been involved in any serious wars...compare that with the history of the United States or Japan or Britain or France or Germany. All of them had many wars of expansion, so I think China is going to be very different in that context.”
The 70 years of the Peoples Republic have often been portrayed in the West as a period of submissiveness to oppressive rulers, with all the racist stereotypes of Chinese uniformity and lack of individuality.
In reality it's clear that it’s China that has transformed the most while others have stagnated. China in the late 70s could not be more different to today's China, whereas the West has gone down a single neoliberal path despite the rotation of supposedly differing political parties.
Despite the attempts to stem China’s growth, the country’s long term plan, set out in the 18th Communist Party congress is to become a "strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and modern socialist country” by 2049.
What will China look like by then? How much of the global south will look to China as a model for emerging from the legacy of colonial dependence?