The communist takeover of the mainland in 1949 set the scene for building a new society built on a Marxist-Leninist model replete with class struggle and proletarian politics fashioned and directed by the CCP. The People’s Republic of China was barely established (October 1, 1949) when it perceived a threat from the United States, which was at war in North Korea, and elected to support its neighbor, the new communist state, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army invaded the Korean Peninsula in October 1950 and, along with its North Korean ally, enjoyed initial military success and then a two-year stalemate, which culminated in an armistice signed on July 27, 1953. Meanwhile, China seized control of Tibet. It also had embarked on a political rectification movement against “enemies of the state” and promoting “class struggle” under the aegis of agrarian reform as part of the “transition to socialism.”
Periods of consolidation and economic development facilitated by President Liu Shaoqi (1898– 1969) and Premier Zhou were severely altered by disastrous anti-intellectual (such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign, 1957), economic (the Great Leap Forward, 1958–59), and political (the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966–76) experiments directed by Mao and his supporters. During this time, China had broken with the Soviet Union by 1959, fought a border war with India in 1962, and skirmished with Soviet troops in 1969. In 1969 Mao anointed Lin Biao (1908–71), a radical People’s Liberation Army marshal, as his heir apparent, but by 1971 Lin was dead, the result of an airplane crash in Mongolia following an alleged coup attempt against his mentor. Less radical leaders such as Zhou and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping (1904– 97), who had been politically rehabilitated after his disgrace early in the Cultural Revolution, asserted some control, and negotiations were initiated with the United States, ending a generation of extreme animosity toward Washington. The 1976 death of Mao ended the extremist influence in the party, and, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and his supporters, China began a period of pragmatic economic reforms and opening itself to the outside world.
Reform-era activities began in earnest in 1978 and eventually made China one of the largest world economies and trading partners as well as an emerging regional military power. The Four Modernizations (agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defense) became the preeminent agenda within the party, state, and society. The well-being of China’s people increased substantially, especially along coastal areas and in urban areas involved in manufacturing for the world market. Yet, politics, the so-called “fifth modernization,” occurred at too slow a pace for the emerging generation. China’s incipient democracy movement was subdued in 1978–79 at the very time that China’s economic reforms were being launched. As Deng consolidated his control of China, the call for political reform came to the fore again in the mid-1980s, and pro-reform leaders were placed in positions of authority: Zhao Ziyang (1919– 2005) was appointed premier, and Hu Yaobang (1915–89) CCP general secretary. Deng himself, satisfied with being the “power behind the throne,” never held a top position. The democracy movement, however, was violently suppressed by the military in the 1989 Tiananmen incident.
In the years after Tiananmen, conservative reformers led by Deng protégé Jiang Zemin (later to become president of China, chairman of both the state Central Military Commission and party Central Military Commission, and general secretary of the CCP) endured and eventually overcame world criticism. When Deng went into retirement, the rising generation of technocrats ruled China and oversaw its modernization. Political progress gradually occurred. Term limits were placed on political and governmental positions at all levels, succession became orderly and contested elections began to take place at the local level. Tens of thousands of Chinese students went overseas to study; many returned to participate in the building of modern China, some to become millionaires in the new “socialist economy with Chinese characteristics.” As a sign of its emerging superpower status, in October 2003 China launched its first “taikonaut” into space on a 22-hour journey. The second space launch, with two taikonauts, took place in October 2005 and involved a 115-hour flight. In the next stage of space exploration, China plans to conduct a space walk in 2007 and a rendezvous docking in orbit between 2009 and 2012. It also plans to launch a moon-orbiting unmanned spacecraft by 2007 and to land an unmanned probe on the moon by 2010.
As the twenty-first century began, a new generation of leaders emerged and gradually replaced the old. Position by position, Jiang Zemin gradually gave up his leadership role and by 2004 had moved into a position of elder statesman, still with obvious influence exerted through his protégés who were embedded at all levels of the government. The “politics in command” of the Maoist past were subliminally present when technocrat Hu Jintao emerged—by 2004—as the preeminent leader (president of China, chairman of both the state Central Military Commission and party Central Military Commission, and general secretary of the CCP) with grudging acceptance by Jiang and his supporters.