The political entity known as China has existed in one form or another for over four thousand years. There have been periods of chaos and order, flowering and decline, isolation and internationalism. Although geographic parameters may have shifted during this time, one constant has been the ability of authoritarian leaders to exert control disproportionate to their numbers. China's current leadership, the Communist Party, has been in power for almost 60 years and in many ways copies the model of the great dynastic leaders, yet China exists in a modernizing world. Will Party leaders retain this tight control or like so many empires before them, eventually crumble due to internal weakness and foreign aggression?


Despite a great many changes over the course of four millennia, much of the political landscape of China looks remarkably similar. Although there are exceptions, pervasive patterns of behavior and attitude mark the nature of governing this diverse landscape. A central concept dating back to a thousand years before the Common Era is the Mandate of Heaven. Rulers were endowed by the heavens with the authority and talent to administer the country. In a shift of cause and effect, times of famine or internal disorder were taken as signs that the mandate had been revoked. This concept enabled long dynastic periods where rule transfer did not need to be based on blood and often was passed to the most capable successor, insuring lengthy administrations. The result was the perpetuation of a distinct culture that could change without losing its essence. The question is whether the current Community Party leadership can outrun the Mandate of Heaven argument or will it merely be another dynasty whose inability to maintain growth and success will lead to its demise.

For much of its history, the Chinese perceived their country as a civilized geographic entity surrounded by barbarians with little to offer them. This strong sense of national superiority lost much of its luster from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th centuries as first the Europeans and then the Japanese overran the country (Figure 7) and (Figure 25). Otherwise, Chinese nationalism has deep roots in a sense of superiority which seems to be reinforced by contemporary growth and economic superiority. The Chinese have always expected foreigners to adopt their ways. This sentiment extended well beyond immigrants but to foreign conquerors as well. Two of the great periods in Chinese history, the period of Mongol rule (Figure 22) in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the Qing (or Ch'ing or Manchu) dynasty (Figure 25) from the mid-17th century to 1900, were times when foreigners conquered China but employed domestic political, economic and educational systems to rule. Today, those who wish to succeed in China also understand the need to adapt to the local customs and approaches rather than impose external models, particularly in understanding the authoritarian approach even within the country's economic arena.

The Chinese also have a definite world view, quite comfortable with particularistic notions, allowing for the favoritism of those deemed worthy of special treatment. Social connections matter most and one treats family and those to whom one has connections more favorably and more conscientiously than those to whom there are no connections. The Confucian system, established 500 years before the Common Era, was characterized by a series of relations. Obviously, this system has been abandoned under the Communists, but the expectation of preferential treatment still characterizes the modern period. Politics is about the personal more than the ideological. No one understood this better than Mao who spent thirty years bringing the Communists to power, one village at a time. Even the current premier, Wen Jia-bao, encourages the people to think of him as kindly Grandpa.

Chinese governments have always had to manage expanding populations, avert natural disasters and administer this unwieldy geographic entity which often extended its reach via direct or indirect rule throughout the Asian continent. An important tool to accomplish this task was a written language standardized during third century BCE. Despite oral linguistic variation, the existence of a common means of communication served to unify the country. This cohesive entity did not dispel internal divisions, most notable between local and central rulers as well as urban and rural areas. Usually strong central rule was associated with dynastic ascension. Local bosses, whether they were feudal lords 1000 years ago or local Party officials now, tend to rise during times of overall national decline. Currently the Party leadership in Beijing exerts enormous control, but local political bosses have their own spoils to distribute which enables them to maintain control.


The Communist Party assumed full control of the Chinese government in 1949, creating the People's Republic of China . The Party is both ideological and practical, identifying guiding principles and setting up the detailed components of government and administration of a country with more than a billion people. That the ideals and practice are so often contradictory reveals the ability of the Chinese people to be at peace with seeming paradoxical elements. To many of those observers, both in and out of the country, the abandonment of principle for power is intellectually dishonest.

When Mao and his forces finally defeated the Nationalists in 1949, they adopted the Soviet model (Figure 34) of a one party system with voters registering approval of the Party's decisions. The Communists ascension at the end of a thirty year struggle, both within and outside of the country, resulted in the brutal elimination of enemies and rival ideologies. Millions were executed or imprisoned. The official Party position is that China is a diverse but unified nation of 56 ethnic groups that have assimilated into the concept of China over the centuries.

Currently, the Party has approximately 70 million members, less than 5% of China's total population. It controls many aspects of life for the Chinese, from education to birth control. The main decision making body of the Chinese Communist Party is the Central Committee that has roughly 200 members with 150 alternate members. It meets in plenary session twice a year. In the interim, most power is vested in the 24 member?Politburo, overseen by the nine person Politburo Standing Committee. Despite this seemingly hierarchical structure, there are various secretariats and commissions. The Party's power is still absolute yet clearly diminished by corruption, the widening wealth gap, and big layoffs at State Owned Enterprises. These government-directed companies were once the largest employer of the industrial workforce but now have been diminished with the advent of market forces over the last 30 years.

The current leadership is determined to have its military power reflect the country's economic position and has increased military spending over 17% in each of the last two years, although China still spends less than a quarter of what the United States does on defense. The government claims that its activities in this area are purely defensive. Domestic order is an important task of the military and China has the world's fastest growing market for security and crime control equipment.

Party leaders certainly appreciate the need to modernize, and in March 2008 they reorganized the central government by creating five super ministries. The intention was to stream line an overlapping array of government agencies whose turf wars led to inefficiency. Bureaucrats spent more time protecting their interests than trying to accomplish their goals.

At present, Beijing recognizes the importance of strong local Party bosses while retaining ultimate national authority. Village politics remains central to the lives of the nearly 60% of China's 1.3 billion people who reside in rural areas. The local Party member controls access to funds. He or she wields enormous power and handles all major land transactions and approves individual applications for government loans. They also control taxes, regulation, and land use. While Party influence is waning in the cities, in rural China, the Party still represents the elite and membership can protect individual interests. The Party secretary of each local chapter is chosen every three years during a closed session of local members. There is no formal campaign and candidates are not declared. The system is designed to protect power instead of inculcating ideology.

Much of the economic transformation of the last thirty years is the result of ceding power to local Party officials to maintain the requisite stability for growth. Now that Party leaders in Beijing want to enact system wide measures, particularly to combat the environmental problems generated by the rapid industrialization, they find themselves limited by local officials who are able to prevent or circumvent comprehensive measures.


The Party represents the highest ideal of the communist understanding of China but also draws on longstanding attitudes and beliefs shaped by centuries of history and foreign relations. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, China viewed itself as a superior culture, with little regard or use for outsiders. When outsiders came, either to trade or conquer, they adopted Chinese ways. Its humiliation at the hands of first the West (Figure 7) and then Japan (Figure 14) over the course of the next century, very much influenced the political approaches of the Communists when they took over in 1949.

Mao and his followers looked to the future as it established its political system in the middle of the twentieth century, but much of that was grounded in centuries of glory and accomplishment. How had the culture that produced so much advanced thinking and accomplishment while the rest of the world resided in caves been reduced to such military and strategic weakness? China needed a twentieth century model of Communist rule as well as a practical ally, and the Soviet Union willingly provided both (Figure 34).

Mao appreciated China's history, past glory, and unique opportunities. He also understood the peasantry and the tension between local and central authority. Anything that was tainted by capitalist approach or bourgeois sentiment was forbidden. He believed mightily in the power of the ideal of Communism and the ability of the Chinese people to embrace and act upon these principles. Despite some big failures, Mao's faith in the people was undeterred and he truly believed that they would be motivated by moral incentives. They would give up their personal needs for the goals of the revolution and building a strong China. His faith was in the masses that had made the revolution rather than the intelligentsia who analyzed it. His efforts during both the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1960) and the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1969) were disastrous and millions starved to death. The impact on the Party was a fundamental split between the ideological and the practical.

For the first thirty years of Communist rule, China's leaders had to decide how much importance to ascribe to ideals and policies. Did capitalistic behavior make China a capitalist country? Would all contact with the West prove disadvantageous to the country? Were certain actions unworthy simply because they were done by China's ideological enemies? In recent decades, the post-Mao leadership forged ahead with a confidence that the country could adopt the behaviors of the West without losing its national soul. Mao's successors rationalized his mistakes as departures from Marxist/Leninist ideology in pursuit of party politics, allowing his legacy to remain intact while different economic paths were and are pursued. To many, the incredible success of the last thirty years appears to justify the current capitalist economic system and authoritarian rule.


Most of these questions could not be raised while Mao was alive but upon his death in 1976, Chinese leaders were able to grapple with the practical application of Communist ideals as they looked towards the future. They understood the need for technological advancements, industrial expansion, Western contact, and capital generation. They agreed to allow some aspects of a market economy to return to China and recognized that they would also need to have ongoing relationship with the West.

To move forward to establish a modern, socialist state, China would also need a stable bureaucracy and political equanimity, both of which had been in flux for much of Mao's reign. The combined wisdom and approach came in the person of Zhou En-lai, who gained control of the Party apparatus. By 1978, Mao's followers had been driven out of party leadership. Deng Xiaoping was a symbol of new leadership that understood first and foremost that China's people had to be put to work and the agriculture sector needed to yield enough to feed its massive population. Likewise, there needed to be reforms in education, science and technology.

Deng began in the agricultural sector and abandoned the large collective farms favored by Mao. Agricultural production reverted to small, household units where the Party would set production quotas and any overage could be sold at market prices. Here the control of a command economy would be coupled with the practicality of market ?orces. Within a decade, Chinese farmers were producing enough to export crops. It seemed to some observers that material incentives were much better motivators than ideology.

In certain arenas, the government maintained enormous control and to some, intruded in ways that have truly undercut Chinese culture. It is one thing for the government to retain authority over scarce natural resources and set economic policy that affects the money supply. It is far more drastic to issue edicts that restrict people to one child in order to raise the living standard. The government has prevailed in this area despite changing millennia old values of children caring for aging parents to say nothing of a culture in which ancestor worship remains profound. New medical tests enable parents to know the sex of their children before birth, leading many to abort female fetuses far into the pregnancy because they believe that sons are more valuable. There are many reports of wealthy families who have more than one child because they are willing to pay fines of up to an equivalent of $100,000 US.

The Chinese certainly see the value of a strong and comprehensive educational system although it both perpetuates and reflects the divisions within Chinese society. The current system embodies strong central planning with the creation of elite institutions that provide an excellent education to a small percentage of its students. Much of the curriculum relies on rote memorization, reminiscent of the exam system of the literati developed under Confucius 2500 years earlier. The elite of urban China have the best opportunities to become well educated. Those who are poor and/or live in rural areas have limited access to education with little real opportunity to improve their circumstances.

Ideals and practice diverge in other areas well. The government has embarked on major projects, such as Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River (Figure 35), a combination of state planning and capitalist opportunity that will also provide less expensive and cleaner energy. For the project to begin, millions of people needed to be resettled and the government destroyed villages that had existed for centuries. Beijing does try to solve the problems rapid industrialization has caused but has had limited success. Either the government does not enforce its own legislation or fails to pursue measures that would result in actual change. This reluctance is evident in a variety of regulatory arenas, from banking, to product safety, to environmental damage, to minimum age and wage laws.

The May 12, 2008 earthquake in Chengdu (Figure 31) illustrates both the power and limitation of China's political apparatus. Party leaders have been able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of soldiers, get people to safety, and engage in engineering projects to prevent further damage from aftershocks. But the mere presence of development in an area known to be earthquake prone, and the widely variable application of building codes, resulting on the destruction of some buildings and survival of others, speaks to an unwieldy system that is difficult to control completely.


The Chinese government's default position is to repress dissent or criticism. Organized protest is forbidden although individual efforts, particularly in the area of environmental problems, have been gaining strength. Many advocates are often punished, particularly as dissidents are often treated as bigger threats than the harmful effects about which they are protesting. Despite obstacle, members of the rapidly growing middle clas? have had some success, particularly in preventing activation of power plants that do not comply with the government's own environmental regulations. In urban areas, the upwardly mobile middle class has been vocal about protecting its property and gains.

There are also times when the government does allow protest to achieve its own ends. The unregulated stock market was booming to the point of danger last year and the Party was reluctant to publicly curtail these practices. It allowed complaints about stock manipulation and insider trading to surface, so that the resulting protests could be an impetus for first efforts at controlling this volatile force that might undermine economic growth.

The Chinese government's efforts to limit the power of modern communication have produced mixed results. A recent scandal involving child labor rings was uncovered despite government efforts to conceal this problem. The government works as hard to keep the shades drawn as some do to expose the problems. In response to the way in which the Olympic torch was greeted in France, some Chinese proposed a boycott of French stores in China. Text messages sent to inform supporters were blocked. Typing the name of French stores into Chinese language search engines returned black pages explaining that such results "do not conform to relevant law and policy."

China's leaders are particularly sensitive as the opening of the Olympics approaches. The government promised to improve its record on human rights' abuses, but clearly the approach has been to eliminate the protesters rather than eliminate the problems about which they are protesting. China has arrested more dissidents in 2007 than it had in the previous eight years.


The history of the world is one of innovation, of the replacement of one paradigm with another. Perhaps this shift describes the current situation in China. There are both economic and political systems to be considered. Capitalism seems to flourish when combined with democracy, as the openness of the latter allows for opportunity but keeps the worst repercussions in check. The success of the Chinese over the last quarter century, where market forces are combined with repressive and often brutal politics, seems to be the harbinger of a new age. The central government does not exert complete control and in the dialectic process that propels humanity through history, the Party leadership has been forced to respond as well as shape its landscape.

Political approach and economic policy are both long in coming and long in lasting. China's 4000 years of gain and loss, wealth and poverty, triumph and disaster, are all present today. Too many calls for change and too much freedom in the markets is met with repression but the path of expansion continues, with an awareness that more change is inevitable. The questions become what choices are available and who gets to make them. Central Party bosses face restrictions, both of their own design and from those who are able to ignore their power. By allowing market forces and global trade, they opened their country to ancillary ideas of freedom and openness that might be controlled for a while but they will not be ignored.

It was the strength and weakness of the most-Mao leaders to open China. Perhaps calls for change could be forcibly repressed 20 years ago, as was the case with the massacre of students at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The government will continue to silence such dissent but by opening up in one area, they have left themselves vulnerable to the power and problems concomitant with these changes. Real opportunity to make gains, to influence one's livelihood, and to provide for one's family has brought more real change than all of th? idealism of the past. And indeed this has been China's story for 4000 years — one of chaos and order, flowering and decline, isolation and internationalism.


1. Can China's current leadership claim the Mandate of Heaven?

2. Is the Communist Party merely another in a long line of Chinese dynasties?

3. How is contemporary China both shaped by its past yet determined to outrun it?
4. To what extent is the Great Man Theory of history applicable to China?

5. What are the real challenges to the power of the Communist Party in China?

6. How is the political landscape of China both reflective of the nation's history yet also a completely new entity in world history?


In Print

  • Beck, Roger, et al. World History: Patterns of Interaction. Evanston: McDougal Littell, 2003.
  • Brower, Daniel. The World in the Twentieth Century. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.
  • Phillips, Richard T. China Since 1911. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
  • Schoppa, R. Keither. Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.


  • French, Howard. "Far From Beijing's Reach, Officials Bend Energy Rules." The New York Times. November 24, 2007.
  • Hessler, Peter. "Underwater." The New Yorker. June 7, 2003.
  • Hessler, Peter. "The Wonder Years." The New Yorker. March 31, 2008.
  • Kahn, Joseph and Yardley, Jim. "As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes." The New York Times. August 26, 2007.
  • Lague, David. "Despite US View, China Plans Steep Rise in Military Spending." The New York Times. March 5, 2008.
  • Yardley, Jim. "China Retools Its Government in a Push for Efficiency." The New York Times. March 12, 2008.
  • Yardley, Jim. China Says One Child Policy Will Stay for At Least Another Decade." The New York Times. March 11, 2008.
  • Yardley, Jim. "The New Colonialists." The Economist. March 13, 2008.


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