The 20th Century saw some of the biggest changes in Chinese history. At the beginning of the century China was a mess –there was almost no industry, an ineffectual and corrupt government and no standing whatsoever on the world stage.
By the end of our timeline, China is arguably in as good shape as at any point in her history. The economy seems unstoppable, the government, though far from perfect, is at least stable, and China is just beginning to flex her considerable muscles on the world stage.
The 20th Century may have seen China emerge stronger, but it was a terrible period to live through for many Chinese. Whatever the more recent traumas Chinese may have faced, they cannot compare in scale to the destruction of WW2 and the civil war, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
The blame for two of those events – the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, can be placed squarely on the shoulders of one man – Chairman Mao Zedong.
Of course, Mao wasn’t all bad for China – and nor was he the only influential figure – other important names include Sun Yatsen, Chiang Kaishek and Deng Xiaoping.
If you want to know where the Chinese are going, you have to have an idea of where they’re coming from.
1890s China is being slowly partitioned by foreign powers. At a time when China desperately needs reform, the Qing dynasty government of Empress Dowager Cixi offers stubborn conservatism. The Boxer Rebellion, with the stated aim of ‘overthrowing the Qing and destroying foreigners’ claims that its followers are bulletproof.
1899 The Boxers are defeated by the Qing, but Cixi decides they might be useful to her, and sets them the task of killing all the foreigners in China.
1900 An international force arrives in Beijing and routs the Boxers who have besieged the foreign legation. Cixi and the Emperor escape by disguising themselves as peasants.
1912 The Qing dynasty never really recovered from the humiliations of 1900 and finally collapses in 1912. Sun Yatsen, who has spent decades travelling the world to raise funds and campaign against the Qing, founds the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) and takes control of the new Republican government. In an effort to avert civil war he offers the Presidency to Yuan Shikai, former head of the Qing armies, and warlord in control of Northern China.
1913 Yuan Shikai, who clearly has ambitions to found a new dynasty, dissolves the new Republican government and sends Sun Yatsen into exile once again.
1916 Yuan Shikai’s sudden death sends Northern China into civil war, while Sun Yatsen returns to take control of a Kuomintang government in South China.
1921 The CCP is formed. Early members include Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Li Dazhao, a Beijing University librarian. At the behest of the Soviet Union, they join the KMT and fight the Northern warlords.
1925 Sun Yatsen dies. Chiang Kaishek is now in control of the KMT.
1927 After jointly defeating the Northern warlords, the CCP organise a strike against Chiang and the KMT. They are brutally suppressed, around 5,000 people are killed, including Yang Kaihui, Mao’s second wife, and Li Dazhao, who is executed by slow strangulation.
1932 Japan invades Manchuria (Northern China)
1934 The Long March – encircled and outnumbered, the Communists must fight or flee. They flee, marching almost 10,000km and crossing more than a dozen mountain ranges. Many die, but the succeed in regrouping and establishing a base in Yan’an, Sha’anxi.
1936 Chiang said that ‘The Japanese are a disease of the skin, the Communists are a disease of the heart’ and wants to focus on defeating the Communists first. His General Zhang Xueliang disagreed and kidnapped him, forcing him to agree to a United Front with the Communists against the Japanese.
1937 The Sino-Japanese War starts. In an event known as the Rape of Nanjing, Japanese troops rape, mutilate, torture and kill at least 200,000 civilians.
1937 – 45 The United Front ends when Chiang stops distributing US arms to the Communists. During the war the KMT retreat westwards while the KMT retreat to the countryside, away from the lines of transport and communication both the Japanese and the KMT rely on.
1945 The Japanese surrender. The CCP likes to underestimate the role of the KMT in the Japanese defeat, and exaggerate its own.
1945 – 49 By the end of WW2 the KMT had bankrupted China whilst the CCP had built themselves a strong, national following from their countryside bases.
1949 In 1949 Mao took Beijing and declared the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.
1949 – 1956 Generally seen as the ‘good years’ of Chinese socialism. Land is redistributed to peasants and the economy grows.
1956 The Hundred Flowers Campaign encourages intellectuals to give their opinions about the government. Many that do are sent straight to jail.
1958 – 60 The Great Leap Forward, an attempt to boost production through re-redistribution of land (into enormous communes) and millions of backyard furnaces. The result was two failed harvests and millions of deaths from starvation.
1966 After a few years away from power, discredited by the Great Leap Forward, Mao starts the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution is a time of utter chaos where university students (and later, even younger students) formed into bands of ‘Red Guards’ and went round destroying anything redolent of the West, capitalism, religion or tradition. Mao’s rivals within the Party were purged, thousands of lives were ruined, the health and education system collapsed, and most of China’s cultural heritage was destroyed.
1972 – The Lin Biao incident sees the death of Mao’s greatest ally and propagandist, Lin Biao. Historians speculate that he may have attempted a coup against Mao.
1976 – The chaos of the cultural revolution ends with the death of Mao. Hua Guofeng takes over, but has no real powerbase.
1978 – Deng Xiaoping ousts Hua Guofeng and, for the almost the first time in Chinese history, allows his predecessor a relatively peaceful retirement.
1980 – Deng begins the policies of ‘reform and opening up’ which see China open up its economy and (to a much lesser degree) political life.
1989 – Violent suppression of Tiananmen Square protests dents hopes for further political reform and tarnishes China’s international image, but has little long term effect on economic progress. Jiang Zemin becomes leader, some speculate he gets the leadership because of his firm ideological stance and successful handling of student protests in Shanghai.
1995 – Work begins on the Three Gorges Dam.
1997 – Deng dies, Hong Kong returns to China.
2001 – China is admitted to the World Trade Organisation and bids successfully for the 2008 Olympics.
2002 Jiang Zemin hands the premiership over to Hu Jintao.
2003 – The SARS outbreak is the first major crisis of Hu Jintao’s premiership. After initially attempting to cover up the problem, China’s response is robust.
2003 – Present. China’s economy continues to grow at around 10% a year, some economists expect it to overtake the USA by 2020. Government efforts to cut corruption have some effect, although some allege they are being used to settle political feuds. Human rights remain a major concern for foreign NGOs, but foreign governments and business increasingly overlook such issues in the charge to make money in China.
Wonder at the Great Wall, be awed by the magnificent Forbidden City, drink in the scenery from a boat on the Summer Palace’s Kunming Lake.