After the end of China’s last dynasty and decades of conflict, a Communist government took control of China in 1949. Because China is a large country with a huge population, its influence politically and economically is felt around the world.
China’s Last Dynasty
In 1644, the Manchus established the Qing Dynasty—China’s last and largest empire. The Qing drew both the southwestern region of Tibet and the island of Taiwan into China. However, by the mid-1800s, China’s population had more than tripled, straining the country’s ability to produce enough food. Shortages, famines, and wars overwhelmed Qing rulers, helping to bring their empire to an end.
The Opium War
The Qing rulers faced turmoil early on because of a drug called opium. They tried several times to prohibit the sale of opium in China but were not successful. In the late 1700s, the British began smuggling opium from India into China. They used opium, rather than money, to buy Chinese goods, which hurt China’s economy.
In 1839, the Chinese government seized all the opium the British had stored in the Chinese port of Canton. The British responded with an attack, and the first Opium War began. Because Qing rule was weak, the British overpowered the Chinese. The Opium War ended in 1842 with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking. This treaty forced the Chinese to pay Great Britain money, hand over Hong Kong to British control, and allow British traders into more Chinese ports.
The Rise of Nationalism
Angered by the Treaty of Nanking, peasants rebelled around China. The greatest revolt, the Taiping Rebellion, raged for 14 years and took 20 million lives. Peasants demanded equality for women, the end of private property, and the division of surplus harvest among the neediest. The Chinese military, with help from other nations, finally crushed out the last of the rebellion in 1868.
In 1900, another rebel group, called the Boxers, rose up in the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers hoped to defeat the Qing Dynasty and force all foreigners out of China. British, French, Russian, Japanese, and American troops joined together to defeat the Boxers, leaving China’s government in turmoil.
A New Republic
Many Western-educated Chinese wanted a new government. One ambitious leader, Sun Yat-sen, had long hoped China would become a democracy. He founded the Chinese Nationalist Party, which in 1911 toppled the Qing Dynasty. The next year,China became a republic. Sun Yat-sen was named the first provisional president. For political reasons, he gave up the first presidency to Yuan Shigai.
Over the next 16 years, China was in turmoil. Yuan struggled with rebels for power, and before and during World War I, China fought against Japan. During this time, the Nationalist Party gained more members. The Chinese Communist Party also formed. By the end of 1925, the Nationalist Party had about 200,000 members, and the Communist Party had about 10,000.
The Fight for Control
In 1927, the two parties joined forces, and Chiang Kai-shek, one of Sun Yat-sen’s military commanders, became the leader of China. Soon, Chiang turned against the Communists, and the two parties began a long fight for power. In 1934, because the Nationalists seemed close to victory, the Communists retreated on what is known as the Long March. About 100,000 Communists marched more than 6,000 miles
north to escape the Nationalist forces.
Chiang Kai-shek maintained control of China until 1949. During this time, the government improved transportation, provided education to more people, and encouraged industry. The lives of peasants and workers were not improved. Gradually many of these people turned to the Communist Party for help.
By the end of the Long March, a leader emerged in the Communist Party— Mao Zedong. When World
War II began and Japan invaded China, Chiang Kai-shek turned to Mao and the Communist Red Army for help. At the end of the war in 1945, China’s two parties again turned on each other. In 1949, the Communists defeated the Nationalists, forcing Chiang Kai-shek to flee to Taiwan. On October 1, Mao declared China a Communist state called the People’s Republic of China.
Reform and Revolution
Mao Zedong became head of the Chinese Communist Party and China’s government. The party set policy and the government carried it out, giving Chairman Mao nearly absolute power.
Chairman Mao’s Reforms
The Communists instituted many reforms. They seized land from the wealthy and gave it to the peasants. They also established a five-year plan that brought China’s industry under government control. As in the Soviet Union, peasants combined their land into collective farms and worked together to grow food.
In 1958, Mao Zedong launched a program, called the Great Leap Forward, to speed up economic development. Collective farms became huge communes of 25,000 people. The communes grew crops, ran small
industries, and provided education and health care for their members. In one year, this program shattered China’s economy.
Poor agricultural production, droughts, and floods caused one of the worst famines in history. From 1958 to 1960, as many as 20 million people starved, while millions more died of disease. China then abandoned the Great Leap Forward, and Mao’s influence wavered.
The Cultural Revolution
After the Great Leap Forward, many people in government called for reform. Mao feared that they wanted to make China a capitalist country. In 1966, Mao launched a movement called the Cultural Revolution, which aimed to remove opposition to the Communist Party. Mao’s new supporters were called the Red Guards. They sought out and punished people who spoke against Mao’s principles or who had contact with Western people or ideas. China fell into chaos once again.
During this time, the economy weakened, and the government was unable to carry out many of its duties. Goods and services, such as health care and transportation, were not made available to the people. Many Chinese began calling for reform.