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Communist China


The civil war

There was a bitter struggle for control of China from 1927 to 1949 between nationalists and communists. The nationalists were led by Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek); the leader of the communists was Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung).


At first the nationalists were the more powerful. By 1934 Jiang Jieshi destroyed the communist forces in the east of the country. Mao Zedong re-organized the surviving communists and led them on a famous Long March north to safety in the region of Yanan.


The civil war was interrupted between 1937 and 1945 by a war with the Japanese. In 1945 fighting broke out again. At this point the communists controlled only part of northern China and had a smaller army than the nationalists.


Jiang had American backing. However, his government failed to win the support of the ordinary people. Taxes were high and the government had a reputation for corruption. Most Chinese people lived in the countryside. Mao promised the poor country people a fair share of the land. His soldiers fought a skilful guerrilla war against the nationalist armies.


By 1946 Jiang lost control of Manchuria. The communist armies swept to victory in 1948-9. In September 1949 Mao announced that the People's Republic of China was now established. The communists controlled all China, except for the large off-shore island of Taiwan. Jiang Jieshi fled to Taiwan.


A new superpower? As the state with the greatest population in the world the government of China expected to be taken seriously by other powerful countries. China saw itself as an equal of the Soviet Union and the USA. This view was given extra weight when China exploded its first atomic bomb in 1964.


China and the Soviet UnionThe relationship between communist China and the Soviet Union was tense from the beginning. Mao was not impressed by the level of support he had received from Stalin during the years of struggle The Chinese leadership was not prepared to see the USSR as the senior partner in the communist world.


After Stalin's death Mao was angered that the Soviet leaders did not consult him before attacking Stalin's memory. These tensions came to the surface in 1960 when the Chinese criticized Khrushchev for being too friendly towards the West. The USSR ordered home many of the Soviet scientists and engineers who were in China.


Between 1968 and 1970 the USSR and China came close to war over arguments about the frontier. The two countries remained on poor terms until the time of Gorbachev in the late 1980s.


The Great Leap forward and the Cultural Revolution

Mao tried to bring about rapid change in the Chinese economy in 1958. Collective farms or 'communes' were set up in the countryside. New factories were built. This attempt to increase output rapidly was called the Great Leap Forward. It was not successful. Mao tried to increase his power by organizing a period of turmoil between 1966 and 1969, known as the Cultural Revolution.


Young radical followers of Mao, called Red Guards, toured the country terrorizing people in senior positions. Amid the chaos Mao was able to remove many opponents from power. The Cultural Revolution badly damaged the Chinese economy. It also harmed China's relations with the outside world.


China had a very poor relationship with the USA throughout the 1950sand 1960s. After the Cultural Revolution the two countries began to look again at their relationship. The US president in the early 1970s was Richard Nixon and he was keen to build a good relationship with China. Under Nixon the USA recognized the government of China for the first time. Nixon visited China in 1972.


After MaoWhen Mao died in 1976 there was a power struggle between radicals and moderates. The leaders of the radicals became known as the Gang of Four, and included Mao's widow, Jiang Qing. The power struggle was eventually won by the moderates. Led by Deng Xiaoping.


The Gang of Four were blamed for the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and imprisoned. In the 1980s Deng Xiaoping abandoned many of the ideas of communist economics and encouraged free enterprise and competition. At the same time there was no increase in free speech.


A so-called 'pro-democracy movement' developed among students in the early months of 1989. Demonstrators camped in Tiananmen Square. Beijing (Peking) and demanded free speech and free elections. The students were joined by large numbers of ordinary people. On 3 June the Chinese army moved in and used tanks to clear the square. Many thousands of people were killed.


Afterwards, leaders of the pro-democracy movement were arrested and imprisoned. The massacre in Tiananmen Square shocked the world and affected the relationship between China and other countries. After Tiananmen, the government continued with its policy of Western-style economics but little political freedom.