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An ancient empire, perhaps the oldest continuous culture on earth. At present it contains about one fifth of the world's population (1,300 million).

Its history is known as far back as the second millennium BC. The earliest known history is of the semi-mythical Shang Dynasty of the mid 16th to mid 11th centuries BCE.

Chou to Han
More is known of the Chou dynasty - invaders from the north - from 1111 BC to 255 BC, a time when there were 13.7 million people (in a world of perhaps 500 million). This was followed by the period of separate states beginning about 722 BC known as the Time of Contending States and ending in 221 BC when Chin Shi Huang Ti, the king of totalitarian Ch'in made himself "First Emperor" by conquering and unifying the several previously competing kingdoms. This began the Han dynasty. There were then 59.6 million people.

Sung to Manchu
By the time of the Sung dynasty in the 12th century there were 100 million. After setbacks caused by the Mongol invasions by 1381 numbers were back to 60 million. From outside came Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam.

During the Ming Dynasty Chinese explorers reached East Africa (1417-1422). Before they could round the Cape and surprise the Europeans, government policy changed, and foreign trade and exploration were regarded as dangerous. But China, then as now, was a centrally guided society and the death of one man - the emperor Zhu Di - was enough to end the policy. Thus it was the Europeans who united the world, though Chinese ships were capable of having done it. (A great historical might-have-been - what would have been the effect on Europe if Chinese ships had arrived in European ports before 1492? See Speculations).

It was during the Ming period (late 16th century) that the Great Wall was rebuilt in its present form to defend against raids by Mongol tribes. This was when the Chinese military first adopted the European cannon.The same general who devised this wall had made his name defending against raids by Japanese pirates in south China.

The Ming were overthrown in 1644 by a dynasty based on the non-Chinese Manchu, who called themselves in Chinese, Ch'ing.

In 1762 there were 200 million and in 1834 400 million. Land hunger began at this level. By the early 1980s 1000 million was reached.

Modern History
The first European influences had come in the 16th century when Jesuit missionaries (Matteo Ricci) had introduced western mathematical instruments, but at first the Chinese were confident in the superiority of their own culture. By the 19th century China was increasingly influenced by the European powers and especially by their technology. As the traditional system of government had become ritualized the system was unable to respond to the modern world and China was in danger of becoming a colony of the west.

The outside world made itself felt in the shape of the British Honourable East India Company which wanted to buy tea. Instead of paying with silver or gold they decided to pay with smuggled opium. Like a present day drug pusher they succeeded in getting millions addicted to the product of the Company's fields in Bengal. This was very profitable. It was probably the main instrument in undermining the power of the imperial government.

The Opium wars that followed ended in defeat for the emperors, the cession of Hong Kong and the arrival of western missionaries and merchants, with freedom for western navies to navigate the Yangtse and immunity of foreigners from Chinese courts. These made up the "Unequal Treaties". All these were regarded by the Chinese as humiliations. The main achievment of the present regime has been to bring all these to an end.

Tai Ping rebellion
Perhaps 20 million died in a rebellion against the decaying Manchu (Qing) Dynasty between 1850 and 1864. This can be regarded as the first of three attempts to modernise the system. (The other two were the Sun Yat Sen revolution and the Communist party's adoption first of Soviet style communism, and then Capitalism under Deng Xiao Peng).

The 1911 Revolution of Sun Yat Sen ended the traditional monarchy followed by the republic of 1912. He founded the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang). The republic was weak and broke into military districts ruled by local generals (War Lords).

The Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, creating a client state headed by the last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi. They moved into the rest of China in 1937. From the 1920s the Communist Party began, probably founded in 1920 in Beijing.

The great mythical event (but quite real) in the rise of the Communist Party was The Long March of 2000 miles in which the Communist Army retreated from Kiangsi in the south to Yenan in the north from 1934 to 1936. From the 8000 survivors of this march (out of 100,000) came the leaders of China - and included as late as 1994 the real power holders. In particular Mao Zedong became the paramount leader after the march - he was elected leader in 1935, as the candidate chosen by Stalin. Chou En Lai and Deng Xiao Peng however, as well as many others had their own power and were not completely subordinated to Mao.

The Chinese communist party was influenced but not controlled by Stalin and in fact followed a strategy opposed to Stalin's wishes. It based itself on the peasants rather than the urban areas - this was the classic method by which a new Chinese dynasty captures power. During the second world war the Communists and Nationalists collaborated to fight the Japanese but never forgot their differences.

After the surrender of the Japanese in 1945 a civil war between the government of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party - the descendants of the original Sun Yat Sen revolution) and the Communists resulted in the 1949 Proclamation of the People's Republic. The Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan, where they still are. (Is this a modern version of the older custom of allowing the defeated dynasty a small estate in which to practice the rituals?) Chinese forces invaded Tibet, which they claimed had always been part of China, though the evidence is that in the past the most that could be said was a vague suzereignty of a feudal nature.

The new government abolished and killed the landlords and gave the land to the peasants, then collectivized them following the example of Stalin and formed a totalitarian system. The People's Republic with Mao as Chairman followed Soviet practice until 1958 when he decided that it was inappropriate because China lacked an industrial class. (Probably too he was afraid of the example of Khrushchov who had denounced the crimes of Stalin). He initiated what he called the Great Leap Forward in which peasants were to smelt iron ore in the villages. The Russians left. Massive famines followed in 1959-60. It is believed 50 million may have died.

The Prime Minister Chou En Lai and President Liu Shao Chi returned the country to order again until the Cultural Revolution of 1966 when Mao organized the young and tried to destroy the bureaucratic structure of Party and Government which he thought was preventing the realization of his socialist vision and his own absolute power. The result was a decade of paralysis when education stopped and also investment in modern techniques. Elders, including teachers and administrators, were humiliated in public by the young Red Guards Mao had organized. Many were sent to work as laborers in the countryside. Thinking was replaced by mindless chanting of Mao's Thoughts collected in the little Red Book. This period has been the inspiration for several other political groups including Pol Pot in Cambodia and Sendero Luminoso in Peru. The atmosphere is difficult to distinguish from that of Nazi Germany. Deng Xiao Ping took over from Chou En Lai in 1973 (after Mao had had a stroke in 1972) but Mao's wife pushed him out of power again.

Following the death of Mao in 1976 Deng Xiao Peng returned to favor and brought the cultural revolution to a final end by arresting Mao's associates, including his wife (the Gang of Four). This ushered in the present period in which private profit making, at first to a limited extent, is allowed and the use of foreign technology, but without the democracy and free thought which alone would allow the techniques to be put to full use.

In June 1989 students demonstrating for democracy along Russian or American (they had a papier mache statue of the Liberty statue in New York) lines were crushed by the military. The same methods were used on them which had previously been applied to Tibetans.

No-one knows what may happen in the future. Many Chinese political theorists believe China has a tendency to split up into its regional areas and can only be kept as a united state by an authoritarian government. The Communist Party has provided this since 1949 and brought to an end a period of turmoil which had lasted since the downfall of the traditional Imperial system. On this analysis the fall of the Communist Party following the death of Deng might have produced another period of chaos. China contains within it regional languages which, if written in Roman script, would be seen to be as different from each other as the European languages. But China was united on the basis of a common written language whose characters could be spoken differently in each of the regional languages (and even Japanese). No-one knows whether democracy is possible in such a culture. Past Chinese empires have been socialist, or at least organized industry through state ownership. All past Chinese states have been authoritarian. Some emperors have been better than others.

As the Communist party has now adopted the market economy, its only role is to act as an authoritarian structure, perhaps the successor to the traditional mandarinate, but without the ethical basis of Confucianism. Confucianism is no longer banned and the study of his writings has become popular again. Perhaps Marxism will fade into the background and the regime become more traditional. But, paradoxically, the fact that unfettered capitalism now exists, suggests that the original views of Marx are more necessary than ever - the economic success is based on exploiting workers with low wages and poor conditions that would not be permitted in the west they are competing with.

Other "post-Confucian states" tend not to be western type democracies: Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Vietnam. Several of them are economically successful. Could China become as successful by using the same methods? At present China is believed to have the highest economic growth rate of any country - but is it sound?

In January 2010 the Chinese government acted against the United States plan to sell arms to Taiwan, and threatened to break off many cooperation agreements with the US - thus demonstrating the increased strength of China and the weakness of the US, now financially dependent on Chinese loans.


One written language Mandarin or Kuo Yu

(Beijing dialect) Characters modified

Many spoken languages related to each other and some minority languages of aboriginal groups.

Roman transliteration changed in 1970s to Pin Yin. Thus: Mao Zedong and Beijing

John Keay - China, a history

Gavin Menzies - 1421
A very controversial book See these critiques

Anatole Andro - 1421 Heresy

An Investigation into the Ming Chinese Maritime Survey of the World

John Keay - History of the Honourable East India Company
essential reading for the details of how the Company came to influence China

Jonathan Spence - The Search for Modern China

Chinas Weg in die Moderne.







Single Party state organized by the Chinese Communist Party. Present leadership not clear. Deng Xiao Ping was the successor to Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) and changed chinese policy radically by permitting capitalism.Following his death Li Peng became Prime Minister. There is no electoral input from the people.

There is believed to be a pro-democracy sentiment, as in Eastern Europe before 1989. However, the massacre of students in Tienanmen Square in June 1989 signaled a government suppression of all expression of the desire for democracy. Most commentators believed that following the death (Feb 1997) of Deng Xiao Ping there would be considerable changes. However, democracy has still (2002) not appeared.

The economic system has moved towards a market economy but the conservatives in the party who wished to retain the traditional Marxist-Leninist command economy remained influential enough to prevent general adoption of a market economy until the mid 1990s and there was speculation about whether they would try to reverse it when Deng died. So far there are no signs they have succeeded.

It seems that it makes most sense to regard Deng as the Emperor figure. Following his death the new leaders were not so charismatic and emperor-like.

Jiang Zemin was the successor of Deng Xiao Ping. He was formerly mayor of Shanghai the first area to introduce the market economy. Although he seemed a colorless character he may want to do the same for the whole country. Is the time of Emperors past? If so the current collective leadership may continue; otherwise a new strong man may come to power after struggle within the ruling group. In November 2002 Jiang Zemin eased himself out but like Deng before him retained the chair of the Military Commission). His speech to the Party Congress announced that capitalists could join the Party.

Thus the Chinese Communist Party comes to fill the role of the Mexican PRI - a corrupt single party in an authoritarian state.

A Communist party Congress was held in October 2007. A new president was "elected". The custom now seems to be that the president can serve only two five year terms.

In April 2012 a Maoist leader Bo Xilai was dismissed from all his posts (former Party Chairman of Qongqing). Western commentators say he represented a Maoist faction within the Party, perhaps wanting to reverse the development of Capitalism.

Could this event spark off a "Chinese Spring" - a demand for democracy?

Interesting reading

The Private Life of Chairman Mao

Jung Chang & Ron Halliday - Mao

Jung Chang is the author of Wild Swans







By comparison with Chinese societies in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, China's economy performed poorly until the 1980s. The rate of investment was poor and directed into uneconomic organizations.

There has been considerable improvement since the partial introduction of the market, especially into agriculture, but as the centrally controlled system is dismantled there are dangers that the same effects as in the Soviet Union will occur. Already there are signs that the economy is breaking up into small districts, as is happening in the Soviet Union. If the Chinese economy collapses as the Soviet one has, there might be famine on a scale difficult to imagine. There is believed to be inflation as the government lacks the means to control the money supply. Those areas near Hong Kong are said to be growing at a rate unprecedented anywhere else.

The overall growth rate is reported to be 8.7% from a rather low starting point. China's high rate of growth contrasts with a world depression in other countries. Can it continue indefinitely? Is it real anyway? (Statistics in China are notoriously untrue). Observers report that a great deal of building is going on, that industries are being constructed, often by Hong Kong businessmen using the low wage costs. Paradoxically the growth is even less planned than in mature capitalist economies. If instabilities occur, can the Chinese government and people cope with the consequences: stock exchange crashes, sudden unemployment, market inflation?

The economy now (2002) has many characteristics in common with Indonesia: an authoritarian government, 'crony capitalism' and no democratic scrutiny. What would be the effect on the world of a financial collapse in China, with its 1200 million people?

By 2004 there are signs that China could become the major manufacturing economy in the world, sucking in all the processes. Already it is the source of most electronic consumer goods. It is now a question of how the rest of the world can adjust to the low cost products, usually of high standard made under contract to western companies.

However, Hutton observes that there are few new products, and that the manufacturing sector consists largely of sub-contractors of products designed in the mature industrial countries. He also notes the serious disadvantage of a lack of the rule of law, and spectacular corruption caused by the lack of democracy and therefore any popular accountability of the government.

By 2010 the predominance of Chinese manufacturing is causing strain in other countries to which these products are exported. China has a huge financial surplus while the importing countries - Europe and the United States - suffer unemployment.

China's problems

Will Hutton - The Writing on the Wall
How sound is China's economy?

Jonathan Fenby - Tiger Head, Snake Tails

Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How it Got There and Where it is Heading

Review by Will Hutton







As in all Communist countries there are environmental disasters on a huge scale, with more planned. Air pollution in the cities is bad, from the uncontrolled use of China's main fuel, coal. Deforestation is the source of vast floods and rivers congested with silt.

Three Gorges Dam
A plan to build a huge dam on the Yangtse is flooding a world heritage site and may put at risk several hundred million people downstream in case of earthquakes - the probable result of such a large weight of water.

Population problem
China's population - 1200 million+ - lives on a small margin between enough to eat and famine.

Small climatic changes as well as political mistakes could put them below the line.

Control methods are much criticised. They include discouragement of female children, one-child families, compulsory abortion, deliberate neglect of orphans, especially the handicapped and females. Is there a surplus of 24 million males? (This question is also asked of India.) If so, how will they behave when they are adults? The critics of these methods might wonder what the world would be like if the population increased even faster. In the longer run, perhaps prosperity might have the same effect as in Japan and Europe, a voluntary drop in the birth rate.

It is being reported that there is a shortage of workers in some cities because of the low birth rate. Also the population is rapidly aging, as in Japan, with the problems of care of the elderly. The trend points to a reduction in population, which may be one of the objects of the policy. Single children who marry are now permitted two children, at least in some cities.

Rapid industrialization in the Special Economic Zones is completely uncontrolled and will spread environmental damage rapidly. Until recently the government acknowledged no obligation to control either CFCs or Carbon dioxide. However there are reports (2005) that the government is interested in solar power - probably more so than western countries) As a rapidly growing industrial power China will have increasing influence on the negative aspects of the world problem. By 2011 it is clear China has the world’s largest solar industry with manufacturing and installation of solar electric power (still not enough).

Radioactivity from poorly controlled weapons tests and research.

Industrialisation has already caused the import of rice, which could put the world into food deficit.

The controlling ecological problem will probably turn out to be not air pollution, bad though it is, but water pollution and shortage. Even though they are developing more efficient methods of using water, a shortage of fresh water is being felt all over China, and especially in the drier north. Major rivers no longer reach the sea, so much water has been extracted for irrigation and urban use.

Ursula le Guin's SF novel about a society that suddenly adopts a western culture and suppresses its own

Die Erzähler.

When a billion Chinese Jump

When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind -- Or Destroy It







Human Rights

One of the six worst regimes in the world with:

  • Burma
  • Uzebekistan
  • North Korea
  • Sudan
  • Syria

Imprisonment without trial for trivial offenses is common. Treatment of minorities, especially Tibetans, is bad. The actual government is believed to be increasingly corrupt, as the Communist Party becomes a hereditary aristocracy. The number of political prisoners might well be in the millions - 10 million has been suggested.

Executed persons are used for transplant organs. More executions than any other country.

Amnesty International says annual executions are "in the thousands"

Satellite tv is banned (but will probably undermine the regime eventually).

The internet is controlled severely. It is unlikely that this page will be allowed to be seen in China, as it does not appear in Google's censored version for use in China. (Should western media companies, like Murdoch's Satellite tv operation and Google, collude in China's censorship?)

Apparently the Chinese government promised to improve human rights in exchange for hosting the Olympics. No improvement has been reported.

Climate effects

China will be as much affected by Climate Change as any country. The north is expected to become drier, exacerbating the already serious shortage of water. The southern monsoon area may move further north. Even with only one or two degrees rise China will have serious problems in avoiding famine. That is a problem for us all as China will try to buy in its food needs, creating high prices and shortage everywhere.

An important problem for China will be the disappearance of the glaciers in Tibet that provide the irrigation water for hundreds of millions of people. Scientists do not have enough data to predict when this will occur.

China has a good record of building solar and wind power generators. However, it also has bad dependence on coal (as does the United States) and is still building coal power stations, thus contributing to the climate problem by emitting even more carbon than the United States.

Last revised 17/05/12

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