In 1911 a group of discontented army officers launches an attack against the Manchu (Qing) dynasty. The dynasty is unexpectedly toppled, and the Republic of China is born. The task of uniting the country is daunting as foreign powers maintain their own governments in coastal cities, and warlords throughout China battle each other for power.
Chinese intellectuals take to the streets to protest the dividing up of China by foreign powers. They believe that imperialism and warlords have weakened their country, and they demand an end to foreign domination.
The new Nationalist (Kuomintang) government appeals for outside help in defeating the warlords and receives it from the Soviet Union, on the condition that the Soviets work with the newly formed Chinese Communist Party. The Whampoa Military Academy is set up outside Canton. Planning begins for an expedition to unite China.
Chiang Kai-shek leads the Northern Expedition army up the coast of China and in six months defeats 34 warlords. Communist organizers stage rallies along the way to win popular support. In Shanghai, Chiang suddenly turns on the Communists in a bloody massacre. He then establishes Nationalist headquarters in Nanjing, China's economic heartland.
The Communists disappear into the countryside after the Shanghai purge and set up a new government in Jiangxi Province, South China. Mao Zedong is one of the leaders. They initiate radical land reform, displacing hated landlords and building peasant support.
In 1931 Japan invades Northeastern China and sets up a puppet government. Instead of resisting Japan, Nationalist troops launch a series of military campaigns against the Communists and nearly destroy them. But 90,000 people break through a blockade and set out on the "Long March," a perilous 6,000-mile journey to a new base in Yenan. Along the way, Mao emerges as the undisputed leader of the Chinese Communists.
Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek faces intense pressure to resist Japan, both from his own generals and from the Communists in Yenan. In an extraordinary turn of events, he is kidnapped by his own generals and pressured to fight Japan. He is only released when he agrees to a united front with the Communists.
Japan launches full-scale invasion of China in July 1937. Within five months the Japanese enter Nanjing and massacre 200,000 people. The government retreats to Chongqing, a remote area ruled by rival warlords. America enters the war in 1941 and finds Chiang saving his best troops for use against the Communists. In 1944 America sends the Dixie Mission to Yenan to gauge Communist fighting capacity.
When World War II ends in 1945, America airlifts Nationalist troops to take the Japanese surrender, but civil war soon erupts between the Nationalists and Communists, and all efforts at mediation break down. The Communists expand their support in the North with radical land reform and defeat the overextended Nationalist troops in the decisive battle of Huai-hai.
Chiang Kai-shek resigns in January and retreats to Taiwan; two million Nationalists soon follow. The Communists move into Beijing and establish the People's Republic of China on October 1. They create political structures that reach down to every village in country, and receive limited aid and a defense treaty from the Soviet Union.
Responding to threats of invasion by UN forces, Mao sends massive numbers of Chinese troops across the border into Korea in "human waves." A "Resist America" campaign stirs national pride and proves how effectively the new government can mobilize the country. Chinese forces fight UN forces to a standstill and greatly increase Mao's prestige.
Soviet advisors help create industrial infrastructure in cities, and Mao Zedong turns to peasants to pay for it. Asked to pool their property into small cooperative farms, families are then pushed to the next stage: collectivization. By 1955 all of China's 600 million peasants live in collectives, and all of China's agricultural output is under government control.
Mao's "Hundred Flowers" campaign encourages intellectuals to voice criticism, but when the Party becomes the intellectuals' focus, Mao reverses himself and condemns those who spoke out as "Rightists." Deng Xiaoping is appointed to lead the Anti-Rightist campaign, a brutal crackdown on Chinese intellectuals.
Mao launches the Great Leap Forward, a campaign to make China the West's industrial equal in 15 years. Farmers are herded into huge communes. Among the campaign's projects: the creation of steel in backyard furnaces, the killing of sparrows, and the close planting of crops. In an effort to please Mao, farmers over-report their yields. The world's worst manmade famine follows.
Mao retreats from view while Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and Zhou Enlai run the government. China becomes politically isolated. Chinese troops crush a revolt in Tibet in 1961. The Chinese government shifts its focus from heavy industry to the production of consumer goods. Relaxed controls on peasants allow them to make money farming on the side.
Mao Zedong emerges from isolation with the publication of "Quotations from Chairman Mao," also known as the "Little Red Book." Thus begins the cult of personality.
Mao launches the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. He sends millions of Red Guards through China to attack the "Four Olds": culture, ideas, customs, and habits. Top Party leaders are purged as "capitalist roaders," exiled, and killed. The cult of Mao reaches new heights. At the peak of chaos Mao disbands the Red Guards, sending them to the countryside for reeducation.
Border clashes flare between China and the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai make overtures to the United States. With his visit to China in February 1972, President Richard Nixon takes the first step in normalizing relations with China and begins to establish the "strategic triangle" of China, the United States, and the Soviet Union.
Purged Party members begin to be rehabilitated. Deng returns to Beijing and helps initiate small reforms. Politics is dominated by the question of who will succeed the dying Mao Zedong. The worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution are blamed on the Gang of Four, who sought the implementation of communist ideology at the expense of traditional Chinese culture. In September 1976 Mao Zedong dies.
While China is officially led by Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping works behind the scenes to take his place. Deng moves to exonerate millions attacked during the Cultural Revolution. He puts economic prosperity before socialist purity and maintains a belief in the Party's absolute authority. Sent-down youths return home from the countryside to find Beijing a changed, more open place.
By 1978 Deng is China's paramount leader. With ambitious plans to modernize China, he visits America, where he negotiates full diplomatic relations. Beijing's Democracy Wall provides an outlet for people to criticize the Cultural Revolution, but when this freedom threatens Party authority, Deng crushes it. At the same time, he allows drastic reforms in Anhui province in response to severe drought.
Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the South and innovative agricultural reforms in the countryside fuel stunning economic growth. Deng negotiates Hong Kong's return to China. By 1984 rural China is booming, and 14 more coastal cities are designated SEZs. When Party hard-liners voice concerns about foreign corruption, Deng appeases them with a short-lived campaign against "spiritual pollution."
Popular expectations rise along with economic prosperity. "Cultural Fever" encourages freedom of expression on college campuses, and students demonstrate for more say in their futures. The Party fears unrest and cracks down. Inflation soars; corruption increases. The population reaches an unprecedented 1.2 billion. There is no solution in sight for insolvent state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Rising inflation, crime, and corruption fuel a conservative backlash against reforms. Students occupy Tiananmen Square upon the death of Hu Yaobang, a Deng protégé sympathetic to pro-democracy demonstrations and forced to resign as Party secretary. Protests last through Mikhail Gorbachev's historic visit. The government declares martial law June 4 and sends in troops to suppress demonstrations.
While maintaining strict political control, China's leaders launch their most spectacular period of economic growth. In 1992 Deng travels to the SEZs and calls on the country to copy their example. "Communism," he declares, "will not be saved by rhetoric but by improving people's living standards." Foreign investors return, and China produces its first millionaires.
Deng appears in public for the last time in 1994, and Jiang Zemin is named his heir-apparent. Foreign companies scramble for Chinese contracts, while China's state-owned factories operate at a loss, draining capital from government and banks. In 1997 Hong Kong returns to Chinese rule, and Deng Xiaoping dies.
Premier Zhu Rongji announces a three-year plan to reform state enterprises or let them die. Ending the "iron rice bowl" of jobs and benefits for life, he lays off millions of Party officials. China agrees to open its markets to gain World Trade Organization (WTO) membership. Beijing is chosen to host the 2008 Olympics. China struggles to maintain stability and prosperity amid growing labor unrest.
The 16th Party Congress replaces the aging leadership, but Jiang Zemin retains influence. WTO accession boosts foreign investment to record highs. The economy remains strong, but inequalities persist, and corruption and unemployment spread. The outbreak of the deadly virus Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and the government's delayed reaction, threaten China's economy and social stability.
back to top