China looks much as it has for centuries: mostly rural and poor. There is great inequality and foreign domination in "treaty ports." The May Fourth Movement is a reaction against this domination, and produces a generation of intellectuals that scrutinizes many aspects of Chinese culture and traditions.
China's countryside is marked by huge gaps between rich and poor. Rents are high, taxes are often collected decades in advance, and landlords are called the "masters of the earth." Young girls are sold as child brides.
War with Japan brings tremendous civilian casualties. Millions flee inland while millions more are killed when the dykes of Yellow River are broken in an effort to stop the Japanese advance. Meanwhile, in Yenan, there is atmosphere of idealism -- the "Yenan Spirit" -- as youths come to see reforms and learn how to fight Japan.
As the civil war advances, panic and inflation escalate. People rush out to buy goods in the morning before prices rise in the afternoon. The homeless and starving fill city streets. Peasant support for the Communists is challenged by their radical land-reform policies. Financial and social chaos plague the country.
Mao turns to the countryside to pay for industrialization. In 1953 families pool property and create cooperative farms; by 1955 private property is abolished under collectivization. People are invited to air their grievances during the "Hundred Flowers" campaign only to be brutally silenced in the subsequent "Anti-Rightist" campaign, as government control over intellectual life increases.
Parents work round the clock while children are cared for in communal nurseries. All meals are taken in communal dining halls, and family structure is abolished. People want to believe in Mao, and revolutionary fervor causes them to wildly over-report the success of the Great Leap Forward even as they begin to starve.
After the Anti-Rightist campaign, no one dares criticize Mao. When "Quotations from Chairman Mao" -- the so-called Little Red Book -- is published in 1964, all Chinese get a copy and are expected to memorize and live by his words.
The Cultural Revolution is a period of intense social chaos. Schools are closed for the academic year beginning in September 1966. Millions of Red Guards travel freely around the country, attacking officials and intellectuals. Violence spirals out of control, and Mao calls it "all-out civil war." As the cult of Mao heightens, people have to "report their thoughts" to Mao twice a day.
After the death of Lin Biao, many begin to question Mao's infallibility. Millions of students are still stranded at work in the countryside, where they have been sent for reeducation.
Thousands go to Tiananmen Square after the death of Zhou Enlai, with demonstrations that indirectly implicate Mao Zedong for his role in the Cultural Revolution. Yet he still cannot be openly criticized. In July 1976 the worst earthquake in history hits Tangshan, killing 400,000 people. Many think the disaster presages Mao's death two months later.
Poverty and hunger in the countryside worsens with Anhui province's drought. Despite personal risk, farmers agree to divide up their land and eat their surplus crops. The government allows them to continue the "household responsibility system" after great debates in Party. The one-child policy, adopted in 1979 and implemented with forced contraceptives and abortions, is unpopular in rural China.
Free to move around the country, people stream to coastal cities seeking high-paying jobs. As social controls loosen, smuggling, profiteering, prostitution, and pornography increase. In the countryside, peasants earn more than they ever dreamed of and buy televisions, fans, and refrigerators.
Expectations rise as China's economy booms, but social inequality grows as coastal cities thrive and rural areas struggle. As peasants watch the new prosperity pass them by, many feel abandoned by the government. Workers in failing state factories worry about keeping their "iron rice bowl" of lifetime security, but few dare to "jump into the sea" as entrepreneurs.
Encouraged to think and study freely, students become more vocal in their demands. After the death of reformist leader Hu Yaobang, they flock to Tiananmen Square to pay tribute and use the occasion to make political demands. The government tries to make the students leave, but they resist, and the movement gains momentum, ending only with the bloody crackdown on the night of June 4.
Reforms have created opportunity and risk for the Chinese. Workers are laid off and unable to find jobs, and the "iron rice bowl" is at risk, even as some in coastal areas become millionaires. The government couches capitalist reforms as a stage of socialism, eventually enshrining "Deng Xiaoping Theory."
Since reform of state-owned enterprises began, millions of Chinese workers have been laid off, with no social safety net remaining to catch them. The gulf between rich and poor grows. Entrepreneurship spreads. Internet use and consumer technology radically change urban lifestyles. The government recognizes the HIV/AIDS epidemic and begins to implement programs to fight it.
After delaying reports of the actual toll of the pneumonia-like SARS virus, the Chinese government turns to the urgent task of preventing its spread. The virus, thought to have originated in Guangdong province, continues to claim lives despite aggressive quarantine measures and school closings. Panic spreads as the virus migrates across East Asia and to North America.
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