The People’s Republic of China was established at the end of the Chinese Civil War, which had raged between 1945 and 1949 between the Republic of China and the victorious Chinese Communist Party. At a meeting of delegates in Beijing on 21 September 1949, Communist leader Mao Zedong announced the new People’s Republic’s as a one-party dictatorship.
On 1 October, a mass celebration in Tiananmen Square ushered in the new China, which covered a similar area to the Qing dynasty which ruled between 1644 and 1911. The PRC pursued ambitious industrial and ideological projects before committing to transformative economic reforms in the 1980s. Here are 10 facts about the People’s Republic of China.
1. It was founded after the Chinese Civil War
The People’s Republic of China was founded by the Chinese Communist Party following the end of the Chinese Civil War, which had begun in 1945 and ended in 1949. Having been nearly destroyed by Chiang Kai-shek’s ruling Kuomintang Party two decades prior, the Communist success was a triumph for the CCP and its leader Mao Zedong.
During the preceding Japanese occupation, Zedong had turned the Chinese Communists into an effective political and fighting force. The Red Army had expanded to 900,000 soldiers and Party membership had reached 1.2 million. The PRC’s establishment was the first time China was united by a strong central authority since the Qing empire of the 19th century.
2. The PRC is not the only China
The People’s Republic of China does not contain all of China. While Mao Zedong established the PRC on mainland China, the Republic of China (Kuomintang) led by Chiang Kai-shek largely retreated to the island of Taiwan.
Both the PRC and the government of Taiwan claim to be the sole legitimate government of China. This is despite the United Nations recognising the PRC as the government representing China in 1971, at which point the PRC took the Republic’s seat as a permanent member of the Security Council.
3. The PRC secured power through land reform
To consolidate their authority after the Civil War, Chinese citizens were invited to see themselves as part of a state project based on national identity and class interests. The new People’s Republic pursued violent class warfare in a programme of land reform aimed at changing the structure of rural society.
The land reform that took place between 1949 and 1950 resulted in 40% of land being redistributed. 60% of the population may have benefitted from the change, but condemned one million people labelled as landlords to their deaths.
4. The Great Leap Forward led to massive famine
China was economically isolated in the 1950s. It was frozen out of diplomatic relations with the United States and had a strained relationship with the USSR. But the CCP wanted to modernise China. The Great Leap Forward was Mao’s ambitious alternative, rooted in ideas of self-sufficiency.
The plan was to use industrial technology to improve Chinese production of steel, coal and electricity, and further agricultural reform. Yet its methods caused a huge famine and over 20 million deaths. When the Leap ended in 1962, Mao’s enthusiasm for radical reform and demonstrating the superiority of Chinese Marxism over capitalism was not diminished.
5. The Cultural Revolution triggered a decade of upheaval
In 1966, the Cultural Revolution was launched by Mao and his allies. Until Mao’s death in 1976, political recrimination and upheaval dogged the country. During this period, Mao promoted an ideological renewal and a vision of modernity in which the industrialised state valued peasant labour and was free from bourgeois influence.
The Cultural Revolution including purging those suspected of being ‘counter-revolutionaries’, such as capitalists, foreigners and intellectuals. Massacres and persecutions took place across China. While Communist officials known as the Gang of Four were held responsible for the Cultural Revolution’s excesses, Mao achieved a pervasive cult of personality: by 1969, 2.2 billion Mao badges had been made.
6. China became a mixed economy after Mao’s death
Deng Xiaoping was the reformist Chairman of the 1980s. He was a veteran of the Chinese Communist Party, having joined in 1924 and been purged twice during the Cultural Revolution. Many principles of the Mao era were abandoned in a programme which saw the breaking down of collective farms and farmers selling more crops on the free market.
The new openness included Deng’s assertion that “to get rich is glorious” and the opening of Special Economic Zones for foreign investment. It did not extend to democracy, however. In 1978, Wei Jingsheng demanded this ‘Fifth Modernization’ on top of Deng’s programme and was swiftly imprisoned.
7. The Tiananmen Square protests were a major political event
Following the death of pro-reform Communist Party official Hu Yaobang in April 1989, students organised demonstrations against the CCP’s role in public life. Demonstrators complained of inflation, corruption and limited democratic participation. Nearly a million workers and students then gathered in Tiananmen Square for the arrival of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
On early 4 June, the embarrassed Party used soldiers and armoured vehicles to violently suppress the remaining protestors. Several thousand people may have died in the June Fourth Incident, the memory of which is widely censored in contemporary China. Vigils have been held in Hong Kong since 1989, even after the transfer of power to China in 1997.
8. China’s growth in the 1990s lifted millions from poverty
The economic reforms led by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s helped transform China into a country specialising in high productivity factories and areas of technology. Under ten years of administration by Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji in the 1990s, the PRC’s explosive economic growth lifted approximately 150 million people out of poverty.
While in 1952 China’s GDP was $30.55 billion, by 2020 China’s GDP was around $14 trillion. Life expectancy doubled in the same period, from 36 years to 77 years. Yet China’s industry meant that its carbon emissions became ever more vast, posing a significant challenge to Chinese authorities and, in the 21st century, global attempts to prevent climate breakdown.
9. China remains the world’s most populous country
China has a population of more than 1.4 billion and covers around 9.6 million square kilometres. It is the world’s most populated country, and has remained so since the United Nations began comparing national populations in 1950. 82 million of its citizens are members of the Chinese Communist Party, which continues to rule contemporary China.
China has boasted a prodigious population for millennia. China’s population remained between 37 and 60 million in the first millennium AD, before rapidly increasing from the early years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Anxiety about China’s growing population led to a one-child policy between 1980 and 2015.
10. China’s army is older than the People’s Republic of China
The People’s Liberation Army predates the founding of the People’s Republic of China, it being instead a wing of the Chinese Communist Party. The PLA is the largest standing army in the world, despite action from the 1980s onwards to reduce troops numbers by over one million, and transform an oversized and obsolete fighting force into a high-tech military.