Xi Jinping was the son of Xi Zhongxun, who once served as deputy prime minister of China and was an early comrade-in-arms of Mao Zedong. The elder Xi, however, was often out of favour with his party and government, especially before and during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and after he openly criticized the government’s actions during the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.
The younger Xi’s early childhood was largely spent in the relative luxury of the residential compound of China’s ruling elite in Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution, however, with his father purged and out of favour, Xi Jinping was sent to the countryside in 1969 (he went to largely rural Shaanxi province), where he worked for six years as a manual labourer on an agricultural commune. During that period he developed an especially good relationship with the local peasantry, which would aid the wellborn Xi’s credibility in his eventual rise through the ranks of the CCP.
In 1974 Xi became an official party member, serving as a branch secretary, and the following year he began attending Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where he studied chemical engineering. After graduating in 1979, he worked for three years as secretary to Geng Biao, who was then the vice premier and minister of national defense in the central Chinese government.
In 1982 Xi gave up that post, choosing instead to leave Beijing and work as a deputy secretary for the CCP in Hebei province. He was based there until 1985, when he was appointed a party committee member and a vice mayor of Xiamen (Amoy) in Fujian province. While living in Fujian, Xi married the well-known folksinger Peng Liyuan in 1987. He continued to work his way upward, and by 1995 he had ascended to the post of deputy provincial party secretary.
In 1999 Xi became acting governor of Fujian, and he became governor the following year. Among his concerns as Fujian’s head were environmental conservation and cooperation with nearby Taiwan. He held both the deputy secretarial and governing posts until 2002, when he was elevated yet again: that year marked his move to Zhejiang province, where he served as acting governor and, from 2003, party secretary. While there he focused on restructuring the province’s industrial infrastructure in order to promote sustainable development.
Xi’s fortunes got another boost in early 2007 when a scandal surrounding the upper leadership of Shanghai led to his taking over as the city’s party secretary. His predecessor in the position was among those who had been tainted by a wide-ranging pension fund scheme. In contrast to his reformist father, Xi had a reputation for prudence and for following the party line, and as Shanghai’s secretary his focus was squarely on promoting stability and rehabilitation of the city’s financial image. He held the position for only a brief period, however, as he was selected in October 2007 as one of the nine members of the standing committee of the CCP’s Political Bureau (Politburo), the highest ruling body in the party.
With that promotion, Xi was put on a short list of likely successors to Hu Jintao, general secretary of the CCP since 2002 and president of the People’s Republic since 2003. Xi’s status became more assured when in March 2008 he was elected vice president of China. In that role he focused on conservation efforts and on improving international relations. In October 2010 Xi was named vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), a post once held by Hu (who since 2004 had been chair of the commission) and generally considered a major stepping-stone to the presidency. In November 2012, during the CCP’s 18th party congress, Xi was again elected to the standing committee of the Political Bureau (reduced to seven members), and he succeeded Hu as general secretary of the party. At that time Hu also relinquished the chair of the CMC to Xi. On March 14, 2013, he was elected president of China by the National People’s Congress.
Among Xi’s first initiatives was a nationwide anti-corruption campaign that soon saw the removal of thousands of high and low officials (both “tigers” and “flies”). Xi also emphasized the importance of the “rule of law,” calling for adherence to the Chinese constitution and greater professionalization of the judiciary as a means of developing “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Under Xi’s leadership China was increasingly assertive in international affairs, insisting upon its claim of territorial sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea despite an adverse ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and promoting its “One Belt, One Road” initiative for joint trade, infrastructure, and development projects with East Asian, Central Asian, and European countries.
Xi managed to consolidate power at a rapid pace during his first term as China’s president. The success of his anti-corruption campaign continued, with more than one million corrupt officials being punished by late 2017; the campaign also served to remove many of Xi’s political rivals, further bolstering his efforts to eliminate dissent and strengthen his grip on power. In October 2016 the CCP bestowed upon him the title of “core leader,” which previously had been given only to influential party figures Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin; the title immediately raised his stature. A year later the CCP voted to enshrine Xi’s name and ideology, described as “thought” (“Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era”), in the party’s constitution, an honour previously awarded only to Mao. Xi’s ideology was later enshrined in the country’s constitution by an amendment passed by the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2018. During the same legislative session, the NPC also passed other amendments to the constitution, including one that abolished term limits for the country’s president and vice president; this change would allow Xi to remain in office beyond 2023, when he would have been due to step down. The NPC also unanimously elected Xi to a second term as president of the country in March.
Economic policy changes
In the late fall of 1976, the CCP leadership tried to bring some order to the country through a series of national conferences. They moved quickly to appeal to workers’ interests by reinstating wage bonuses. The economy had stagnated that year largely because of political turmoil, and Mao’s successors were anxious to start things moving again. Despite some uncertainty, Deng was rehabilitated and formally brought back into his previous offices in the summer of 1977.
Lacking detailed information on the economy, the leaders adopted an overly ambitious 10-year plan in early 1978 and used the government’s resources to the limit throughout that year to increase investment and achieve rapid economic growth. Much of that growth consisted of reactivating capacity that had lain idle because of political disruption. Future growth would be harder to achieve, and long-term trends in matters such as capital-output ratios made it increasingly clear that the old strategies would be less effective.
One of the major changes of 1978 was China’s sharp turn toward participation in the international economy. While in the 1970s there had been a resumption of the foreign trade that had been largely halted in the late 1960s, along with far-more-active and Western-oriented diplomatic initiatives, the changes during and after 1978 were fundamental. China’s leaders became convinced that large amounts of capital could be acquired from abroad to speed up the country’s modernization, a change in attitude that elicited an almost frenetic response from foreign bankers and entrepreneurs.
These several strands came together in late 1978 at a major meeting of the CCP leadership, when China formally agreed to establish full diplomatic relations with the United States. China’s leaders also formally adopted the Four Modernizations as the country’s highest priority, with all other tasks to be subordinated to that of economic development. This set of priorities differed so fundamentally from those pursued during the Cultural Revolution that the implications for future policy and for the interests of various sectors of the population were profound.
The opening of China’s economy to the outside world proceeded apace. In the late 1970s the country adopted a joint-venture law, and it subsequently enacted numerous other laws (such as one governing patents) to create an attractive environment for foreign capital. An initial experiment with “special economic zones” along the southern coast in the late 1970s led in 1984 to a decision to open 14 cities to more intense engagement with the international economy. The idea was to move toward opening ever larger sections of the country to foreign trade and investment, which was accomplished with remarkable success over the next decades. Those zones became the engines driving China’s tremendous and sustained economic growth, and the cities associated with them mushroomed in size—none more so than Shenzhen, which grew from a town of about 30,000 in 1979 to a metropolis of some 7,500,000 in little more than a quarter century.
Within the domestic economy, numerous experiments were undertaken in finance, banking, planning, urban economic management, and rural policy. Of these, by far the most important were the series of measures taken toward the roughly four-fifths of the population that lived in the countryside at the time. Prices paid for farm products were sharply increased in 1979, thus pumping significant additional resources into the agricultural sector. The collective farming system was gradually dismantled in favour of a return to family farming. At first, families were allowed to contract for the use of collective land for a limited period of time. Subsequently, the period of those contracts was extended, and subcontracting (essentially, allowing one family to accumulate large amounts of land) was permitted.
Peasants were also allowed far greater choice in what crops to plant, and many abandoned farming altogether in favour of establishing small-scale industries or transport companies and other services. Thus, rural patterns of work, land leasing, and wealth changed markedly after 1978. Exceptionally good weather during the early 1980s contributed to record harvests.
The reforms in the urban economy had more-mixed results, largely because the economic system in the cities was so much more complex. Those reforms sought to provide material incentives for greater efficiency and to increase the use of market forces in allocating resources. Problems arose because of the relatively irrational price system, continuing managerial timidity, and the unwillingness of government officials to give up their power over economic decisions, among other difficulties. In the urban as well as the rural economy, the reformers tackled some of the fundamental building blocks of the Soviet system that had been imported during the 1950s.
Reforms have continued in the rural and urban areas. Rural producers have been given more freedom to decide how to use their earnings, whether for agricultural or other economic activities. Private entrepreneurship in the cities and the rationalization, privatization, and, in some cases, dismantling of state-owned enterprises have gained speed. At the same time, the central government has moderated the pace of change—primarily to avoid increases in social unrest resulting from rising unemployment—and constructed a social safety net for those who lose their jobs.
The reformers led by Deng Xiaoping tried after 1978 to reduce the level of political coercion in Chinese society. Millions of victims of past political campaigns were released from labour camps, and bad “class labels” were removed from those stigmatized by them. This dramatically improved the career and social opportunities of millions of former political pariahs. To a considerable extent, moreover, the range of things considered political was narrowed, so that mundane elements such as style of dress and grooming and preferences in music and hobbies were no longer considered politically significant. More importantly, criticizing policy no longer triggered political retaliation against the critics. Overall, the role of the Public Security (police) forces was cut back substantially.
The reformers also tried to make preparations for their own political succession. This involved first rehabilitating cadres who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution (most of which was accomplished in the late 1970s). These cadres in many cases were old and no longer fully able to meet the demands being made on them, and they were encouraged to retire. Younger, better-educated people committed to reform were then brought into prominent positions. Deng proved masterful at maintaining a viable coalition among the diverse forces at the top. By the end of 1981 he had succeeded in nudging Hua Guofeng and others of the more-rigid Maoists out of high-level positions. Although he refused to take the top positions for himself, Deng saw his supporters become premier (Zhao Ziyang and then Li Peng) and general secretary of the CCP (Hu Yaobang, Zhao, and Jiang Zemin), and he worked hard to try to consolidate and maintain their hold on power.
In early 1982 the CCP leadership made a concerted attempt to restructure the leading bodies in both the government and the party, and much was reorganized, with the appointment of many new officials. This general effort continued, with the focus increasingly on the bloated military establishment, but progress slowed considerably after the initial burst of organizational reformism.
Throughout 1982–85 the CCP carried out a “rectification” campaign designed to restore morals to its membership and weed out those who did not support reform. This campaign highlighted the increasing difficulties inherent in maintaining discipline and limiting corruption at a time of rapid change, when materialistic values were being officially propagated.
By the mid-1980s, China was in transition, with core elements of the previous system called into question while the ultimate balance that would be struck remained unclear even to the top participants. The reform movement began to sour in 1985. Financial decentralization and the two-price system combined with other factors to produce inflation and encourage corruption. China’s population, increasingly exposed to foreign ideas and standards of living, put pressure on the government to speed the rate of change within the country.
These forces produced open unrest within the country in late 1986 and again on a much larger scale in the spring of 1989. By 1989 popular disaffection with the CCP and the government had become widespread. Students—eventually joined by many others—took to the streets in dozens of cities from April to June to demand greater freedom and other changes. Government leaders, after initial hesitation, used the army to suppress this unrest in early June (most visibly in Tiananmen Square), with substantial loss of life. China’s elderly revolutionaries then reverted to more-conservative economic, political, and cultural policies in an attempt to reestablish firm control. In 1992, however, Deng Xiaoping publicly criticized what he called the country’s continuing “leftism” and sought to renew the efforts at economic reform. Economic growth had been especially remarkable in southern China, which had developed the highest concentration of private-sector enterprise. Since the mid-1990s the CCP has worked to drastically accelerate market reforms in banking, taxes, trade, and investments. These reforms have continued apace, and the party has attempted to increase public support by conducting energetic anticorruption campaigns that rely in part on high-profile prosecutions and occasional executions of high-level officials accused of corruption.
Jiang proved to be a capable successor to Deng. He replaced Zhao Ziyang as general secretary in 1989 after the Tiananmen incident and also that year was named chair of the Central Military Commission (CMC). In 1993 Jiang became president of the National People’s Congress (NPC). He combined a pragmatic, reform-minded economic policy with an insistence that the party maintain strong control over the government. Jiang consolidated his power after Deng’s death in 1997 to become China’s paramount ruler but gradually relinquished his posts to Hu Jintao in 2002–04. In turn, in 2012, as Hu neared the end of his presidential term, China’s vice president, Xi Jinping, was positioned to succeed him, and that November Xi took over both as general secretary of the party and as chair of the CMC. Hu stepped down from the presidency in March 2013 after Xi was elected to the office by the NPC.
Educational and cultural policy changes
In education, the reformers gave top priority to training technical, scientific, and scholarly talent to world-class standards. This involved re-creating a highly selective and elitist system of higher education, with admission based on competitive academic examination. Graduate study programs were introduced, and thousands of Chinese were sent abroad for advanced study. Large numbers of foreign scholars were also used to help upgrade the educational system. Somewhat ironically, the value the reformers attached to making money had the unintended consequence of encouraging many brilliant people to forgo intellectual careers in favour of more-lucrative undertakings. The range of cultural fare available was broadened greatly, and new limits were constantly tested. Few groups had suffered so bitterly as China’s writers and artists, and policies since the 1980s have reflected the ongoing battle between cultural liberals and more-orthodox officials.
True reintegration of the People’s Republic of China into the international community can be said to date to 1971, when it replaced Taiwan (Republic of China; ROC) as China’s representative to the United Nations. With that event, many countries that formerly had recognized the ROC established relations with the People’s Republic. The normalization of diplomatic ties with the United States, which began in 1973, culminated in 1979.
China’s foreign policy since the mid-1970s generally has reflected the country’s preoccupation with domestic economic development and its desire to promote a peaceful and stable environment in which to achieve these domestic goals. Except for its disagreement with Vietnam over that country’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978, China has by and large avoided disputes and encouraged the peaceful evolution of events in Asia. China adopted a policy of “one country, two systems” in order to provide a framework for the successful negotiation with Great Britain for the return of Hong Kong and adjacent territories in 1997 and with Portugal for the return of Macau in 1999; both were given special administrative status. Furthermore, China became an advocate of arms control and assumed a more-constructive, less-combative stance in many international organizations.
The bloody suppression of the demonstrations in 1989 set back China’s foreign relations. The United States, the European Community (later succeeded by the European Union), and Japan imposed sanctions, though by 1992 China had largely regained its international standing with all but the United States. But by the mid-1990s both sides had taken steps toward improved relations, and China retained its most-favoured-nation status in U.S. trade—subject to annual review by the U.S. Congress until 2000, when Congress made the status permanent.
The collapse of communism in eastern Europe beginning in mid-1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union deeply disturbed China’s leaders. While hard-liners used these developments to warn about the dangers of reform, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin were able to minimize such backsliding and move China closer to becoming a major world power. The country’s admission into the World Trade Organization in 2001 was considered a significant step in its further integration into the global economy. Added to that was the international prestige that accompanied Beijing’s selection to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The Games, which included events held in six other Chinese cities, were generally considered a great success. Two years later, the country staged the highly successful Expo 2010 Shanghai China world exposition, which showcased what was by then one of the world’s largest and most technologically advanced metropolises.
Relations with Taiwan
A major unresolved issue in the region has been the status of Taiwan. Since 1949 the regimes on both the mainland and Taiwan have agreed that Taiwan is a province of China—the principal difference being that each has asserted it is the legitimate government of the country. Tensions were especially high between the two entities in the first decades after the split, marked by periodic artillery duels between batteries on the Taiwan-controlled islands of Matsu and Qemoy, just off the coast of Fujian province, and those opposite them on the mainland. The ROC’s claim of legitimacy was dealt a serious blow after 1970 with its loss of UN representation and diplomatic recognition by most of the world’s countries. Still, Taiwan remained viable and emerged as a global economic powerhouse, its security guaranteed by a commitment from the United States and backed by U.S. military presence in the region. The continued American involvement in Taiwan affairs has at times been a source of friction in U.S.-China relations.
Through all this, economic ties improved considerably between the mainland and Taiwan. Taiwan has become one of China’s major trading partners, Taiwan-based businesses have invested heavily on the mainland, and large numbers of people from the island have come to live and work on the mainland. Beijing has continued to press for reintegrating Taiwan as a province of China under mainland administration. However, there has been a sustained movement on Taiwan advocating that the island become an independent sovereign state and not continue to be considered a part of China. Tensions escalated after the pro-independence Chen Shui-bian was elected president of the ROC in 2000. Nonetheless, discussions continued between the two sides, and in 2005 high-ranking Nationalist Party (KMT) officials traveled to the mainland, the first such visits since 1949.
Tensions between China and Taiwan eased significantly after the Nationalists regained control of both Taiwan’s legislature and presidency in 2008. Talks, often at a high level, continued and increased between the two sides on both economic and diplomatic issues. A notable accomplishment of these discussions was a trade agreement, signed in 2010, that would gradually reduce or eliminate tariffs on a large number of goods and commodities exported from one side to the other.
Leaders of the People’s Republic of China since 1949
The table provides a chronological list of the leaders of the People’s Republic of China since 1949.
|Leaders of the People’s Republic of China Since 1949|
|Chinese Communist Party leaders|
|Mao Zedong||CCP chairman||1949–1976|
|Hua Guofeng||CCP chairman||1976–1981|
|Hu Yaobang||CCP chairman; after September 1982,
general secretary of the CCP
|Zhao Ziyang||CCP general secretary||1987–1989|
|Jiang Zemin||CCP general secretary||1989–2002|
|Hu Jintao||CCP general secretary||2002–12|
|Xi Jinping||CCP general secretary||2012–|
Chinese President Xi Jinping is directing a vast ideological war across multiple theaters—politics, culture, ethics, economy, strategy, and foreign relations. Among its most intense flashpoints is historiography, particularly of China’s last empire, the Qing, which ruled from 1636 to 1912. Historians, whether foreign or domestic, who resist Xi’s determination to design a past that serves his ideology have been targeted repeatedly by state propaganda organs. A new editorial suggests that this attack on Qing specialists is escalating.
Xi has a powerful weapon at his disposal. In 2003, 10 years before his assumption of power, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) initiated an ambitious project dedicated to Qing history. It was granted headquarters in the Zhongguancun district of Beijing, next to China’s leading technology companies. Its budget—never definitively quantified but clearly stratospheric as far as historiographical enterprises go—supported a threefold mission:
The first of these has been to complete the traditional arc in which each imperial dynasty declared its legitimacy by writing the history of its predecessor. At its demise in 1912, the Qing was not succeeded by a new dynasty, though Republican-era loyalists drafted a history that the new government refused to publish. In our century, the CCP has decided to seize the mantle of legitimacy by rewriting and publishing the Qing imperial history, which is now nearing completion.
The second is to digitize all the archival materials relating to Qing history. By 2014, the digitized image files of the documents were reported to total 1.5 million, searchable by metadata, and recent announcements show the number moving toward 2 million.
The third is to translate all foreign scholarship on the Qing period, which could run to tens of thousands of titles. But this task has become part of the intense struggle for control over the characterization of the Qing period—one in which Xi has co-opted the history project to defeat challenges to his historical confabulations from either conventional Marxist historians in China or from foreign scholars of the Qing.
Half a century ago, scholars from around the world agreed on the basics of Qing history. It began in 1644 when invading Manchus seized the former Ming capital, Beijing, and proceeded to establish their control over all of China. Their government followed the Ming model, and in the late 17th century the Qing began to spread Chinese control to Taiwan, Mongolia, Tibet, and what is now the province of Xinjiang. The 18th century went well for the Qing, which became the world’s largest economy. Its achievements in architecture, philosophy, and art were celebrated internationally by Jesuit residents of Beijing and their readers in Europe, including Voltaire. But in the 19th century, the empire was afflicted by the bloodiest civil war in history, the Taiping Rebellion; an onslaught of foreign gunboat diplomacy that deprived it of full control of its economy and urban spaces; and devastating military and economic incursions from rising, modernizing Japan.
But there were variations within this template. Historians who were part of China’s Nationalist movement condemned the Manchus as foreign vandals only too happy to abandon the Chinese to enslavement and massacre by other foreign aggressors. The idea of the “Century of Humiliation”—meaning, roughly, 1842 to 1949—that is now an all-purpose gripe in CCP justifications of its aggressive economic and military maneuvers is a synopsis of the Nationalist narrative of Qing failure, as is Xi’s claim that Confucianism was the core of Chinese tradition and must remain so. (In contrast, for Communist historians in China, the Qing, like other past rulers, oppressed the entire population of China by Confucianism, which blessed the predations of the land-owning elites while indoctrinating the masses in virtues of servility.)
In the late 20th century, historians in the United States, Europe, and Japan focused on the effects of early modern conquest and domination in the broadest comparative contexts—not only in Asia and the Middle East, but also in southern Africa and North America. They closely examined the effects of the great land empires of Russia, the Ottomans, and the Qing.
American historians, particularly, produced a narrative of the Qing as a conquest empire of global prominence, with not only power and wealth but also with the usual dynamics of violence (including genocide), hierarchy, and marginalized cultural identities. They noted that before its conquest of China the Qing was already an empire of considerable size, controlling Manchuria (including the former Ming province of Liaodong, roughly corresponding to the modern province of Liaoning) and dominating eastern Mongolia and Korea; they argued that that even after the conquest of China, Qing imperial government continued to show deep traces of its origins in Manchuria.
They used documents from all the empire’s languages, including Manchu, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Uighur—not just Chinese. They emphasized that the empire had grown to twice the size of its Ming predecessor by means of conquest—indirectly ruling Mongolia and Tibet, imposing an expensive military occupation regime on Xinjiang, and for the first time incorporating Taiwan into an empire based in China.
Xi’s strategy in remixing history is to draw selectively from the Nationalist and Communist historiographies, throw in some volatile nationalism, and resolutely suppress the implications of the new globalized and comparative historiography. The primary historical design shop is the Party History Research Office of the CCP Central Committee.