While dynastic rule was terminated in 1911 in current day China, the period from 1912 till China got its present day government was an era of turbulence and establishment of supremacy by competing powers. The Nationalist Party of China, which was instrumental in terminating dynastic rule, finds itself in current day Taiwan in some form while China has now come under Communist Party of China with effect from 1 October 1949 in the form of PRC (Peoples Republic of China).
The era of China from 1 October 1949 till the time President Xi Jinping assumed power on 14 March 2013 has shaped the country in a dramatic way wherein a number of experiments have been conducted in socio-political, economic and military domains propelling the country in a position to challenge the superpowers of the world and even attempting to replace the most powerful country, the United States from its numero uno position. After Xi Jinping assumed power, he has focussed on China’s expansionist agenda and is not only attempting to absorb Taiwan but has an eye also on all other countries having unresolved border issues, be it land or maritime.
Since the President in China has substantial power and also comes from the party establishment, his views have far reaching consequences. Each President has focussed on the growth of the country in a different manner based on his perceptions as to what is good for the nation and its people. It will therefore be pertinent to analyse the socio-political, economic and military developments linked to the tenure of the different Presidents.
# Mao Zedong (1949-1976): Having lived till the ripe age of 83 years, he is one of the most powerful leaders of China. He not only raised the Communist Party of China at a young age of 34 years but also administered China after it got its current form of government in 1949 and continued administering it till his death in 1976. Salient features of his time are as under:
* While in the initial days, there was a larger Soviet impact on the socio-political system, Mao later crafted his own independent socialism model of governance. He also allowed expression of different views under the “policy of letting hundred flowers bloom”, but could not withstand the differing views and his inner thoughts of autocracy came to the fore in a more powerful manner as he moved ahead with his presidency. In an attempt to bring prosperity to the entire population, he launched the “great leap forward” in 1957-58, more so in May 1958. He was so stuck with this proposal that he took no notice of the opposition despite the open failure of this social change. He continued with the enhanced exercise of “state power” and branded the opposition as part of new struggle in the Socialist stage.
* As far as economic progress is concerned, initial support came from USSR including the concept of Five-Year Plan as well as experts. This did not last very long as Soviet Premier Khrushchev withdrew the assistance and supported India as well as Taiwan in 1960. Mao attempted to transform the agrarian economy to a communist society-led growth, which can be prosperous. Institution of communes with unrealistic targets during the Great Leap Forward and its failure resulted in famines and deaths. Mao, however, continued to focus on the industrialisation of rural areas, centralised economic system, excessive spread of industrial base and technical revolution which have contributed to the present day China despite it not being as successful as contemplated earlier.
* Along with socio-political and economic churning, the Chinese military also grew substantially during Mao’s time. Having been experts primarily in guerrilla warfare and mass application, it evolved due to its involvement in a number of wars in quick succession. Of course, it opted for these wars, whether it be the Korean war, initial Vietnam war, the Cambodian conflict to establish Khmer Rouge or the war with India. It engaged on the international scene despite being engaged in conflict with the US during the Korean war. Not only this, there was a sizeable growth for its military be it the Army, Navy or the Air Force. By the time Mao died, the Chinese military had grown substantially.
# Deng Xiaoping (1978-1992): After the death of Mao, there was some gap before Deng Xiaoping established himself as Mao’s successor. The era of Deng is very important in the historic evolution of current day China as he heralded major economic changes. Having been branded earlier as a Westerner, he had a fallout with Mao during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 onwards. Salient features of his time are as under:
* Deng was a follower of Marxism-Leninism, which was evident in the socio-political space of the country during his time. Since he had inherited institutional disorder, he started institutional building of China including establishment of diplomatic relations with the US in the initial stages of his presidency in January 1979. He re-emphasised on a series of reforms which included, “one child” policy, nine-year mandatory education system and a focus on socialist ideology with free enterprise.
* Economic reforms of his era had far reaching reverberations and those continue even till date. Deng is also christened as the architect of modern China as he undertook major economic reforms including establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), promoted foreign investment by opening markets besides substantial work on technology infusion. Capacities created in his time continued with better work ethos and productivity continues to be the hallmark of China even today.
* While more known for his economic outlook, major military strides and changes also took place during his time. It includes the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 and suppression of protestors during the Tiananmen Square firing in 1989 which continues to be the darkest event in the history of PRC. He focused on civilian control over military by establishing Central Military Commissions (CMCs). It worked on Peoples War under modern conditions to include the concept of forward defence, combined arms tactics and excessive focus on domestic weapons production. India focused on domestic production only recently, which has resulted in it lagging behind China for more than three decades.
# Ziang Zemin (1993-2003): This transition took place while his predecessor was still alive. It was his political manoeuvre which made him successful in leading China into a successful decade. Some of the salient features of his tenure are:
* There were reasonable socio-political upheavals in this era as it was post the Tiananmen Square incident combined with the termination of Cold War due to disintegration of USSR in 1991. It was marked by the rise of the US as the single superpower. The state control by China on businesses/state owned industries reduced, besides enhancing linkages with the world as well as giving rise to consumerism. This era is also known for human rights abuses.
* As far as economic development is concerned, while Ziang wavered initially but later became more reform friendly and the process of economic growth of China continued under his regime substantially. A deliberate effort was made to develop close relations with the US and Japan for economic advantages. This era is popularly known as “social market economy” and continuance of economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping. The issues of corruption and unemployment also came to the fore despite substantial economic growth.
* As far as military is concerned, all round growth including focus on Theatre Missile Defence and nuclear capability continued. It was during this time that Hong Kong came back to China in 1997 from British rule, while Macau came back to China in 1999 from the Portuguese. PLA, which was involved in a number of commercial activities, was divested from such ventures to make it professional and battle ready. Limited war doctrines were evolved with the integration of Taiwan remaining as the focus area. The US emerged as a potential military threat due to its relations with Taiwan.
# Hu Jintao (2003-2013): Hu Jintao was known for his repressive actions in Tibet and elsewhere and the same continued in the context of all social disturbances, ethnic minority protests and other demonstrations. Despite this, Hu Jintao’s decade of governance has contributed in a big way in the current day China where it talks of “interest frontiers” as against territorial boundaries. Some of the important socio-political, economic and military advancements are:
* An attempt was made to develop a harmonious socialist society and all disturbances were crushed with a heavy hand. Peaceful development was attempted with soft power. China has enhanced its interest frontiers to Africa, Latin America and other developing regions to increase its influence. Society realised the rising importance of technocratic competence and felt the advantages of collective and consensus based rule.
* Hu Jintao continued on the economic growth path of his predecessor through reintroduced state control in certain sectors of the economy. Economic growth during this era resulted in China becoming a world economic power. Tough corruption laws were introduced while health insurance was enhanced in a big way for the workers.
* As far as military growth and modernisation are concerned, maximum progress took place during this time with special focus on space development along with development of PLA Navy. Carrier based Navy development was given due focus. The PLA was prepared to undertake historic missions in support and furtherance of national interests. The concept of “Go Global” was given real traction.
A closer analysis of the socio-political, economic and military development of present day China along with its renewed focus on the armed forces from 1 October 1949 till Xi Jinping assumed power on 14 Mar 2013 lays down a strong foundation for Xi Jinping to embark on a confrontationist and expansionist agenda. He was lucky to have Hu Jintao as his predecessor who relinquished power from all appointments and in the process, Xi Jinping has emerged as the most powerful President of PRC in the history of modern day China.