There’s no doubt that today’s China has come a long way from the “Red China” of America’s Cold War newsreels. The privations of command economics and the violent political upheaval of the Mao years have given way to increasing prosperity and an abandonment of rigid Marxist orthodoxy. Indeed, a visit to Beijing’s central business district or Shanghai’s ritzy shopping areas might make you wonder why China even still calls itself a communist country. But behind the material wealth, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still plays a dominant role in the organization of the state and Party polices influence almost every aspect of life in modern China. This guide is designed to give you a (very) brief overview of China’s recent political history, the structure and policies of the ruling Party, and practical tips for dealing with censorship, hot-button issues, and other unfamiliar experiences you might encounter behind the bamboo curtain.
China’s 20th century has been defined by political turbulence and regime change. Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912, China briefly became a republic under the leadership of the veteran revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. Within a few years, however, China was divided up by regional warlords who took advantage of the weakness of the new national government to carve out their own spheres of influence. It was in this chaotic political environment that the Chinese Communist Party was first established in 1921. China was reunited by the forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in 1928 who broke the power of the warlords and became the leader of what would be called the Nationalist government. Initially, Chiang had cooperated with leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, but expelled all communists from the Nationalist government in a bloody purge in 1927. From that point on, the nationalists and the communists were implacable enemies.
Throughout the 1930s, Imperial Japan began gradually seizing Chinese territory and by 1937 Japan and China were at war. Almost immediately, the power of Japan’s military and industry overwhelmed China and the Japanese military quickly seized much of China’s coastal territory and most of its major industrial centers, causing massive Chinese casualties. During this time, the CCP, now firmly under the leadership of Mao Zedong, set up a guerilla base in rural Yan’an in Northern China and put their fight against the nationalists on hold. The communists spent the Yan’an years recovering their strength and recruiting soldiers to its banner, launching a limited number of attacks on Japanese forces. Shortly after the end of World War II, the revitalized communists went to war with the nationalist army, eventually defeating Chiang Kai-shek’s forces. The remaining nationalist partisans fled to Taiwan and the triumphant Mao Zedong proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949.
The earliest years of communist rule saw recovery from the ravages of war and some social improvements, especially for peasants and women. However, the collectivization of Chinese agriculture and a series of ill-advised industrial policies led to a massive famine that killed as many 30 million people between 1959 and 1961. This catastrophe, known ironically as “The Great Leap Forward”, turned some of the Party leadership against Mao and his radical policies. Concerned that he was losing his grip on power, Mao then launched the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in 1966. During this time Mao exhorted Chinese citizens to rebel against authority and to root out “counter-revolutionaries”. What followed was ten years of near anarchy as people began denouncing each other as enemies of the revolution and hundreds of thousands of students, now rebranded as Red Guards, ran amok across China. During this time, schools and universities closed and the government ceased to function. Accused counter-revolutionaries were humiliated, beaten, and all too often killed by their accusers. Additionally, traditional “feudal” culture was targeted for destruction resulting in the demolition and defacement of many culturally significant buildings and artefacts. Eventually, ideological splits emerged between different Red Guard factions who then began denouncing others as counter-revolutionaries and engaging in violent street battles. Order was finally restored after Mao’s death in 1976, but the damage caused by Cultural Revolution was vast and profoundly destructive. Even today, the legacy of the Cultural Revolution haunts China.
After a brief power struggle, Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’s next leader in 1978 and abandoned most of Mao’s hardline radical policies. Instead, he initiated a policy of “Reform and Opening” which gradually introduced free-market reforms and private enterprise. The impact of these changes was dramatic and China soon saw rapid economic growth and substantial gains in living standards. In this more open atmosphere, some also agitated for political and began to advocate openly for democracy and government accountability. However, Deng’s violent crackdown on student protestors at Tiananmen Square in 1989 scotched hopes held by Chinese and foreign observers that China’s economic opening would be accompanied by political liberalization.
Since then, Chinese leaders have more or less followed the line established by Deng, focusing on promoting China’s economic growth. In general, it has been a successful formulation and has seen China rise from a state of total developmental backwardness in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution to being the world’s second largest economy today. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, is seen as being more ambitious and more forceful than the previous two premiers, leading commentators to wonder how his policies might differ from those of his predecessors.
China is a one-party state led by (you guessed it) the Communist Party of China. While in theory, decisions are made at annual legislative meetings known as the National People’s Congress, these political gatherings serve primarily to rubber stamp decisions already made by the Party’s top leadership. The people really calling the shots are the handful of members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). PBSC members tend to be experts in important fields such as economics, technology, or military affairs and form a sort of “brain trust” that make decisions through consensus. Government policies are then handed down and implemented by regional and provincial governments who report directly back to superiors in Beijing. Add to this a number of civilian and military bureaucracies who have some discretion in how policies are executed and you begin to have an idea of how Chinese governance works.
Xi Jinping is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and China’s Paramount Leader. The son of famed Communist revolutionary Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping is a so-called “Princeling”, a leader with revolutionary heritage. After suffering persecution as a young man during the Cultural Revolution, Xi rose through the ranks of the Party leadership serving as the Party Secretary of Zhejiang and Shanghai before becoming a member of the PBSC in 2007. Since becoming China’s leader in 2012, Xi Jinping has worked to tackle corruption at all levels of government and has promoted a vision of prosperity for China known officially as “the Chinese Dream”. At the same time, some have claimed that Xi exercises much more personal control over the top leadership and is less consensus oriented than his predecessors. This along with his increased focus on “ideological purity” within the Party ranks has caused some to wonder if Xi will be the catalyst for a shift away from the post-Deng “Reform and Opening” trends of the past few decades.
Censorship is a fact of life in today’s China. Although people are no longer getting denounced as counter-revolutionaries and are generally free to discuss politics privately, the Chinese government has very little tolerance for public criticism and activism. For this reason, many foreign websites such as Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram are blocked because the government cannot control the type of content posted to these sites and/or worry that they could be used to organize protest movements. Luckily for you, it’s relatively easy to “jump the Great Firewall” by using a virtual private network or VPN. Without delving into the nuts and bolts of how VPNs work, they enable you to access blocked sites from inside China by rerouting your internet traffic. The most popular and reliable VPNs are paid services such as ExpressVPN and Astrill. Free VPNs are also available, but they tend to be less dependable than paid VPNs. If you want to install a VPN before your visit to China, you can visit the website of the service you want to use and install it on your computer. Most subscriptions also allow you to install a VPN on your phone for no additional charge by downloading it form an app store. Note that it is very difficult to install a VPN once inside China, so you should definitely take care of this before you go.
As in any country, political opinion exists on a wide spectrum. Some Chinese are fiercely nationalistic and eagerly tow the party line, while other are disillusioned with the government and support thorough-going reform. Most people are aware of the restrictions placed on personal freedoms, but some would also argue that the current government has made China prosperous and powerful, so such restrictions are not so bad. When visiting China, it’s best not to assume that a.) everyone is brainwashed and b.) that everybody believes that American-style liberal democracy is the greatest thing ever to grace the surface of the earth. As always, remember to keep an open mind and consider how the historical, social, and economic context of China have contributed to the things you see around you.
Taiwan is one of the thorniest issues in contemporary Chinese politics. After Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War in 1949, they fled to Taiwan, established control over the island, and continued calling themselves the Republic of China (ROC). The government of the People’s Republic of China (i.e. the Communist-led government in Beijing) has never recognized the government of Taiwan as legitimate and continues to insist that Taiwan is a Chinese province. Today, Taiwan is governed by a multi-party democratic system, elects its own leaders, and has its own currency and flag.
So how do Taiwan and the Mainland manage their differences? For many years, both sides have adhered to the creatively named “One China Principle” which states that there is only one China…it just doesn’t specify which government is the rightful representative of said “one China”. This the One China Principle has allowed Taiwan and the Mainland to paper over the major conflicts at the heart of their relationship to expand trade and cultural ties without getting bogged down in politics. This formulation also means that other countries are essentially forced to pick which government they will recognize in their foreign relations. Today, most countries recognize the government of the PRC, but maintain unofficial ties with the government of Taiwan as well.
It’s natural to feel a little uneasy before traveling to country outside of the “Free World” or to wonder if there are things you should and shouldn’t say. The first thing to remember is that China is not North Korea. You are not going to be locked up for making a snide comment about, for example, how chubby Chairman Mao looks in his official portrait or rolling your eyes at state media broadcasts. Having said that, the following are a few tips for avoiding awkward situations and being “politically correct” the Chinese way.
1. Avoid “The Three T’s”: The Three T’s refer to three hot-button political issues which might be the source of awkwardness or disagreement in conversation. These are Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen. Taiwan, as discussed above, is considered by many a Chinese province, so the suggestion that it is or ought to be an independent country is offensive to many Chinese. Tibet is considered sensitive due to the Tibetan separatist movement represented by the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan spiritual leaders. Additionally, some Chinese are under the impression that many Westerners support independence for Tibet, so they may be especially reticent to talk about it with foreigners. The last T stands for Tiananmen Square, where student protestors were violently suppressed by the Chinese military in 1989. This is considered sensitive for obvious reasons, not least because the Chinese government has downplayed discussion of the incident and has denied many aspects of its involvement. While it’s important to note that not all Chinese people feel the same way about these three topics, it’s probably best not to initiate pointed discussion of these topics to avoid uncomfortable situations.
2. Don’t be overly critical: This piece of advice comes from a place of being polite to your hosts rather than any concerns about safety. Chinese people tend to be proud of their country and can be sensitive to criticism from outsiders. Openly hostile criticism of China, its policies or government might elicit and embarrassed or defensive response. While Americans are comfortable talking critically about their leaders and can easily make the distinction between criticizing government policy and criticizing the country as a whole, this difference is less pronounced in China.
3. Ask Questions!: Travelling to China doesn’t mean walking on eggshells all the time. You should feel free to ask good faith questions about China’s political system, it’s leadership, and any other topic that interests you. In most cases, your Chinese hosts will be happy to share their opinions with you. Even if you don’t agree with their point of view, there’s a lot to be learned about the way Chinese people think about their country and their government.
4. Don’t be afraid to use your VPN: Internet censorship is aimed at preventing widespread use of certain websites across China, so the Great Firewall is basically designed to make connecting to blocked sites difficult, but not impossible. The CCP does not care if you use a VPN to check your favorite sites, and checking your Instagram is not going to prompt a Chinese SWAT team to break down your door. Additionally, you will not be getting your hosts in trouble by making use of your VPN while connected to their internet; hundreds of thousands of people and businesses do it in China every day.
China’s political system may be quite different from what you are used to. Most Westerners have never experienced what its like to live in an “unfree society” and you may feel nervous about doing and saying the wrong thing. However, with a little understanding of the Chinese political landscape, you will be well prepared for your first foray into “Red” China. Take your visit as an opportunity to learn how the world’s second largest economy governs its 1.4 billion people and consider the advantages and disadvantages of such a system and how it compares with your own government.