Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been engaged in the most immense and radical social experiment on the planet: the remaking of an entire civilization, culture, and society in the direction of a utopian, socialist, and modern ideal.
It has done so through a series of campaigns and organized structural changes, beginning in the 1950s with the Land Reform that redistributed all privately owned land, taking it away from established landowners, nationalizing it in the hands of the state, then handing it over to poor peasants to farm. This led, by the middle of the decade, to radical collectivization, where everyone was assigned to a work unit (danwei 单位) and each family had to obtain a local household registration (hukou 户口). All property and all activities became communal, to the point where people’s houses did no longer have separate kitchens as everyone ate in collective dining rooms, or spaces for children since all infants were raised in communal creches.
The Great Leap Forward in 1958 enhanced this development through centrally assigned farming directives combined with a nationwide effort to produce steel from all kinds of metals, including farm implements, in backyard furnaces. The result was a massive crop failure that led to three years of famine, during which nearly 45 million people died. The death toll increased during the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 when Mao Zedong 毛泽东called upon young people, the Red Guards, to destroy everything old—culture, habits, artifacts, even people. Millions of city dwellers were sent into the countryside to learn from the peasants, while innumerable artifacts and cultural treasures were defaced or destroyed. It only ended with Mao’s death in 1976.
The Four Modernizations under Deng Xiaoping 邓小平, starting in 1978 with a focus on agriculture, industry, defense and science, embodied a more modern vision of socialist China. Being rich was no longer frowned upon nor were private initiative or individual differences. Opening China to Western investments, first in several Special Economic Zones on the southeastern seaboard, Deng guided it to become the workshop of the world and a major export power. Instituting the one-child policy in 1980, he engineered new family structures and limited population growth. As a result, the Chinese economy tripled over the next thirty years and a third of its 1.2 billion people rose into the middle class.
Socialism with Chinese characteristics, as it has evolved since then—interrupted by a period of four more repressive years after a widespread pro-democracy movement was violently suppressed in June 1989—envisions a modern, industrialized, urbanized society made up of well-educated, healthy, and prosperous people who work and live together in great harmony and spread peace and abundance everywhere. Hu Jintao 胡锦涛, who led China from 2002-12, formulated it in terms of the Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces:
Love the country; do it no harm.
Serve the people; never betray them.
Follow science; discard ignorance.
Be diligent; not indolent.
Be united, help each other; make no gains at others’ expense.
Be honest and trustworthy; do not sacrifice ethics for profit.
Be disciplined and law-abiding; not chaotic and lawless.
Live plainly, work hard; do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures.
His successor, the current leader Xi Jinping 习近平, while working hard to extirpate corruption in government and industry, describes it in terms of the China Dream, again endorsing the ideal of social justice and overarching harmony. He also proposes the One Belt, One Road (yidai yilu一带一路) initiative that supports major infrastructure projects in developing countries all around the world, opening them to commerce while enhancing Chinese influence and securing raw materials.
Read: Benson, Linda. 2016. China Since 1949. London: Routledge.