History of the People's Republic of China (2002–present)

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The People's Republic of China became more influential economically in the 1990s and 2000s and was beginning to be widely recognized as an emerging superpower. In 2010, China became the world's second largest economy by GDP. At the same time, numerous social problems emerged and intensified. As Paramount leader Jiang Zemin, NPCSC Chairman Li Peng and PRC Premier Zhu Rongji, gradually retired from their position of power, "fourth-generation" leaders, led by CPC General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, faced with increasing social unrest, attempted to steer the country towards a new direction. From the path of focusing solely on economic development, Hu and Wen placed focus on creating an overall balance under the idea of the Scientific Outlook on Development to create a socialist harmonious society. In this process, there was an unprecedented shift in stance towards favouring rural development and farmers, as well as other generally populist policies. The Hu-Wen government, on the same token, attempted to restrict some personal freedoms, especially those associated with political content on the Internet.

China's increased prominence on the global stage has also brought with it general skepticism and intense scrutiny, especially in the lead up to the 2008 Summer Olympics and after the March 2008 protests in Tibet. The government continues to be criticized on human rights abuses and the various product quality scandals that have increasingly damaged the country's integrity and continues to raise suspicions about the country's safety standards. The majority of China's population, however, point to the immense progress the country has made and generally discredit criticisms of China as being embedded in cultural and historical misunderstandings and rooted in paranoia of China's potential dominance on the world stage. These ideological clashes, fused with rhetoric from Beijing, has led to an intense wave of nationalism (or Socialist patriotism) surfacing in Chinese populations around the world.

As of mid-2012, government statistics show that for the first time ever over 50% of the Chinese population now live in urban areas, marking a milestone in the urbanization of China. The majority of modern city dwellers are migrants and their children who moved to cities during the economic boom of the last 30 years started by Deng Xiaoping's policy of economic liberalization.

"Fourth Generation": The Hu-Wen administration[edit]

Power transition[edit]

In November 2002, at the 16th Communist Party of China National Congress, then-General secretary Jiang Zemin stepped down from the powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China to make way for a younger "fourth generation" of leadership led by Tsinghua engineering graduate Hu Jintao. Speculation remained, however, that Jiang would continue to wield significant influence. At the time, Jiang stacked newly expanded Politburo Standing Committee, China's foremost power organ, with three of his hardline allies: former Shanghai party chief Huang Ju, former Beijing party chief Jia Qinglin, and Li Changchun to control propaganda. In addition, the new Vice-President, Zeng Qinghong, was also seen as a staunch Jiang ally, as he was part of Jiang's Shanghai clique.

Also elevated during the Congress was Wen Jiabao, then Premier Zhu Rongji's right-hand man. Wen would become Premier in March 2003, and along with Hu, they were termed the Hu-Wen Administration. Both Hu and Wen's careers are remarkable in that they survived through the 1989 political crisis, which was attributed to their moderate views and careful attention not to offend or alienate older supporters. Hu Jintao is the first party chief to have joined the Communist Party after the Revolution over 50 years ago. In his 50s, Hu was the youngest member by far of the then seven-member Standing Committee. Wen Jiabao, a geology engineer who spent most of career in China's hinterlands, had never lost his political ground despite being a former ally to disgraced leader Zhao Ziyang.

Policy transition[edit]

Due to the large number of social, political, and economic imbalances left over from the Jiang era, Hu and Wen inherited a government nearly run-down from severe corruption and the immense rise in materialism. Because Jiang continued to wield influence, the direction of the Hu-Wen administration did not deviate from that of the Jiang-era for a few years after taking over power. Jiang, however, faced both popular pressure and significant inner party and military opposition, and stepped down as the Central Military Commission Chairman in September 2004. Although superficially, Hu and Wen continued to support Jiang era policies and hail his Three Represents theory, gradual changes were put in place to revert some of the worst excesses of the Jiang era. The changes had a much more egalitarian focus, concentrated on sectors of the Chinese population which have been left behind by the economic reform and closing the great wealth gap. Hu and Wen have both taken a number of high profile trips to the poorer areas of China with the stated goal of understanding these areas better.

The degree of difference between the Hu and Jiang administrations is subject to debate. Within the top leadership of the PRC, there still a general consensus that Chinese economic reform should continue. But because of the clear slant towards more capitalist elements under a one-party system, it has been contested that the government has an unclear ideological direction. The seriousness of China's internal problems is often masked by its high economic growth indicators and rapidly increasing foreign investment interest. Both Hu and Wen have given keynote addresses indicating the government's determination to deal with problems in a more logical, scientific way.

Media control[edit]

Chinese leaders understand that news media could be a very effective means to fight against corruption. Media controls were initially reduced, as market forces have encouraged tabloid reporting. Yet, the government occasionally fires reporters or shuts down newspapers that stray outside the party-line. The media reforms of Hu Jintao have been considered conservative by Western watchdogs. At the same time, Hu issued a directive for official party newspapers and media outlets such as Xinwen Lianbo to concentrate on more populist issues instead of constantly following the daily affairs of each of China's top leaders.

The introduction of the Internet and SMS has increased the difficulty of attaining complete control, although general internet censorship involving sites such as Google and Wikipedia persist. Moreover, the news media from Hong Kong, protected by Basic Law, has become increasingly involved in news reporting in China, and have become increasingly accessible to a Mainland public hungry for "real news".

Protection of individual rights[edit]

Main article: Weiquan movement

The term "Weiquan movement" first appeared in the 1990s. The word wéiquán (Chinese characters: 維權) literally means "rights protection". As it implies, weiquan movement is not necessarily meant to protect specifically the political rights of the civilians. In fact, it was rather like a movement of consumers' rights protection at its early stage. It became more developed after 2003. The citizens began to protect their violated rights by means of organizing demonstrations, seeking help through the legal system and media reports, writing open or appeal letters, etc. However, because the legal system is not independent and mature, and the fact that the central government is sometimes suspicious and local governments even hostile toward it, weiquan movement has been encountering difficulties in the course of its development.

There are cases in which lawyers were harassed,[1] journalists beaten,[1] and civilians imprisoned[1] in weiquan movement. What makes weiquan movement more difficult is that in China there exists a system called "Re-education through labor" (Pinyin: láodòng jiàoyăng or láojiào in short) (Chinese characters: 劳动教养 or 劳教 in short). It is a system in which a person can be detained for up to 4 years without being convicted by a court. This system is also used to deal with some weiquan movement activists.

In spite of the difficulties, the weiquan movement still made some progress, such as the abolition of "custody and repatriation" in 2003. However, the pace of the progress is still very slow.[citation needed]

Hong Kong[edit]

Hong Kong's sovereignty was transferred to the People's Republic of China in 1997. Since then, the economy of the former British colony has progressed smoothly. There was on-going debate about the amount of democracy under the new system. Notably, the central government ran into trouble with Hong Kong legal groups and citizens surrounding the territory's pseudo-constitution, the Hong Kong Basic Law, particularly Article 23, and democratic reform. Although the region enjoys a high degree of autonomy in all areas except for defence and foreign affairs, the Central Government in Beijing desired to keep appointment powers for the Hong Kong Chief Executive as well as part of the Hong Kong legislature. These continued powers led to unrest with certain segments of the Hong Kong population, who demanded direct elections for the Chief Executive and the legislature. Thousands of protesters took to the streets in a series of July 1 marches.

Taiwan[edit]

With Hong Kong and Macau reunited with the mainland the main outstanding issue is Taiwan. The strategy of the PRC government was to wait out the term of pro-Taiwan independence President Chen Shui-bian in hopes that the pro-Chinese reunification ticket of Lien Chan and James Soong would win the elections of 2004. Kuomintang Chairman Lien Chan made an unprecedented visit to Beijing in 2005, shaking hands with Communist Party leader Hu Jintao, marking the first such Kuomintang-Communist meeting since the end of the Chinese Civil War. Chen Shui-bian and his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party was reelected in 2004, impeding possible reunification progress. Though Chen will unlikely pledge to the One-China policy to begin negotiations, he has pledged the Four Noes and One Without, which quells any armed conflict in the near future. At the same time, Chen has gone step by step with actions provoking Beijing, trying to gradually create a separate Taiwan identity. In 2008, tourism slightly opened between Taiwan and the mainland.

Tibet[edit]

The Chinese government and the 14th Dalai Lama have been in contact since 1978, at the behest of the reformist Deng Xiaoping, and have held several secret or formal talks since 1982. The main points of contention are the Dalai Lama's want for a Greater Tibet, or to unite the Tibet Autonomous Region with Chinese territory that has not been a part of political Tibet in modern times, and the Dalai Lama's insistence that Tibet should be run "like a western-style democracy" instead of by the Communist Party of China. In response to the Chinese government's rejection of these demands, the Dalai Lama has traveled all over the world persuading foreign governments to demand China accept these terms. As a result of this pressure and the apparent failure of liberal reforms in Tibet to quell separatist sentiment, hardliners within the Chinese government gained in power. Tibetan nationalists felt, then, that they must escalate with violent opposition in Tibet "to prevent China from doing business as usual".[2] After a period of relatively peaceful time since the demonstrations in 1989, the 2008 Tibetan unrest indeed provoked an international reaction against China.

Issues[edit]

SARS[edit]

In November 2002, the SARS epidemic began in Guangdong. To stop panic and avoid possible economic damage, and to preserve face and public confidence, local officials applied tight media control. The central Government was knowingly ignorant of the media control. The international community was misinformed about the existence of the virus.

Policy changes became apparent in early April 2003. After intense international pressure, PRC officials allowed international officials to investigate the situation. In late April, major revelations came to light as the PRC government admitted to underreporting the number of cases due to the problems inherent in the health care system. A number of PRC officials were fired from their posts, including the health minister Zhang Wenkang and the mayor of Beijing Meng Xuenong (a Jiang and Hu supporter, respectively), and systems were set up to improve reporting and control in the SARS crisis. The PRC government delivered an official apology. General Secretary Hu Jintao promised a total disclosure of SARS data and permitted WHO experts to examine the SARS cases. Finally, in July 2003, the WHO declared SARS contained, but warned the disease could emerge again during the next winter. By then the disease had already made its way around the world.

The crisis marked a period of national mobilization, where schedules around the country shifted to accommodate for the control of the virus. Many educational institutions closed or had highly regulated schedules during the period between April and November 2003, and businesses were open on a very irregular basis. Restaurants, usually the centre of social life in China, were nearing bankruptcy. Quarantine measures were taken across the country, with designated hospitals in major cities treating the illness. The extreme measures left paranoid citizens with common illnesses to treat themselves at home to avoid contracting the virus at a hospital. Many overcrowded schools divided their classes into morning and afternoon groups to avoid contact due to the close proximity of desks. Workplaces took to handing out mandatory latex gloves and face masks, whose production and sales rose dramatically during this period.

The openness in the latter stage of the SARS crisis showed an unprecedented shift in the Chinese government's policies. In the past, rarely had officials stepped down purely because of administrative mistakes. There was never complete disclosure of classified data and no project in China had been under such international inspection. This change in policy has been largely credited to General secretary, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. At the heart of the crisis, Hu made a high-profile trip to Guangdong and Wen ate lunch with students at Beijing University.

Avian flu[edit]

Just as China was emerging out of the SARS crisis, it became one of the most accessible breeding spots of the avian flu outbreak. While four other Southeastern Asian countries have reported cases of Avian Flu before China, the Chinese government began taking precautions not long after the SARS outbreak in 2003. Beijing has maintained a strict and transparent policy to gain back a reputation damaged heavily during the SARS outbreak. In October 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao issued a nationwide directive to heavily prosecute the officials who attempted to hide Avian Flu cases. Since then, a total of 13 cases of Avian Flu in humans have been reported on the Mainland. Since then China has not faced a significant public health crisis.

Fixing imbalances[edit]

Hu and Wen's egalitarian focus began with more favourable policies towards China's farmers, who continue to occupy over half of the Chinese population. In 2005, the Chinese government abolished all form of taxation on farming, the first such policy in Chinese history. Rural poverty has also been significantly reduced, as the government aims for a xiaokang society. Rural regions surrounding the Yangtze River Delta have become some of the most prosperous places in China. According to official estimates, by 2006 China's poverty rate has fallen below 10%, while literacy rates exceeded 95%, with few lacking basic amenities such as food, shelter, and health care. In addition, life expectancy is now over 72 years of age, well above the average of developing countries.

Increased standards of living saw the expansion of the middle class, but also meant that the upper strata of society controlled more and more wealth. According to numerous reports from within China and internationally, China now ranks amongst the countries in the world with the largest wealth gap in the world. The creation of a new business elite and their entrance into the party ranks meant that the line between business and politics has been blurred, giving way to more corruption. Numerous regional leaders were fired from their posts and sent to jail on charges of corruption. Most notably, Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu was dismissed in September 2006 due to a scandal involving moving money from the city's pension fund and opposing macroeconomic control measures issued by the central government.

Regional imbalance, notably the wealth disparity between the hinterlands and the rich coastal regions, have also become a concern for China's rulers. To lessen the effects of the imbalance the government launched the Develop the Northwest and Revitalize the Northeast campaigns, while enacting tight macroeconomic controls in a process of equalization.

China's urban and rural primary health care network has persisted in prophylactic health work. China had basically eliminated snail fever by the end of the 1950s; filarial infection by 1994; and poliomyelitis by 1995. It plans to wipe out leprosy, and iodine deficiency in the upcoming years. Despite the huge increases in life spans, China's population growth has been stabilizing due to lowering birth rates since enacting the one or two-child policies in the late 1970s. Population growth exploded under Mao's rule, failing to enact population controls, due to stability, improving nutritional intakes, and increasing life expectancy (so-called "barefoot doctors" used to establish clinics even in the remotest regions of the countryside, bringing free access to vaccination, preventative medicines, birth control and promoting better standards of sanitation). Thus, China has largely resolved the problems of over-population and malnutrition. As a result, China's prospects for maintaining stability are relatively good, enabling one to project that continued growth is likely.

Anti-corruption efforts[edit]

A number of leaders, including former General Secretary Jiang Zemin, have acknowledged that corruption could threaten the party's ongoing existence.[citation needed] Corruption has been a major area of focus in the Hu-Wen Administration, although the effectiveness of anti-corruption measures has been disputed. Although it has been argued that corruption is the inevitable result of China's social customs and the complicated nature of social relationships (see guanxi) in the country, it is reasonable to believe that one-party rule and the current political system is, at least in part, exacerbating the problem.[citation needed]

Opinion polls continually show that corruption (in all sectors of society) is the main complaint of the people. Currently, hospitals, schools, police, and social and legal institutions are constantly affected by bribery, cronyism, and nepotism. However, the Communist Party of China still asserts a monopoly on exposing corrupt officials and businessmen, and critics accuse the party of selective punishment. Analysts say the authorities are reluctant to pursue senior figures and their allies and punishment comes in the form of political purges rather than genuine law enforcement. Nonetheless, the government has taken some measures to address the situation, strengthening the legal system and trying to make the civil service more professional.[clarification needed]

Foreign policy[edit]

Hu Jintao's serious public image has led China to a more staunch stance on global affairs compared to the Jiang era. Partly attributed to the United States' attention being focused towards problem regions such as Iraq, China has made advances in foreign affairs without much restriction from the U.S. in the 21st century.

North Korea[edit]

Recognized as the world's next superpower, Hu's government was eager to demonstrate China's position of relative influence. China was the mediating nation in the Six-party talks, in an attempt to calm threats from North Korea's nuclear program. Being the sole remaining powerful ally of North Korea, China continued to supply the rogue state with food and oil, as well as financial aid. North Korea's nuclear test in October 2006 came as a major embarrassment to the Chinese government's policies, and marked the beginning to an eventual split between China and Kim Jong-il's regime, who was unwilling to pursue a road of economic reform and opening up. In October 2006, there was evidence to suggest that China had cut off certain supplies, including food and oil, to North Korea. Kim Jong-il showed a less cordial attitude towards China, but had no option but to comply should China continue trade sanctions.

African nations[edit]

China has also taken an increasingly prominent role in Africa. President Hu went on a 7-nation African visit in January 2007, solidifying deals and promising financial aid with African leaders with no conditions attached, winning the support, albeit with some caution, of many African leaders.

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation[edit]

In 1996 the Shanghai Five grouping was created, comprising China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. When Uzbekistan joined the group in 2001 it was renamed to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The SCO states its goals are "the strengthening mutual confidence and good-neighbourly relations among the member countries; promoting their effective cooperation in politics, trade and economy, science and technology, culture as well as education, energy, transportation, tourism, environmental protection and other fields; making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security and stability in the region, to move towards the establishment of a new, democratic, just and rational political and economic international order."[3]

Western analysts note that the SCO may serve as a balance against US and NATO advancement in the region. Some have even called it a new Warsaw Pact.[4][5] SCO leaders, however, insist that the organization is not an alliance directed against any other states.[6]

Taiwan issue[edit]

As usual, China and world governments still adhere to the one-China policy. Since the 1990s, the number of countries which have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan remains in the twenties, and Taiwan has been trying to buy diplomatic recognition from more countries by so-called "money diplomacy".

Having become economically stronger, China is emulating Taiwan's "money diplomacy", and persuading those countries to cut diplomatic relations with Taiwan and to sway to China's side.

Promising financial help, buying over high government officials, and even getting involved in election campaigns in those countries have become part of their "money diplomacy". Such policies also brought negative influences to those countries such as corruption and sometimes can even cause the political instability. One example is the riot in 2006 following the general election in the Solomon Islands. As a consequence of the riot, the then-newly elected prime minister, Snyder Rini, resigned after having served for a very short term.

The recent 2008 elections of Taiwan, however, saw the reinstatement of the KMT party headed and an inclination to better relations between the straits.

Culture[edit]

There appeared some changes in various cultural aspects in China. New movements and trends (influenced by western society such as high brand clothing, street dancing, etc.) have appeared in the society, and the newly forged and ever expanding middle class has the opportunity to have a different life style which few of the former generations had access to. This includes studying abroad,finding new jobs in large cities and purchasing luxury goods. However these opportunities are still only limited to the urban city dwellers in China.

Nationalism[edit]

As communist ideology gradually lost its foothold, the PRC turned to establish the legitimacy of the government on the grounds of nationalism. Socialist patriotism is usually reinforced in education. This is reflected by the protests against the visit to Yasukuni Shrine by the then-Japanese PM, Junichiro Koizumi. Such war shrine visits are also unpopular in Korea as well as other Southeast Asian countries that were invaded during World War II. And with sporting events such as the 2008 olympics, the CCP was able to use the event to further increase patriotism in the China. Films that were sponsored by the government such as The Founding of a Republic released in 2009, were used to increase the CCP legitimacy in China.

Remaining challenges[edit]

Population[edit]

The leaders of the PRC now face a daunting task of pushing ahead with major economic reforms while managing its vast population of 1.3 billion people. The recent economic reforms have undermined the socialist state's safety net and forced people to look to the private sector for work and services. As the economy faces structural changes, 25 to 30 million state workers have been laid off since 1998 while only 8 million jobs are created annually at the current growth rate. With millions of laid off workers roaming the cities, keeping social order will prove a difficult task. Workers' protests have not been too infrequent, with the government usually heeding to the protestors' demands, while arresting their leaders.

Another potential crisis is the advent of AIDS, which by UN estimates, could reach 10 million cases in 2010. In the Henan province, where perhaps hundreds of thousands of people have been infected with HIV by selling their blood, the government is only beginning to pay attention to the problem. Public awareness and widespread acknowledgement has yet to come.[7]

While there have been major economic reforms, the government has been slow on political reform, citing that social stability is vital for a developing economy. Few analysts believe the PRC will democratize quickly, but many see democratization as an inevitable end of the economic reforms. Many in mainland China see one-party rule as effective and any talk of political reform is meant to change the way the party governs, rather than remove it from power. In recent years, local elections with more candidates than positions available have become regular, yet talking about major changes at higher levels remains taboo.

Pollution[edit]

Main article: Environment of China

China's reliance on coal continue to damage its already compromised air quality. Some of its major cities are among the most polluted in the world.

Succession[edit]

Although the amount of "inner-party democracy" has increased, the transparency of China's ruling elite is murky at best. Constitutional measures places certain restrictions on government posts, such as the two-term limit for President and Premier. These restrictions will force Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to retire. The corresponding party posts, however, are often not governed by strict rules. The mandatory retirement age is 68. As a result, Hu Jintao faces a significant challenge in choosing a successor because he does not have as much power or influence as former leaders Mao, Deng, or even Jiang. China's history knows little of smooth power transitions when there is no designated successor. Therefore it may prove difficult to keep a steadfast policy focus while the central leadership is caught up by a leadership succession crisis.

Future prospects[edit]

Domestic issues require more attention from the central government than ever before. The growing number of public protests against corruption in China, along with the increasing wealth gap, require political action to stabilize the country. In addition, provincial-level authorities are separating themselves in policy development and implementation from guidelines laid out by the central government. Currently China's leaders have focused on economic means of resolving these problems. Whether they will attempt political reforms may decide how successfully China's internal problems can be resolved.

The Olympics took place in Beijing in August 2008. Expo 2010 is taking place in Shanghai. To investors and firms, mainland China represents a vast market that has yet to be fully tapped. This point is best illustrated by the rapid growth of cell phone and Internet users in mainland China. Educationally, the PRC is forging ahead as partnerships and exchanges with foreign universities have helped create new research opportunities for its students. Human rights issues remain a concern among members of the world community and Chinese activists. Many countries hope for China to effectively deal with the challenges within the country, in order to ensure the prosperity of China. Furthermore, many countries have significant trade relations with China.

References[edit]

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