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China History
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History

China boasts one of the world’s oldest continuous civilisations. Shang Dynasty ‘oracle bone’ inscriptions, dating back to the 12th century BC, are easily recognized as early examples of the ideograms, some of which are still in use today in Chinese calligraphy. During much of China’s history, the fall of a dynasty or the accession of a weak ruler would result in the country’s break up into smaller kingdoms, until reunited under a new more powerful dynasty. In the time of disunion after the Han Dynasty, Buddhism arrived in China along the Silk Road from Central Asia. During the Tang Dynasty (AD618–907), the Chinese civilisation spread to Japan, Korea, and South East Asia.

During the 13th century, the Mongols under Genghis Khan overtook Asia and Genghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan, founded the Yuan Dynasty in 1271. It was during this time that Marco Polo visited China. In 1368, the Ming Dynasty re-established Chinese rule, which erected the Great Wall to prevent any further invasions from the north. Despite this, the Manchus invaded China and in 1644 founded their own Qing (Ch’ing) Dynasty.

In 1840 modern Chinese history begins with the Opium Wars, when Britain and other Europe imposed their will upon the weakened Qing Dynasty, forcing Chinese ports to receive opium consignments manufactured in India by the British East India Company. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain until 1997 for this reason. In 1856, Canton, one of the ports forced to receive the opium during the First Opium War, put up considerable resistance. The Chinese experienced another defeat, this time by an Anglo-French alliance and additional trading concessions were removed from them at the 1858 treaty of Tientsin.

After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Sun Yat-sen founded the Republic of China however the country was embattled by civil war and warlords. The Japanese invaded China in 1937, during its campaign to establish an empire throughout eastern Asia, the Chinese armed forces were not organized enough to put up much resistance. Eight years of ruthless occupation followed, which to this day has soured relations between the two countries. Following the 1945 defeat of the Japanese, civil war broke out between the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong.

What remained of the defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1945, while the victorious communists founded the People’s Republic of China. During the early days of the People’s Republic, a tight alliance was forged with the Soviet Union, however policy disagreements and personal antipathies resulted in a break down in relations in 1960. Internally, the China of the 1960s was controlled by the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution – an attempt by the national leadership to re-energize the party and the country by campaigning to reassert its principles.

In 1976, the two powering figures of post-revolutionary China, Premier Zhou Enlai and Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, both died within a few months of each other. Hua Guofeng first took over from Zhou as Premier, then consequently went on to replace Mao as Party Chairman, and Zhao Ziyang became Premier. Hua departed the Politburo after further changes in the leadership in September 1982. The two prominent men in the government were now Zhao and the Chairman of the Communist Party Central Military Commission Deng Xiaoping. Under these two, China began its major reformations. They differed from those that have now been adopted by other socialist economies, especially in Eastern Europe, in allowing less political ‘liberalisation’ in concert with the economic measures. This was typical of the east Asian style of development since the 1970s, where economic progress has been afforded priority while political pluralism – particularly, significant organized opposition to the ruling party – has been for the most part suppressed.

By the end of the 1980s, widespread agitation prevailed – particularly among students but with wide support from the community as a whole – for political reform and action against the corruption that had become rampant since economic reform had begun. This situation came to a head in May 1989, when a group of thousands of students and workers took over Tiananmen Square in central Beijing during the visit to the capital by the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Initially the Communist Party was split on how to act but, after the departure of Gorbachev, they sent in the army and the square cleared with great loss of life. Following that, the government took decisive actions to reassert political control. The moderate Zhao Ziyang was replaced as Premier by hard-liner Li Peng who worked with Deng Xiaoping on the government’s internal disorder resolution.

Throughout the 1990s, the octo- and nonagenarians on top of Chinese politics were gradually replaced. Jiang Zemin, who was appointed president in 1993, was typical of the new generation of leaders. Vice-President Hu Jintao was chosen to take over from Jiang, and did so in 2003, at the time announcements were made at the Communist Party Congress the previous October. The nature of Chinese politics dictates that Jiang will probably retain significant influence over policy-making through his chairmanship of the powerful Central Military Commission. Also appointed were a new vice-president, Zeng Qinghong and a new premier, Wen Jiabao. The new government suddenly faced a major crisis in the form of an epidemic of SARS, a pneumonia-type virus with an extremely high fatality rate. The initial reaction – denial followed by a refusal to admit the seriousness of the problem – was typical of the old regime however, pressured by the international community, the authorities have now come clean.

Hu Jintao was initially a protégé of Deng Xiaoping and came to prominence as the leader of the Chinese administration in Tibet in the 1980s, where he successfully knocked down a political uprising of Tibetans by declaring martial law. This far-western province was put under control by the Chinese military, as the Mao government tried to remove what they believed as a reactionary, quasi-feudal regime dominated by a priestly class. During their heavy-handed occupation, they have driven the highly respected leaders of Tibetan Bhuddism, including the Dalai Lama, into exile and subsequently destroyed most of the Tibetan cultural and social infrastructure.

Chinese policy in Tibet and particularly Tiananmen Square caused problems for China’s relations with the West, both in general and for its major foreign policy objectives. These are three-fold – better relations with the United States of America, membership in the World Trade Organisation, and reunification of the national territory, meaning – since the recovery of Hong Kong and MacauTaiwan.

Following the ground-breaking 1971–72 Nixon-Kissinger visit, relations with the USA developed at a glacial pace. The US's support for Taiwan is a constant irritant, as well as incidents such as the 2001 US spy plane row (in which an American electronic eavesdropping aircraft was forced to land by Chinese fighter planes). inside East Asia, the situation is complicated further by China’s involvement in one of the region’s more intractable territorial battles, concerning the status of the Spratly Islands, a tiny uninhabited archipelago located in the South China Sea, which is claimed by no less than six nations and is believed to sit on top of substantial oil fields. The Chinese have on occasion occupied some of the islands for a short time; their future is the subject of complicated multilateral negotiation.

Elsewhere in the region, Beijing is still concerned with the ongoing tension between Pakistan and India (see India and Pakistan). China has consistently supported Pakistan militarily and considers India a rival and political foe. One reason is a major irritant to Beijing, the Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, operates from exile inside northeast India. Additional foreign policy preoccupations are Russia and Vietnam. Despite historic enmities, relations with both have improved on a considerable scale since the early 1990s. As for Japan, the main issues are economic, however the historical legacy of Japan’s horrific occupation of China during the 1930s and 1940s continues to cast a shadow.