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Human Rights in the People's Republic of China

1949-1989

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The People's Republic of China (PRC) is the most populous nation on Earth, and the sole remaining Communist superpower. Like its Stalinist predecessor, the Soviet Union, it is also repressive. Its history is of a radical Communist autocracy that has, over time, shifted to a more open market and a legal system that has greater respect for the rule of law, a system that is less restrictive than it once was but far, far more restrictive than it should be.

1949: Founding of the People's Republic of China

Mao Tse-tung Creates PRC
Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Following a lengthy civil war between Communists and Chinese nationalists, Communists claimed the mainland and established a new neo-Soviet government that would ultimately eclipse its predecessor in size and economic power.

The founder of the People's Republic of China, Mao Tse-tung (shown left), was both brilliant and fanatical. Like his Soviet counterpart, Joseph Stalin, he had immense charisma and an inspiring vision for the future of his country; and, also like Stalin, he was willing to pursue that vision at immeasurable human cost.

We will never know exactly how many people Mao purged. We do know that as early as 1950, the public execution of alleged dissidents was not an uncommon practice.

1950: Occupation of Tibet

Chinese Soldiers
Photo: Library of Congress. Public domain.

Because of China's sheer size, the risk of fractionalism is extremely high. This has led the Chinese government to deal with competing regional and ideological movements in a paranoid and repressive manner. It would not be entirely inaccurate to say that most of China's human rights crisis have been brought about in the pursuit of national uniformity.

This was certainly the case of Tibet, an area within the mainland that has historically been regarded as autonomous or semi-autonomous due to its distinctive culture. Mao, who was not especially fond of distinctive cultures, ordered its invasion and conquest in 1950. The Chinese government has brutally repressed subsequent attempts to preserve Tibetan cultural and religious identity.

1958: The Great Leap Forward

Great Leap Forward Poster
Image: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Mao and Stalin share a legacy of having directly caused tens of millions of famine deaths by cluelessly micromanaging the work of farmers.

The Great Leap Forward, scheduled to be a five-year plan based on Stalin's model from the 1930s (which was similarly catastrophic, resulting in an estimated 8.5 million deaths), was intended to modernize the Chinese economy. Instead, it reassigned competent farmers to other industries without securing alternate food sources, forced them to use inefficient Soviet farming techniques, and colluded with natural disasters that took place during the same period.

Between 1958 and 1960, 48 million Chinese died of famine. At least 14 million were direct casualties of Mao's proposals.

1966: The Cultural Revolution Begins

Chinese Family Poster
Image: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

By 1966, Nikita Khrushchev's concerns regarding the "cult of personality" surrounding Stalin had discredited Stalinism and brought about a new kind of Soviet ideology that did not conspicuously glorify the head of state. This would have been enough to threaten Mao's power within the Chinese Communist Party, and the failure of his domestic policy initiatives--most notably the Great Leap Forward--did not help matters.

Whether Mao's decision to initiate the Cultural Revolution was based on sudden concern for ideological purity or the sudden need to protect his own power, his new movement reasserted Maoist doctrine by force, purged dissidents from both his party and the civilian population, and exterminated an estimated 3 million people.

1976: The Trial of the Gang of Four

Wang Kwangmei
Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

The Cultural Revolution lasted for ten years. After Mao's death in 1976, the Chinese Communist Party reacted much as the Soviet Communist Party had reacted upon Stalin's death in 1953: by taking a small step back.

The trial of the "Gang of Four"--consisting of Mao's wife Jiang Qing and three accomplices--was, in effect, an indictment of the Cultural Revolution. Mao was never officially blamed, but he never officially had to be.

The trial was no doubt cathartic for Wang Kwangmei (shown left), widow of the former Chinese president Liu Shaoqi. Liu, who had served as President of China for nine years, was arrested and executed in the late 1960s due to Mao's paranoia. Wang was a star witness in the Gang of Four trial.

1979: The One-Child Policy

One-Child Policy Poster
Photo: © 2009 Bob Wong. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License [cc-by].

As China's population approached one billion in the late 1970s, the Chinese government faced problems that no other country on Earth had ever faced: the challenge of creating a still-unrealized ideal managed economy in a very large, mostly rural and impoverished country--a country that happens to have the world's highest population.

The government responded with a policy mandating that women in urban areas may only have one child, a policy that in practice encourages not only birth control but also sterilization, abortion, and infanticide. The policy arguably works--in 2040, India will likely eclipse China as the world's most populous nation--but, like so many of China's policy experiments, it has come with a very high human cost.

1982: A New Constitution, in Theory

Deng Xiaoping
Photo: National Archives. Public domain.

Deng Xiaoping never officially became the head of state, but functioned as China's leader from 1978 to 1989 due to his influential role on the Chinese Communist Party's central and military committees.

Persecuted during the Cultural Revolution based on the accusation that he had integrated capitalist ideas into the socialist system, Deng's tenure is notable primarily because he...well, integrated capitalist ideas into the socialist system. It is to a great extent thanks to Deng's reforms that China has emerged as a global economic superpower.

The Constitution of 1982, written during Deng's tenure and still China's constitution today, recognizes--but largely fails to protect--basic human rights.

1989: The Tiananmen Square Massacre

Tiananmen Memorial
Photo: © 2008 D.B. King. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License [cc-by].

No site has been more sacred to Chinese communism than Tiananmen Square, the largest city square in the world. It was there that Mao Tse-tung formally announced the creation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, hosting countless marches, rallies, and celebrations in subsequent years.

In 1989, it hosted a massacre. Hu Yaobang, a pro-democracy reformer who served as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party from 1982 to 1987, died in April. Millions of student protesters organized in rallies all over China.

After seven weeks of protests, the government responded to a hunger strike near Tiananmen Square by sending in the military, killing an unknown number of protesters--hundreds, possibly thousands.

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