China: 70 years of building socialism in the People’s Republic
A mother and her son walk to the site of the parade in Beijing for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019. | Andy Wong / AP

Seventy years have passed since Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, announcing to the world that the country had “stood up” and would “no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation.” The period since Oct. 1, 1949, has been among the most tumultuous in Chinese civilization’s 3,000-plus year history. The last seven decades have been an epic story of constant change and upheaval, reform and revolution, time and again culminating in the total transformation of society.

Though the era of Mao may be long over and his legacy at least selectively repudiated, the revolution in China continues. Today’s revolution is not the violent armed conflict or sloganeering mass voluntarism of the past, but an ongoing economic and technological revolution that has brought China up from the ranks of the world’s poorest countries to become a check on the world’s dominant imperialist power—U.S. capitalism.

Mao Zedong proclaims the founding of the People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Oct. 1, 1949. | Xinhua

Oct. 1 marks the anniversary of the establishment of a socialist state, but the Chinese revolution has a longer history than that. It was rooted in the fight to establish democracy, overthrow feudalism and monarchy, and free China from the control of European imperial powers—struggles originally led by Sun Yat-sen. The Communist Party of China was founded in Shanghai in 1921, the inheritor of the best traditions of Sun and the first Republic of China—a republic sullied by the military dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang party, which was allied with warlords and feudal landlords.

The first years of the working-class and peasants’ movement in China were defined by civil war, the establishment of the first Chinese Soviet Republic in the 1930s, and the fight to fully liberate China from foreign domination—including from the invading armies of Japanese imperialism, which were finally expelled at the end of World War II after millions of lives were lost.

Following the defeat of the Kuomintang and the founding of the People’s Republic, the construction of socialism in China began in earnest. Assisted by the USSR, the country proceeded to chart its own course of development, breaking the chains of imperialist dominance in Asia and inspiring people in colonial countries the world over.

As is possible with any revolutionary process, the breakneck pace of those early years brought great achievements, but also great errors. The Great Leap Forward of the 1950s tried to industrialize China through sheer willpower and idealism rather than a patient building-up of productive capacity and training of workers. Famine ensued, bringing a great cost in human lives. Mao’s so-called “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s—known in China today as the “lost decade”—was another detour on the route to building a developed socialist society. The economy was brought to the brink of total collapse; farms and factories saw their output plummet and universities were shuttered as ten years of ideological frenzy swept the nation.

These campaigns, along with Mao’s turn away from the other socialist countries and toward an accommodation with U.S. imperialism under President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, were the hallmarks of what the world Communist movement at the time identified as the “opportunism” of Maoism. After Mao died in 1976, China itself has retrospectively settled on the “30-70” evaluation (known as the 三七开 in Chinese), meaning Mao was 30% wrong and 70% right. Whether the formula is an “official” viewpoint remains a point of contention, but it essentially describes the contemporary Chinese assessment of the Mao era.

At any rate, the story of contemporary China really starts in 1978 with the decision of the Communist Party under Deng Xiaoping to initiate the “opening up” and “reform” of the economy. Borrowing a page from Russian Revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin’s “New Economic Policy” of the 1920s, China embarked on a historic campaign to attract foreign investment into the country, gain an infusion of capital and technology, reform state-owned industries, and liberalize agriculture.

It was all aimed at building up the country’s productive forces and raising workers’ standard of living in line with the historical materialist view that socialism could only be constructed on the basis of a modern and developed economy. As Deng said, socialism was not supposed to be a society of common poverty, but rather one of shared prosperity and people moving ahead together. Out of the experimentation of the last forty years has come the concept of the “socialist market economy,” or “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

This program of economic reform has brought undeniable progress for the Chinese working class and people. Over 850 million people have been lifted out of poverty. Per capita incomes today are 25 times higher than they were in 1978. National economic growth has averaged 10% per year over the last 40 years (three times the U.S. average), and by purchasing power parity, China is already the world’s biggest economy. Chinese technology firms lead the world, especially in communications, illustrated by the debut of 5G networks around the globe.

The country has secured the capital and technical know-how needed to lay the foundations of a modern socialist economy. But along with all this success have come significant problems that are endemic to capitalism: massive inequality, the emergence of class struggles between workers and bosses, and ecological devastation. Not to mention the major bumps on the road toward building a functioning socialist democracy: Tiananmen Square 1989, perhaps Hong Kong today, the elimination of presidential term limits, and the questions which are still swirling about developments in the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang.

And although non-interference in other countries’ affairs remains a hallmark of Chinese foreign policy, some neighbors retain serious concerns about Chinese assertions of sovereignty over islands and shipping lanes in the South China Sea that had not previously been controlled by Beijing.

Participants in the Beijing parade marking the People’s Republic of China’s 70th anniversary, Oct. 1, 2019. | Xinhua

A number of other trends pose even more trouble: Trump’s trade war, the aggressive military posture (“pivot to Asia”) taken toward China in recent years by the U.S. (no matter which of the two major parties is in power), the threat of climate change, and of course the ever-present danger of crisis in the global capitalist economy that China is today so much a part of.

The Chinese working class and people, and the Communist Party which governs the country, face a tough path ahead. But there are signs that they are up to the challenge. Already, China is playing a significant role in the transition to a green economy, it is promoting development in Central Asia, Africa, and other countries as part of its “Belt and Road Initiative” (though not without queries as to the demands it may be making of those countries), and it continues its push for a world where equality among nations and international cooperation define global politics.

For the future of not just the lofty goals of socialism and working-class power, but of the environment and all of humanity, all progressive-minded people should be wishing China success in its social, political, and economic development. The world still has a lot to learn from (and share with) the People’s Republic.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.