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China's Historical Government Part 3

Last week, we discussed what the Chinese government has been doing to address catastrophic air pollution. Looking at the history of environmental policy, I mentioned that the Chinese government initially didn’t prioritize enforcement of environmental laws. Of course, this changed in the mid-2000s, and now China’s government is aggressively enforcing its policies. To understanding why and how this change happened requires understanding the Chinese government at a broad level. This is because the overall reform character of the Chinese government is defined by policy stance reversals followed by aggressive enforcement.

We’ve talked a lot about the government of China, but up until this point, I haven’t broken down what that actually is. One of my past professors summed up the Chinese government as a post-totalitarian, authoritarian communist state. Succinct as that is, it is also the most jargon-heavy way to describe China’s government. So just like we did with North Korea, let’s break that down.

First is post-totalitarian. When I hear the word totalitarian, Hitler always comes to mind. Evil acts (such as the Holocaust, WWII, T4, and many others) aside, Hitler and Nazi Germany perfectly illustrate a totalitarian ruling a totalitarian state. Under Hitler, the Nazi party had a policy on everything from high-level macroeconomics down to how every individual should behave at all times.  In this way, Hitler and his party had total control over Germany.

Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader and founder of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), was also a totalitarian. Despite having politically opposite ideologies (fascists and communists are as polarized as possible), the style of governing was strikingly similar. The Communist Party of China (CPC) controlled everything. Under Mao, the CPC enforced strict policies governing economics, politics, culture, and social interactions.

The end-goal was to create an ideal socialist society; however, to achieve this, a constant battle had to be fought against anything that wasn’t ideal. The culmination of China’s totalitarian era came during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The Cultural Revolution, Mao’s last crusade, was so traumatizing (the death toll is estimated at 400,000 -10 million) for the CPC and people of China that reformers led by Deng Xiaoping dismantled many Maoist policies in an effort to rebuild a shaken country. This is where the ‘post-‘ comes in. Even though present-day China is no longer totalitarian, the CPC derives benefits from its past in many ways. Chief among these benefits is weak political opposition, relatively high popularity, and a firm hold on power.

The second two words, authoritarian communist, tells us what China is now. Though not as purely communist now as they were under Mao, the CPC still adheres to many of the tenets of communism. That said, core teachings such as abolishing market capitalism have been bent and, in designated zones, have been ignored entirely. Presently, China is authoritarian because the positions of political power in the CPC and in government are concentrated in the hands of a small political elite. While this ruling elite controls anything they feel is political, they generally don’t exercise the control over all aspects of life like Mao.

Now that we have China’s government labeled, it’s clear that their system is fairly streamlined. Even though disagreements do happen at the highest levels, the different political factions are still part of the same party and, unlike in the US, are made up of a very select few.

On the other side of this coin are the CPC’s general goals. After years of reform and development into something likely much different from what Mao imagined, the primary goals of the CPC remain largely the same.

The first goal is for China to be strong and independent. A need for strength is the historical artifact of the Century of Humiliation leading up to the founding of the PRC. From 1839-1949, China experienced the end of over 2,000 years of imperial rule, the bloodiest civil war in history, the Opium Wars (two wars where Western countries sought certain privileges and the right to legally import opium into China), two world wars, and a second civil war. Because of this time period, the CPC maintains a ‘never again’ mentality that is always present in the decision making process. As a result, their stance on many issues begins with the question: will this weaken China and/or make it less independent?

China’s second major goal is to have sustained national progress. The CPC truly views the Century of Humiliation as just that, humiliation. While the party believes that the Century of Humiliation only happened because China was not strong enough to prevent it, the second component is a desire to ‘cleanse the nation’ of its humiliation. Mao saw this as having a strong and unified government, military, and culture, but his successors have interpreted it more broadly. Although still used as a justification for maintaining a strong military, cleansing the nation’s humiliation has been used to justify economic and social reforms, as well as justification for hosting the Olympic Games in 2008.

It is important to remember that these concepts are flexible. Like with any country, we can only describe what has and is currently happening. In China’s case, the concepts above and the significance of historical events in the present day are always subject to change. I know that this approach may be confusing at best since I did technically lie last week when I said I’d be covering China’s government structure. But this tangent is essential to effectively understand China’s government structure and present political issues. On the topic of air pollution, it should be partially clear why swift action occurred after the reversal; the economic cost alone has been a significant drain on China’s potential growth, let alone the human cost of chronic illnesses.

Unfortunately, we won’t be able to go into the second half of why this week. Next week we will cover the second half of that question, as well as the government structure, while we look into the rise of the most powerful Chinese politician since Mao, President Xi Jinping.


Callahan, William A., “National Insecurities: Humiliation, Salvation, and Chinese Nationalism,” Alternatives 29. 2 (2004). Web. Accessed: 17 June 2017.

Kilpatrick, Ryan, “National Humiliation in China,” E-International Relations: Students, 20 October 2011. Web. Accessed: 17 June 2017.

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “British and Chinese History: Opium Trade,” The Encyclopedia Britannica, 17 April 2015. Web. Accessed: 17 June 2017.

Bullock, Alan, Baron Bullock, John Lukacs, and Wilfrid F. Knapp, “Adolf Hitler: Dictator of Germany,” The Encyclopedia Britannica, 6 June 2005. Web. Accessed: 17 June 2017.

“History of China,” Wikipedia, 14 June 2017. Web. Accessed: 17 June 2017.

**Used for beginning and end years for imperial rule in China**

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Taiping Rebellion,” The Encyclopedia Britannica, 8 December 2015. Web. Accessed: 17 June 2017.

Meisner, Maurice, Mao's China and After: A History of the People's Republic (New York City: The Free Press, 1999), 354.

Goldman, Merrill, “Merrill Goldman Lecture Transcript,” US Holocaust Memorial Museum, 5 December 1995. Web. Accessed: 17 June 2017.

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