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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Visions of China CNN TIME Asiaweek Fortune
SEPTEMBER 24, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 38

Quest for Dignity
The success of the Communist revolution climaxed a century-long drive by the Chinese to reclaim their historical greatness. But tragedy accompanied the triumph - a pattern that has continued down to today
By TODD CROWELL and DAVID HSIEH Beijing


Photo Montage by Manodh Premaratne
October 1, 1949. The air in Beijing was clear and crisp as China's revolutionary leaders gathered atop Tiananmen, the sacred Gate of Heavenly Peace, before the Forbidden City. Their purpose: to proclaim victory - and the birth of a New China. Mao Zedong stood in front, dressed in a severe gray tunic. With him were his comrades of countless struggles, who would help mold the People's Republic. The suave Zhou Enlai, premier and foreign minister, was there. So was Zhu De, fabled commander of the People's Liberation Army. By him stood Liu Shaoqi, the pragmatic administrator who would die a terrible death during the Cultural Revolution two decades later. A fidgeting Deng Xiaoping was anxious for the ceremonies to be over, so he could chase down the remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated armies.

The courtyard fronting the gate was less expansive than it is today. Yet Tiananmen Square was big enough to hold perhaps 100,000 people, a suitable audience for the historic occasion. A large flagpole had been erected, on which the bright red flag with five yellow stars would be raised for the first time. The ceremony would be accompanied by the bugle flourish and drum roll that kicked off socialist China's new anthem, "The March of the Volunteers."

Even then, Tiananmen Square was already a hallowed place. It was there on May 4, 1919, that Beijing's university students had gathered to denounce craven Chinese statesmen who once again signed away the nation's patrimony by handing German concessions to the Japanese at the end of World War I. That ignited the May 4th Movement, mother of modern China's reform drives. Later, after old hutongs had been bulldozed to create an even larger arena, a million Red Guards would fill the square to deify Chairman Mao and sanctify his purge of the same comrades who had stood by him at Tiananmen in 1949. There, too, Beijing's university students would mass in 1989 to spark another epic uprising. And it would be put down by another of Mao's companions on Tiananmen that auspicious day, Deng Xiaoping.

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Anniversary
Fifty years of Communist rule have brought both triumph and tragedy to China

Politics
From "class struggle" to village elections

The Economy
Backyard furnaces yield to enterprise reform

Diplomacy
The drive for world clout and national reunification

Society and Culture
Still searching for a modern identity

Journeys
Personal accounts of life in the People's Republic

  MULTIMEDIA
People to Know
50 Movers and shakers in today's China

Immortal Quotes
50 immortal quotes from over 2,000 years of Chinese history

  VISIONS OF CHINA
CNN
50 years of the People's Republic presented by CNN, TIME, Asiaweek and Fortune

TIME
China's Amazing Half Century
Navigate through the People's Republic of China and discover the 50 places where history was made

The birth of the People's Republic is celebrated because it signified not only the basic reunification of China as a nation, but also the re-emergence of a strong central authority after a century of internal strife, civil war and foreign humiliation. Indeed, the event marked a climax in the continuing struggle of modern China to reclaim its historical greatness. In the proud nation that had been the world's sole superpower for 15 centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, that dream has served as a primary inspiration for leaders, reformers and revolutionaries ever since the Qing dynasty began its terminal decline in the mid-19th century.

But on that Oct. 1, the Communist Party's writ did not yet extend to every corner of the land. The important southern city of Guangzhou remained in Kuomintang hands. It would not fall to Mao's forces for another two weeks. China's present boundaries would not be rounded out until the annexation of Tibet the following year. A planned attack on Taiwan was thwarted by the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

Very few foreigners were on hand to witness the founding of New China. Not many countries were ready to recognize the People's Republic. In fact, most diplomats had followed the defeated Nationalists out of the old capital, Nanjing, to Taipei. About the only foreigners left were a handful of students and missionaries, who had not yet been expelled. Even the Russians, socialist comrades to the new regime, were shunted to the side. This was a day purely for the Chinese.

"Today begins a new era in Chinese history," Mao declared. "We, the 475 million people of China, have stood up." He struck a chord that resonated deeply among his audience. Few Chinese had to be reminded how far their once-mighty nation had fallen. China had long considered itself the center of the world, surrounded by lesser tributary states and barbarians. But for three centuries, the empire wallowed in monumental complacency, reinforced by an inward-looking Confucian ideology. Meanwhile, Europe, having completed its cultural and scientific renaissance, embarked on its epoch-making Industrial Revolution. Gradually, European nations conquered and colonized distant lands and cultures. China was ripe for a rude awakening.

Beijing's first defeat by a Western power, in the 1840-42 Opium War, did not just result in the cession of Hong Kong to Britain. China also was forced to pay indemnities covering London's war costs. That set a pattern: The Chinese would thenceforth pay the military expenses of whichever country defeated them. The foreign victors included Britain and France in the Second Opium War (1856-60); Japan in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95); and Britain, France and other allies - including the United States - in the Boxer Rebellion (1900). The Celestial Empire, famous for receiving tributes, had become a tribute-paying country.

The West's dominance was assured by its overwhelming superiority in armaments. The Chinese, who invented gunpowder, never learned to mass-produce it. They could only field semi-modern armies, sufficiently well-equipped to fight one another or oppress the local population, but too weak to defend the nation without outside help. China bought what arms and munitions it could from abroad, but its foreign suppliers made sure it never came close to anything like parity.

After the first Opium War, the Chinese signed another treaty with Britain that contained a "most-favored-nation" clause. That meant any privilege won by one foreign power would automatically be shared by all the others. So choice pieces of coastal China became subject to any country able to send a merchant ship into local waters - and with the gunboats to protect it. This and other "unequal treaties" limited China's sovereignty even within its own borders.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Qing regime found itself in the embarrassing position of being propped up by the Western powers, for the sake of their own commercial interests. That reality was underscored by the Taiping Rebellion (1851-64), which spread across half of China. Because rebel chief Hong Xiuquan professed himself a Christian (indeed, the younger brother of Jesus), some foreigners initially backed his uprising. Eventually, they reckoned their interests were better served by preventing the collapse of the moribund dynasty. So they helped Beijing crush Hong.

The Taiping Rebellion left a tradition of social and political revolution that would culminate in Mao's victory in 1949. But the Chinese Communists did not come to power with quite the same messianic revolutionary expectations as did the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917. From the outset, Mao's No. 2 Liu Shaoqi, later president, argued that China must transform itself into a socialist state gradually. The model was the Soviet Union, which by 1949 had long abandoned grandiose dreams of world revolution in favor of industrialism and nation-building.

The early years of the Communist regime was a time when "patriotic capitalists" could still feel that they had a role in constructing the New China. Non-party members filled important public positions. Three vice chairmen of the republic were non-Communists, including, most notably, Soong Qingling, the widow of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China. Many old-timers remember the period, which came to an end with the Great Leap Forward in 1958, as a kind of golden era when all Chinese did stand tall together.

But Liu the pragmatist would later be branded China's "No. 1 Capitalist Roader" and hounded to death. He fell because Mao Zedong effectively reversed the pattern set in the Soviet Union. Russia began its revolution in the vanguard of the world revolution and, under Stalin, retreated to building communism in one country. China's revolution started with strong nationalist overtones. Then, under Mao, it lurched into the murky world of utopian leftism, first with the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution.

"Mao always believed that China's revolution was the prelude to world revolution," says Dong Zhenghua, vice chairman of Peking University's History Department. "After Stalin's death, Mao wanted to lead that revolution. So he could not sit idly and just focus on economic reconstruction. He couldn't let capitalism return to China. He firmly believed that global capitalism was on the verge of collapse."

In a sense, what Deng Xiaoping tried to do with his watershed economic reforms was return China to the early 1950s, when pragmatism ruled. Reversing Mao's catch-cry to put "politics in command," Deng pushed economics to the top of the national agenda. Once again, the emphasis was on restoring China's greatness as a nation. "We are confident that China will enter the ranks of moderately developed nations by the middle of the next century," says Chen Weirong, general manager of the Konka electronics group. Gradually, the country's generals abandoned Mao's doctrine of waging "People's War," whereby human spirit - and numbers - would triumph over better-armed enemies. They put stars back on their shoulder boards and made plans to acquire modern fighters, missiles and submarines.

And yet, no future leadership in Beijing is likely to recapture the special mix of hope and excitement that infused the Chinese 50 years ago. There has been too much blood since then, too many humiliations - this time self-inflicted. The famine that followed the Great Leap Forward, coupled with natural disasters, led to millions of deaths. Many more died or had their lives forever stunted during the Cultural Revolution and other political "struggles." Then came the tragedy of June 4, 1989. Small wonder that many Chinese, middle-aged or older, have a shell-shocked look about them.

True, China's economic resurgence in the past two decades has brought it new strength and international clout. The Deng-inspired revival has also stimulated the growth of personal freedoms, through expanded economic choice. Today's Chinese, especially city dwellers, enjoy a material abundance unimaginable in Mao's time. But the underlying rot - including corruption and abuse of power - continues to eat at the political system. Faith in communism is all but dead. The lack of a vibrant new creed to replace it has led to a debilitating moral and spiritual vacuum. Many of the same tasks that faced the men at Tiananmen 50 years ago remain to be completed, such as economic reconstruction and the restoration of China's full territorial integrity.

Mao himself remains unvilified, his body reposing peacefully in his mausoleum at one end of Tiananmen Square. At the other extremity, his huge portrait continues to adorn the Gate of Heavenly Peace. His image is still seen throughout the land - on taxi bumpers, in ordinary homes, even at shrines. To a large extent, his horrendous excesses have been forgiven. And all because on that crisp October day half a century ago, he told the world that China had once again stood up.

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