China’s 60-Year Road from Revolution to World Power

In a new book, The People's Republic of China at 60: An International Assessment, HBS professor William C. Kirby discusses common assumptions about pre-revolutionary China and its development into an economic power. Key concepts include:
  • Essays in the book address four main themes: politics; social transformations; wealth and well-being; and culture, belief, and practice. Kirby refers to the first three decades of the PRC as "a regime of wasted, and wasteful—not to mention criminal—youth." However, he says, many of the essays in the book show how the country has taken good advantage of the last three decades.
  • Mid-century revolutionaries and scholars cited the economy as a major reason that China needed a revolution. However, the country actually sustained decent financial growth, fueled by private enterprise, from the 1910s until the onset of the global depression of the 1930s and the Sino-Japanese war in 1937.
  • While China's central government was weak in the first half of the twentieth century, the country during that time developed strong methods of institution-building at the national, provincial, municipal, and local levels.
by William C. Kirby

Editor's note: On October 1, 2009, the People's Republic of China turned 60 years old. To mark this event, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University held a conference titled "The People's Republic of China at 60: An International Assessment," convening China experts from around the world. The resulting book includes several of the papers and lectures that were presented at the conference, providing a wide range of views about China's past, present, and future. In this excerpt, editor William C. Kirby, an HBS professor and director of the Fairbank Center, discusses common assumptions about pre-revolutionary China, from both an economic and a political perspective. (Footnotes have been deleted.)


At mid-century, Chinese revolutionaries and many foreign scholars believed that China was in need of a revolution, perhaps above all for economic reasons. They saw a stagnant or even declining economy during China's Republican period, divided sharply between the internationally-oriented port cities and the unchanging, "feudal" interior, with its increasingly impoverished peasantry. Without doubt, China was in a desperate economic condition in 1949. It had endured eight years of war with Japan, followed closely by another four years of civil war. But was it in need of an economic revolution?

“The broad indictment of the pre-revolutionary economy is simply not sustainable today.”

The broad indictment of the pre-revolutionary economy is simply not sustainable today if we take seriously any of the solid economic history done by historians in China or the West in recent decades. Rather, we have a picture of sustained, reasonably high economic growth during the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s—up until the onset of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937. This was a growth fueled above all by private enterprise, urban and rural, in what we may now consider the first "golden age" of Chinese capitalism. This new economic activity began and spread outward from China's centers of international trade and investment, particularly the lower Yangzi region and Manchuria. Growth was slowed significantly in the 1930s by the global depression and by the financial policies of the Nationalist government, and it would be stopped altogether by the onset of the Sino-Japanese and then civil war; but that did not mean it could not be revived in peacetime. With the total economic as well as political-military collapse of the Nationalist regime, the new PRC had a potentially wide range of economic policy options.

Its actual choices, however, were narrowed by the ideological conviction that China was in need of a fundamental economic restructuring. After a rather halfhearted attempt at a mixed economy under the slogan of "new democracy," early PRC leaders followed the road of high Stalinism. They believed that land-owning farmers and entrepreneurial businessmen were not only reactionary in a political sense, but also part of the root cause of a combined economic stagnation and social backwardness that only socialism could cure. In the early and mid-1950s this would lead to the expropriation of the property or exile (to Hong Kong and overseas) of China's business classes; the political murder of hundreds of thousands (if not more) of small landlords; and the consequent destruction of entrepreneurial talent as well as opportunity. To this we must add the execution of between three to five million alleged "counter-revolutionaries" in the political-economic terror of the Korean War years.

Another lesson, born of simplistic class analysis, that the countryside was the proper place for peasants, the cities for workers, would lead to the system of nationwide household registration and internal passports known as "hukou," which would consign rural communities, especially in China's poorest parts, to immiseration of a kind not known before, to stagnation in situ, without—as had been the case during the Republican era̶the possibility of outmigration. If the urban working class of the Republican period was constantly reconstituted by rural migrants, the Communist urban working class—particularly those in state industries—became a closed caste, an industrial elite with hereditary jobs, and with privileges and security far above that of their rural cousins. If anything, the gap between urban and rural identities became greater. And the difference between rural and urban—particularly during the Great Leap Forward, when at least 30 million perished—could become a matter of life and death.

One area of demonstrable economic success in the 1950s, the enormous growth of state enterprises, particularly in heavy industry, was the area of greatest continuity with the old Nationalist regime. In both strategy and detail, much of Communist China's first Five-Year Plan had been on Nationalist China's drawing boards.

“In the first half of the twentieth century, China developed one of the more dynamic systems of higher education in the world.”

The result of all this was that as the rest of East Asia began to thrive in the postwar era, China was comparatively stagnant, or worse. The lessons of the catastrophe of Maoist economics were, however, learned by Mao's successors, whose economic counter-revolution dismantled his policies, returning to many aspects of pre-revolutionary China: allowing family farming; permitting again a form of mixed economy; welcoming international investment on a vast scale; and gradually limiting the state to the role of guiding, rather than running, the economy.

The results, though hardly without problems, have been simply stupendous, far exceeding the expectations of either Chinese or foreign observers when the reforms were announced three decades ago. One thinks only of what might have been, in the dark decades of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, since many of the basic elements of Chinese economic growth, in fact, were there all along.


A second myth at mid-century was that the Republican era had been a political interregnum, without a functioning central government, an interregnum called to an end by the New China of the Chinese Communist Party.

China's central governments were indeed weak during the first half of the twentieth century. But the more we know of the pre-1949 decades, the more they emerge as a formidable period of state- and institution-building at the national, provincial, municipal, and local levels. The modern ministerial structures of a central government, the common features of provincial and municipal administration, a national system of higher education, and new sets of civil and criminal codes were all established during the reforms of the late Qing and Republican eras. Much of this would be swept away, quickly and almost casually, by the new Communist government. Later much of it would have to be reestablished, slowly and painfully, in the 1980s and 1990s.

Take the case of higher education. In the first half of the twentieth century, China developed one of the more dynamic systems of higher education in the world, with strong, state-run institutions (Peking University, Jiaotong University, National Central University, and at the apogee of research, the Academia Sinica), accompanied by a creative set of private colleges and universities (Yenching University, St. John's University, and Peking Union Medical College, to name but a few). All these, too, would be swept away in the late 1950s and 1960s, yet the traditions and memories of preeminence remained, and today's educational leaders have used these lessons to fuel the more recent, dramatic growth in scope and excellence of Chinese universities.

The early PRC was widely believed to have provided a greater level of national unity and stability than its predecessors. Unity, perhaps: for only under a strongly unified political system could a policy such as the Great Leap Forward reach into every Chinese village with such lethal consequences. Stability? No. Each of the first four decades of the PRC was witness to major and destabilizing political upheavals.

Yet who among us would have predicted the comparative stability, accompanied by rapid economic growth, of the last two decades? The lessons drawn by China's post-Tiananmen leaders was to pursue vigorous, often audacious paths to economic growth, opening up also new realms of freedom in personal and professional lives, and new modes of communication (cell phones, the Web, the blogosphere) while maintaining, indeed enhancing and modernizing, the authoritarian state. How long this balance can be sustained is of course one of the questions in this book, but the apparent reality of the political stability of the last two decades is surely striking, compared to anything that came before it.