If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

READ: Rise of China

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What were some of the important developments in the economy of the People’s Republic of China in the years shortly after its 1949 founding?
  2. What led to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and what were some of the results?
  3. What were some of the important aspects of the post-Mao policies under Deng Xiaoping?
  4. Alongside the increasing national wealth of the People’s Republic of China that Elshaikh outlines, what are some of the downsides of this economic growth?
  5. Can you connect aspects of China’s rise to the requirements of “neoliberal” policies that Elshaikh introduces in her essay on “International Institutions”?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied. Since this is the first reading assignment of the course, you may not connect it to much other than the knowledge you already have.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. When we consider the “rise of China,” what parts of the story might be lost when we only look at economic growth? Elshaikh hints at these when she mentions growing inequality, environmental degradation, the persecution of minorities in China, and other factors. What happens when we tell the story of post-Mao China without mention of the 1989 protests and crackdown in Tiananmen Square, or 2019 events in Hong Kong?
  2. In terms of the “communities” frame narrative, how important do you think it is to a country’s sense of community to be wealthy and powerful on the world stage? How might increasing national wealth like that of the People’s Republic of China in recent decades change the ways people within the country view themselves and their national bonds?
  3. Deng Xiaoping referred to post-Mao reforms as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Based on the evidence in this reading, is this just capitalism under one-party rule? Why or why not?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Rise of China

A man stands in front of an electronic board showing numbers representing stock market movements.
By Eman M. Elshaikh
Since World War II, China's economy has grown massively. Economic growth took off in the 1980s, and today China is a powerful global economic center.


A Napoleon Bonaparte quote has been popping up in a strange place over the last two decades: in the financial columns. As economists have tracked China's exponential economic growth, they have cited Napoleon's alleged prediction, "Let China sleep; when she wakes she will shake the world." Regardless of whether or not Napoleon actually did say this and what he meant by it, China is definitely awake! And it is radically transforming the world economy. Since 1980, China's economy has grown faster than any other in the world.
A graph shows China's economic growth in comparison to other nations. All of the other nations have experienced growth, but China has experienced the highest growth rate by far.
China and other major developing economies by GDP per capita at purchasing-power parity, 1990–2013. The rapid economic growth of China (blue) is readily apparent. CircleAdrian from World Bank World Development Indicators 2014 data, CC BY-SA 3.0.
But was China ever sleeping? And what woke it up? It's difficult to say. Historians and economists have many different answers to these questions. Compared to Europe and the United States, which were rapidly developing in the nineteenth century, China's economy did seem to be pretty sleepy for a few centuries. But the reasons for this are complicated—and we won't really address them here. But we will talk about China's economic development in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Though it experienced some growth during the era of the Communist leader Mao Zedong (1949-1976), China's economy really flourished in the decades after Mao's death. Why? Historians and economists cite many different reasons, but there are a couple of common ones. First, the state of China became decentralized. Second, the economy became increasingly privatized. Others point to various cultural factors. These include things like the "Confucian ethic" and even capitalist incentives. Taking a peek into the history of China's economy since WWII might help us make sense of these changes.

China after World War II

In the mid-twentieth century, the Communist Party of China won a brutal civil war. There began a new era of communist leadership under Mao Zedong. The country's leaders set about modernizing and industrializing China. But this modernity had to have a communist flavor, as opposed to capitalist values.
A photo of a crowded cafeteria, taken from above. Four-top tables are crowded with people that are eating their meals.
Commune members eating collectively in a commune cafeteria in 1958. These cafeterias provided free meals until agricultural production slowed. Public domain.
This took the shape of rural land reform, collectivizing agriculture, and investments in urban industries. Land and resources were totally redistributed. By mid- century, some of these efforts had improved the standard of living for the average Chinese person. Poverty declined, literacy rates rose, and educational opportunities increased. However, Mao was not satisfied with the pace or distribution of progress. Growth was still moderate, and it was very uneven. While cities grew and gained wealth, rural areas simply did not keep up.
A photo shows several workers in a field, where many outdoor furnaces have been erected.
Backyard furnace used to produce steel during the Great Leap Forward, 1958. Workers often labored through the night to make steel. Public domain.
In the late 1950s, Mao introduced a campaign called The Great Leap Forward. A major goal of this effort was industrializing the countryside. This called for small- scale industry in the countryside, more widely available education, and the use of "people's communes."
The Great Leap Forward had some successful aspects. Vital infrastructure such as railroads, bridges, canals, reservoirs, mines, power stations, and irrigation systems were improved. But ultimately, this plan was a failure. In the rush to industrialize, communist leaders promoted projects that sometimes had greater costs than benefits. Combined with bad weather, these problems resulted in a devastating famine. In the early 1960s, about twenty million people died.
In the mid-1960s, Mao introduced yet another campaign. It was called the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Mao believed that the stagnating economy was partly because of capitalist values in the Communist Party. The solution, for Mao, was to set about transforming the very cultural fabric of the country. He wanted to revolutionize the way people related to one another and to the state. In the late 1960s, the Red Guard, a militarized social movement made up mostly of young men, were mobilized to destroy the "Four Olds" of pre-communist China: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. As a result, many of China's historical heritage was destroyed, as it was seen as representing capitalist, feudal, or backwards ways of thinking.
This had negative effects on religious communities and ethnic minorities. Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim heritage and communities often came under attack. They were seen as either old or foreign. Christian convents, Buddhist monasteries, Muslim mosques, and cemeteries for foreign people were destroyed. In some cases worshippers were killed. Ethnic minorities, including Mongolians, Uyghurs, Hui, Koreans, and Tibetans, were often persecuted or killed.
A drawn picture depicts Red Guard Youth destroying things associated with traditional ideas, culture, customs, and habits, such as a sculpture of the Buddha.
Cultural Revolution propaganda poster. The Red Guards protest by brandishing an anti Maoist book by Hai Jui, c.1967, China.© Getty Images.
Photograph of three faceless, stone statues.
Faces of Buddha statues that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Pat B, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Changing directions

The Cultural Revolution had loudly asserted Mao's radical vision of communism. It also strongly rejected capitalist values. But in the decades after Mao's death, China moved in the opposite direction. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping during the 1980s, China underwent massive economic reforms. The Chinese economy became less centrally planned. It evolved into what Deng Xiaoping described in a 1984 speech as "socialism with Chinese characteristics."
Like Mao, Deng Xiaoping wanted to increase production and modernize the country. But he did not reject the West. Deng Xiaoping's approach to developing production was a lot more open to foreign influences. This meant that capitalist approaches also increasingly influenced the Chinese economy. Many Mao-era reforms were dismantled. Agriculture and industry were privatized in many sectors. Special Economic Zones, mostly on the coasts, attracted foreign investment by offering tax breaks. These included inexpensive labor and other incentives. Tourism also increased. Some restrictions on religious activity were relaxed, and places of worship reopened.
A modern-day photograph shows an impressive skyline, featuring many tall and modern buildings, along the water. A ship is on the water in front of the skyline.
The Lujiazui financial district of Pudong, Shanghai, the financial and commercial hub of modern China. Simon Desmarais, CC BY 2.0.
Deng Xiaoping's stated goal was to drastically improve the standard of living by the end of the century. Though he retired in 1989, his goal was ultimately accomplished. After the Maoist era, China was politically stable, and the economy took off. Poverty declined, and the average Chinese person was healthier, with better overall nutrition, a higher life expectancy, and a lower incidence of disease. Urban centers were energized, with exports booming. While these policies looked more capitalist, Deng Xiaoping explained that it didn't matter if things appeared more communist or capitalist. What mattered was what was good for China.

China and the global economy

It seems like half of all the goods we use (if not more) are labeled "Made in China," but this wasn't always the case. Before the economic reforms from the mid-1970s, China exported far fewer products globally. As these reforms took effect, China played a new role in the global economy. By the early 2000s, China had become the largest supplier of clothing, shoes, computer components, and seafood. By 2010, China was the world's second largest economy. In 2011, it became the world's largest manufacturer.
This economic integration meant greater political integration. China increasingly had better diplomatic relations with Western countries. It also established important connections with other regions, most notably Africa. Chinese corporations play a huge role in Africa. There both the Chinese government and private companies invest massively in infrastructure, energy, and banking. The goal has been to invest in Africa by supporting building projects through low-interest loans. This is part of China's Road and Belt Initiative to increase trade. Some of this investment has paid off. Both African nations and China have reaped the rewards of increased trade and the creation of more jobs. Other projects, however, have not been as successful. If the project fails then it is the African nation left on the hook to pay back these Chinese-backed loans. Critics have stated that China's involvement in these projects is just a new form of imperialism. Supporters argue that China's investments have given African nations an economic boost.
Four people sit in soft armchairs, smiling and drinking tea.
Deng Xiaoping (center) with U.S. president Gerald Ford (left), First Lady Betty Ford (right), and Deng’s interpreter (back), 1975. Public domain.
China is also connected to vibrant networks in East and Southeast Asia and beyond. In the 1990s, China joined the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank. These new connections pushed Chinese policies even further toward open markets. In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization. After China entered these international networks, they began to replace Japan as the leading producer and distributor of goods around the world.
This might all seem very positive, but it definitely brings new challenges. China experiences major problems like urban overcrowding, crime, regional disparities, and environmental degradation. As a result of privatization, social and economic inequality have also increased. Wealth has become more concentrated. Corruption among officials and elite families continues to be a concern. The downsizing of the state sector and the military meant that many lost their jobs. This contributed to massive internal migration. Over a hundred million Chinese are now migrant laborers, either abroad or in China.
So how do we understand these economic transformations? It's clear that economic liberalization played a huge role, for better or for worse. Some might see this as China "waking up" and "re-emerging,". But it's more accurate to describe this as a different path toward industrialization. Many scholars present this in terms of a great "divergence" between the East and West. After an earlier "rise of the West," was China's rapid growth part of the "rise of the East"? Indeed, in the past few decades, East Asia's share of world production has increased, while American and European shares have decreased. We can speculate about what this means, but the truth is that there aren't quick and easy answers. This is still a very hot debate, and we have to consider mounds of evidence to answer this question. What's definitely clear is that China is now more than ever a powerful global center, and it will likely continue to have a massive economic force in the future.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East and written for many different audiences. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences, focusing on history and anthropology. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.