It is difficult to imagine a world where China hasn’t been a serious economic contender. China’s reputation as such, however, is a relatively recent development. Beginning in the nineteenth century after a series of international and domestic disasters, China strove to regain it’s former global economic and technological superiority in the face of the West’s emerging preeminence. This journey has continued well into the twenty-first century and has resulted in the liberalization and staggering expansion of the Chinese economy. Nonetheless, the prognosis a century ago painted a much bleaker picture. Controversial, contested, and ultimately unsuccessful reforms executed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries stunted China’s growth in the world’s market along with intrinsic timing failures. Among these missteps are the Self-Strengthening Movement which precipitated the fall of imperial power in the late nineteenth century and the Great Leap Forward in the decade following the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Though the two phenomena are rooted in different historical contexts and their architects utilized different methods, they share the same motivations and goals: to meet and surpass Western achievements in order to restore China’s international dominance.
In the wake of devastating defeats at the hands of the British Empire in the Opium Wars and subsequent territorial concessions, China’s military and diplomatic vulnerability became increasingly evident. Chinese leaders had drastically underestimated British military might and ability to manipulate other nations for economic gain. Beginning in the 1860s, bureaucrats enacted superficial measures of reform which largely dealt with the modernization of Chinese military forces in order to combat future threats and the facilitation of trade with Western nations in key port cities. These reforms are known as the Self-Strengthening Movement; as one might suspect, reformers focused on strengthening China from within by adopting Western military training, techniques, and armaments while sustaining uniquely Chinese political, social, and economic institutions and philosophies. The movement was eventually hampered by bureaucratic inefficiency, imperial disinterest, and the Tianjin Riots which ravished the empire and exacerbated existing circumstances.
This approach was plagued with innate structural issues. Specifically, the reform measures didn’t extend to other areas of Chinese government or society and, thus, offered no framework upon which change could be built. Western nations had enacted sweeping amendments and new social theories which radically altered political and social institutions. These adjustments allowed for advancement and innovation. Of course, there is not an exact recipe for success with regard to these notions. However, the military, industrial, and economic rise of the West would not be possible without the gradual structural changes adopted by Western powers. While the rapid improvements of the Chinese military and shifts with consideration to trade with the West are impressive, China ignored the fact other social and political obligations must be met in order to compete with the West during the nineteenth century.
Moving forward to the mid-twentieth century, one encounters one of the most disastrous political initiatives in history: the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61. Coming on the heels of the 1949 revolution and Mao Zedong’s First Five Year Plan are the reforms of the GLF, which intended to rapidly revolutionize Chinese agriculture and industry by mobilizing the country’s vast population and avoiding the importation of heavy machinery. The ultimate goal was to surpass the United Kingdom’s industrial output within fifteen years. The experiment ended in catastrophe. The agrarian peasantry shifted to industrial labor far too quickly, agricultural policies were inherently flawed, agricultural and industrial output were exaggerated and of inferior quality, and natural disaster struck in the form of widespread drought. All of these elements combined to create the perfect storm in which millions of people starved to death, the economy sharply declined, and people grew resistant to the government.
Unlike those who orchestrated the Self-Strengthening Movement and failed to reform China’s political infrastructure, officials in the PRC had already significantly overhauled the government and various social institutions. The Great Leap Forward’s difficulties lie in its unrealistic goals and rapidity of transformation. It would have been absolutely impossible for China replicate British imperial success because China did not possess Great Britain’s social or political climate and conditions nor its natural resources which fueled industrialization. At this point, though China had thousands of years of history, the People’s Republic of China was still a very new nation which took on the task of rebuilding a war-torn and economically depleted country. Additionally, encouraging peasant farmers to melt down their pots and pans in order to produce steel is the farthest thing from the methods employed by steel-producing powers. A more gradual shift paired with practical methods of steel production would have been much more prudent. To set such a lofty goal as taking on one of the world’s foremost nations in industrial output and international power, although admirable in some sense, just sets the stage for future disappointment.
With the death of Mao Zedong came serious adjustments of Chinese policies in many areas. Chinese leaders perhaps learned from past mistakes upon Chinese opening up to more diverse trading partners and expansion of industry in the 1980s. This period has been marked by an openness to experimentation with modernizing techniques and engagement with Western nations on an equal level. With these most recent reforms, China has far surpassed any previous movement towards modernization. Further, the quickly rising nation has certainly attained it’s former wealth and glory despite massive setbacks in the last two centuries.