The Return of China
August 15, 2008

It is now fashionable to talk about the “rise” of China. But in fact China’s current remarkable economic growth means simply that China is “returning” – and not “rising” – to world importance. About five centuries ago it was responsible for about one-third of global economic growth. It has had a few bad periods since then – running into the centuries – but now it is returning to its old status.

Remains of settlements in the Beijing area can be traced back about five thousand years. The natural environment was comfortable enough then to sustain human and animal life. The creation of the original city of Ji almost 3,000 years ago marked the first capital on the site.

Much of present day China expanded out from that site over the millennia. It was a good location militarily, being situated on a small plain, with three sides closed off with surrounding mountains and expansive rolling plains to the south. It was a strategic hub between north and south China.

As the fortunes of local warlords waxed and waned so the city of Ji also varied. It acquired various names and political roles.

In 1421, Zhu Di of the Ming Dynasty changed the city’s name to Beijing. The city therefore can claim not only the status of being located on the site of one of the world’s oldest capital cities, but even the name is an old one. The Ming Dynasty was also responsible for one of the world’s most famous building complexes: the Forbidden City. Its name comes from the fact that for most of its existence, commoners were forbidden from entering it.

It was built between 1406 and 1420 and has almost a thousand rooms. It is on the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List as the world’s largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures. A million people worked on the site. The Ming Dynasty was overthrown by the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1644 and the new dynasty retained the Forbidden City as the seat of imperial power.

The Qing Dynasty collapsed in October 1911 and China fell into even more chaos as republican warlords sought to gain control. Japan exploited the conflicts in China and invaded in the late 1920s. In the 1930s there were different wars underway: Nationalists (commanded by Chiang Kai-shek) versus Communists (commanded by Mao Zedong) and both of these against the Japanese. The Japanese war blended into World War II. After World War II ended in August 1945, the Nationalists and Communistsprepared for their final show down. The Nationalists were driven off the mainland to Taiwan in 1949.

On October 1, 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China. He did this in Tiananmen Square (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”), the vast plaza just in front of the Forbidden City.

A few days earlier, on September 21, Chairman Mao in Beijing used one of the most important phrases in his career – and in modern China. He said that the “Chinese people, comprising one quarter of humanity, have now stood up”.

He warned the rest of the world that “The era is which the Chinese people were regarded as uncivilized is now ended. We shall emerge in the world as a nation with an advanced culture”.

China still had many crises to overcome, not least those created by him, such as the failure of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and the disastrous Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. His Communist successors were responsible for 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

But the Beijing Olympic Games are part of the overall pledge to show that China has indeed stood up. It is back in business. The Great Wall of China has become the Great Mall.