People’s Republic of China: From Mao to now

Key events from the past 70 years – from the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949 to the present day.

China soldiers
Soldiers stand at attention before a wreath laying ceremony at the Monument to the People''s Heroes in Tiananmen Square, marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People''s Republic of China. [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

Beijing marks 70 years of the People’s Republic of China on October 1 with a military parade that will showcase the country’s latest weaponry.

Rehearsals have been going on for weeks, but the people of Beijing will have to watch the invitation-only event on television.

The China of 2019 is very different from the one that existed at the end of the civil war when Communist forces under Mao Zedong defeated the nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek, who retreated to Taiwan in 1949.

Back then the average life expectancy was just 35 years and the average per-capita income for its half billion people was equivalent to $54.

Now China’s population is more than a billion, it’s the world’s second-largest economy and average per-capita income is $10,000. Life expectancy has more than doubled to 77 years.

Here are the major events of the past 70 years:

1 October, 1949

Victorious after 20 years of civil war, Mao Zedong proclaims the new People’s Republic of China, declaring: “The Chinese people have stood up.” 

China 70 years Mao Zedong declaration
Chairman Mao solemnly proclaims the founding of the People’s Republic of China on the Tiananmen Square Gate rostrum in Beijing, China, on Oct. 1, 1949. [AP Photo]


Mao begins a enormous programme of economic and social reconstruction, but just as the economy shows signs of recovery, China intervenes in the Korean War on the side of North Korea.

Chinese forces march into Tibet, which is incorporated into the People’s Republic of China.  After a failed uprising in 1959, Tibetans’ spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, flees to India where he sets up a government-in-exile.


Mao launches the “Great Leap Forward”, a five-year economic plan aimed at super-charging industrial and agricultural production to catch up with more advanced nations. As markets are disrupted and production plummets, the policy leads to a devastating famine. 


Two years of famine resulting from the disastrous policies of the Great Leap Forward lead to the deaths of at least 45 million people.


The ‘Little Red Book’ – a collection of Mao’s quotations and thoughts – and formally titled “The Quotations of Chairman Mao” is published for the first time. The Ministry of Culture aims to ensure every citizen has a copy.

China explodes its first atom bomb.

Students read a lecture from Mao Zedong’s ‘Little Red Book’ at the Democracy Elementary and Middle School in central Henan province in December 2013. [Carlos Barria/Reuters]


Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing, launch the Cultural Revolution – an effort to revive revolutionary fervour and rid the party of supposedly “bourgeois” elements. Mao’s Red Guard units, dominated by teenagers and students, pledge the “destruction of the four olds” (ideas, culture, habits and customs).

Over the next 10 years, China endures enormous social and political upheaval as tens of thousands suspected of following “the capitalist road” are killed and millions forced into manual labour.


The PRC (People’s Republic of China) replaces Taiwan, known officially as the Republic of China at the United Nations. The Taiwan delegation walks out of the UN to spare themselves further humiliation as the vote to “expel forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the UN and in all the organisations related to it” passes 76 to 35 with 17 abstentions.


US President Richard Nixon makes a landmark visit to China and expresses willingness to forge diplomatic relations with the PRC.


Prime Minister Zhou Enlai dies in January and Mao on September 9 unleashing a power struggle within the party.

Mao’s widow and three of her colleagues – the so-called “Gang of Four” – are arrested and convicted of crimes against the state.

The city of Tangshan is devastated by an earthquake that kills nearly 300,000 people.

China Red Guards
Youths at a rally during the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. [File: AP Photo]


Deng Xiaoping emerges as the dominant figure in the party leadership and begins far-reaching economic reforms.


Beijing and Washington establish full diplomatic relations.


The government introduces the One-Child Policy in an effort to slow population growth and raise living standards.


China’s “open-door policy” begins, opening the country to foreign investment and encouraging the development of a market economy and private sector.

The phrase “to get rich is glorious” is widely attributed to Deng Xiaoping, although it is unclear if he ever actually said it.


Amid an ideological struggle within the ruling party, thousands of demonstrators – mostly students and workers – descend on Tiananmen Square in May, taking over the square and calling for democratic reforms.

On June 3, the government orders the military to clear the protesters. Officially 200 people are killed. The unofficial death tolls put the number closer to 3,000.

International outrage leads to sanctions against China.

Hong Kong Vigil
The crackdown on the Tiananmen protesters in June 1989 triggered global outrage. It is remembered each year in Hong Kong where thousands turned out for a candlelight vigil to remember Tiananmen earlier this year. [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]


Russia and China formally end more than 30 years of enmity, signing a declaration to restore friendly ties. 


Jiang Zemin becomes president while hardliner Li Peng – seen as the main advocate behind the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown – is returned for another five-year term as prime minister.

Work begins on the Three Gorges Dam – a project first envisaged by Mao as a way to control the annual flooding of the Yangtze and generate electricity.


Deng Xiaoping dies, aged 92.

Hong Kong is returned to Chinese rule, after more than a century as a British colony. China promises to ensure freedoms unseen on the mainland for the people of Hong Kong, for at least 50 years. 


The Falun Gong spiritual group is banned as a threat to stability.

The Portuguese colonial territory of Macau reverts to Chinese rule, ending five centuries of colonialism in China.


China joins the World Trade Organization, ending a 15-year debate over whether it is entitled to the full trading rights of capitalist countries.


Hu Jintao becomes head of the Communist Party, replacing Jiang Zemin, the outgoing president, at the start of a two-year handover of power. 

China SARS
The outbreak of the previously unknown SARS virus spread through Hong Kong and southern China and killed more than 700 people. [File: Ng Han Guan/Reuters]


An outbreak of the previously unknown Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus kills 774 people, mostly in Hong Kong and mainland China.

China becomes only the third country in the world – after Russia and the US – to send a human into space. Yang Liwei orbits the Earth 14 times on board the Shenzhou V spacecraft.


Structural work is completed on the Three Gorges Dam, the largest in the world. More than 1.3 million people were forced from their homes for the 17-year construction of the dam with whole towns relocated. 


Anti-China protests erupt in Tibet and spread to Tibetan communities in nearby provinces. The protests are the most serious uprising against Chinese rule in 20 years.

In May, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake strikes the southwestern province of Sichuan, leaving nearly 90,000 people dead or missing, including thousands of children who were trapped in the rubble when their schools collapsed.

In July, China hosts the Olympic Games for the first time. The Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, designed especially for the event was the work of artist Ai Wei Wei and the Swiss architects Herzog de Meuron.

China Bird's Nest Stadium
The Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing was designed for the Olympic Games in 2008. [File: Jason Lee/Reuters]


China officially overtakes Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy.

Jailed writer and democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, triggering angry protests from Beijing. He dies of advanced liver cancer in July 2017, two weeks after being given medical parole.

His wife Liu Xia was kept under house arrest and was eventually allowed to leave for Germany in July 2018.


Internationally renowned artist and activist Ai Wei Wei is arrested and later charged with tax offences. He later moves to Europe.


Xi Jinping takes office as China’s president.


Protesters occupy Hong Kong’s city centre for 79 days calling on China to honour its commitments to democracy in the semi-autonomous city.


The Two-Child Policy comes into effect on January 1.


Beijing carries out mass detention of Muslim Uighurs in the country’s Xinjiang province. Conservatives estimates put the number of ethnic Uighurs – and other Muslim minorities held under some form of detention between one and 1.5 million.  


A constitutional change removes the two-term time limit on the presidency, allowing Xi to stay in office beyond 2023. His name and ideology are also added to the party’s constitution, putting him on the same level as party founder Chairman Mao.


Plans for an extradition bill that allows people in Hong Kong to be sent to the mainland for trial bring millions onto the streets in peaceful protests in June. 

The city’s government eventually agrees to recall the bill, but by then the demonstrations have morphed into bigger demands for more democratic freedoms.

China Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at a wreath-laying ceremony at the Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square, to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Other than Mao, he is the only leader to have his ideas added to the party constitution. [Thomas Peter/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera