top of page

A brief history of China since 1950

Since the 1950s, as the People’s Republic has sought to establish itself at home and abroad, China has experienced a period of great turbulence and change. The economic, social, and political tumult has motivated many Chinese people to migrate and settle around the world. The history of the period is naturally complicated and, in places, controversial. The summary below seeks to give a broad overview.


In 1949, following the end of the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949), Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Mao’s government had much more control over the population than its immediate predecessors and demanded mass participation from its citizens. Internationally, China became much more isolationist, and a large number of foreign businessmen, missionaries, and teachers were expelled between 1950 and 1952. Following the Soviet model, the PRC carried out a series of five year plans, the first commencing in 1953. These policies were initially popular and, following a century of invasion and war, succeeded in promoting economic growth. By 1956, the PRC had effectively nationalised all of China’s industrial and commercial businesses. Moreover, the government carried out widespread ‘land reform’ policies and between 1950 and 1960 approximately 40% of Chinese land was redistributed. Simultaneously, as many as a million people identified as ‘landlords’ were executed or were forced to flee the country. The CCP also founded the Laogai camp system. The camps, modelled on Soviet gulags, were used to punish, political prisoners, dissenters, and anyone deemed an enemy of the CCP.

Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1958 and Nikita Khrushchev’s condemnation of his predecessor, Mao launched an economic programme called “The Great Leap Forward”, an ambitious plan to increase Chinese industrial production and further collectivise Chinese agriculture. The Great Leap Forward was a catastrophe and caused a massive famine leading to the deaths of approximately 30-45 million people by the time the policy ended in 1962.

Meanwhile, spurred on by immigrants fleeing the newly founded PRC, Hong Kong experienced an economic revival and an economic shift towards industry and manufacturing. There was a particularly notable wave of migration from the mainland in 1962 in the wake of the famine. The influx of population, and the housing problems this caused, led to the construction of the cities first high rise buildings. While migration from the People’s Republic was heavily controlled until the 1970s, migration from China’s peripheries, like Hong Kong and Taiwan, steadily increased. The 1948 British Nationality Act came into effect in January 1949 and allowed people from Hong Kong to more easily obtain British citizenship. Following a collapse in the agricultural sector, this opportunity was taken up by many from Hong Kong’s rural New Territories. Villagers from Hong Kong’s rural areas moved to the UK to set up restaurants and meet a rising demand for Chinese cuisine.



The 1960s saw the dawn of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a massive campaign of ideological renewal and power consolidation launched by Mao against his own party. This period saw paramilitaries called Red Guards, many of them teenagers, encouraged by the state to rise up against their elders. It was an openly anti-intellectual and xenophobic movement which saw the persecution of experts such as teachers and doctors as well as anyone suspected of having foreign connections. Mao’s cult of personality continued to grow, particularly after the publication of his “Little Red Book” in 1964, and loyalty to Mao became politically essential. The Red Guards were eventually forced to end their campaign of violence in 1969, though many of the policies of the Cultural Revolution remained until 1976.

In 1968 the Mao launched the “Down to the Countryside Movement” which, over the following decade, sent 16 million urban Chinese young people to the countryside. Though publicly the campaign was meant to educate young people about socialism, historians theorise that the policy was enacted to disperse politically volatile Red Guards in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. The majority of these urban youths had negative experiences and many lost the opportunity to attend university or seek further education, leading some to describe them as ‘China’s Lost Generation.’

Despite the USA, Canada, and Australia rolling back policies barring Chinese migration in the 60s, movement overseas was limited for subjects of the PRC, with travel generally restricted to socialist countries.

In 1967 there large-scale protests against poor labour conditions under British colonial rule in Hong Kong. The riots saw the use of petrol bombs and many of the protestors were supporters of the CCP. These events prompted social reforms including the introduction of an eight-hour work day and six hour work week in 1971.



The beginning of the 1970s was a time of considerable change in Chinese politics. The government began to reconsider isolationism and diplomatic relations were established with the USA. President Richard Nixon visited the country for the first time in 1972.

In August 1975, following Typhoon Nina, the Banqiao Dam and 61 other dams, many of which were built during the Great Leap Forward, collapsed in Henan province. The failures caused the third deadliest flood in history, destroying millions of homes, and displacing over 10 million people.

In 1976 Mao Zedong died and Deng Xiaoping, outmanoeuvring his rivals, became the de facto leader of China. Fearing economic damage and brain drain, Deng reversed much of the anti-intellectualism of the Cultural Revolution. He began to emphasise the “four modernisations” and sought to develop agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defence. He broke down many of the collective farms founded under Mao and allowed farmers to sell a larger proportion of their crops on the free market. Under Deng, entrepreneurship was encouraged and economic equality was largely abandoned as a societal goal.

In 1978 Deng opened the Chinese economy to foreign investment. This shift in international policy allowed greater freedom of movement for Chinese people wishing to migrate and join family abroad. However, democracy remained strictly off the table and advocates continued to be regularly imprisoned.

In the aftermath of the riots of the late 1960s social reforms were enacted in Hong Kong, including economic shifts towards a laissez faire financial policy. This period saw the emergence of the term “Lion Rock Spirit”. Originating from the theme tune of the 1970s TV show Below The Lion Rock, the term became symbolic of the cultural identity of Hong Kong; celebrating civil solidarity and perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.



China continued opening up to the outside world in the 1980s. Foreign tourists and students began to come to China in greater numbers, while an increased number of Chinese students began to study abroad. In 1985, the PRC passed new legislation on emigration and immigration which guaranteed the rights of China’s citizens to travel outside of China. This sparked a decade of travel and long term emigration out of China which was termed “going abroad fever” (出国热). However, practical barriers such as foreign invitation and obtaining a passport remained.

Persecution of intellectuals and students had decreased by the 1980s and education was encouraged in an effort to stimulate growth in the science and technology sectors. Despite this, there were student protests from December 1986 to January 1987 in Shanghai, Beijing, Hefei, and other major cities. The students protested rising inflation, the cost of living, and government corruption, as well as advocating for freedom of speech, press, and academia. General Secretary Hu Yaobang was criticised within the CCP for being soft on the protestors.

In 1989, further student led demonstrations were held in Beijing’s Tianaman Square. The protests were sparked by the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, who was popular among intellectuals and students, and quickly escalated into protests for democracy and press freedom. At its height in May 1989, nearly a million workers and students were part of the protest. The protests continued until the 3rd and 4th of June at which point the government moved to end the protests. Hundreds of protestors were killed and many people affiliated with the movement were later arrested and imprisoned.

Following the Tiananmen Square protests, fears over the handover from British rule in Hong Kong caused a significant upswing in immigration to the United Kingdom with migration peaking in 1992. This period also saw an increased migration to Canada and the USA


In 1989 Jiang Zemin became general secretary of the CCP and paramount leader of China. 1990s saw great economic growth in china and millions of peasants were raised out of poverty. Much of the political unrest on the late 1980s seemingly dissipated, even on university campuses. Indeed, economic success spurred an increase in Chinese nationalism. Many Chinese people seemingly accepted one party rule in exchange for greater prosperity. Domestically, consumer spending on non-food items increased in the 90s, while on the international stage, China gained a reputation as a centre of cheap labour, and the manufacturing of cheap low-tech products.

In 1992 Deng Xiaoping went on a tour of southern China. The comments he made on this tour reinvigorated the opening up of China and Chinese economic reform, which had stagnated after the Tiananmen Square protests. Deng’s comments further cemented the presence of capitalist characteristics in the Chinese economy. He famously said that "I don't care if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”

Despite international criticism over continued human rights abuses, such as the CCP’s decision to persecute the Falun Gong movement, China’s relations with the outside world generally improved under Jiang Zemin. Since the 1990s, China has continued to send students in the tens of thousands to study abroad in a bid to place science and technology education at the centre of its policy.

In 1990 the UK government launched the British Nationality Selection Scheme, which allowed at least 50,000 people to become UK citizens. The scheme was popular among Hongkongers who feared the changes that would come with the handover to Chinese rule in 1997. In 1997, Hong Kong became part of China. However, the Basic Law of Hong Kong, passed in 1990 and in effect from 1997, established the principle of “one country, two systems”, which would allow Hong Kong to continue as a capitalist enclave until 2047. From the day of the handover on July 1st 1997, annual civil and human rights protest rallies have been held in Hong Kong.



Between 2002 and 2003 Leadership of China passed to General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Their administration was influenced by the principles of the “Scientific Outlook on Development” and sought to better distribute China’s growing wealth and reduce the rural-urban income gap. During this period China began to be more widely recognised as a global superpower. China’s entry into the world trade organisation in 2001 provided the country with a significant boost to its economy and allowed it to overtake Germany to become the world’s largest exporter by 2009.

The 2000s saw increased social unrest as the Hu-Wen government restricted personal freedoms, particularly those concerned with political free speech. This was particularly notable online, as the internet became an increasingly important part of everyday life in the 2000s. Indeed, by 2014 there were 632 million internet users in China. The Golden Shield Project, a mass surveillance and content control system, was launched in November 2000 and became known as the Great Firewall of China.

In the 2000s, China was the fastest growing major economy in the world, and many millions of Chinese people were lifted out of poverty. Despite this economic success, as well as the aims of the Hu-Wen government, China continued to be a deeply unequal society. Indeed, the gap between rich and poor and the disparity between rural and urban areas grew. Education and healthcare tended to be mostly available to those who could pay, and governmental corruption was a serious issue.

The 2000s also saw unprecedented environmental degradation, including issues with urban smog, and water pollution. The extinction of the Baiji, also known as the Yangtze River Dolphin, became symbolic of this issue in 2002. The dolphin’s habitat had been transformed into a centre for mass shipping, fishing, and hydroelectricity.

Development and urbanisation plans, such as the Three Gorges Dam Project, led to the forced displacement of around 40 million farmers between 1985 and 2005. Protests In Guangdong over similar plans and insufficient compensation for farmers led to several deaths at the hands of armed police. Political dissent continued to be heavily quashed.

In August 2008 Beijing hosted the Olympics, the first time that the China has held the games. 3.5 billion people watched the competition globally. The success of the games are thought to have increased support for the CCP and its policies.

In the 2000s China simultaneously sought to relax constraints on overseas study and built policies designed to entice Chinese people abroad to return. In 2002 getting a passport became easier with the abolition of the need for a foreign invitation and approval from a local Public Security Bureau were abolished.

Hong Kong continued to see annual protests against changes to Hong Kong and infringements on human rights. The annual July 1st protests amassed significant public attention in 2003 as 500,000 marchers gathers to protest article 23 of the Basic Law, which states that Hong Kong should enact laws restricting acts of ‘treason, secession, sedition, subversion’ against the PRC government, and the 2003 National Security Bill which sought to meet this obligation. The protests caused the resignation of the Hong Kong Liberal Party chairman James Tien, and the bill was shelved indefinitely.



China’s economic growth continued in the 2010s and China, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis, has become increasingly dominant on the world stage. In 2014, China surpassed the United States and, by some measures, became the world’s largest economy. China also began to shed its reputation as an economy dependent on cheap manufacturing. Large Chinese corporations such as Huawei, Tencent, and Alibaba have emerged as major multinationals, while Shenzen, a burgeoning city on China’s southern border with Hong Kong, has became known as China’s answer to Silicon Valley.

Since the start of XI Jinping’s rule in late 2012 there have been a significant increases in refugees leaving China. Under Xi Jinping, censorship and mass surveillance, particularly on the internet, have also increased. That being said, Xi has built on the work of his predecessors and made alleviating poverty a priority with the Targeted Poverty Alleviation program.

Since 2014 Uyghur Muslims, a minority group who largely inhabit the Xinjiang region along China’s western border, have been placed under severe social, religious, and economic restrictions by the government. Up to a million Uyghers have been detained in mass “re-education camps” aimed at changing their political and religious beliefs. The oppression in China has caused many Uyghers to seek asylum in other nations, particularly in the middle east.

Beginning in March 2019, a series of protests known as the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement began in Hong Kong. The demonstrations would become one of the largest in Hong Kong’s history. The protesters opposed a new bill that would allow the PRC to extradite political dissenters living in Hong Kong. Despite the demonstrations, the Hong Kong National Security Law was passed on the 30th June 2020 and met many of the expectations of the Hong Kong Basic Law. The eventual failure of the movement and the passing of the law sparked a wave of emigration out of Hong Kong. The US and UK continue to be popular destinations.



In December 2019 the first known cases of Covid-19 were identified in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province. From January 2020 the Chinese government implemented strict lockdowns in Wuhan and other cities throughout China. Xi Jinping has favoured a “Zero Covid Policy”; a tactic which aims to rapidly and strictly control all outbreaks of the virus. China continued with this policy even after most other countries changed to mitigation strategies with far greater societal freedoms. Following a particularly big outbreak and lockdown in Shanghai in March 2022 there was significant pushback. The enforcement of the lockdown triggered nationwide protests over Zero Covid and its economic consequences. Zero Covid also caused an increased interest in immigration. The term “runxue”, which roughly translates to “the study of running away” went viral online in China after the 2022 Shanghai lockdown. In response to the backlash and protests, China has wound down many of these policies.

Between 2020 and 2022 there has also been a major crisis in the Chinese property sector sparked by the financial troubles of the Evergrande Group, the second largest property developer in China. This crisis has spread to other sectors, notably steel, and has had serious effects on China’s economy. It has caused a marked slowdown in China’s economic growth and in foreign investment. 

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
bottom of page