The Guardian

Chaos, hope, change: stories from 70 years of the People's Republic of China

Seven decades after Mao declared the beginning of a new era, Chinese people reflect on the dizzying and jolting changes that have forged the modern nation
Chong Li walks through a hutong neighbourhood in Beijing where he has lived all of his life, witnessing the city’s drastic changes from the 1980s until now. Photograph: Emmanuel Wong

This year marks 70 years since Mao Zedong stood in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and declared the beginning of the People’s Republic of China. To the outside world, China’s transformation from a poor agrarian society into one of the world’s most powerful economies is nothing short of miraculous.

“If you think about what China was 70 years ago, essentially a country that had fought its way through two wars and was on its knees and battered – the idea that in 70 years it would be the second biggest economy in the world… and a major global player would have seemed very unlikely indeed,” said Rana Mitter, a professor of history and politics of modern China at Oxford University.

But for those who lived through these years, the pace of change has been dizzying and at times jolting. Almost no other country has experienced shifts as dramatic as China has – almost as if each generation has lived in an entirely different country.

The Chinese who grew up in the early days of the People’s Republic remember ration cards, mass hunger, and political campaigns like the Cultural Revolution, which upended the country between 1966 and 1976 and whose effects still linger today.

Those in the 1980s remember a time of optimism and openness, amid a growing belief that economic reforms be accompanied by political ones, liberalising both the economy and the political system. That chapter of openness was slammed shut by the end of the decade when the Chinese military crushed student protests on 3-4 June, 1989. The nation will remember the Tiananmen Square protests on their 30th anniversary next week.

In the decade after the crackdown the Chinese leadership, faced with a crisis of legitimacy, pursued economic opening even more aggressively, opening stock markets, reforming state-owned companies, and encouraging imports and exports, all in the name of creating a “socialist market economy”.

As a result, Chinese millennials have grown up in relative wealth as the country became the world’s manufacturer. At the same time, they have experienced

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