This gap has been substantially reduced after reading a book by Maurice Meisner titled Mao's China and After: A History of the People's Republic. The book goes through in great detail the transition from China being a completely unindustrialized country that was exploited by Western imperial powers to its current state as one of the most rapidly industrialized countries whose people are now simply exploited by international corporations in association with the ruling 'Communist' Party.
The book starts with a description of the iconoclasm of many of the youth and intelligentsia at the beginning of the 20th century against the ruling 'Confucian' social order that had ruled Chinese society for centuries. Many people in this group in China looked toward the western parliamentary democracies as models that China should emulate and believed that this would transform China into a powerful country that could not be humiliated by imperial powers and would also bring China's socially backward populace into the 20th century. This movement took a turn on May 4, 1919 when thousands of students demonstrated in Beijing in response to the decision of the Western democracies to give German imperialist possessions in China to Japan as 'war booty'. Meisner explains how this event changed the political landscape in China:
The dramatically new political situation radically politicized a significant number of intellectuals. Many who had regarded themselves as liberal cosmopolitans emerged as militant nationalists, defending the country against the menace of foreign imperialism. Many who had rejected political participation because they attributed the plight of China to fundamental deficiencies in culture, for which political measures offered only superficial solutions, now began to favor immediate political action to save the nation from the external threat and to resolve the grave social and economic crises that threatened from within. The new spirit of political activism permeating the cities raised hopes that the masses could be organized for effective action and that the intellectuals could be effective in leading them. Concurrently, the intellectuals' views of the West underwent a dramatic transformation. The bitter nationalist resentments aroused by the fateful decision at Versailles, coupled with growing national political activism at home, led to a rapid erosion of the faith that the "advanced" Western nations would instruct China in the principles of democracy and science. The foreign teachers were now perceived as oppressors, and the old image of a Western world providing progressive models for the regeneration of China was replaced by a new image of a West made up of cynical and aggressive imperialist states. Having rejected traditional Chinese intellectual and political values, the intellectuals still looked to the West for guidance; but they now began to look more to Western socialist theories, which were themselves critical of the West as it was, in placed of conventional Western liberal ideologies, which sanctioned the existing capitalist-imperialist order.........To become a Marxist was one way for a Chinese intellectual to reject both the traditions of the Chinese past and Western domination of the Chinese present.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded two years later, and then over the course of a long civil war it finally won against the Nationalists in 1949 when the state of the PRC was formed. The CCP led by Mao Zedong, during the revolutionary years of the civil war, was a remarkably grassroots and popular organization that appealed to large numbers of the Chinese population, both in terms of their hopes of social betterment, but also in response to the understanding that the CCP would finally free China from the control of foreign imperial powers. This progressivism and connection with the masses was to deteriorate once the former revolutionaries found themselves as leaders of a state, as expected when you create a new ruling class with privileges not enjoyed by others.
The book then discusses the early years of the PRC, and its attempt to reconcile the fact that, at least according to orthodox Marxist theory, it was building a socialist country in economic and cultural conditions that were not suited for doing so. There are many parallels to the Soviet experience of course, but the Maoist experience is also in many ways very much different than the situation encountered by the leaders in the Soviet Union. Industrialization was to proceed rapidly, in order to build up the economic 'preconditions' for a socialist society. But this rapid industrialization and the need for increased production was hard to reconcile with the socialist aims of worker control and popular democracy. The need for centralized control over production to achieve maximum economic growth was in direct opposition to the socialist aim of direct control and the withering away of the state and the power and influence of the bureaucracy exploded in the years following the birth of the PRC. This fundamental dilemma, between building the political and social aspects of a socialist society (i.e., a democracy of producers) and that of building the economic aspects of a socialist society (a modern industrial base), was to rear its head many times in the first two decades of the PRC, manifesting itself in events like the The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, new leaders took over that promised more intellectual freedom and democratic reforms. These leaders, most notably Deng Xiaoping, were to soon to lead China on the road back to capitalism. They also soon went back on their promise of democratic reforms, as could be seen by their persecution of China's Democracy Movement. This persecution is most widely known from the incident in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in which the Chinese government massacred thousands of students and workers who were fighting for democratic reform of the government. In the wake of protests, the government declared martial law in Beijing. The first troops that were sent to Beijing fraternized with the students and workers, and so were withdrawn. The city was then surrounded by 200,000 veteran troops loyal to the government and on June 3rd they entered the city and began their attack, with the army's tanks, machine guns, and AK-47s firing indiscriminately into the waves of protesters who were courageously fighting back with bricks, sticks, and Molotov cocktails. At the end of the second day, thousands of people had been killed and over 40,000 would be arrested in the subsequent two months for their political activism. Below is a good Youtube video showing scenes from the attack:
Today we have a China which is still very controlling of their population. Political dissent is suppressed, and the workers are forbidden from forming their own labor unions in response to the exploitation that they suffer from at the hands of companies who go for cheap labor with no threat of labor unionization. I think the power that China has and the influence that America could have on it requires us to be knowledgeable about the situation there and its historical causes. For this reason I very much recommend this book.
Of the thousands of books that have been written about contemporary China, only a few will stand the test of time. This is one of them. --Foreign Affairs
Splendidly relates the human drama of the Chinese people and their leaders, with empathetic understanding and constructive criticism
--Zhiyuan Cui, professor of Political Science, MIT