On October 1, 2005, the People's Republic of China, or "New China" as it is fondly referred to by the entire Chinese people, turns 56 years old.
With a population counted at 1.3 billion on the first day of this year and a land mass of 9.6 million square kilometers, plus 4.73 million square kilometers of territorial waters, China is the largest developing country in the world.
For China, which takes pride in its civilization that dates from 5,000 years ago, October 1, 1949 marked the beginning of development in real sense. For the Chinese people comprising 56 ethnic groups, the day meant freedom, once and for all, from humiliation and starvation, the beginning of a historic long march toward stability and prosperity.
For a whole century before the late Chairman Mao Zedong pronounced the birth of New China, the Chinese nation was tormented by foreign invasions and wars fought among warlords for supremacy over the country. The humiliation the nation suffered was so bitter that Deji Cholga, a 7th grader at Beijing's Huaxia Girls' School, says she hates to study that part of Chinese history.
The part of the nation's history the teenage girl feels unpleasant to learn covered the Opium War (1840), in which the United Kingdom, with just 20,000 troops and 50 gunboats, defeated the antiquated armies of the Qing (1644-1911), China's last feudal dynasty, which boasted 900,000 men. Though the victim of this armed aggression, China was forced to pay the aggressor 21 million taels of silver in "war reparation" and opened five trading ports. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain, to be returned to China in 1997.
Even more bitter were memories of Japanese aggression against China. In 1931, Japan seized the entire northeast China, an area of 800,000 square kilometers, where it set up a puppet regime known as "Manchoukuo." And in late 1937, Japanese troops massacred more than 300,000 disarmed Chinese soldiers and civilians in Nanjing, then the national capital, in just a few weeks after the city fell.
Foreign aggression went hand-in-hand with internal turmoil, making it impossible for China to develop. "In the 200 years from 1750 to 1950," says Prof. Hu Angang of the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, "much of the world was striving for industrialization, but the Chinese economy stood stagnant, and the country was rated as one of the weakest in the world."
Prof. Hu is known for his study of China's national conditions. "Old China was unable to industrialize because it did not have a strong enough government to defend the country and keep society in order," he says. Stability, the prerequisite for achievement of prosperity, was a long-cherished dream of the Chinese people. The dream has come true in New China. That, in part, explains why the Chinese people support the Communist Party of China, the ruling party since 1949. Says Zhou Jun, an amateur historian and TV worker in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, "The Party has done what all governments before 1949 failed to do."
Stability and prosperity can in no way be realized without democracy. By proceeding from its own conditions, New China practices the "system of multi-party cooperation under the leadership of the Communist Party of China," which has proved effective in getting all patriots and their political groupings actively involved in national development.
How the name of New China, the People's Republic of China, was chosen highlights the extent to which this "socialist democracy" has been practiced. It was adopted in September 1949, on proposal from non-Communist delegates to a conference called by the Communist Party to make preparations for the founding of the new government.
"It was the outcome of democratic consultation," says Lu Guoqing, a historian. Dai Huang, a retired journalist who witnessed the celebrations of the founding of the People's Republic on October 1, 1949, says he loves the new name chosen for the country. "After two millenniums of feudal rule and a whole century of imperialist aggression, China finally made itself a republic of, and certainly for and by, the people."
And democratic consultation and multi-party cooperation under the leadership of the Communist Party have become institutionalized. Political consultation takes the organization form of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which gathers representatives of all the eight non-Communist political parties and non-party figures aside from those from CPC.
The non-Communist political parities all have representation in the National People's Congress, the supreme organ of state power, and local people's congresses. Of the nearly 3,000 deputies to the current 10th NPC, deputies from non-Communist parties and patriots without party affiliation account for 16.09%, and workers and farmers take 18.46% of the seats.
All the 55 ethnic minorities have deputies to the NPC, who take 13.91% of the seats, although their combined population account for less than 9% of the national total. And their development and prosperity have always been high on the agenda of the leaders of the People's Republic.
Before 1949, central governments of different periods each had their own policies and systems in place for administering ethnic affairs. But none of them, whether set up by the Han people or by ethnic minorities, secured any measure of equality among ethnic groups, says Prof. Chen Liankai of the Central Ethnicity University.
The founding of New China marked the beginning of a new era featuring equality, unity and mutual assistance among all ethnic groups in the country. People of ethnic minority groups have the legal right to self-government in areas where they account for more than one-third of the local population. To date, China has five provincial-level autonomous regions, 30 autonomous prefectures, 120 autonomous counties (or "banners" in areas with ethnic Mongolians living in compact communities), and more than 1,500 autonomous townships. Among China's 55 ethnic minority groups, 45 have set up autonomous areas of their own.
Ethnic minority areas, mostly outlying with relatively difficult natural conditions, are not as developed like areas where Han Chinese are the majority. To promote their development, the central government has allowed a whole range of policy privileges to help them stand on their own while providing them with financial, technological and other assistance.
The policy has worked. One example is Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Since 1996, the region has reported faster growths than the national average in gross domestic products (GDP), per capita disposable income for urban residents, per capita net income for farmers and herders, and local government revenue.
Ensured by democracy, stability has ensured economic growth and social progress nationwide. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China's GDP has grown at annual rate greater than 9% since 1979, reaching 13,651.5 billion yuan (8.27 yuan against the U.S. dollar) in 2004, nearly double that of 1998. China is producing enough to feed one fifth of the world's population though its arable land accounts for only 7% of the world's total.
Thanks to increased government inputs and efforts of various social groups, China has reduced its rural population living in absolute poverty - those with a per capita income of less than 668 yuan - from 250 million in 1979 to 26.1 million in 2004.
The Chinese people have become richer, particularly in the past 25 years. In 2004, net incomes for rural residents averaged 2,936 yuan per capita, up from 133 yuan in 1978. Per capita disposable incomes for city people increased from 343 yuan to 9,422 yuan during the same 27-year period.
The country has won recognition as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It is now pressing ahead with implementation of what the central government calls a "scientific outlook on development" - meaning an all-round, well-balanced and sustainable development, a development that truly serves the vital interests of the Chinese people.
Despite these achievements, the Chinese people know that many challenges lie ahead. The Chinese economy has maintained strong growth momentum, but the quality of economic operation needs improvement, says Li Deshui, director of the National Bureau of Statistics. Living standards have kept improving, but the gap in development is widening between the hinterland and coastal areas.
China's legal and social security systems need improvements to adapt to the changing economic and social conditions. People are increasingly aware that on no account must economic development be achieved at the expense of the environment. Says Hu Angang, "China is doing something without precedence in human history."
Meanwhile, the Chinese people and their leaders are more determined than ever to build the country into a more prosperous, more democratic society on the basis of what they have achieved since 1949. When New China celebrates its centenary in the mid-21st century, as predicted by Professor Hu and other experts, it will become as developed as an average developed country.