On February 25, 1956, in a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave his “Secret Speech” denouncing Stalin and his cult of personality. The political tremors from this questioning of Communist doctrine traveled across the border to Beijing where Chinese-leader Mao Zedong initially responded with an invitation for criticism (“Let a thousand flowers bloom”), only to double down on his relentless pursuit of internal enemies and continuous revolution. In search of a strategic breakthrough, Mao embarked on the Great Leap Forward, a sweeping, terrifying and, ultimately, catastrophic economic program designed to surpass the achievements of Western industrialization in an accelerated timeframe (in one “big bang”).
Beginning with Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China has since charted a different course, one of economic reform and modernization. This internal change dovetailed with external factors such as the end of the Cold War and expansion of globalization. Nearly forty years later, with hundreds of millions of Chinese lifted from poverty, a growing middle class, and the world’s second largest economy, Beijing’s ascent is one of the most important narratives in modern history. China’s rise has also been graded and moderated in comparison to the turbulent and tragic character of Mao’s era.