MAO ERA, 1949-1976
After the Communist victory in 1949, China had a strong central government for the first time since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. But a succession of political campaigns, including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, brought famine and upheaval. Agriculture was collectivized and industry nationalized. Economic growth suffered. China largely cut itself off from the world, and relations with the U.S. were hostile until President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit.
DENG ERA, 1978-1990s
Deng Xiaoping launched his famous economic reforms in 1978, which led to the flourishing of private enterprise in the 1980s. U.S.-China ties blossomed following the normalization of relations in 1979 and amid mutual distrust of the Soviet Union. Killings of pro-democracy Tiananmen protesters in 1989 tarnished Deng's legacy, bruised ties with the U.S., and slowed reform. But Deng's 1992 call for faster reforms reignited economic growth.
JIANG ERA, 1990s-2002
Catapulted from relative obscurity, Jiang consolidated his power as Deng's influence waned in the years before his death in 1997. Jiang jettisoned Marxist ideology and fostered the shift to a market-oriented economy. He expanded social freedoms for the urban elite and curbed military clout. His attempts to make the state sector more competitive and clean up the financial sector were less successful. Last year, he oversaw China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
FOURTH GENERATION, 2003-
Lacking revolutionary experience, this generation is the best-educated to date. Hu Jintao may be President, but no one leader will dominate, and consensus will be the rule. On the economic front, the leadership will likely focus on reforming agriculture, state-owned enterprises, and the financial sector. There is disagreement between those who favor maintaining an authoritarian approach and those who insist economic reform must be accompanied by limited democracy.