Despite having atomic weapons China remained a poor third world country when Mao Zedong died in 1976 after opening China to the west in 1972. China's condition would change under Deng Xiaoping as he began to move the country from collectivism to an open market economy. He started in Shanghai by opening it to foreign investment.
Criticized at first as being capitalist he said, "who cares if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mice?" His goal was to improved education, modernize the country, and improve international trade.
Since the 1970s Deng Xiaoping's programs lifted over 400 million people out of poverty into a better quality of life. China had also arrived on the world's state as a major political and financial power.
Today China is the second most powerful economy in the world and may overtake the United States within 20 years to be the most powerful.
Deng's accomplishments were not limited to economics. A new liberalism swept the land. Thousands of political prisoners were released and returned home. Western dress was allowed. Restrictions on art and entertainment were relaxed. Overseas Chinese distrusted since 1949 were now embraced and invited to return. It was a time of rising expectations and many Chinese hoped that a true democracy would be possible.
Those aspirations came to a head in April 1989 at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Massive rallies by students demanding democratic changes took place. To the Old Guard, including Deng Xiaoping, it began to look like the Cultural Revolution all over again. Rather than allow chaos the Party ordered the Square to be cleared. On June 3, 1989 the troops opened fire killing hundreds. The official death toll was 241, but the Western Press estimated more than 3,000 died.
On October 1, 2009 China celebrated its 60th anniversary under Communism. The challenge to this ruling party will be to make the people continue to believe that Communism continues to meet the ancient Mandate of Heaven requirements for peace, harmony, and prosperity.
The Chinese have their own hopes and reams for the future and they may not always agree with western attitudes and prejudices on a spectrum of topics. Their space program is on example on how far they have come. It is certain that China now has the technical and financial capabilities to be the first nation to send men and women on a voyage to Mars. They only have to want to do it, or just about anything else they can image. Afterall, they have been looking at the stars longer than anyone else.