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China is now an empire in denial – Gideon Rachman /FT.com / Columnists /

The Soviet Union ultimately fell apart because of pressure from its different nationalities. In 1991, the USSR split up into its constituent republics.

Of course, the parallels are not exact. Ethnic Russians made up just over half the population of the USSR. The Han Chinese are over 92 per cent of the population of China. Yet Tibet and Xinjiang are exceptions. Some 90 per cent of the population of Tibet are still ethnic Tibetans. The Uighurs make up just under half the population of Xinjiang. Neither area is comfortably integrated into the rest of the country – to put it mildly. Last week’s riots in Xinjiang led to the deaths of more than 180 people, the bloodiest known civil disturbance in China since Tiananmen Square in 1989. There were also serious disturbances in Tibet just before last year’s Olympics.

In a country of more than 1.3bn people, the 2.6m in Tibet and the 20m in Xinjiang sound insignificant. But together they account for about a third of China’s land mass – and for a large proportion of its inadequate reserves of oil and gas. Just as the Russians fear Chinese influence over Siberia, so the Chinese fear that Muslim Xinjiang could drift off into Central Asia. (via FT.com / Columnists / Gideon Rachman – China is now an empire in denial).

Cheap thrills

The Western media takes great and vicarious delight in predicting such break ups. It feeds their innate (though false) sense of superiority. With Scotland wanting to breakaway, Belgium on the verge of splitting into two, Czechoslovakia split into two, Europe itself on the brink of reverting to internecine squabbles.


That said, a break up of China should be no surprise.

Much like USSR’s break-up, the Chinese monolith is more fragile than apparent. Apart from the usual suspects of democracy, economic disparities, social upheavals, etc, there are 3 factors, which most Chinese analysts miss.

One, the Tibetan’s are held together by force – and no one imagines that this holding them together by force, can be in perpetuity. The Muslim provinces of Xinjiang (another one-third of China) is usually ignored. These issues are usually minimized by the current strength with which China holds these provinces together.

But possibly, the biggest issue is the share of revenues of the Chinese central governments.

Secondly, the Chinese Central Government commands less than 25% of the total tax revenues – and the 75% goes to provinces. This, possibly is why the Chinese Government cannot reduce cigarette usage in China. Most expenditures on health, education, pension, unemployment, housing etc. are borne by the local government – and hence there is patchwork of systems which run across China. Most of executions and imprisonments of bureaucrats (including the Mao’s Cultural Revolution) is to demonstrate central authority. The PLA is the only factor that keeps China together. A Chinese Lech Walesa or a Nelson Mandela could unwind China very quickly.

Significantly, and thirdly, the Chinese diaspora and Western MNCs are biggest investors in China – and also the main beneficiaries. This currently keeps resentments of the local Chinese under control – as the neighbour is not getting much richer. But at one stage the domestic Chinese will want to greater say and control over the Chinese economy. He may not be happy with just a well paying job and abundant, low quality goods.

Fences and neighbours

Modern nationalism (of the political variety) is a European construct. National boundaries have historically been ephemeral. The value of national boundaries is the ability to wage war – and disturb the boundaries of other countries.

Good fences create bad neighbours!

  1. Galeo Rhinus
    August 13, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    I agree with your overall thesis… however, your second argument is based on a false axiom – that a decentralized tax structure can weaken a nation.

    India – never had a very strong “center” per se… in fact the definition of an Indian state was always nebulous – what created the Indian nation was a culture that had imbibed a polititcal structure at its roots.

    Some of these ideas were transported to China with Buddhism.

    China is fragile, not only because of the things you point out – but because their modern polity destroyed their common thread as a nation- which was Buddhism – and replaced it with more “western” measures of a state.

    China as a state has a strong definition… but China as a nation has withered under the communists…

    …that’s what really makes it fragile.

  2. August 15, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Complex issue – which you are raising!

    A decentralized Indian society, with shifting political borders but a strong ideological and belief structure is something that has been progressively diluted for now about 1200 years – from 800 AD.

    Instead, Desert Bloc constructs like ‘nation’, ‘Empire’, ‘Sultanats’ have become a norm. China (and even India) are on the ‘nation’ trip – which possibly is in the short term an existential requirement to confront the Desert Bloc Asuric polity.

    As India recovers, (which will I think take time), this ‘nation’ concept will remain important. As it will in China. In such a situation, a strong centre will remain important for some time to come.

  3. Alex
    November 11, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    China has two other big problems. One is a shortage of water and food at a time when life expectancy is increasing. Therefore, they can’t have increased population. However, they have about 1.0 billion people who will get to retirement age in the next 30 years and must be supported which means they need more young people. The two problems just don’t mix.

    Add into that the inevitable unrest that will occur with their now large middle class once a real recession hits China (and the totalitarian response from the Communist Party) and the whole thing will start to collapse under the weight of these problems.

  4. Galeo Rhinus
    November 11, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Right – you are accurately pointing to the possible problems that China will face…

    …what I was referring to is China’s inherent fragility that could unravel China when faced with these problems.

    The stronger the “state” the better it thrives in the short run – but cannot sustain itself.

  5. November 12, 2009 at 8:47 am

    Of course, it is always easier to pick holes and find faults … and much as I can see China’s problems, there are also good reasons for China to continue with its march towards prosperity.

    1. Chinese pragmatism

    Faced with an unjust authoritarian State based on Confucian ethics, the Chinese did a quick turn and embraced Indic polity and thinking through Buddhism.

    In modern times, faced with a technology gap, the Chinese turned westwards and are building an industrial bedrock which will soon be second to none.

    The third instance, more recent and more important was Deng’s reforms. From a totalitarian state to some degree of economic freedom, achieved with significant ease and speed is remarkable.

    2. Been there and done that

    One of the only three cultures (apart from India and Africa) which have survived for the last 3000 and more years, the Chinese have an advantage. Unlike many other over-eager cultures, which have abundant energy and no patience, little humanity and recent success, the Chinese are patient – and will give their leaders time to work things out.

    3. Chinese hands

    The ability to make different products differently.

    Their script, their houses, till recently clothes, their food – are all very different. As any marketing person will tell you, difference is everything. Different products create their own markets. Take silk for example. Though Indian silk production was more ancient and significant, it is Chinese silk which the world remembers.

    I would not write-off the Chinese so easily or quickly. To this statement, add my very own bias and desire to see the Chinese succeed.

  6. Galeo Rhinus
    November 12, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    >>Chinese did a quick turn and embraced Indic polity and thinking through Buddhism.

    The most the Chinese could do was to embrace Buddhism… but Indic Polity?

    While Indic ideas have been exported in the past, Indic Polity was never ever deployed in any geographical area outside of the Indian sub-continent – because it requires a bottoms up change. The moment Indic ideas left India – even in the form of Buddhism – they became a religion.

    The prerequisite for a successful deployment of Indic polity is the ideas that are based in the Indic charter. No nation outside of India has been even remotely able to follow this polity. Even modern India is far removed from the original principles.

    Let’s not dilute the phrase Indic polity by including China!

  7. November 13, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    The Chinese could NOT entirely adopt the Indic political and social systems – but they made a damn good try.

    Away from authoritarian Confucian system to a egalitarian, Indic system, as promoted by many Indian teachers.

  8. November 13, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Buddhist ideas had reached China 2000 years ago and possibly even earlier than that. These ideas never translated into a political system – because the entrenched never allowed it.

    The monastery of Shaolin, founded by Bodhidharma’s guru around 575CE had shown the potential to affect the political system in China, – but the repression of 845 permanently eliminated the threat of Buddhism playing any political role in China.

    In 845, emperor Wuzang destroyed over 40,000 temples, 4000 monasteries and over a quarter million monks were forced to abandon their buddhist lives.

    While China, even as a non-Buddhist polity was not as oppressive as the desert bloc as you call it – let’s not get carried away and lump Chinese polity (pre or post Buddhist) along with Indic polity.

    Modern Communist China has taken the Tang repression of 845 and have extended it to destroy the lives of the Tibetans and any “free thinking” buddhists within China.

    You are embracing the once pervasive western paradigm of “east” vs. the “west” – where China/India/SE Asia/Japan were all lumped as “east.” I beg to differ. India was never like the rest of the “east” nor was it like the “west.” Indic polity was always unique to India. Modern Indian polity – on the other hand – is a frankenstinian version of “eastern” and “western” ideas.

    The three points you make above are a romantic view of China – something that the Marxists in India love to embrace 🙂

  9. November 16, 2009 at 6:44 am

    Away from the ‘official’ history are three observations, which I offer as evidence.

    1. I have long been a Kung Fu movie fan – and what I saw till the 1990’s, until the modernist Jackie Chan goes to America versions started coming out, it was always the wise Buddhist teacher who taught the Brave Chinaman to fight against feudal oppression. It was always the Wise Buddhist Teacher who showed the way.

    2. The ‘modern’ Chinese Government is so afraid of Buddhist revival that they have put restrictions on the Falun Gong followers from doing breathing exercises in the open. Falun Gong which attracted nearly 10 crore followers in the last 15 years, seems to have made the Chinese Government nervous.

    3. Contrast the faith that the Chinese have in Buddhist teachers with the representation of Church and priests in Hollywood and you will see the contrast. One set has been able to maintain trust and faith for more than 2000 years – and the other set seems to have lost it in less than a 1000 years.

    So, the power of the Indic ideas is something that India seems to have completely forgotten, missed and lost!!

    Take a 2ndlook.

  10. November 16, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    >>Away from the ‘official’ history…
    Actually – ‘official’ history or not – the burden is on you to demonstrate that the Chinese political system embraced not only Buddism but also the ideas within Indic polity…

    I am not sure what your argument is in the 3 points you make. I don’t think we disagree that Chinese society embraced Buddhism… I am simply pointing out that the Chinese polity (modern or ancient) embraced Indic ideas for any significant period.

    >>So, the power of the Indic ideas is something that India seems to have completely forgotten, missed and lost!!

    Yes – the political structure – in fact discourages looking at India’s own wisdom – having seduced by narrow promises of a progressive-liberal paradigm. Yet – there are large sections of Indian society – where the promise of Indic ideals remains dear.

  1. August 10, 2009 at 12:32 pm

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