COULD China be witnessing the beginnings of its own end?
The vast majority of commentators say chances are slim. Most are as dismissive of China-sceptics as Nikita Krushchev was of USSR doom-mongers in the late fifties. Yet within three decades of “We will bury you!” Krushchev was proved wrong. History was not on his side and the only grave being dug was for the Soviet Union itself.
But, surely, this is the beginning of the great “Chinese Century”? The People’s Republic is completely different to the USSR? It’s all about economics now? Well, yes and no ...
A ‘NATION STATE’?
Pull out a map of the Orient. Not a Chinese Communist Party standard issue, but one from history. Whether you go back a hundred years or a thousand, the image that greets you is strikingly similar: a far, far smaller “China”, centred on the old Han Chinese heartlands. Much of what lies within “Chinese” borders today was not so long ago a mosaic of very separate, non-Chinese states, only absorbed by force.
Travel around China, and as you leave the booming cities of the east, the picture becomes clear. Fewer people look “Chinese”, speak Chinese (either Mandarin or Cantonese), or act “Chinese” (mosques instead of Mao, chortens instead of chopsticks). It is not so much “ethnic minorities” living in “autonomous zones”, more non-Chinese majorities whose homelands have been swiped from beneath their feet. The contrast with Beijing and Shanghai is stark, despite millions of Han Chinese families being forcibly relocated to live in these regions, or bribed with government jobs.
If it was inevitable Soviet Republics like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan would one day seek self-determination, is it so hard to believe Tibetans and Uighurs won’t do the same? Or that Inner Mongolians wish reunification with their “Outer” cousins?
THE WAR IS OVER?
China may not face the threat of a cold war, yet it is still embroiled in major conflict. Trump, Putin, even Kim Jong-un could be roll-called as potential adversaries, but foreign opponents are the least of Party Leaders’ worries. The reality is they are already at war on three home fronts:
This is the Mandarin name for the enormous province that makes up northwest China. However, a significant minority of the region’s (primarily Muslim) inhabitants use “East Turkestan” or “Uighurstan”. The area’s history is of mixed fortune but for much of the past it was made up of rich independent kingdoms like Khotan or Kashgar. As recently as 1949, East Turkestan existed as an independent republic. Today, the largest ethnic group is the Uighurs, and many are in conflict with Beijing. Suicide bombings, embassy attacks and plane hijackings are regularly carried out by groups demanding their own nation state. A 2014 attack at the Kunming Railway station killed 31 and injured 141.
The Tibetan struggle may be the most peaceful “war” on the planet, but this does allow the Dalai Lama to retain broad international sympathy. Historically, Tibet also included much of the modern Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan, and ethnically and culturally Tibetans have always been completely at odds with their Chinese neighbours. This whole region is still primarily “Tibetan”, despite 150,000 Tibetans living in exile. Recent protests have turned violent, sometimes deadly.
Technically, China is not at war with this nation but that is only because Taiwan has never formally declared nationhood. If Taipei does, Beijing has vowed it will launch an immediate military attack. As recently as March 2017, Taiwan’s Defence Minister talked of “warfare” against mainland China. With hostilities in the South China Sea steadily increasing, and Washington using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with Beijing, developments in Taipei could yet be a major catalyst for change.
ECONOMICS OR POLITICS?
If economics as much as politics proves instrumental in the unravelling of modern China, Hong Kong holds the key. Beijing has made every effort to integrate the former colony into the mainland economy, but fundamental obstacles remain. Uncompromising protests frequently denounce Beijing for reneging on promises, with many “islanders” demanding full democratic rights and an end to the one-party system.
Dissent is spreading across southern China and many protesters, like their Hong Kong counterparts, are Cantonese — or Hokkien-speaking Han. Those south of the Yangzte River may share ethnic and cultural ties with their Mandarin-speaking cousins in the north, but they have long considered themselves different. Traditionally this might have only been a preference for rice over noodles, but increasingly debate is about more than what food’s on the table.
PAPERING OVER THE CRACKS
The world’s new “superpower” hopes investment in the provinces will convince locals that life under CPC rule is preferable to any breakup. In particular, President Xi Jinping is staking billions on his “One Belt, One Road” policy, aimed at creating a “New Silk Road” to bring trade and prosperity. Nevertheless, the economy is increasingly volatile. Could a 9/11-type terrorist event cause it to implode? Under such circumstances, might the Han Chinese call for their Uighur, Tibetan and Mongol “compatriots” to be cut loose? This is a country famous for turning its back on the outside world.
Tellingly, the Kremlin also ordered mass migrations. Stalin sent thousands of native Russians to “modernise” his newly created Soviet Republics, yet following the breakup of the USSR the vast majority quickly returned. Successive leaders tried similar “economic solutions” but the likes of Perestroika and Glasnost proved too little too late.
Will China collapse tomorrow? Probably not. In the next 30 years? Ask Mikhail Gorbachev.
Paul Wilson has been travelling through Central Asia and China since the late 1990s. His book, The Silk Roads (Trailblazer), is in its third edition. He is a regular speaker at the UNWTO’s Silk Road Programme and Open Central Asia Literary Festival.