By Eric Vandebroeck
Underneath the beginning of the Gala performance in Beijing with performers from ethnic minority groups in traditional costume during China’s 70th National Day.
Understanding modern China.
Central to the self-understanding of the Chinese leadership today is the concept of Han Chinese an idea that derived from the Song period when the first form of diplomatic cosmopolitanism was conceived. It was during the described Song period that Chinese colonists spread relentlessly southward, recurrently provoking armed opposition from tribal groups in their path.
One challenge faced historically by the agricultural and stationary Han civilization was that it was surrounded to the north and west by nomadic tribes, with fluctuating borders and populations in the mountains and dense forests to the south. To secure the Han core, China historically fought, and occasionally was overcome by, its neighbors (particularly the powerful nomadic tribes to the north). To manage its regional position, China established a Middle Kingdom policy whereby it kept neighbors at bay with a parallel policy of integration and accommodation for the nearby buffer regions while employing a nominal tributary system to deal with its slightly more distant neighbors.
It was through the Han expansion that China made its first contacts with peoples outside of the traditional Chinese sphere, as its emissaries reached as far as Parthia (in modem Iran), China developed its earliest firsthand knowledge and understanding of other-particularly Western-cultural worlds. Second, the triumphant military expeditions implanted the Middle Kingdom idea firmly and visibly in the Chinese the worldview of international relations, in which China was the center and superpower of the world and other peoples and countries were referred to only in a tributary and subordinate terms.
Throughout its history, China’s boundaries underwent constant fluctuations.
Thus the ruling political party of the People’s Republic of China’s current allegiance to the unchanging never-never land of a timeless past is clear in its delineation of China’s borders, based on the furthest reaches of a Manchu-led empire, the Qing, but claimed to be eternal and perpetually “Chinese.”
But it is the Maoist period that largely shaped China’s contemporary boundaries and geopolitical landscape. The internal weakening of the Qing Dynasty in the 18th and 19th centuries provided ample opportunities for imperial exploitation of China by Europe and later Japan.
One of Beijing’s greatest fears about the buffer regions stems from the manner in which China assimilated them into the country. Unlike the Soviets, who moved non-Russian ethnic groups around to avoid contiguous ethnicities across borders, China moved Han Chinese into the buffer regions, slowly diluting the local populations. China still fears Pan-Turkic movements spreading through Central Asia into Xinjiang; large, organized ethnic Tibetan populations in India; Inner Mongolian herdsmen potentially seeking reunification with Mongolia; ethnic Koreans on the Chinese side of the Yalu River forging ties with a future unified Korea; and numerous ethnic minority and even militant groups moving along the borders of Southeast Asia.
The weakness of China was (and may remain) the internal diversity of geography, history, economic activity, and regionalism. As noted above, the Han core appears largely unified, but underneath is extremely complex and fragmented. China has north-south divisions, coastal-interior divisions, core-periphery divisions, rural-urban divisions, and increasingly, have-and have-not divisions. Balancing these differences requires a deft hand at the center. And, with China’s current economic slowdown, this balancing act is growing more difficult. China’s size has led to a historic pattern of expansion and contraction based on internal crises more often than external threats, though as anywhere, severe internal crises can pave the way for external actors to move in.
See also my case study about the new nationalism project started following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
What also should be noted is that China’s economic success has broken its self-sufficiency. Now, it imports at least as much of its key industrial commodities as it produces. Foreign trade is a vital piece of China’s economic activity, even as the country attempts to drive its economy toward a domestic consumption model. Outbound investments provide access not only to markets and resources but also to technology and skills. This has compelled China to seek ways to secure its vulnerable supply lines, expand its maritime presence and extend its international financial and political presence.
Gala performance with performers from ethnic minority groups in China later in the evening: