In the frequent absence of direct government control, the Chinese people have often had a fair degree of economic freedom. Indeed, some philosophers have reminded China’s rulers that it is best to stay out of ordinary people’s lives as much as possible, and ruinous to impose ideas upon them. Yet such Western notions as “human rights” are vaguely heretical. Those who propose limits on the power of government or traditional loyalties are dangerous and must be curbed.
A century ago, public beheadings and punishments such as the wire jacket (otherwise known as the death of a thousand cuts) horrified many Western observers. Today, there are equally shocking stories about the rapid execution of condemned prisoners and the use of their organs for transplants, or allegations of the deliberate starvation of orphans. For many Chinese, these are nothing compared to evils of weak government – and their recent history proves it.
China’s attempts to expand beyond the heartland area have been slow and painful. There was little expansion until the Qin and Han Dynasties (225 BC to 221 AD) conquered much of the Southeast. Even then, these southern areas were malarial and the cultivation of wheat gave way to rice. Extensive labour was required to prepare for permanent settlement. The local Thai and Tibeto-Burman people were a majority until the latter years of the Tang Dynasty (581-907 AD). When pressure from the Altaic barbarians in the north displaced many Chinese to safer lands south of the Yangtze. This in tum probably begot the Burmese and Thai migrations into Southeast Asia.
Han-Chinese rule of modem Sichuan and Yunnan provinces was never firm until the Manchu (or Qing) Dynasty of 1644 to 1911. Even today, Non-Chinese peoples (Thai, Burmese and Tibetans) are extremely common in Yunnan, although the majority ofthe population is now Han-Chinese.
The Han and Tang Dynasties had also extended a tenuous control over the western areas of Gansu, Xianjiang, and the Uyger homelands of Dzungaria. Expeditions had passed through these areas to conquer what is now modem Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and portions of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. However, China’s actual presence in Xianjiang and Dzungaria was quite limited – a small garrison and an ineffective governor. A remote region might be regarded as something akin to the Russian use of Siberia as a place to send disgraced officials, convicts and second-rate soldiers. The province of Gansu was sparsely settled (as it is today) for only a few pockets of land are arable. Whenever China reduced its garrisons the settlers became easy prey for nomads and raiders.
The Manchus, an Altaic-Tungic people descended from the Mongols, had conquered China as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) weakened. By 1760, the Manchus conquered Outer Mongolia, Xianjiang and Dzungaria and added them to China as permanent possessions. Although China has a 1300 year old claim (based on feudalistic laws) to Tibet, real control came after the Manchu military conquered the region.
The Manchus also ended China’s longest running threat in the same way that Scotland ended centuries of English invasion by assuming the English throne. Northern invaders had plagued China since the early days of the Chou dynasty. Every Dynasty since then had to deal with a northern threat – and several were toppled because of it. Northern kingdoms sometimes became Sinified – often only to be overthrown by new invaders from Manchuria or Mongolia.
Although the Juchen Mongols had ruled much of China as the Yuan Dynasty, China had been unable to take their possessions when the Mings toppled them. When the Manchus were overthrown in 1912, China’s claim to own Manchuria, Xianjiang, Dzungaria and Tibet was never really disputed by other nations. However, with the anarchy that followed, China’s hold on all its far flung possessions proved precarious. Tibet became virtually independent until 1950, and Mongolia has enjoyed a de jure independence since 1912. (Some Chinese maps ominously display Mongolia as a part of China).
At the height of their powers in the late 18th Century, the Qing Dynasty ruled all of modem China. Their domains also extended north of the Amur River Valley, into Vietnam’s Red River Valley, and touched the shores of Lake Balkash in Kazakhstan. Korea, Nepal, Burma, Siam, Laos and Tonking were tributary states, owing deference to the Manchus but otherwise self-governing.
At sea, although Chinese pirates ranged far and wide, the Manchus only owned Taiwan – having wrested it from the Dutch. It must be noted that the Ming Dynasty, although limited in its mainland holdings, had forced Java, Sumatra, Malaysia and Ceylon into tributary status. The great voyages of exploration, trade and conquest ended after 1430, when the Mandarinate decided that the costs of these voyages outweighed the benefits. By that time, Chinese expeditions had reached southern Africa, but then the great Chinese maritime experiment ended.
The strength and influence of China has always been rising and falling, but the ebbing strength of the Manchus created an especially humiliating era. Chinese hegemony in Asia was destroyed. Russia stripped away territories in Central Asia and everything north of the Amur River. Japan took Taiwan (which remains a de facto independent nation after defeated Nationalists moved there in 1949) and still retains the Ryukyu Islands. The British seized Hong Kong (then a collection of tiny fishing villages) after trouncing Chinese forces in the First Opium War. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, Chinese authority did not extend to many of its own ports or coastal territories. These were now increasingly under the control of Russia, Japan, France, the UK and Germany.
From 1912 until the Communist victory in 1949, China was scarred by anarchy, civil war, foreign invasion, and more civil war. Communist rule provided additional difficulties, although the current Mandarinate is unwilling to permit any substantive criticism of its right to rule. The Party chiefs and technocrats all know the price that China paid for weakness.
Internal Sources of Instability
China’s power is growing rapidly, but the giant does have feet of clay. The country’s place as a leading power is by no means assured.
Although the ideology of China’s Communist Party has been considerably different from that practiced inside the former USSR, there were a number of common points. Russia’s experience with 73 years of Communism has been the near total destruction of many traditional values and institutions. Although these are creeping back like new growth after a forest fire, the current state in Russia shows that the recovery is still fragile.
Likewise, the 20th Century subjected China to considerable chaos and 48 years of more-or- less Communist government. Custom and tradition have been trampled underfoot, and some of the traditional obligations and customs that curbed individual freedoms are likewise weakened. While family and village life have demonstrated a powerful resilience, the industrialization and commercialization of China has only begun. It remains to be seen if China’s greatest bastion of traditional culture wi ll survive this next onslaught.
China is already experiencing a fair degree of internal lawlessness and corruption. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of executions every year in criminal and corruption cases. Many foreign businessmen report having to pay “Squeeze” to operate in China, and a fine indifference to intellectual property has spawned a growing pirate industry. However, a comparison of law and order problems in contemporary China to life in bygone dynasties might be a very difficult piece of scholarship. It may be that what a Westerner perceives as a major law and order problem could in fact be an entirely normal facet of civic life. In any event, the Triads (powerful organised criminal associations descended from anti-Manchu rebels) have returned from their exile in Hong Kong and Taiwan to resume normal activities.
One of the Triad’s most lucrative industries concerns prostitution and the kidnapping of women. While these are traditional Triad activities, the demand has been heightened because of the Communist Party’s continuing stress on single-child families. Given the traditional value placed on male children, the policy had a predictable effect: As of 1994, China had 17 million more males than females in the age ranges of 13-32. Moreover, virtually all of the young women in some impoverished rural areas have migrated to the cities (or been kidnapped). This male-female imbalance will continue to grow and may result in serious unrest in some regions.
The rapid commercial and industrial boom in China is having some of the same effects that were witnessed in 19th Century Europe and America. These effects include rampant pollution, endemic abuse of workers, and a very widespread gap between rich and poor. In the West, these problems were overcome without significant violence, largely because of democratic political systems and the tradition of the rule oflaw. In China, the law is always a servant of the state – and the state’s functionaries are currently determined to get rich.
China’s problems are amplified because of its huge population and overcrowded urban areas. It is already short of clean water and arable land. These, in combination with a growing number of single men, may ultimately prove to be a very strong engine for an aggressive foreign policy.
The problems of China’s modernization should not be underrated. Food resources are already stretched to the maximum, while new prosperity has combined with the growing population to make even heavier demands. The country is very sensitive to both drought and flooding – sometimes both calamities visit in the same year The potential for severe food shortages is very great. Potable water is often in short supply, and air quality in most urban centres is extremely bad. There are few natural resources in China that are not already under strain, and there is not much of an environmental cushion against disaster. Moreover, China’s development is only beginning, and all of these problems will become greater. Disaster, however, is perhaps closer than ever as global weather patterns are most definitely changing.
China’s need for new land and water has also contributed to Beijing’s resettlement schemes in remote areas. Han Chinese constitute 94% of the population of China, but some 50 minorities are present. Some of these peoples are entirely distinct from the Han themselves. Others are almost identical in language, appearance and culture. Some minorities are concentrated in small areas; others are strewn over large expanses, and some are so intermingled that their unique status seems almost artificial.
Some of the minorities have been bypassed by history to survive in little enclaves of their own. Others, such as the Mongolian, Tibetan, Turkic and Thai peoples, have been enemies for long centuries. While they are officially tolerated, the Communist Party governments have been deliberately resettling vast numbers of Han Chinese in their homeland areas. This is not ethnic cleansing per se, but rather more like ethnic diluting. Already, resettlement in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia has changed the ethnic balance of these regions, so that Han-Chinese now form the majority of the population. The same will soon be true for Tibet and the Uighur lands in the Northwest.
Many Tibetans and Uighurs have rejected the growing Sinification of their homelands, and some have engaged in mass protests and even terrorism. Tibet was re-occupied in 1950, and a 1959 revolt was ruthlessly suppressed. When Tibetan nationalism resurfaced in 1987- 90, it was suppressed again and it is likely that some 2,000 people were executed. Street clashes occurred as recently as 1993. Currently, China is undermining the last remaining Lamaseries of the 6,000 that once formed the core of Tibetan spiritual and cultural life. It is “discovering” its own reincarnations of dead Lamas and appointing them instead of those selected by Tibetan monks. Some 60 Uighurs were said to have died in 1990 when Chinese troops fired on a demonstration. The death toll in a recent 1997 riot runs from 4 (official Chinese figures) to a Uighur estimate of300.
While the minorities are protected in varying degrees, one privilege extended to them by Beijing may soon backfire. Han-Chinese couples are still restricted to one child by government policy, but some minorities were apparently excluded from this decree. Moreover, many of them do not place such an emphasis on male children. As a result of the growing male-female imbalance in the country, women from the minorities may soon increasingly be co-opted by both fair and foul means into marriage with Han-Chinese. It is extremely unlikely that this was foreseen by Beijing, but the continued survival of the minorities (some of whom have a history as old as the Han-Chinese) may soon be in grave jeopardy.
China’s attitude towards internal dissent is best typified by the reaction to the student occupation of Tiananmen Square in 1989. While sometimes called a Democracy Movement, the protesters were calling for a series of Glasnost-style reforms in the Communist governmp,nt, and an end to corruption and nepotism within the Party. In short, they committed the unforgivable Chinese sin of challenging the Dynasty while it was still capable of defending itself. The Army was called in and somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 people were killed. The Party Dynasty has served notice that it still brooks no political dissent. The same message is being provided, albeit more politely (for now), to the residents of Hong Kong.
By contrast, there was considerable unrest in rural areas in 1992-95, as the peasantry objected to the transfer to a cash economy, and having to now pay for road repair and schooling. There was also some rioting reported in urban areas because of corruption in the civil service and declining services because many bureaucrats were deserting their posts for jobs in the private sector. While several thousand incidents of tax strikes and minor riots were repo;1ed, there was comparatively little los~ of life. Moreover, as the rioters were not directly challenging the Party’s authority, they appear to have been spared from harsh repercussions.
There are Western arguments that individual prosperity and economic freedom must surely result in individual political freedom. At various times in the past, the Chinese have enjoyed great prosperity and economic freedom. They have never yet experienced individual political freedom, and there may be little real demand for it so long as the Dynasty seems confident and strong. The Western thesis is yet to be proved in China.
A New Belligerence
China’s economy is booming and the frontiers are safe. Under earlier Dynasties, this meant that resources could be spared for other projects. Some Dynasties expanded Chinese settlement. Others made the frontiers more secure, recaptured lost territories, or forced smaller states into a submissive posture. The Communist Party Mandarinate seems set on doing everything at once. Some Western journalists who specialize in Chinese affairs warn that Beijing is in a truculent mood and seeks to recapture its traditional role as the dominant power in Asia.
Some of Beijing’s ambitions may be easy to achieve. Mongolia was sometimes under Chinese control but it always escaped settlement because of its almost total lack of arable land and the martial ferocity of its inhabitants. Only about 2% of the population are Han Chinese and the Mongolians seceded from China with Russian help after 1912. Mongolia retained its independence with Soviet assistance and has only now wriggled out from under Moscow’s thumb. However, some Chinese maps still colour Mongolia as a part of China and, after 3,500 years of grief from the North, there may be little tolerance for its small neighbour.
Mongolia is still more dependent on Russia, than on China. Most of its railways and roads trace northwards into Russia. However, China’s swelling economy may reverse this dependence. With time, Mongolia may easily become a Chinese client state.
China, at times past, had possession of parts of Burma, North Korea and Vietnam. Although it seems unlikely that they would seek re- possession, Chinese nationalist exiles did spill into Burma after 1949, (and have since become major protectors of opium production there). Chinese troops fought a losing war with French soldiers in 1884 over territories of which parts remain incorporated within
Vietnam. There was a minor border war with Vietnam in 1979, and skirmishes continued until 1983. China remains in occupation of territories wrested from Indian control in 1962, and also leaned on Nepal in 1960 over a difference about where the border lay. These do not apparently reflect an intention to expand in these directions.
China does regard India as a sometime rival, and tension may flare over the extension of Chinese hegemony into Southeast Asia. Chinese entrepreneurs are driving the dramatic expansion of the economies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. While these are descended from immigrants who generally arrived before the 20th Century, they have been rediscovering commercial and familial links with mainland China. All of these areas had been tributary states in earlier times, and China apparently regards them as rightfully belonging to their sphere of influence.
Both Burma and Thailand have acquired Chinese military equipment. India has also expressed concern over the construction of a Chinese naval and air base in southern Burma. Singapore, once entirely hostile to Communist China, now also seems far more deferential.
The multilateral dispute over ownership of the uninhabited islands and reefs in the South China Sea is important and already has resulted in one engagement and several confrontations. The shallow portions of the Sea may contain substantial oil and gas reserves. The sea is bounded by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan – all of whom claim the Spratly and Paracel Islands, or seek to create artificial islands on the Tizard Banks and reefs. Additional to the possible resources of the area. Whoever owns the islands can interdict shipping throughout one of the world’s busiest waterways. Indeed, virtually all of Japan’s oil is carried through this region.
While the issue is largely being disputed in peaceful forums, China has acted with a high hand at times. It seized some of the Paracels from South Vietnamese personnel in 1974 and sank three Vietnamese patrol vessels in 1988 (killing 75 sailors). China has been the most aggressive in construction projects and does maintain the largest military presence in the region. Several islands are garrisoned now, and maintain a small civilian population as an argument to prove ownership.
None of the other claimants to the South China Sea can muster forces equal to those of China. If resolution of the issue turns to the use of force, then China’s real foe would become the United States Navy. Indeed, the US has already been clearly told that its ships are unwelcome in the South China Sea, and in any other waters that China claims as its own. In 1994, a US Carrier Task Force in the Yellow Sea was subjected to harassment by Chinese aircraft and a submarine. (The Task Force was there to help deal with some threatening postures from North Korea). Apparently, there have been other Chinese- USN confrontations of the type seen between the USN and the Soviet navies in the 1960s and ’70s. A significant incident is entirely possible at any time.
The use of settlers to claim territory may be undergoing a new lease on life. The 17th Century Russian expansion into Siberia resulted in clashes with the Manchus, particularly in the Amur River Valley and along the Siberian coast. During 1858 the Russians secured the northern bank of the Amur and the coastal regions. In Chinese eyes, the region was stolen and they want it back. The land is arable, under-utilized and under-populated by Chinese standards, and contains valuable minerals.
The USSR’s Far Eastern Military District had been as large and well equipped as any of the ones poised against NATO, but with the collapse of Russian power it is even more neglected than most. Since 1991, as many as six million Chinese have moved into the region as traders and businessmen, but lately as settlers. Russian officials admit they have lost control of their borders, and Han Chinese may soon become the majority in the region. Within a decade, Moscow may either have to surrender control ofthe area, or risk a major conflict.
While China is recovering Hong Kong in 1997 and Macao in 1999, Taiwan shows no signs of returning to the fold. Taiwan has ambiguous status in the world except with Beijing, which still regards it as a strayed province that must be recovered. Historically, the island did belong to China and it still represents an alternative idea of how China might be governed. The Nationalists who fled to Taiwan have always, by their very existence, been a fundamental threat to the current Communist Party Dynasty. Singapore, a state whose population is now 76% Chinese, has become a de facto single-party state run along Confucian lines. This is acceptable to Beijing, but Taiwan’s slow drift into democratic government has only worsened its implicit threat. Of Taiwan’s 22 million people, only about 14% are Nationalist Chinese exiles in origin. Most of the rest are descended from Chinese settlers who arrived before 1945.
Recent relaxation of travel and commercial barriers between Taiwan and China have done much for both economies. Yet Beijing has threatened Taiwan with military exercises and conveyed a less than subtle hint about its nuclear power. For its part, Taiwan has maintained the means to defend itself against conventional assault, and is continuing to update its defences. The issue is still unresolved, and may be the cause of a major conflict in coming years.
China’s Military Power
China, to its shame, has been backward for some centuries. Although the Chinese people have seldom lacked for innovation and enterprise (nor for valour and martial skill), they never experienced the conditions that allowed the West’s technology and institutions to develop at such a dynamic pace. From the Ming Dynasty onward~, China remained vulnerable to Europe’s swelling power. Indeed, an innate conservatism among the Mandarinate had tended to quash or reverse technological advances since the Tang Dynasty. The Qing Dynasts of the 19th Century tended to ignore their inferior technology, preferring to cultivate an attitude of superiority as opposed to paying for the real thing. As a result, China was humiliated by Japan, Russia and various European powers in the last years of the Manchus.
The post-Manchu leadership remained painfully aware of their military and technical deficiencies, but they had more pressing concerns at hand – such as survival. The Chinese infantry that intervened in Korea in November of 1950 were skilled and tough veterans. However, they were armed with a hodgepodge of Soviet, American and Japanese equipment while their logistics train and support arms were woefully inadequate. In November 1962, the Chinese demonstrated a fearsome skill when they crushed Indian opposition in a short sharp border war. However, the Chinese military was already labouring under two new handicaps.
China and Russia have a long-standing enmity. Chinese tend to regard Russians as boorish, remember territories that had been wrested away by the Czars; and recall that Stalin originally preferred to back the Nationalists over the Communists. The Russians have a fear of Asia based on centuries of war with steppe peoples, and need only look to China’s 1.2 Billion people to know how tenuous their hold on Siberia really is. The Soviets were providing technical aid to China in the 1950s, but much of it was shoddy in quality and begrudged in quantity. While the rest of the world feared a seemingly monolithic communist bloc, Soviet aid trickled off and stopped altogether by the early 1960s.
Mao caused additional problems. The Great Leap Forward, a frantic effort to modernize, fell flat on its face, and some 30 million Chinese died of starvation in consequence. Faced with a threat to his own prestige, Mao initiated the Cultural Revolution and re-wrote China’s modernization and military programs to suit his prejudices. Acute famine and economic hardship with a new stress on peasant militias and light forces diverted time, money and effort from modernization. Border clashes with the USSR occurred during 1964- 74. However, the