Why Chinese Study the Warring States Period

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The Warring States Era is a fascinating period in Chinese history. Although scholars debate the exact start date and duration of the era, the general consensus is that the period spanned from around 475 BC to 221 BC. Put simply, the era consisted of interstate conflict in which the leaders of independent states (and sub-states) vied for hegemony. The leaders engaged in a series of conquests and annexations, power and territorial consolidations, and shifting alliances. The competition resulted in the emergence of several dominant states. And these states continued competing for power in the interstate system until the leader of the Qin state, Qin Shihuangdi, prevailed as the dominant ruler.

Emperor Qin asserted supremacy and unified the states under one rule. He achieved this goal through the use of military force. He then established a complex bureaucracy in order to better unify and administer the previously fragmented state system. Some China experts, such as John Fairbank and Merle Goldman, pointed out that the emperor also undercut local ties and loyalties, fostered obedience to the state, and increased the state’s military power in order to maintain and strengthen state unity and survival. Qin – known as the unifier – ended the chaotic, fragmented, and competitive state political system and created a stable, unified, and more prosperous state system.

However as one China expert, Monte Bullard, points out, the overall Qin legacy is not seen as a “positive” example in Chinese history (the Chinese tend to examine history for “positive” and “negative” examples). The leaders were ruthless. They established a highly ordered society that was highly obedient to the state. And they used the rule of law – not the code of behavior – as the basis for interaction. Some Chinese historians contended that the Qin leaders’ use of the rule of law led to its excesses. For this reason, the Qin legacy generally is viewed as a “negative” example in Chinese history. And this has implications for China today.

The state of affairs characterizing the Warring States era then – fragmentation, instability, chaos, and competition for power – is a real concern for the Chinese leadership now. Moreover, the outcome and aftermath of the Warring States period serves as both positive and negative examples for the Chinese leadership today.

Fear of Fragmentation, Chaos, and Instability

It is well known that China is not a homogeneous state. The country is home to 55 minority groups who occupy roughly 60 percent of its territory. Conventional wisdom tends to suggest that the Chinese state is vulnerable to minority separatist movements in three strategic, geographic areas: Xizang, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. If an upheaval occurs in one of these regions, it could have a domino effect in the other regions home to separatist movements. So the Chinese leadership remains concerned that minority secessionist movements could challenge the integrity and stability of the Chinese state.

But counter to conventional wisdom, the leadership also faces threats of instability from very different sources. As in the Warring States era, these threats originate from “states” with powerful systems. Specifically the threats come from one area functioning as an autonomous region, another region home to a powerful independence movement challenging the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) legitimacy, and yet another area typically home to influential leaders who are able to cultivate powerful factions. What’s more, the leaders in these areas control territory with engaged populaces, formidable economic systems, and effective governance structures. They are namely Hong Kong (now approaching a 2017 chief executive election), Taiwan, and Shanghai (now home to a new pilot free trade zone). For these reasons, these areas perhaps pose a greater threat to the internal integrity and stability of the Chinese state system than areas home to minority secessionist movements. The Chinese leadership recognizes this reality. So how does the leadership manage these potential threats?

Consolidation, Force, Co-optation, Accommodation, and Conduct

Like the Warring States era and its aftermath, the Chinese leadership aims to assert dominance over its entire territory, thwart the emergence of viable competitors, and maintain internal integrity in order to rejuvenate the Chinese state. The leadership uses methods from that ancient period such as consolidation and force, as well as other strategies, such as co-optation, accommodation, and a code of conduct.

From the Chinese viewpoint, controlling secessionist movements emerging from the minority regions is achievable. This is in large part due to the leadership’s policies of co-optation and accommodation. The leadership incorporates willing segments of the ethnic minority groups into the existing system. And it provides these minority groups with special treatment and favorable policies. This also is in part due to the policy of dominance in which the leadership leverages the threat or use of force over segments of the minority groups who are not part of the system and use violence to try to destabilize the Chinese state and society.

In contrast to the minority areas, however, the Chinese leadership has less ability to control and exert dominance over non-minority controlled areas, specifically Hong Kong, Taiwan and Shanghai. Moreover, the leadership might face a considerable domestic and international backlash if it attempts to assert control in these areas through the threat or overt use of force. So in these areas, especially Shanghai, it remains imperative that the current leadership, like the Qin legacy, weaken the leaders’ local ties and foster obedience to the center. Instituting a code of conduct, which includes promoting policies against official corruption and extravagance, helps achieve these goals. In areas like Hong Kong and Taiwan, the leadership uses policies of accommodation and co-optation, particularly in the economic and diplomatic spheres, in order to cultivate asymmetrical relations in which Hong Kong and Taiwan become more and more dependent upon the Mainland state.

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