This article series explores 12 distinct “regions” within China: six “core” regions long dominated by the majority Han ethnic group and six “periphery” regions home to many of China’s ethnic minorities. The series overview is available here. To view the full series, click here.
This series has outlined China’s 12 distinct regions, their history, and their situation within the People’s Republic today. Hopefully the reader has received an impression of the great economic and demographic complexity of modern China, rooted in geography, the long expansion of the Han people, and the Chinese state’s interactions over centuries with the many peoples on its periphery. Perceiving this regional tapestry provides a more layered and accurate understanding of “China” compared to the caricatures of the country often presented in Western media coverage and commentary. At the same time, the political implications of this diversity should not be overstated, particularly given the current fashion of seeking answers about China’s future from the patterns of its past.
In contrast to Colin Woodard’s model of the United States, which treats regional differences as a dominant factor in national politics – more important than transregional social divides, such as urban-rural or elite-working class – I contend that China’s regional variation today is less politically significant than in times past. Modern technologies and the nature of the contemporary Chinese state impose unprecedentedly powerful homogenizing and centralizing forces. For all the tensions that the Chinese polity has inherited from its long history and that inhere in its vast size, regional disparities are unlikely to trigger its collapse or crackup into smaller units, as happened repeatedly up to the mid-20th century.
However, the international connections of the various regions are becoming more significant to their particular fortunes and to the nation as a whole, as well as to foreign countries’ interactions with China. In a world that is ever more integrated at various levels, China’s regional diversity will increasingly shape engagement across the nation’s borders, albeit within the boundaries set by the Party-state from its seat of power in Beijing.
Geography Is Not Dead, But Is No Longer King
This regional survey has highlighted the main features of China’s strategic geography and their historical importance. Geography was central to ancient Chinese strategic planning and to the actual course of wars; the rise and fall of dynasties was determined by control of the “land within the passes,” the great artery and barrier of the Yangtze, the amorphous northern frontier with the nomads, and the Silk Road cities and horse-breeding pastures of Xinjiang and the Gansu-Ningxia corridors.
Today, technology has reduced the military significance of geography. Its compression by modern transportation and communications is symbolized by China’s division into a mere five People’s Liberation Army Theater Commands, one of which controls an area comparable in size and ruggedness to the United States west of the Mississippi. Even the natural fortress of Tibet is no longer a major obstacle, with PLA forces in the Sichuan basin able to deploy within 48 hours to the disputed frontier with India.
China’s spreading transportation infrastructure has now reached the remotest corners of the country. In consequence, while the nation’s size and terrain variation still present military challenges, they are now unlikely to breed the regional warlordism endemic to China’s past. In the event of future internal strife, military outcomes will probably not depend on a single geographical feature or region. For example, whereas control of the middle Yangtze decided many a past campaign for mastery of China, today it would probably be no more critical than control of the Mississippi would be to a future American Civil War.
In economic terms, while the uneven spread of development around China does reflect geographical variation, these regional disparities are not large enough enough to create political implications. If the nation’s financial and technological resources were concentrated in one or two regions, centrifugal economic forces might conceivably split it apart; but instead they are shared comparably across the North China plain, Yangtze delta, and Southeast coast, with strong centers even in poorer regions, notably the middle Yangtze, Sichuan, and Manchuria. Economic growth is in fact more evenly distributed than in the United States, where 23 cities concentrated near the coasts account for half of GDP; by contrast, in China a hundred “newcomer” cities are projected to join the world’s 600 richest metropoles by 2025. Most future growth in China’s middle class is projected to take place in so-called “tier three and four” cities in the interior.
Our historical survey of China suggests that the contemporary coast-interior divide will not become a decisive political fault line: the nation’s regional economic disparities are ancient, but have not stopped China surviving as a unitary state. The shift of economic weight from north to south, and the inland’s decline relative to the coast, are millennia-old trends that have proved compatible with political centralization. A major reason for this is the central government policy – as old as the Chinese empire itself – of forcing rich regions to subsidize poor ones, through means such as canal building, grain transfers, and tax breaks to encourage settlement of laggard regions. Contemporary manifestations of this approach include the Western Development Policy and Northeast Area Revitalization Plan.
China’s geographic distinctions are now probably most significant in environmental terms, with the water and desertification crises felt most severely in the Loess plateau, the North China plain, Inner Mongolia, and Gansu-Ningxia. The problems are serious enough to hold back these areas’ development, and the state’s typical solution of massive engineering projects risks either degrading the healthier regions burdened with support (as with south-north water transfer) or aggravating the problem (per the “great green wall”), without solving the root causes of inefficient usage and lax regulation. These grave ecological challenges show that to a degree, the ability to solve problems by central diktat will always be constrained by China’s vast size and geographical variation.
The Center Will Maintain Its Control
The prospect of regional power centers gaining clout at the expense of the central government is a favorite deux ex machina for “China collapsists,” encouraged by the country’s long cyclical history of unification and division. If geography no longer promotes the growth of regional centers of political power, the spread of wealth and the instruments of modernity around China might be viewed as creating the necessary conditions. But this regional empowerment is overlaid by well-entrenched institutions of national control, which show no sign of letting the provinces develop any more distinctively than what was surveyed in this series.
Predictions of a return to the warlordism of the 1910s-1940s overlook how China arrived at that period. The administration of the Qing empire was deliberately minimalist and divided, facilitating rule by the court in Beijing. Under the changed conditions from the mid-1800s, this resulted in an increasingly impotent central authority and strongman regional officials, who acquired modern armaments and industries on an exclusively regional basis. The country’s fracturing with the last emperor’s abdication in 1912 simply confirmed a decentralization of power that had developed over many decades.
The PRC by contrast, while less centralized economically than its Soviet model – an important factor in China’s reform-era success – has been governed from the outset by highly centralized and intrusive political institutions, this being a core tenet of Leninism. The PRC has also retained the imperial practice of regularly rotating government officials and military officers, to obstruct them from building up a local power base. Under current President Xi Jinping, a nationwide anti-corruption campaign has targeted powerful regional networks, notably the “Sichuan mafia” associated with fallen security czar Zhou Yongkang. Xi has also reasserted control of the PLA through serial purges and reforms, which apart from improving operational effectiveness will also strengthen central political authority. The apparently overweighted assignment of forces to the new Central Command in Beijing may not have been made with a foreign enemy in mind.
Far from the centralized Party-state’s authority having waned with “reform and opening,” it seems to have been buttressed so successfully as to inspire a global authoritarian renaissance. Whatever its actual virtues in governing, the Party-state has for nearly four decades presided over rapid (albeit slowing) economic growth and steadily co-opted emerging interest groups, even as it has relentlessly repressed unsanctioned forms of organization, silenced political dissidents, and deployed various instruments of social control, for which information technology is opening up expanding possibilities. And despite much talk about rules-based and collectivist leadership arrangements – which might be more conducive to regionalism’s expression in national politics – a good case can be made that China has never really departed from the Emperor system. In this view the nation’s political character remains personalized, centralized, and authoritarian, denying regional interests the space in which to assert themselves.
Any organized challenge to the status quo is more likely to come from within the political elite, who have access to the nationwide levers of power: the central Party organs, the central government ministries, the national level state-owned enterprises, the security services, and the military. But the downfall of Bo Xilai – catalyzed by his apparent attempt to cultivate PLA support – showed the perils for even well-connected insiders trying to build a regional power base within the extant order. Despite the PRC’s numerous and growing tensions, the strength of the framework holding it together means that the “coming collapse of China” will likely remain as illusory as the molding in the Western image that economic liberalization and international integration were supposed to bring.
More likely is a 21st century version of the high-level equilibrium trap in which imperial China stagnated, functioning efficiently within the system’s extant boundaries, but unable to break through them to a new stage of development. Close observers predict a “trapped transition” or Japan-style “lost decade” in the absence of major restructuring of China’s political economy, and the nation’s leaders fret publicly about stagnation in the “middle income trap” familiar to industrializing countries. But while a sustained economic slowdown would have implications for China’s national power abroad, it does not imply a loss of centralized political control within the country.
To the extent that any significant threat to central authority develops, it will likely be through discontent diffused throughout society rather than concentrated in any particular region. The draconian response to the Falungong spiritual movement and the spread of the “stability preservation” trope in official discourse about almost every kind of disruptive event around the country shows where the state perceives a danger to its authority. Phenomena of this type include the spread of “mass incidents” of public protest, and revival of the rural banditry that was long endemic in China (and heroized in popular imagination).
A rough parallel might be drawn with the threat to U.S. government authority presented by the nationwide growth of the militia movement, particularly when stirred up by a demagogic figure. But as the fates of Falungong and Bo Xilai testify, no brand of demagogue will be allowed to flourish in China, save at the very center of the political system. As discussed in the next article, expression of the grievances felt throughout China’s new society are more likely to compel changes in governance than to create real cracks in the state’s foundations.
Next up: China’s political unity outweighs regional differences.
John Lee is a former visiting fellow of the Mercator Institute for China Studies. He tweets at @J_B_C16.