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.
As I argued in the previous piece, China’s regional variation today is less politically significant than in times past. 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.
There Are No Major Political Cleavages Among the Vast Majority of the Population
This series has indulged the regional stereotypes beloved of Chinese popular repartee. But it should also have conveyed the lack of politically significant differences amongst the Han Chinese, who in this respect exhibit less variation than the Caucasian population in the United States, even if Hispanics are excluded. Barring the occasional protest against Mandarin linguistic hegemony, there are no notable political expressions of regionalism in China’s Han-dominated regions, excluding the ex-colonial territories of Taiwan and Hong Kong with their particular histories of separation. There is no equivalent of, for example, the cultural gulf between Yankeedom and the Deep South that in Colin Woodard’s conception has long driven U.S. national politics (and which is now amplified by the regionally concentrated impacts of globalization).
In China today, the dominant political narratives are all unitary, whichever view is being considered. Debates are about the nation’s collective ideological character, not about whether authority should devolve to its constituent parts or subsume into a larger international community. This contrasts with the deep suspicion of central government and “elites,” and the tension between the nation-state and globalization, which is manifest in the last U.S. presidential election, the Brexit referendum in the U.K., and growing hostility to the European Union. There is certainly no place for political pluralism in the officially sponsored national vision of the “Chinese dream,” which detractors might describe as the Han version of “great Russian chauvinism.” The orthodoxy of political monism in China partly explains the apparent lack of sympathy among the Han population for aspirations to autonomy by ethnic minorities (Tibet and Xinjiang) or historically separated Han minorities (Taiwan and Hong Kong).
This national straitjacket for political expression does not appear to stem from any lack of capacity by Han culture to embrace diversity or foreign ideas, given the development of distinct identities and pluralistic political cultures in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and among the overseas Chinese, including the independent nation of Singapore (and before it a Chinese Borneo Republic). Nor is the Party-state’s suppression of political heterodoxy a sufficient explanation for the general view among the Han populace – which any foreigner who has discussed these issues frequently with mainland Chinese can attest to – that there is properly only “one China.” This attitude has deep roots in China’s development as a unitary polity, which will likely always dampen the significance of regional variation.
Historians have long marked China’s transition from a community of states into an empire as having smothered diversity of political thought. Equally important was the evolution of a nationwide propertied class that was ideologically and economically invested in the centralized state’s perpetuation. This feature of Chinese society has persisted, while those features that once strengthened regional identity (such as the communal halls of merchants from a common locality residing elsewhere) have disappeared. Even allowing for state-imposed boundaries on political expression, the nation’s nouveau riche bourgeoisie – the most important constituency in contemporary China – seems to be a bastion of support for the existing order. This apparent solidarity behind national institutions contrasts with the political ruptures shaking Western countries, which may express class antagonism but have also split the “elites” on ideological lines, and the decline of trust in the institutions of democratic government.
Another important factor is that despite rapid increase in the reform era, income inequality in China remains less severe than in the United States, and now seems to be starting to fall. With the income of the poorer half of the population having quintupled since 1978, the state enjoys a buffer of goodwill even among the reform era’s relative losers, or at least benefit of the doubt that all boats will continue rising. Extreme poverty in China is now confined to a shrinking rural population, which lacks the education or economic means to articulate an alternative vision of political order. What survey data is available suggests that material inequality is not a significant driver of political unrest, at least no more so than in many other countries.
By contrast, procedural injustice – corruption and the abuse of bureaucratic power – is a far more potent well of discontent in contemporary China. But this is dampened by the habit, ingrained through millennia of Confucian ethics and practice, of seeking to address grievances through appeals to higher authority. The continued resort to petitioning the central government to deal with local abuses reflects not just the limits imposed by state repression, but also a long-standing cultural bias toward attempting to rectify the exercise of official power, rather than to replace it with a different system of politics altogether.
In the anti-authority morality plays of Chinese popular culture, the rebellious heroes are eventually reconciled with government (and go on to serve it in the fight against foreigners). And even during the largest civil disobedience movement of post-imperial China, the 1989 Tiananmen protests, it was far from clear that the protesters were seeking more than correction of the most egregious abuses. Today the Chinese state exploits this cultural legacy through a well-rehearsed script for containing and defusing “mass incidents” of discontent, albeit one that has proven to have narrow limits. And President Xi Jinping’s continuing anti-corruption campaign, corrosive as it may be to Party unity, appears to be maintaining the public’s faith in (or at least acceptance of) the “good society” as consisting of centralized rule with autocratic rectitude.
This monolithic imagining of political identity in China has also been central to Han people’s definition of the “other.” Our regional survey showed that on most fronts over two millennia, the Chinese empire existed in tension with foreign peoples, whose degree of “foreignness” was largely defined by their relationship to the Chinese state. Modern Chinese nationalism has also identified with a centralized territorial state defined in opposition to foreign domination, a legacy now appropriated by the Communist Party; the idea that China’s “century of humiliation” at foreign hands was only ended through the Party’s despotism is endlessly inculcated through school textbooks, the media, and official speeches. Continuing conflicts with China’s neighbors over historical interpretation and territorial claims retain a prominent place in Chinese political discourse today.
It should be unsurprising then that identification with the centralized state – in abstract terms, given that Chinese people’s actual commitment to the nation was once likened to “a dish of loose sand” – became a touchstone for individuals’ sense of communality, similar to identification by race in the United States. Identity is to a large extent defined negatively, and in China the “other” was traditionally marked by alienation from the Chinese state’s authority. This goes a long toward explaining why the Han population still generally seems to tolerate what critics call China’s “dragon culture” of authoritarianism in government.
Ethnic Unrest Will Not Be Significant to National Politics
Just as regional disparities and social cleavages will likely disappoint as vehicles for the “coming collapse of China,” so will the country’s much publicized ethnic tensions. If the institutions of central control do not face any serious challenge from the 92 percent of the population who are ethnic Han, why would the non-Han minorities present a credible threat, particularly when these groups lag in access to wealth and political influence? While minority discontent may present security problems in some areas – for example, the potential terrorist threat to pipelines and oil wells in Xinjiang – there is no real prospect of it catalyzing regional separation, let alone destabilizing the Party-state’s national authority.
This is especially true given China’s trend toward greater political and ideological integration. As noted earlier in this series, many minorities were long ruled through their indigenous forms of political organization, in some cases beyond the end of imperial China. Today, by contrast, the Party-state’s administrative structure and educational system extends throughout the land, with some receding linguistic concessions in minority-heavy areas. The Party claims that minorities constitute 6.6 percent of its membership nationwide (slightly less than their proportion of the total population), and by law the governors of China’s five ethnic autonomous regions must come from their region’s dominant minority. But the top Party cadres in these regions are all Han, quarantining ethnic identity from the true locus of political control.
Even during China’s “century of humiliation,” when a weak central authority had to cope with foreign interventions and recalcitrant warlords, none of the country’s peripheral regions successfully detached themselves (with the temporary exception of Tibet). There is little prospect of them doing so today under the world’s most extensive apparatus of state coercion, which is now being further empowered by information technology. Beijing spends more on internal security than on its military budget. Violent incidents in the Tibetan areas and Xinjiang – the only region in which an entire ethnic identity is being “securitized” – have been smothered with uncompromising thoroughness, including shutting down internet access to the whole of Xinjiang for months and mandating installation of satnav systems in vehicles to enable police monitoring.
Apart from the Tibetans, Uyghurs, and arguably the Mongols, none of China’s minorities show signs of widespread or sustained unrest. Most of these groups have undergone centuries of Han acculturation, with any residual aspirations to independence seemingly lanced by the instances of ferocious bloodletting of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Reconciliation to the People’s Republic’s political order has been encouraged by providing minorities with rights exceeding those of the Han population, including educational affirmative action and exemption from the now defunct “one child policy.” There is also some minority representation in senior national roles, including the director of the National Energy Administration, the current vice foreign minister and the former secretary general of the Foreign Affairs Leading Group, although at the heart of state power the faces have near-invariably been Han (and male).
Finally, divisions among China’s minorities undermine any potential for coordinated resistance to central authority. Inter-minority tensions are still a live issue in China: much of the violence in Tibetan areas during 2008, for instance, was directed against Hui as well as Han individuals. The Chinese state for its part has a long history of playing minorities against each other, some examples being the use of Uyghurs to crush revolts in the Southwest during the 1300s, and of Hui to suppress Uyghurs and Tibetans during the 1920-30s.
All this means that despite the spread of fundamentalist Islam, the revival of international pan-Turkism and the continuation of a Tibetan exile government across the border in India, “splittism” on China’s minority frontiers will likely prove a phantom menace. To the extent that Xinjiang and the Tibetan areas threaten instability, this stems from a poisonous dialectic of rising state repression and growing radicalization, not from any real prospect of territorial separation. And what small aid such separatist sentiments might derive from neighboring countries is ebbing with the spread of China’s influence beyond its borders. The growing role that international relations will play in the fortunes of China’s different regions will be discussed in the last article in this series.
Next up: The conclusion of the series.
John Lee is a former visiting fellow of the Mercator Institute for China Studies. He tweets at @J_B_C16.