We are accustomed to thinking of the Middle Kingdom as something integral and unified, and the Chinese people as a sort of national monolith, but historically these lands often were often occupied by numerous individual governments fighting amongst themselves. The sphere of Chinese cultural and political influence enveloped the neighboring, so-called “barbarian” countries, which were gradually assimilated and became a part of the Chinese civilization.
As a legacy of such a turbulent history, modern China has a strongly expressed heterogeneity in terms of political, economic, social, and cultural factors. This is evident even in the administrative division of the PRC, where almost half the territory of the entire state is autonomous. This fact is not perfectly obvious until you consider that China has a multi-tier system of national autonomy. In addition to the five autonomous regions (Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Guangxi, and Ningxia Hui), which are easy to find on a map of the administrative and territorial division of the PRC, there are plenty of autonomous districts, counties, and ethnic townships, included in various provinces. All these regions became part of the Chinese state at different times, and to this day the process of assimilating the indigenous population has not been completed.
The cultural core of the Middle Kingdom, ethnic Chinese, do not look much more homogeneous themselves. Just look at the distribution of Chinese dialects on a map. They largely reflect the various Chinese governments that once existed on these lands, and warred with one another. The difference in dialects is so great that many linguists consider them to be separate languages, since speakers of different dialects cannot understand one another when speaking in their native tongues.
In addition to the ethnic and cultural differences, there is the glaring issue of the unequal economic development of different regions of the PRC, which risks socially destabilizing the country. The wealthier southern and eastern coastal provinces differ from central and western China not only in income levels, but also in economic specialization and lifestyle. All this leads to the emergence of multiple relatively isolated “economies” within the country that are potentially capable of becoming the basis for separate states. Respect should be paid to the government of the Middle Kingdom, which is aware of the danger of the situation, and is attempting to address the current imbalance. However, the problem lies in in the fact that it is this inequality that was to serve as the basis for the country’s economic development, when special economic zones aimed at the export of manufactured goods were created in the coastal provinces. And if the government of the PRC wants to continue to maintain acceptable rates of GDP growth, it will have to continue to invest money primarily in these provinces.
Existing regional differences in the development of the Middle Kingdom are well explained by the theory that there are multiple Chinese civilizations. Its proponents argue that China’s worldview is divided between two civilizations: an active “oceanic” one that is capable of creation and chance, and a conservative, narrow “continental” one. The “continental” civilization refers to Central China, while the “oceanic” one refers to the southern and eastern coastal provinces. This theory allows us to identify one of the key historical and cultural contradictions of the Chinese people.
In essence, it is a reflection of the ancient Chinese concept of “Taiji” (Great Ultimate) and the well-known black and white symbol of the “Yin-Yang”. And from this point of view, it is very important how harmoniously the two opposing parts interact, since the integrity of the entire Middle Kingdom depends on it.
In most conversations about the unity of China, the majority of pundits point to the problem of Tibet or Xinjiang, seeing ethnic conflict as the main reason for a potential collapse of the PRC. But the question of the Chinese core’s integrity is much more important. To maintain its unity, Beijing is perfectly capable of using force alone to keep individual problem regions part of the Middle Kingdom. And a completely different picture emerges in the case of intra-Chinese civil strife, when a struggle for power will ensue.
Historically, only a single, centralized power has been able to keep the Chinese state from collapsing. For this reason, the leadership of the PRC is faced with the urgent issue of controlling regional Chinese clans, especially in developed regions. This that is where local elites, using a more liberal economic and political regime, have significantly greater capabilities (as well as ambitions) to convert their position and capital into real power, albeit only within their own provinces.
The confrontation between central power and regional clans is especially dangerous considering the growth of external political conflicts with the USA, which is able to use the internal conflicts of its enemy to its advantage. The proverb is worth noting that two Chinese can agree among themselves against a foreigner more easily than the latter can argue with the Chinese. Nevertheless the West does seem prepared to make some attempts in this direction. For instance, in October 2013 an interesting report was published by the political scientist William Antholis, managing director of the Brookings Institute, one of the leading think tanks in the USA, under the title “New Players on the World Stage: Chinese Provinces and Indian States”. In 2012 the author completed a tour of China and India, during which he held a series of meetings with regional leaders, studying their psychology and views on their place in the power structure of the government, as well as how they see their tole in the country’s future. According to the results of his dialogs with the Chinese, the American researcher notes that a regional official, in performing his/her direct duties, concentrates a great deal of real power in his/her hands. At the same time, the more affluent officials in south China wield more authority than their northern colleagues. In his report William Antholis recommends that the USA refrain from aligning foreign policy with India and China through their capitals. “America needs to understand the needs and dynamic interests of regional leaders in these two countries and build direct relationships with them, just as is done with individual EU countries today, for example.”
Roman Pogorelov, journalist, orientalist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.