Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Modern China: More Diverse than You Might Think

With the Summer Olympics fast approaching, the amount of amateur punditry concerning the Land of the Dragon is going to skyrocket (indeed, talk of China is all over BMG right now). And while I'm not expert, there is one facet of Chinese culture and politics that I think is important to keep in mind.

Even though it's different and distant, China is not a monolith.

The overwhelming challenge for any Chinese government of any ideology is simply to keep the country together. While we hear a great deal of Tibet, China is a far more diverse place than I think many Americans realize.

A Xinhua news article quoted here posits that nearly 1 of every 6 Chinese citizens do not speak a dialect of Chinese. There are significant differences between the dialects common around Shanghai, Beijing, and Honk Kong -- enough to make mutual comprehension touch-and-go. Hakka is a dialect spoken by 34 million Chinese, and is essentially incomprehensible to Mandarin speakers.

I lead with language because that is the strongest building block of national identity in the modern age, but strong regional divergences in economic prosperity, vocational concentration, and educational availability also haunt China. Not to mention the sheer distance of the third largest state land area in the world.

Thus, I don't think Chinese reaction to regionalist movements in China is based on simple authoritarianism. China is far less diverse than many other countries (the Han ethnic group form 92% of the population), but it is unwieldy due to size, differentiation, and history. While Tibet does have the strongest legal case for independence, there are enough linguistic, historical, or even religious differences within the country to nurture dozens of sovereignty movements, should such a trend occur. Hainan is a culturally unique place, Manchuria has a history of autonomy, entering the 20th century as an independent state...and that doesn't even touch on Taiwan or Xinjiang.

As Tibetan independence would be a problem, so too would formal independence in Taiwan would also start the avalanche. I submit that the Chinese are in no real hurry to try to assimilate Taiwan...rather, they fear the precedent that would be caused if their sovereignty were officially acknowledged. This is the same tendency that underlay the joy in Chinese regaining of Hong Kong and Macau -- and its smooth assimilation.

I think a key parallel is to Moscow's rough treatment of the Baltic Republics in the late 1980s, particlarly the insistent sovereignty movement of Lithuania. They were right, of soon as the center began to fall, every single republic sprung from Moscow's grasp almost instantly.

To be clear, I am not rationalizing the anti-democratic tendencies of the Chinese regime. However, I think there are elements beyond popular suppression at work. The government has long used nationalism as a glue to bind together the country, and it seems to be succeeding. While many of the marches outside of Japanese and Korean embassies regarding historization of World War II are government-staged, the anger of Chinese counter-protesters along the Olympic torch relay were probably spontaneous.

The currently constituted People's Republic of China is as large a conglomeration of land under Chinese rule as has been achieved in history. Maintaining requires a dedication to the current borders that supersedes interest in democracy, and I would say, Communism. Far worse than the label of the American president who "lost China", I would say, would be the person known as the Chinese Premier who lost his own country.

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