the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 February 27


To advise the Chinese government on a course of action is to rewrite ‘The prince’ for a modern ruling class. The government has problems, if its self-interest is considered; but in the interests of China, the government is the problem, the single most important obstacle to the welfare of the peoples of China and its empire. The best thing it could do ― the only thing it has any business doing ― is to stand aside.

The mandate of heaven is an imperial concept, and China is, and has always been, an empire. The mandate is the legitimacy of pragmatism; it is the divine sanction of the obtaining political reality. The dynasty cannot be said to have lost the mandate of heaven until it loses power. Once it has lost power to a challenger, the Confucian ideological apparatus is used retroactively to justify the coup d’état. The son of heaven is no longer in favor; otherwise he would still be on the throne.

Historians of a hundred years hence will not make the same demarcations that their modern counterparts do. The abdication of Pu Yi in 1912 was indeed the end of a dynasty. But it is often taken as the dramatic end of a system, and this fact is less categorical. Kenneth Lieberthal, for instance, states that, with the end of the Qing dynasty, “the dynastic idea had well and truly died”. He offers this as an explanation for the failure of Yuan Shikai to found a new dynasty in 1916. But he admits that Yuan attempted to rule as emperor; he makes clear that Yuan, a well-placed retainer, had brought about the end of a dynasty and ruled in its place until his own death ― a very familiar imperial story. And though China was to experience turbulence from then until now, it has been ruled for that time almost entirely by four men in succession: Chiang Kai Shek, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin. Chiang and Mao spent considerable effort in attempts to expand and consolidate their rule, as empire builders will do. All four cultivated and wielded autocratic power. And the breadth and longevity of Mao’s rule would be the envy of any emperor.

An empire at its simplest is a state resulting from the conquest of land or peoples. China has historically been both, and certainly is so today. The most expansive definition of a Chinese nation would include the Han ethnic group and the speakers of the Chinese branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. But language is primarily a spoken form of communication, and this group has, at most, a common written language, ideographic and based on the dominant Chinese language, Mandarin. So while the Han possess a common history, share strong cultural bonds, and have often been politically united, even they lack elements of unified nationality, including its most important feature, a common spoken language. By all ethnographic measurements, the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, and the Mongols, to name only the most prominent, are distinct nations with their own identities whose proximity to the Han nation has often left them subject to it.* While much of the conquest of Chiang and Mao could be explained as consolidation of historic Chinese territories, these were Chinese territories by an original conquest.

Since the capture by the People’s Liberation army of Xinjiang in 1949 and Tibet in 1959, the central government has pursued a deliberate policy of colonization and ethnic cleansing to shift the demographic balance of each province in favor of the Han, to weaken any claim for self-determination. The Uyghur to Han ratio in Xinjiang, thirteen to one in 1950, was five to four in 1997. The Han presence in Tibet may be smaller and less entrenched, but time may change that: the Mongols, once a majority in Inner Mongolia, are now outnumbered five to one.

The Tibetans are represented internationally by one of the world’s most respected leaders, Tenzin Gyatso, the dalai lama, once the temporal ruler of Tibet and still the head of its national religion. The Tibetan cause has been celebrated by human rights groups and celebrities. But the Uyghurs have received very little attention in their own struggle. And as the international language of terrorism has become more vague and inclusive, thanks largely to the post-September 11 pronouncements of George Bush, the Muslim Uyghurs have found themselves increasingly condemned with al-Qaida. China has always been forceful in dealing with separatist sentiments, especially in Xinjiang; but now it has been granted something of an imprimatur. There have been terrorist and other violent actions by some separatists. But these should be viewed as the direct consequence of the suppression of all other forms of resistance to Han rule. Even the teaching of the Qur’an is illegal.

It is in no way certain that the broader Han Chinese nationality would be unified under a principle of self-determination. That is perhaps best illustrated by the situation in Taiwan, which is 98% Han. Within the Han, there is a sharp division between native Taiwanese and so-called Mainlanders. The former immigrated from southern Fujian province before the end of the nineteenth century, and speak the southern dialect of Min. The latter immigrated with the Kuomintang exodus from mainland China from 1947 to 1949. There are six native Taiwanese for every Mainlander; but until the 1980s the Mainlanders held power, maintaining the claim to be the government of all China (based on 1946 elections) and refusing to allow native Taiwanese into the power structure. The ruling party was the Kuomintang, the language was Beijing Mandarin, and the island was officially the Republic of China. Only in the 1990s did native Taiwanese culture reassert itself, so that, for instance, Min became used in broadcast and official business. Only in 2000 did the Kuomintang lose power, and then only partially; opposition leader Chen Shui Bian became president, but the Kuomintang held the legislature.

The two most important population centers in the Chinese state besides Beijing are Shanghai and the Pearl Delta region (Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shen Zhen, and Macau). Spoken language is the most objective cultural differential; Shanghai is a Wu-speaking region, and the Pearl Delta is a Yue-speaking (Cantonese) region. The Hakka, a southern peasant group, speak a northern language, and though prominent in the area of the Jiangxi soviet, have traditionally been marginalized among the larger southern Han groups. Their distinctiveness is cited by Lieberthal as a possible reason for their internal cohesion.

But even were the empire devolved so that the centralized state ruled only those who identified as Chinese, there would still be the obvious issue of democratic legitimacy. The only functioning Chinese democracy has been in Taiwan, and then only in the last decade. While democracy is being employed for limited purposes at the local level, the sovereign power in China remains vested in a single party and its subsidiaries. Democracy is an issue for the international community, naturally, and though its practice is not consistently demanded or supported, at the least such deviance from principle on the part of democracies carries a price, in internal legitimacy and in the public discourse, especially the discourse obtaining among states in the world. But democracy, if properly defined, is even an issue within China, and among the masses.

There is an indigenous movement for liberal electoral democracy in China, as represented by elements of the Democracy Wall movement, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and the practicing democracy of Hong Kong. There is also a broader desire for autonomy and self-determination among China’s individuals, economically, spiritually, and in other ways. The response to economic liberalization, among peasants and urban workers alike, among the well-educated and the comparatively uneducated, shows that the power ― and the benefits ― of economic autonomy are well-received. This is seen in the numbers of workers who take private-sector jobs, the advantage taken by peasants of private-farming opportunities, and in the enthusiastic adoption of Western consumer culture by those now in a position to afford it. Beyond economics, the numerical and organizational strength, and the willingness to defy the system, present in Falun Gong demonstrate a strong desire among some Chinese for freedom of belief. This is, quite correctly, viewed by the Chinese Communist Party as a political threat as much as anything else. Freedom of belief is taken as incompatible with continued CCP rule, and that is also quite correct. Thus for both the party and the Falun Gong, the confrontation becomes a direct challenge to the claim by the party of a right to rule.

Without democratization, the state will be marked with the most obvious flaw from an international perspective. But the economic liberalization has been a further source of illegitimacy in the eyes of Chinese subjects. Hugo Restall, considering peasant discontent in Jiangxi, notes himself that Mao’s faction of the Chinese Communist Party had its early success in the same countryside where twenty thousand farmers rioted against the system in 2000 august, and for much the same reason. The system has ever been a weight on the farmer tilling the land ― there is always some parasite living well at the expense of the toiling peasant. Organizing in this reality shaped the early policies of Mao, and led to his triumph in the Long March, when his success was compared to the failure of the CCP’s urban-oriented cadres in Shanghai and other cities. But he eventually abandoned the pro-peasant policies in favor of collectivization and industrialization, relying on the countryside not only to feed the cities but also to help fuel the country’s rapid advancement into the industrial age.

Now the problem can be expressed as a set of bloated local bureaucracies taxing the produce of the countryside. That is a causal similarity to times past. There is also a similarity of results, if for different reasons. The urban focus of the introduction of capitalism ― liberalizing Special Economic Zones and populous eastern cities ― and the attendant focus of its benefits, conveniently meshes with the peasant suspicion that the city eats at the expense of the country. Chinese peasants are not unaware of the differences in lifestyle and opportunities for those in the cities. The presence of one or two hundred million floating workers in the cities, rural populations displaced to the cities in pursuit of what is not available in the rural areas, demonstrates the perception, and in some cases the harsh reality. While some may be pursuing an opulent life of consumption, some are pursuing simple survival.

Why should peasants be dissatisfied? For those whose lives are not tolerable, the answer is obvious. For those whose lives are an improvement over the lot of their predecessors, the answer lies in their relative status, relative not only to their urban counterparts, but relative also to the hypothetical standard of living that would exist without the parasitic class of rulers.

And it would be wrong to suppose that discontent of peasants with taxes is limited solely to the issue of economics. Many, even among the peasants, could articulate a desire for something approaching democracy, for the ability to govern their own lives and not to be governed by others, particularly others so unconnected with them. For many peasants, those others are not merely easterners or northerners, but conquerors and colonists of a recognizably-different nation, with a different history, language, religion, and aspirations.

But even where the comparison is between Mandarin-speaking, secular peasants in Shandong, and educated Uyghur professionals in Ürümqi, the commonality is the recognition that the state is an imposition, that someone else is dictating to them the course of their lives, the future of themselves and those they care about. Their actions, whether a tax riot, a faxed manifesto, the donning of Western symbols, the bombing of Han commercial and government interests, or the defection from a program of exchange study, are a response to and an expression of the broader question of dominion, of the presumption by some that they shall decide for all. The Chinese Communist Party comes from the Leninist vanguard tradition, where those who “know better” guide the transformation and then the government of society according to truths and principles. When claims of truth and principle become a cloak for the naked pursuit of power and indulgent self-interest, truth and principle themselves become discredited. The party, the latest form of the imperial regime, claims to know, and it claims to have the interest of the people in mind. This is not only not the case, it is evidently not the case, evident to the subjects of the empire. As the subjects respond to the differences between the way they live and the way others, especially their masters, live, they respond simultaneously to the differences between reality and propaganda, between what they see in their own lives, and the lies their masters tell them.


* Historians of China are correct to include the Yuan or Mongol dynasty in the succession; for the Mongol emperors ruled China through China, so to speak; through the state structures, bureaucracy, and Confucian rationalization that preceding dynasties had developed. The Qing or Manchu dynasty is the same, of course; the Qing and Yuan were enveloped within China as Stalin was within Russia, and were overshadowed by their subjects’ culture as the Romans were the Greeks’.


Mary Jean Chan, ‘Floating populations’. Harvard International Review, 1995 Fall.
The Economist, Special Section on China. 2000 April 8. In Ogden, p104-18.
Thomas L. Friedman, ‘The Lexus and the olive tree: understanding globalization’. Anchor 2000.
Nader Hasan, ‘China’s forgotten dissenters: the long fuse of Xinjiang’. Harvard International Review, 2000 Fall. In Ogden.
Stefano Hatfield, ‘China may prove to be source of optimism in global gloom’. Advertising Age, 2001 November 26.
Charles N. Li and Sandra A. Thompson, ‘Chinese’, in Bernard Comrie, ed., ‘The world’s major languages’, p811-33. Oxford University Press 1990.
Kenneth Lieberthal, ‘Governing China: from revolution through reform’. W.W. Norton 1995.
Richard Madsen, ‘Understanding Falun Gong’. Current History, 2000 September. In Ogden.
Suzanne Ogden, ‘Global studies: China’, ninth edition. McGraw-Hill/Dushkin 2002.
John Pomfret, ‘China’s manifest destiny in Tibet’. Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 1999 November 8. In Ogden.
Hugo Restall, ‘Examining Asia: China’s farmers learn their rights’. The Asian Wall Street Journal, 2000 November 22.
Sidney Tarrow, ‘Power in movement: social movements and contentious politics’, second edition. Cambridge University Press 1998.


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