This page is about China's future, not its past, but a brief recap is worth the digression.
Consider the part of Asia drained by rivers flowing into the Pacific, from the Mekong in the far south to the Amur river (which drains much of the Russian Far East) and including the offshore islands (like Japan and Taiwan, but not the Philippines). Let's call that East Asia.
The Chinese word for China is Zhongguo 中囯, the Middle Kingdom. China is the cultural center of East Asia, the part that all East Asians define themselves in relation to. In contrast, the periphery of East Asia includes Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Manchuria, Mongolia, Turkestan, and Tibet. By my definition, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos are all part of South Asia, whose cultural center is India, and the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei are part of Austronesia.
China is defined culturally, not geographically: the boundary between the center and the periphery has changed quite a bit over time. Right now, the center is strong, so the boundary is far out, but twice in Chinese history, the center has been conquered by peripheral people (the Mongols in 1271 and the Manchus in 1616). The borders of Ming Dynasty China (below) are reasonable boundaries of the center. The Ming were the last Han dynasty, and are responsible for completing the Great Wall, moving the capital to Beijing, and launching the great exploratory expeditions of Zhong He.
Ethnically, about 92% of the population of the PRC, or about 1.2 billion people, belong to one group, the Han. Another 40 million Han live outside the PRC, especially in Southeast Asia (but more than 5 million in the USA and Canada). There are 55 other minority ethnic groups in the PRC, but the largest, the Zhuang, has only 16 million.
China is conveniently divided into two cultural regions: the noodle-growing north and the rice-growing south, divided at the Qinling mountains. 3000 years ago, the Han were settled along the Huang (Yellow) river in northern China, while the Yangtze river valley in southern China was inhabited by Thai people. The Yellow river valley is covered with wind- blown dirt from the Gobi desert: it is fertile but also fickle, and northerners alternated bountiful years with years of famine, plague, flooding and warfare. Over time, so many Han fled south as refugees that they overwhelmed the Thais, and south China became Han, too.
China was first unified by the Qin dynasty in 221BC (from which we derive the name China), and it has remained unified for most of the intervening two millennia, with some lapses. Much credit for this goes to the maintenance of a centralized, non-hereditary bureaucracy we call the Mandarins.
The Han speak a dozen or so sister languages descended from Old Chinese, just like most of the populations of Italy, France, Spain and Portugal speak a Romance language descended from vulgar Latin. And in China, just like in Europe, those languages are not mutually intelligible: Portuguese is not a "dialect" of Spanish. But about two thirds of them speak the language we call "Chinese" (or sometimes "Mandarin"), which is called putonghua or hanyu in Chinese - the national language of the PRC (it's also the national language of Taiwan, where it's called guoyu).
Perhaps you knew that Latin remained the only written language in Western Europe until about 1500 (Luther and Gutenberg), long after its daughter languages had replaced it in speech. The disadvantage of this conservatism was that you had to learn a foreign language to read and write, but the advantage is that once you did, you could read and write to anyone. Likewise, Classical Chinese remained the only written form of Chinese until about a century ago, and so written Chinese was quite different from spoken Chinese, which is why fortune cookies sound so stupid. This situation was exacerbated in China by the writing system, which isn't based directly on the sounds of the words. Ever since Sun Yatsen founded the Republic of China in 1911, the Chinese government has been deeply involved in language and writing reform.
Throughout its long history, China has never been very interested in the rest of the world, neither for trade nor for conquest. But when Europe settled down after the defeat of Napoleon, various European powers, especially the British, began to show great interest in China and the rest of East Asia.
Japan was also very isolated until it was forced open by American naval power in 1854, but the result of that episode in Japanese history was a change in dynasty followed by a period of rapid Westernization: within less than a century, Japan caught up with the West, and in many ways it is now one of the most advanced countries on earth, and the Japanese have completely forgotten how much of their current society is non-native, from cuisine, clothing and family life to lifetime employment in huge trading companies.
China was also opened up by naval power in the mid-nineteenth century, but the rate of modernization/Westernization has been much slower. There was a wave of reform, including the overthrow of the Empire, in the early twentieth century, but it was interrupted by the Japanese and Communist conquests in mid-century, and it has only been since China opened up again to the West on its own terms in 1989 that progress has continued.
Since then, the pace of physical and economic development has been phenomenal, especially along the southern coast from the Pearl River delta (Canton/Guangzhou) to the Yangtze delta (Shanghai). However, political and cultural development has not kept pace, and in those respects China is still a banana republic run by an increasingly-hereditary oligarchy, just like Latin America or the Middle East.
If China were going to remain a sleepy third-world country like Bangladesh or Mexico, it wouldn't matter (except to the Chinese). But China is already a world power, and is destined to become even more important as it becomes richer. So the path of development that China takes matters to us all. The rest of this page is my advice to the Chinese.
Unlike other Americans, I'm not going to harangue you about democracy. Anybody watching the Bush administration in the United States cannot continue to believe that elections ensure good governance, worthy leaders, or even widespread popular support. And after all, both Napoleon III and Hitler were elected - both ruined their countries.
In my opinion, people care far more about the quality of their governments than they do about their legitimacy. The main problem with the Communist party's monopoly on political power in the PRC (and let's be honest: its members are no longer idealogical communists) is not that it is illegitimate but that they're doing a bad job with some of China's worst problems: corruption, inequality and environmental degradation.
Rather than call for elections and the uncertainty and political weakness that they entail, China should adopt a demanding meritocracy like those in power in Japan and France: the brightest students, educated and tested on a broad liberal-arts curriculum, are selectively offered government positions that lead to eventual political power. And after all, that is the Mandarin system that successfully administered China for two millennia.
But the two-party systems of the West have a great advantage: since people are always unhappy about their government, changing the faces at the top is a good way to clear the slate every few years. In a one-party system, the only way to change things is with a revolution, and they tend to be messy and expensive. Having said that, Japan and Mexico have been ruled by one party re-elected for years.
Superficially, the expansion of China's borders to include much of the East Asian periphery looks like the outward manifestation of China's rising power. But as the United States and Soviet Union showed, far greater and more secure dominance is gained by eschewing conquest in favor of establishing buffer states.
Let's take an example: Tibet, a desolate windswept plateau with no natural resources, whose population is only about 6 million - a drop in the PRC's bucket. China invaded Tibet in an imperialistic fervor in 1950, and has been unable to admit regret ever since, prolonging a situation which is in neither side's favor. Back then, China didn't care about world opinion, but it does now, and it's going to be very tired of hearing about Tibet, which should be a tiny issue, as the years pass.
Here's what to do: without apologizing, negotiate a Chinese withdrawal from Tibet and the establishment of an independent national government with the Dalai Lama. Make no demands, withdraw all Chinese troops and offer an open border for trade and tourism. Offer to pay for the rebuilding of the many monasteries destroyed during the invasion and occupation, and subsidize Tibet heavily for the next 20-30 years. You will turn a resentful prisoner into a supportive ally, and other nations will be watching.
Do the same thing with Uyghurstan (Chinese Turkestan), Ningxia (Huiguo) and Mongolia, offering to unite Inner and Outer Mongolia. Not only will you look good and gain faithful allies happy to be protected by the powerful and benevolent Chinese, but you will be generating tremendous pressure on India, and tempting the Himalayas, Central Asia and Siberia to follow suit and become client states of China.
In Korea, you have some work to do. You have to invade North Korea and depose that nutty dictator, then unite the peninsula by handing power over to South Korea. Make sure you throw in the tiny Korean-majority section of China just along the border. This stunning move will gain you tremendous dividends:
An independent Manchuria, with Manchu leadership and Manchu as a national language, would be a first step towards loosening Russia's hold on Outer Manchuria - the Russian Far East. If you were able to establish an independent Manchuria, you could propose that Russia donate all of its territory south and east of the Stanovoy Mountains, as they negotiated in 1689. They would have a difficult time hanging on in the region, and all of Siberia would eventually come - voluntarily - under Chinese hegemony.
Taiwan is also a difficult case, because there are no Taiwanese aborigines left at all, or very few. (Taiwan was inhabited by Austronesians until the Dutch began to bring Chinese workers over to work on their plantations in the 17th century.) My advice is to stop claiming or threatening the ROC and just invite them to join the PRC whenever they feel ready - they may vote "no" a few times, but they will eventually vote "yes" - another public relations victory.
The end result of this effort will be a China that is uncontroversially legitimate within its own borders (those of Ming China), that is surrounded by friendly nations, not hostile ones, and that looks very unimperialistic when dealing with the broader world. There are other benefits: splitting the PRC into multiple countries means more UN seats, more Olympic athletes and more votes at the WTO. Separate countries means separate passports, which is a subtle way of controlling minorities - they become foreigners. In addition, it enables the following.
NATO and the European Union are huge successes, and everybody wants to join them. China should do the same thing : create a League of East Asian Peoples (LEAP) with the following benefits :
The initial membership roll would be China, Taiwan, Manchuria, united Mongolia, Huiguo, Uyghurstan, Tibet and maybe even new homelands. for the Zhuang and Miao (Hmong). A reunited Korea would certainly join, and so might Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar/Burma.
Then China brokers a peace agreement between Pakistan and India, calling for the establishment of an independent Kashmir, which then joins the LEAP - big public relations coup for China, defusing this very dangerous quarrel between two nuclear powers.
With three Muslim nations already in LEAP, the central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan would have political cover to join for economic reasons, to give themselves some bargaining power with Russia, and to ship oil and gas eastward. Some of the Russian subject republics (Altai, Buryat, Tuva, Sakha) might then be interested in cooperative agreements.
Eventually - if the Chinese can run it with a light hand, not interfering too much, then Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and - the big prize - Japan might even join. The resulting community would stretch from the Caspian to the Pacific and provide formidable bargaining power, akin to Europe (still uneasy with an unstable Russia on - or in - its borders) and the Americas.
The current way to write Chinese - Chinese characters or hanzi - is not based on the sounds of the spoken language (although there are often phonetic elements in characters, they are neither definitive nor obligatory).
This has some advantages:
However, this system also has some serious disadvantages:
Because of these problems, China has been forced to adopt a secondary script for students, dictionaries and foreigners. They have chosen a system called pinyin, which is based on the Latin alphabet (and in which all the Chinese on this page is written). But pinyin also has some disadvantages:
I admit to a strong personal bias on this point, because I am the inventor of a proposed universal script called Shwa which (I believe) would be a much better way to write Chinese. Click here to link to the Shwa web page on Chinese.
The advantage of using the Shwa script for Chinese is that it could also be used for most of the world's languages, so at least we could all read each other's languages even if we wouldn't understand what they mean - a big advantage for place names and for keyboards. But even if you adopt a Chinese-only solution, for instance a combination of zhuyin (bopomofo) into hangul-style blocks, it would still be an improvement over hanzi .
Censorship is a ham-handed way to control what people think. Not only does it vastly overestimate the impact of what is being censored, but it vastly underestimates the power of education (young minds are uncritical), of repetition, and of telling people what they want to hear, namely that they're great and that all the world's problems are somebody else's fault.
By censoring the Web within China, the government is tacitly admitting that they are deceiving their citizens. When those citizens go abroad, as more and more of them will do, and/or come into contact with foreigners who turn out to know more about modern China than the natives, they will learn that their own government can't be trusted to tell the truth - a far more dangerous lesson than any news they could learn.
More importantly, in the absence of a trustworthy source of information within China, the Chinese have come to rely on a highly-developed network of rumor-mongering, boosted by text messaging and email. While networks like this captivate the romantic - think of Soviet samizdat - the problem is that rumors are impossible to verify, there is no accountability, and in the end the government controls what people think much less in China than it does in countries like France where the media is allowed to say what it wishes but the powers that be lean hard on abusers. The result has been riots and protests triggered by lack of information, and lynch mobs instead of trials.
Let the media say what they will - there are enough obvious nuts out there that you will win the credibility wars.
This symbolic move evokes the legacy of Sun Yatsen, closes the chapter on the Japanese occupation, moves the center of power closer to the center of the country and the rich south, and symbolizes the change in attitude I'm proposing.
To mark all these political changes, change the name of the country to simply 中囯 Zhongguo "China", and adopt the flag below. Red and gold are propitious colors in China, and the shapes evoke the word "China".
Proposed New Flag of China
Keep the current flag as the flag of LEAP, adding stars for each new member.
And what happens if the current Chinese government doesn't do these things? Remember, I'm not threatening just predicting. I see one of three possible outcomes:
For example, if China becomes the dominant hegemon in Muslim Central Asia, they will quickly become disliked (as they already have in a very short time in Africa). If they claim a right to intervene on behalf of ethnic Han in Siberia or Southeast Asia, they will make powerful enemies of Russia and Indonesia. It's very hard to lead a quarter of humanity through the deceleration of expectations that must inevitably follow the current acceleration - the Muslim world is still struggling with that 750 years after the sack of Baghdad!
So what do I think will happen? A combination of all three of the above scenarios, in reverse order. I think that, in the surprisingly near future, China will begin to see widespread signs that growth and development are slowing down, for example :
China's population can be divided into three groups: a bottom layer whose lives have barely been affected by the increased prosperity of the last 30 years, a top layer that has done very well, and a huge middle layer who hopes to join the top layer but hasn't yet. The government is already unpopular with the bottom layer, but the two upper layers are pretty happy with the way things have been going there, so they're loyal supporters.
But if the not-yet-wealthy begin to see that dream slipping away, and the already-wealthy see their wealth slipping away, that support will evaporate: the Chinese are an extremely pragmatic people. It's funny, despite not being a "democracy", the communist Chinese government is probably more accountable than in any Western democracy: not for its speech or even its acts, but for its results. For example, the United States had a disastrous four years under Bush, Jr's first term, and yet he was reelected by a substantial majority!
When the accusations begin flying from the classes who count, it doesn't take much foresight to predict that the government will "wave the flag" of nationalism in an attempt to deflect criticism and distract people. They'll probably make a big deal of some minor incident and then demand an impossible apology, probably from Japan but possibly from Vietnam or even a Western country (I would pick France). If they're really desperate, they'll pick the USA, but the two countries are so linked, economically and financially, that such a choice would be foolhardy.
From there, it begins to play like Japan a century earlier: any success of this nationalism will only create pressure to repeat it, until the inevitable humiliation. And then, like in any country, the current government gets blamed, and there's a change. How big - and how violent - that change is depends on how big the humiliation is and how the government reacts. For example, in the case of Japan, the humiliation was two atom bombs, but the emperor got to stay in power. Let's hope things in China go much more smoothly!
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