Date: January 23, 2020
By: Daniel Tenreiro
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a signing ceremony following the Russian-Chinese talks onthe sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, September 11, 2018. (Alexander Ryumin/Reuters)
How the island of 23 million stands in the way of a new Chinese empire
The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.
— Luo Guanzhong,
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The opening line of that 14th-century epic has influenced generations of Chinese leaders. The country’s mythological founder, the Yellow Emperor, is said to have ended an era of chaos by subduing warring tribes and centralizing rule in the Middle Kingdom. Ever since, princes and party secretaries alike have emulated the archetypal messianic unifier. Consolidating the various ethnicities, languages, and religions around the Yellow River into a single polity has been one of the central challenges of China’s long history.
Mao Zedong, who inaugurated the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, is believed to have read Romance of the Three Kingdoms obsessively as a boy. Upon taking the helm, Mao followed Luo’s exhortation and prioritized the reoccupation of the empire’s peripheral regions, including Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia. After the 1911 revolution that unseated the Qing Dynasty, the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and Mongols resisted Chinese rule with varying degrees of success. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) viewed the loss of these regions as an extension of China’s humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, and despite the occasional upheaval, China has since maintained control over those peoples.
In recent months, though, that control has faced heightened resistance. The mass detention of Muslim Uyghurs has drawn condemnation from the international community, while pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have undermined Beijing’s rule in the semiautonomous region. But as a major territorial claim the PRC has yet to annex, democratic Taiwan may represent the greatest extant challenge to the Chinese empire. [FULL STORY]