An Island People in a Sea of Humanity

This Forbes article talks about China being an empire, i.e., a polity composed of many different ethnic groups but trying to behave as a nation, i.e., a polity based around a single ethnic group. [h/t Instapundit] This reminded me of a mock map at the very interesting blog Strange Maps.

The map below combines the distribution of China’s ethnic Han population (the people we think of as Chinese) with China’s geographic isolation to produce an image of the Han inhabiting an island surrounded by a sea of non-Han peoples.


This post accompanying the map makes several very good points:

This Han-ification of the Chinese fringe does not necessarily imply that the Chinese have more contact with the countries beyond their borders. Only in three places are the Chinese borders naturally permeable: at the Vietnamese frontier, via the Silk Road, and near Russian Far East. Hilly jungles separate China from Laos and Burma, the Himalayas shield it from the Indian subcontinent, almost impassable deserts divide it from Central Asia and the forbidding expanses of Siberia have never appealed to Chinese expansionism (until now, as the Russians fear)


Its size and its penchand for autarkism dictate China’s three main geopolitical objectives:

  • maintain unity of the Han heartland;
  • maintain control over the non-Han buffer zone;
  • deflect foreign encroachment on the Chinese coast.

Clearly isolationist, these objectives also condemn China to poverty: as a densely populated country with limited arable land, China needs internatioal trade to prosper. The paradox is that prosperity will lead to instability. Prosperity will tend to be concentrated in the areas trading with the outside world (i.e. the coastal regions), creating economic tensions with the poorer interior. This might destabilise the Han heartland.

In thinking about the rest of the world, westerners often make the major mistake of projecting the freakish ethnic states of western Europe onto the rest of the world. This is especially true of areas that were once part of multi-ethnic empires such as the Middle East (Ottoman), India (Mogul, British) and China. Each of these areas is more ethnically diverse down to the level of individual towns than is Europe, yet we still insist on treating “Chinese” as if they had the same integral ethnic identity as a place like France. In reality, we should think of “India” or “China” as the equivalent of “Europe” instead of as the equivalent of “Germany”. (India in particular is massively diverse with about three times as many major languages as Europe.)

Maps such as the one above can help us prevent letting our thinking fall into such ethnocentric traps.

14 thoughts on “An Island People in a Sea of Humanity”

  1. I am working on a series of posts about Xinjiang, but I did want to say that calling Modern China an Empire is a bit of a stretch. Maps like this one emphasize the 56 recognized ethnic minorities to make China sound like a patchwork. The number 56 is deceiving, and I would go so far as to call it a Trojan number.

    In fact the Han people are in the numeric majority in all of those colored “ethnic” regions. The total non-Han population of China is about 8.4% of the total. That is not the ethnic makeup of an empire.

    The largest ethnic group in China is the Hui, at about 9.8 million people, followed by the Uighurs with about 8.4 million (by the 2000 census). Even in Xinjiang province, where the vast majority of the Uighurs live, making Xinjiang the least Chinese of all the provinces, the Han comprise 40% of the poulation (the Uighurs only slightly outnumber them at 45%).

    As for the the Hui, they are spread all over China, and are really probably not a single ethnicity, but rather collection of all the Persian, Central Asian Arabic, and other Muslims who intermarried with Chinese and became mostly genetically Han.

    China is not an Empire in the sense one automatically thinks of when one hears the word – the Gauls and Near Easterners making up a large percentage of the Roman Empire, or the near-even split of Austrians and Magyars. China is more akin to the US and its large Spanish, French, and Native populations in the 1800s.

  2. Sorry, mis-spoke – the Han are in the numeric majority everywhere except the extreme south of the green Uighur region – in the North around Urumqi they are in majority, but few Han venture south to Hotan or Kashgar – and in Tibet, although with recent immigration policies, the Tibetan situation may change soon, and part of the unrest in Xinjiang is from peasants displaced by the 3 Gorges dam coming to the area..

    Tibet and Xinjiang are the only two places where one could legitimately call China an Empire, as one could have called the US an Empire based on California and Louisiana in the 1800s.

    The discussion of Chinese Imperialism, is somewhat legitimate there, but the Tibetans number even fewer than the Uighurs.

  3. John Jay,

    I still think it fair to characterize both historical and present day China as having population structure more akin to that of Empires like Russia, the Ottoman empire or the British Raj, than as having an integral ethnic identity as do the Japanese, Koreans or Western Europeans.

    One telling attribute is the existence of different languages/dialects within the polity e.g. Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu etc. Also telling there is greater diversity of language variation in the high density Chinese east than in the west. This tells us that China until rather recently did not have a lot internal migration or mixing between regions.

    I think it far to say that prior to communist rule, China more resembled a Europe ruled by the Holy Roman Empire than it does does a modern ethnic state or even pre-industrial Japan. You have a political structure dominated by one ethnic group imposing its rule on many related but still distinct ethnic groups. Certainly, the differences between regions in China are just as great as the differences different areas of Europe used to be.

    China just has the same pattern of shared aristocratic culture as Europe used to. The peasants had their own languages cultures and subcultures but the aristocrats all spoke latin, greek and french, communicated with one another and received very similar educations. Had Chinese explorers showed up in pre-industrial Europe, they would have lumped all Europeans together just like we lump all people in China together.

  4. China is a nation, with a vast, densely populated Han core, with a lightly populated imperial periphery. It is not like India, or the old British empire, or even the Soviet Union, which had much larger non-Russian populations. The Han core of China is much like France or Germany, a compact and relatively uniform cultural and linguistic area of immense size. China’s non-Han peripheries could be lost without touching the core. However, the government finds those peripheries to be valuable buffer zones, as the article notes. India is more like Europe, a large, polyglot space united by a degree of common culture and a common legal and political regime. Really, maintaining the unity of India has been a remarkable achievement.

    The author of the article seems to be looking for “weak seams” that can be exploited to weaken China in a Cold War scenario with the USA. Breaking off Tibet and encouraging Islamic resistance in Xinjiang don’t seem like profitable initiatives for the USA. I hope we stay out of both of those places and let the Chinese handle them without interference. Xinjiang in particular has been part of China for 2.5 centuries, longer than the USA has existed. That is an “internal Chinese” issue we should stay out of.

  5. Well, this is exactly what I want to get into with my posts.

    I agree with Lex. The CCP has been very effective at getting Hunanese, Cantonese, and Shanghainese speakers to think of themselves as Chinese via indoctrination in school. The Han core sees themselves as a nation. Post-1949 attempts to encourage Mandarin literacy have further reduced regionalism. The Wu dialects around Shanghai are in retreat, and in Shanghai proper, Wu is used less and less in daily life.

    However, I did argue here that regionalism could erupt again, and I stand by that argument. But in order for that to happen, the Han nation itself will have to fragment again into linguistic and clan groups as it did in the 1920s. It could happen, but the drivers will be economic and military – and only then with various ethnicities discover and assert their differences from the Northern Han in Beijing.

    As I noted in that post, the PLA itself contributes to the threat of regionalism by leaving military officers in the same province for long periods of time. But so long as those PLA officers see themselves as Chinese first, regionalism is a distant threat.

    A rebellion of bunch of Turks comprising about 1% of the Chinese nation and residing far from the Han core will not cause a return to regionalism directly. But if they wage a long, bloody, and more successful war with the PLA than they have to date, the Han in Canton, for example, may decide to stop paying for that war by removing themselves from greater China. That is the threat China faces, but I do not think it is a near term threat.

  6. How do you find these websites? Cool. Maps.

    I like the map of US states depicting equivalent GDP of other countries (so the flag of Canada is shaped like Texas, etc).

  7. Well, a true “realist” (which I’m not, at least in the conventional sense) would support Uighur and Tibetan separatists to gain leverage, and then sell them down the river to the Han in return for concessions in the area of our real interest as a maritime trading nation, which is to keep the inner Asian seas from being a Chinese lake. This would include a deal over Taiwan that would permit the PRC to annex it economically (already happening) and have a veto over its internal policies (ditto) but demilitarizing it and not permitting any PRC naval or air bases there.

  8. Jim Bennett,

    I am afraid that the Obama administration won’t even do that. I think they will seek to give China a free hand in their own sphere of influence in return for not creating any foreign policy crisis that will distract from his domestic agenda.

    On the brightside, maybe when his domestic agenda falters he’ll look for a foreign crisis. After all, Clinton’s travails kept the Kosovians from being completely wiped out.

  9. That wasn’t advice for an Obama administration. One of the prerequisites for a realist strategy is that the government actually intends to act in the national interest.

  10. “…give China a free hand in their own sphere of influence…” ie Africa, South America, etc.

  11. An interesting element in China could also be the young / old divide. China is run by a cadre of old men, through an opaque system of governance, and it is held together with economic growth and a general freedom to do what you want other than protest against the government.

    In Iran we saw that the young don’t necessarily share these same views – especially as the “Communist” element of the current government would be hard to see if you were less than 20 or 30 years old and had no memory of the Cultural Revolution or prior. Today’s China is essentially a dictatorship, albeit a pretty highly functioning one.

    When protests arise (such as against the US after we accidentally bombed their embassy) or against Japan (a frequent topic) the government encourages them to an extent but then discourages them again lest they become part of a larger protest movement that might strike at state control.

    I am not a linguistic expert but find it hard to understand how all the Han seem to be one state and viewed as homogeneous when they speak languages so different from one another. But the Chinese are obviously highly patriotic and bristle at external threats or attempts to control them.

    In general, (us) Westerners over-emphasize how sensitive a government is to discord – as you can see in Zimbabwe or Iran, as long as the government is prepared to resort to violence, it takes a lot to dislodge them. China is in far better shape than those 2 countries, especially as long as it has economic growth and a functioning government that can provide basic services and security.

Comments are closed.