China - Not a Nation, But an Empire

Back during the 1980s, there were many left-right intellectual divides regarding the Soviet Union.

One of the forgotten ones was: How should we regard the “Soviet Union?”

Mushy-leftist types were fond of the notion that the Soviet Union was a relatively normal, basic “nation” – but one that was deservedly paranoid because of the 1941 German invasion (a line of thought conveniently stoked on a regular basis by Radio Moscow). In this view, the Soviet Union was really a cuddly little fuzzball, and if we’d just be gentle and reassuring it would cease and desist from its continual truculence – since if we could get across that we really, really, really had no aggressive intentions, the bear would purr. And, oh yeah, we could help this along by pledging that we would cheerfully recognize the extant possessions as a permanent Soviet “sphere of influence.”

More of us, though, took a different view – one that was more grounded in reality and history.

More below the fold.

The alternative view was actually simpler – that the Soviet Union was an empire, and an empire trying to convince everyone that it was really a normal state.

The empire viewpoint was clearly justified by history.

During the chaos of the two Russian Revolutions of 1917, much of the periphery of the Tsarist Empire managed to break away – most notably in eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Once the Bolsheviks had seized and consolidated power – and then defeated the “White” armies – their next effort was to set out to reconvene the Tsarist Empire by flat-out reconquest.

For the most part, this effort succeeded; it was only in Eastern Europe in 1918 – 1921 that the Red Army’s efforts were decisively defeated on the battlefield – most notably in Poland and Estonia. As it turned out, this setback was only temporary – and by 1945 the Soviet Union has not only retaken all of the old territories, but had extended its control even further west than the 1914 borders of the old Tsarist Empire.

Thus, in this view of the Soviet Union, this was a reconstituted Tsarist Empire – an empire which possessed regions and nations by force that it had no business possessing. This empire needed to be pulled down and broken up – and its captive territories freed from imperial control. The Soviet Union was the last European colonial empire, and it needed to go.

As events began to unfold some twenty years ago, the view of the Soviet Union as a colonial empire was vindicated. Starting at the edges and working closer to the core, the colonial possessions began to break away from the empire. First, nominally independent possessions became truly independent – then possessions that were actually inside the Soviet borders began to break away.

The Soviet Union was indeed an empire, and the colonial possessions were delighted to break away.

We now watch to see if Vladimir Putin and company will embark on an effort at another reconstitution of the old Tsarist Empire – in the model of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

All of this is prelude to another developing story. Taking a similar view, many of us have argued for some time that the People’s Republic of China – like the Soviet Union before it – is not really a nation, but an empire. Like the USSR, the PRC inherited and re-established an older imperial realm over far-flung territories.

And like the USSR, the PRC is having trouble:

For years it’s been a closely held secret: The People’s Republic of China is an empire desperately trying to make the world think it’s a state.

The riots by Uighurs in China’s far northwest are not something new; the place really erupted back about the time of the American Civil War. Clashes between Han Chinese moving into the basin, range and uplands inhabited by the much different ethnic people of the Central Asian heartland began at least 2,000 years ago in the Han Dynasty.


The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) conquered East Turkestan in the 18th century and began to consolidate control there in the late 1800s. But the Qing court, terminally beleaguered by Western encroachments along the China coast, was too feeble to impose central control on its far-flung takings.

Now, reality is beginning to strongly assert itself:

With China’s rise to wealth and power in the post-Mao era, the PRC, now lacking the cover of world revolution, was forced to find some way to legitimate its possession of Xinjiang. World history’s age of empire had ended by the mid-20th century. Communist China’s evil twin, the USSR, had been the territorial successor to the Tsarist empire as Mao’s PRC had been to the Qing.

At the Cold War’s end, the Soviet Union came apart; its counterparts to China’s Xinjiang became independent sovereign states and UN members. The PRC, determined to avoid a like fate, began a fervent campaign to convince the international community that all lands behind its borders, acquired in the imperial past, are inviolable internal possessions of its sovereign statehood.

Personally, I agree with Mark Steyn – it seems very unlikely that “China” will become a fully-modern state with its present borders intact.

And as was the case with the Soviet Union, it would be unwise for us to try to artificially prop up a superannuated colonial empire….

There are layers of complex factors in play here involving power politics, economic exploitation, ethnic rivalries and religion. A new “Great Game” is under way, and the Chinese Revolution is still not over.

And trust me, this new “Great Game” is going to be even more interesting than its predecessors.

Much has been made of Russia’s ongoing demographic implosion – with the implication that as Siberia depopulates, China will “expand” to fill the void.

However, China is on the verge of a demographic implosion of its own – the “one-child” policy has worked too well, and China goes off a demographic cliff starting in about 2015 (which isn’t that far off).

So resource-rich Siberia will sit there – empty, and with no directly-neighboring country with sufficiently-healthy demography to do anything about it.

This promises to be an interesting century.