When discussing the prospect of China’s democratic transition, many people apprehend that democratisation will bring about local independence and division of the territory. Such concerns will be referred to by the authors as ‘secession phobia’.
Secession phobia largely comes from the ‘great unity’ view of history taught to Chinese people from a young age, and this is what they’re taught: unity will bring national prosperity and public happiness, while division will bring depression and hardships; only unity will build strength, while division is decline. This view actually makes the error of replacing facts with value judgements. Chinese history, of course, had a ‘Golden Age’ of unification under the Han and Tang dynasty, but under the Qin, the Yuan and the Qing, it also had the burning of books and the persecution of scholars, extortionate taxes, ethnic discrimination and inquisition. Furthermore, the Golden Age only represents a small part of the Han And Tang’s hundred years of history. Meanwhile, the divided Spring and Autumn period also saw the formation of the Hundred Schools of thought, during which creativity and diversity of ideas reached a very high level; and the Southern Song dynasty, which only ruled over a part of the unified Northern Song’s territory, was a period of high development for the Chinese economy. So we can say that unity does not mean prosperity, and division does not mean decline.
The ‘great unity’ view of history, in terms of values, actually reverses the relationship between people and the State. The modern view of the State considers that the State is constituted by the Citizens, and the basic duties of the State are to provide the citizens with security, welfare and public services. In short, the State is there to serve the citizens. The ‘great unity’ view of history places the State itself (and the size of the territory, population, etc) in the highest position. In this view, only the ‘great unity’ of the State is the goal, and comes above the citizens, the citizens become only a dimension of the State’s importance, and tools to achieve greater scale, and so citizens have actually become subjects.
However, the current ‘great unity’ view of history goes deep into many Chinese people’s psychology, and it is closely related to the ideology of ‘humiliation history’ taught as modern Chinese history. This view of history will depict China’s modern history as one of suffering under the hands of bullying powers, and explicitly or implicitly attribute the decline of modern China to external factors, and emphasizes the role of external forces in tearing China apart and stretching the civil war. This view of history puts very little emphasis on internal factors, and reflects almost nothing of the issues with Chinese politicians, particularly political leaders themselves. Furthermore, this view of history describes in parallel the decline and the division of China, but reversing cause and effect, it insists that the division caused the decline. This logical contradiction comes from long-term selective indoctrination and, for many people, lack of observation. Add to that the fact that this view of history ignores the suffering of people under the new unified power, and you will see that the nationalistic concept of ‘division is decline’ is a paradoxical concept.
We can see that. from a historical and a logical perspective, the ‘great unity’ is not necessarily a good thing, or a necessity for the citizens. But in reality, will democratization actually lead to the dismembering of China? I would like to refine the analysis.
At present, people in the country have two types of secession phobias: the fear of ethnic division, and the fear of warlord secession. The former is concerned that democratization will lead to the independence of ethnic minority groups, and lead to their secession; the latter is a worry that the ruling party will split into various factions and their leaders will form diverse warlord forces.
Regarding the fear of ethnic division, there seems to be some truth to it. After democratization, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia split into two or more countries, and Yugoslavia also experienced a tragic civil war. But this concern overlooks two points. First, the three countries that divided thus all implemented Leninist ethnic federalism (i.e. a country is divided into national republics based on ethnic minorities, and the constitution provides these national republics with a right to secede, and so even at the UN, the Soviet Union had three seats, as USSR, Belarus and Ukrayne). Second, that none of these three countries had a dominant ethnic group (which accounted for more than two thirds of the population). Today’s China is clearly different from these three countries. China’s structure is currently a unitary one, autonomous ethnic regions are the same administrative units as provinces (of course, the autonomous regions still bear the name of ethnic minorities, which is a remainder of Leninist federalism, and requires reform); even more crucial is the fact that China has one dominant ethnic group (according to the 2010 census data, the Han population still accounts for more than 90% of Chinese population). Countries similar to China, like Bulgaria and Romania, didn’t experience division after democratisation. A more powerful example is India, which is ethnically and religiously far more diverse than China, yet achieved national unity through a democratic federal model (unlike leninist federalism, federalism promotes a State structure based on bottom-up local civic governance, rather than the autonomy of an ethnic group). According to research from scholar Qin Hui, India’s democracy and local federalism (constitutional local government, not ethnic federalism) resulted in India replacing/weakening the ‘ethnic dispute’ with a ‘right-left dispute’, and is thus exempt from the risk of ethnic division. China’s democratic transition might of course unfold along similar lines.
As far as our fear of warlords is concerned, there is not much sense to it. The social foundation for warlordism was the relatively closed local districts of China before the period of Mao Zedong. The mobility of the local Chinese population was limited, and some remote areas were particularly closed off, and the management of the grassroots by the centre needed to include local forces such as squires and local despots to succeed; and in the army, officers and soldiers often came from the same home regions (like the ‘Xiang’ and the ‘Huai’ division in the late Qing, or in the Republican era, the ‘Zhi group’, the ‘Anhui group’, the ‘Manchu group’, the ‘Guizhou group’ or the ‘Dongbei army’, the ‘Northwestern army’, the ‘Yunnan army’, the ‘Sichuan army’, etc) and this resulted in the easy development of separatist local trends. But in the period of Mao Zedong, through direct grassroots organisation systems by the party and campaign after campaign, the local social structure was ‘transformed’, and the local gentry and despotic forces were eliminated; and with the loss of local powers, it would be really difficult for local factions to form. Now, the People’s Liberation Army troops have put in place a national movement, residents of the same regions are generally separated, officers among themselves, soldiers among themselves, and soldiers and officers generally do not come from the same hometown or region, cutting off the constitution of local factions in the army. More crucially, the full penetration of communist top-down management systems in the army reduces the practicality of forming regional factions within the army. In terms of the army’s social and economic environment, in today’s globalised China, people, capital, goods and information are highly mobile, and there is a high level of contact with surrounding environments, which is a difference with the period of ‘local village’ China. We can say that regional social structures have been broken by party campaigns, local forces have disappeared, there is now a flow of soldiers in the army structure, and a more fluid environment of globalised economy. All this makes it difficult for warlordism to occur again.
In fact, even in the late Qing dynasty, in spite of foreign powers invading, warlords and civil wars, from a legal standpoint, China still wasn’t divided – the separatist warlords still recognised that they belong to one unified China, and even if the central government was weak, Tibet and Xinjiang failed to seek independence, and as for the independence of Mongolia, internal partisan warfare was caused by strong external forces。We can see that, as far as the modern history of ‘China’s humiliation’ goes, it is not easy to divide China. So, in a China whose economy has become the world’s number 2, combined with the analysis we gave previously, ‘ethnic separation phobia’ and ‘warlord phobia’ are more like the jumping of a person who scares themselves.
When Chinese citizens will get rid of their ‘ethnic separation phobia’ and their ‘warlordism phobia’, they will no longer be so shy, but from the voluntary movement of the citizens, China will come one step closer towards democratic transition.