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Superpower Empire


1911-1930: the Chinese Meiji

by Hendryk




The dynastic change of 1912

The World in 1912


In the 19th century, China went through a crisis that seriously weakened its society and political system. Western aggression, British-sponsored opium smuggling, unbalanced budgets, the Taiping uprising, and a string of natural disasters, in the context of the gradual decline of the Qing dynasty, added up to a nearly insurmountable challenge. After the failure of the 1898 reform movement, aborted within 103 days of its launching by Dowager Empress Cixi, many concluded that the only way out of decline went through regime change. The main revolutionary leader was Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan in pinyin, 1866-1925), a republican and anti-Qing activist who became increasingly popular among the overseas Chinese and Chinese students abroad, especially in Japan. In 1905 Sun founded the Tongmenghui (United League) in Tokyo with Huang Xing (1874-1916), a popular leader of the Chinese revolutionary movement in Japan, as his deputy. This movement, generously supported by overseas Chinese funds, also gained political support with regional military officers and some of the reformers who had fled China after the Hundred Days' Reform.

The republican revolution broke out on October 10, 1911, in Wuchang, the capital of Hubei Province, among discontented modernized army units whose anti-Qing plot had been uncovered. It had been preceded by numerous abortive uprisings and organized protests inside China. The revolt quickly spread to neighbouring cities, and Tongmenghui members throughout the country rose in immediate support of the Wuchang revolutionary forces. By late November, fifteen of the twenty-four provinces had declared their independence of the Qing empire. A month later, Sun Yat-sen returned to China from the United States, where he had been raising funds among overseas Chinese and American sympathizers. On January 1, 1912, Sun was inaugurated in Nanjing as the provisional president of the new Chinese republic. But power in Beijing already had passed to the commander-in-chief of the imperial army, Yuan Shikai, the strongest regional military leader at the time. To prevent civil war and possible foreign intervention from undermining the infant republic, Sun agreed to Yuan's demand that China be united under a Beijing government headed by Yuan.

However, on January 18, Yuan died, officially of heart failure, although revionist historians have speculated ever since on whether his death may have been "assisted". But even with Yuan out of the way, Sun was made to understand by the conservative faction that had rallied behind Yuan that his legitimacy would not be recognized by the armed forces and much of the state apparatus if he went ahead with his presidency; to spare China a civil war, a man acceptable both to the revolutionaries and the old elite would have to assume power. That man, chosen jointly by both parties, turned out to be Kang Youwei (1858-1927). A native of Nanhai, Guangdong province, Kang came from a wealthy family of scholar-officials. He was an accomplished classical scholar with a knowledge of the West gleaned from Western books in translation. He and Liang Qichao had fled abroad after Cixi’s condemnation of the reform movement in 1898. Kang had spent a total of thirteen years in exile, visiting over forty countries on five continents, and promoting the Society to Protect the Emperor (est. 1899) and its successor the Society for Constitutional Government (1903). To this end Kang and Liang were also involved in two failed insurrections against Cixi in 1900. Kang made his most extensive travels in the West in the years 1904-1909, visiting twenty European countries and North America. He returned to China on February 3, 1912; nine days later, the last Manchu emperor, the child Puyi, abdicated. On March 10, in Beijing, Kang Youwei was sworn in as provisional president of the Republic of China.

Kang had put his time in exile to good use. After the failure of his 1898 reforms, he had concluded that the remedies to China’s decline--beyond the overthrow of the deliquescent Qing--were a revival of Confucian values, to shake them free of the sclerosis caused by their instrumentalization by the previous dynasty, and the right balance between Chinese traditions and Western technological innovations. Having spent several years in Japan, where the Meiji regime was precisely succeeding in creating a viable synthesis between Japanese culture and Western technology, he knew such a balance was possible.

However, Kang wasn’t enough of a reformer to feel at ease at the head of a republic. Within weeks of his coming to power, he convened a constitutional assembly to define the institutional form of the new regime, and gave the chairmanship to his long-time friend Liang Qichao. Under Liang’s influence--which relayed Kang’s--the assembly promptly opted for a return to Imperial rule, but, as a concession to Sun and the progressives, with a parliamentary legislative branch. The inspiration was the Wilhelmine Second Reich, which had already been the basis for Meiji Japan’s institutional structure. Many of Sun’s followers felt betrayed and urged him to break away from Kang, but the latter deftly appeased them by entrusting several key ministry portfolios to members of the Tongmenghui. The Qian (?u) dynasty was officially proclaimed on September 21, 1912, and Kang took the dynastic name Jianguo (?? 2), "Build the Nation", although he will remain known in the Western world as Emperor Kang.

One of the first measures taken by newly crowned Jianguo is to declare, in time-honored fashion, the advent of the Great Awakening era. But he also busies himself with more mundane matters: reclaiming control of customs (and their revenues) from the Western powers; reorganizing the civil service; reforming the fiscal system; laying the groundwork for universal education; etc. The first two years of the Qian dynasty are thus busy ones, but the most significant development during that early period is the reconciliation of the traditional and modern Chinese elites around the new regime, facilitated by their cooperation at the legislative level. Indeed, the new Imperial Parliament is bicameral, with a Senate made of appointed members selected from both the old establishment and the business-oriented coastal bourgeoisie, and a Lower House made of elected members; but the minimum income requirement to be part of the electorate limits the latter to the wealthiest 8% of the population. Thus representatives of the two elites, the heirs to the old order and the rising bourgeoisie, get to rub elbows in both chambers, and learn to work together, much as the land-owning aristocracy and the industrialists did in 19th-century Britain.

As a compromise, and because he felt that a new dynasty required a new emblem anyway, Kang endorsed Sun's suggestion for a new Chinese flag.

1914: First reclaimed territory

The beginning of WW1 in Europe gives the new regime an opportunity to undo one of the many humiliations suffered by China during the previous decades. In September 1914, Jianguo announces that China sides with the French-British Entente, and therefore gets both countries’ blessing to reclaim the Shandong peninsula, heretofore occupied by Germany. The Germans have but a small expeditionary corps in Qingdao and, with no hopes of reinforcements coming to their rescue, are vanquished after two months of fighting; by December, the last German soldiers have surrendered. The regime’s propaganda machine milks the victory for all its worth, and the population, starved of good news for a century, lap it up. A long-dormant nationalist fervor is reawakened, and Jianguo takes advantage of it to launch an ambitious program of rearmament: British military instructors are hired to complete the modernization of the army along Western norms, and aircraft are purchased from France and Britain to equip the brand-new air force.

The very first plane to fly with Chinese colors is the RAF FE2, a 2-seat pusher-propeller fighter, followed in short order by the Caudron G4 bomber/reconnaissance plane. By 1917, Chinese pilots fly Nieuport 17 and SPAD SXIII fighters, and Vickers Vimy bombers are purchased in 1918.

1918: The Russian "unequal treaties" revoked

It is therefore with newfound confidence in its new military might that China observes the Russian revolution of February 1917, the takeover by the Bolsheviks at the end of the year, and the subsequent descent of the Czarist empire into civil war. The political chaos, and in particular the secession of Russia’s Pacific regions give China the opportunity to intervene militarily into Russian territory, ostensibly to contain the Bolsheviks’ expansion. In fact, the alliances made with the various White Russian factions such as the one led by Von Ungern-Sternberg are purely circumstantial; by 1920, the short-lived Republic of the Far East is promptly annexed, along with the part of Kazakhstan south of Lake Balkhach. China thus restores the Sino-Russian border as it had been defined by the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, and undoes the annexations  perpetrated by Russia in the second half of the 19th century.

The de facto occupation of Eastern Siberia at a time when, in Europe, the embattled Soviet regime is forced to accept important losses of territory to the benefit of the Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania spurs China to create wholesale the kingdom of Yakutia, a puppet state that stretches from the East bank of the Ienisei to the Bering Strait, of which Yakutsk becomes the capital. At the time of its creation, the country has but a scattered population made up of Buriats (23%), Yakuts (22%), White Russians (21%), Tunguz (10%), Mongols (6%), Chukchi (5%), other Siberian peoples (11%) and Chinese (2%). The latters’ share of the population rises in the course of the following decades and reaches 35% by the early 21st century.

Yakutia is predictably satellized politically and economically by China, on which it is dependent for protection against the USSR and for development. The regime is officially a constitutional monarchy, but the real power is in the hands of Chinese "advisors". Chinese garrisons are stationed along the Yakuto-Soviet border, in Yakutsk, and in the larger towns (Krasnoiarsk, Ulan-Ude and Magadan, for the most part).

Yakutia's creation and vassalization, needless to say, is done with the blessing of the Western powers, who are all to happy to outsource to China the job of containing the Soviets to the East. Better have Eastern Siberia turned into a Chinese-controlled puppet state, the reasoning goes, than remain part of the USSR. After all, can anyone imagine the USA sharing a border with the Soviet Union?

1933-1945 : The Sino-Japanese war

The World in 1925

By 1922, Yakutia has been secured and the relationship with the nascent Soviet Union evolves towards the same form of peaceful--if wary--coexistence that also becomes the rule on the USSR’s European borders. Various attempts by the Bolsheviks to export Communism to either China or Yakutia remain fruitless ; except for a handful of frustrated members of the Tongmenghui’s radical wing and the odd exalted intellectual, the Communist ideology fails to seduce a population already mobilized by the new regime. Banned or barely tolerated by the authorities throughout the following decades, the Communist Party will remain a marginal force in Chinese politics.

Having scored a major geopolitical victory at a relatively minor cost, the Qian dynasty focuses inward and takes advantage of the comparative international stability of the 1920s to invest the bulk of its resources into infrastructural development. Military expenditures are no longer a priority from 1922 onwards and the modernization of the Chinese armed forces is for the most part put on hold. The Chinese soldier’s main weapon during that period is the Lee-Enfield Mk. III bolt-action rifle, licence-produced in national armories since 1914, with officers being issued a Chinese-made version of the Mauser M-1896 pistol ; both weapons will remain in widespread use until 1945 and even later in certain units. From 1924 however, a deliberate effort is made to encourage the development of a national aeronautical industry by producing under licence both civilian and military planes ; to that effect, agreements are signed with several European aircraft companies, chief among which Fokker. The new aircraft factories, located in Chongqing, Sichuan, as part of a policy of developing the industrial infrastructure of the inner provinces, begin churning out F.VII airliners and Fokker’s D line of fighter planes, from the D-XI in 1924 to the D-XXI in 1937.

Jianguo dies in 1927 and is succeeded by his son, who takes the dynastic name Guoxing (??me), "Star of the Nation". Within two years of his coming to power, however, international developments force a radical reevaluation of priorities for the Chinese government.

Japanese victories: 1933-1938

In Japan, the economic impact of the 1929 crisis and the rising influence of the military lead to the implementation of expansionist policies ; as early as 1930, Tokyo no longer hides its imperialistic ambitions in North-East Asia and begins planning for the invasion of former Manchuria from its Korean colony. Faced with the growing Japanese menace, Guoxing resumes the modernization of the armed forces, but privileges the Army and Air Force rather than the Navy, the importance of which is underestimated by the Chinese Chiefs of Staff. Compared with Japan, China in 1930 is sorely outmatched in battleships, both in size and number, especially in the cruiser category ; those few ships built during the 1920s are mostly medium-sized aircraft carriers.

In 1931 and 1932, tensions keep rising between Japan and China ; while the Japanese military lobby pressures the government into endorsing its aggressive agenda, officers on the Sino-Korean border initiate incidents on their own initiative in the hope of creating a strategic fait accompli. They are eventually successful : on March 4, 1933, an exchange of gunfire on the Yalu river degenerates and gives the Japanese the casus belli they needed to officially declare war on China. The first offensives are repelled by the Chinese forces, and both sides dig in along the banks of the Yalu, leading to a situation not unlike Europe’s "phoney war" of 1939-1940. Faced with this stalemate, the Japanese Chiefs of Staff begin to plan a series of large-scale operations involving air raids, a land offensive in former Manchuria and troop landings in Qingdao, Tianjin and Shanghai. The offensive is launched in May 1934 ; taken off-guard by its scale, Chinese forces are overwhelmed and cede large chunks of territory in their hasty retreat : by October, the Japanese control the four Manchurian provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, Fengtian and Rehe, although the beachhead on the estuary of the Yangzi is pushed back by the Chinese after heavy fighting. The capital is moved from Nanjing to Chongqing. Yakutia isn’t spared : its small army and the Chinese garrisons, barred from receiving reinforcements, can only offer token resistance to the Japanese advance from the South and the Okhotsk beachhead ; so that the south-east of the country is swiftly conquered and occupied.

By 1935, the Chinese forces have partially recovered from the onslaught and manage to slow down considerably the Japanese advance to the South and West, without however being able to stop it altogether. Partisan warfare in the occupied areas begins to organize and ties down an increasing share of Japanese troops; whenever retreating from a given area, the Chinese army leaves behind carefully concealed caches of weapons, ammunition and explosives, and plants sleeper agents in the civilian population with the aim of organizing resistance networks behind enemy lines. But the Japanese army is still at this point superiorly trained and equipped, and Japanese mastery of the seas is undisputed. The parts of China and Yakutia under Japanese occupation are subjected to thorough exploitation of both their natural resources and manpower. At the end of that year, apart from the aforementioned Manchurian provinces, the Japanese control Suiyuan, Henan (including Beijing), Shandong and Shanxi (with Taiyuan subjected to a brutal siege) ; further landings enable the seizing of Xiamen, Hong Kong, and the island of Hainan. The frontlines eventually stabilize in northern Henan and Jiangsu after the famous battle of Kaifeng. It rages from September 6 to November 17, 1935, and claims the lives of over 130,000 Chinese and 90,000 Japanese ; yet, despite intensive bombing and shelling of the city by the Japanese, the Chinese forces stand their ground, making the city a symbol of national resistance against the invaders, and earning it the nickname "Verdun of the East". Neither side manages a significant breakthrough in the course of the following three years, although Japan generally retains the initiative during that period and keeps China on the defensive.

The turnaround: 1938-1945

The World in 1942

The conflict takes a new turn in late 1938 : from that point on, the Chinese military apparatus, based in the war capital of Chongqing where a sprawling industrial complex has been developed in the course of the previous five years, benefits from the full mobilization of both society and economy, and is now battle-hardened. The long-delayed modernization of the armed forces is by then in full effect, and there is no longer a significant technological gap with the Japanese ; elite Chinese troops (and, increasingly, resistance fighters) are equipped with Schmeisser MP-28.II SMGs, while the Air Force is finally catching up with Japanese aircraft : apart from its workhorse, the Fokker D-XXI, the CAR fields Vickers Wellington bombers, with such cutting-edge fighter designs as the Dewoitine D-520 and the Bloch MB-155 under negotiation with the French for license production. Ground forces are issued with the kind of light armor that has proved most effective in the hilly, waterlogged battlefields of Henan and Jiangsu : the obsolescent Renault FT-17 is being phased out and replaced with newer AMC-35s and Vickers Mk. IVs. Generally speaking, China by that time benefits from the rearmament of Western Europe, as new models of tanks and planes are designed and their licenses sold by the cash-strapped governments of France and Britain. Partisan operations are also in full swing and force the Japanese to divert much of their strength for messy, morale-eroding counterinsurgency operations that for the most part only manage to harden the resolve of civilian resistance ; with over 2 million square kilometres of often densely populated territories to keep under control at the price of brutal repression, the Japanese fighting strength is, slowly but inexorably, beginning to wear out.

The outbreak of WW2 in Europe is a boon for China on three counts. First, thanks to the official alliance between Japan and Germany, China achieves the status of co-belligerent alongside France and Britain against the Axis, meaning it benefits from that point on of the American Lend-Lease program. Second, the European conflict is a timely distraction for the Soviet Union, which may otherwise have taken advantage of the situation to attempt an invasion of Yakutia ; Kremlin archives declassified in the mid-1990s offer evidence that Stalin was at the very least contemplating such a move, although no precise strategy had been formulated. Be that as it may, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact kept him focused on Poland and the Baltic states, and the bulk of the Red Army deployed to the West. Third, being allied to Britain, China gets important assistance from Australia ; from October 1939, new shipyards in Perth built with Chinese labor begin assembling the Chinese Navy’s new war fleet (most of those workers will stay on after the war, and their descendants make up the bulk of today’s sizeable Chinese community in Perth).

The following years confirm the orientation taken by the Sino-Japanese conflict in late 1938 : a war of attrition in which, neither side being able to gain a decisive advantage on the other, each seeks to exhaust the other by inflicting on it unbearable casualties. Despite the Japanese use of chemical and bacteriological warfare, China gradually gains the upper hand as it can draw on virtually unlimited manpower while the bloody insurrection in occupied provinces takes it toll on Japanese forces. Attempts at encirclement by invading French Indochina in September 1940, and Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies in January 1941, while geographically expanding the so-called Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and giving Japan much-needed access to South-East Asia’s natural resources, contribute to stretching Japanese forces even thinner. The island of Singapore, turned into a virtual fortress by British forces with Chinese reinforcements, successfully resists the Japanese attack. Likewise, the only part of Burma that falls to the Japanese is the southern Tenasserim district; joint British-Chinese expeditionary forces manage to hold the rest of the country. This keeps the strategic Burma Road, completed in 1938 and augmented by a railway line the following year, open. The Sikkim Road, a second railway link between Lhassa and Calcutta, begun in 1939, will only be completed in 1944.

With the Chinese front looking more like a quagmire by the year, and Washington’s embargo on oil and strategic materials putting severe pressure on Japan, Tokyo attempts to break the stalemate with a preemptive strike on the United States. But the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor achieves the opposite of the intended result, and draws the USA into the war on the Allied side, on both the European and Asian fronts. From then on the Japanese defeat is only a question of time, as the Mikado’s empire has neither the manpower nor the resources to hold against two continental powers. Furthermore, America takes over as China’s main provider of military equipment : just as M-2 halftracks and T17E1 light tanks replace the Vickers and Suomis of previous years on the ground, Chinese skies soon fill up with Lockheed P-38s, Republic P-47s and North American P-51s as older Fokker D-XXIs, G1s and Bloch MB-155s find themselves outmatched by the newer Zero fighters (the Dewoitine D-520s stay on, but are primarily used as carrier-based fighters in the latter stages of the conflict). The victories achieved by the Japanese Navy in the Pacific in 1942 are merely the swan song of Japanese power ; by December 1944, having fought to exhaustion, its industrial potential obliterated by Chinese and American bombing raids, its reserves of fuel empty, Japan has no choice but to accept unconditional surrender, which is signed on January 3, 1945. Meanwhile, the Chinese leadership has taken advantage of the Tehran Summit in 1943 to negotiate the retrocession of the foreign concession in Shanghai as soon as victory is achieved and the implementation of a timetable for that of Hong Kong (the issue of Macau, however, remains unsolved at that time).

Victory gives China most of its territorial integrity back, as it regains, besides Shanghai’s foreign concessions, the island of Taiwan, annexed by Japan in 1895 with the treaty of Shimonoseki (Sakhalin island, temporarily occupied by Chinese forces after the war, is eventually ceded back to Japan in 1952). The Qian dynasty’s legitimacy is all the stronger for it ; for the Chinese people, Emperor Guoxing’s famous declaration from the Southern gate of the Forbidden City on Chinese New Year’s Day 1945, "Zhongguo qilai le!" (China has awakened), symbolically erases a century’s worth of humiliations and foreign occupation. Another strongly symbolic move is the sending to Europe of an expeditionary force to help out the Allies against the Third Reich ; many of those soldiers, once demobilized, will stay on in Europe as guest workers to take part in post-war reconstruction. Bringing in their families, they will jump-start a large-scale migration movement of Chinese labor to Western European countries during the following three decades, as Europe’s booming economy needs extra manpower ; by 1975, Chinese will be the largest ethnic minority in France, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, and the second largest in Italy and Denmark, for a total of 7 million individuals, a figure which has doubled by 2004.

The long and bitter war against Japan has changed China in many ways. Politically, the regime enjoys a level of popular legitimacy unprecedented since the 18th century. Economically, development is no longer confined to the coastal areas, as Sichuan has benefited from the crash industrialization of the war years and now hosts a vibrant industrial complex as well as several renowned technical universities and military academies ; the sleepy prewar backwater is now an economic powerhouse in its own right. Culturally, the war generation has learned to take pride in both the resilience and adaptability of Chinese culture ; historians talk of a "Chongqing generation" of decision makers who came of age during the war years : men and women who grew up in the East but spent a decade in Chongqing, joining the war effort in the embattled capital, and blended the coastal provinces’ typical pragmatism and open-mindedness with the hinterland’s respect for tradition. Last but not least, socially, the war has accelerated evolutions that otherwise may have taken a generation longer, such as greater equality for women, who by 1945 constitute some 39% of the workforce (the armed forces have also gone co-ed in 1938, to make up for the high losses suffered during the initial phase of the war).

Dividing up the world : 1945

It is during the four-party summits of Yalta and Potsdam between the USA, the USSR, Britain and China that the general outlines of the geopolitical equilibria of the following decades are drawn, with each power informally negotiating the extent of its sphere of influence with the others. Since Britain, weakened and painfully aware of the programmed disparition of its colonial empire (with a timetable for Indian independence in the works), chooses to align itself on the American position, the three main players are the United States, the Soviet Union and China. At the time of the Yalta summit, whereas the war in Asia is over, the Japanese having surrendered in January 1945, it is still raging on in Europe, although the fact that America can now deploy its entire military might against the Third Reich means that victory is but a question of time. The European theater thus focuses the attention of both Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, so that Guoxing has relatively little difficulty in obtaining key concessions in the reconstitution of China’s traditional influence in East Asia ; and while the future "iron curtain" between the US-British zones and the Soviet zone is gradually being delineated through backroom deals and the reality on the ground, the Chinese leadership imposes the official recognition of China’s occupation of Korea, French Indochina, Malaysia and the Dutch East Indies. In the last three territories, China can therefore channel and influence at will the independence movements.

The stabilization of the tripolar balance : 1945-1973

The early post-war years provide China with several diplomatic opportunities. Both the USA and the USSR remain focused on Europe, where each side interprets the other’s every move as a covert attempt to expand its area of influence. By 1949 the two superpowers are engaged in a high-stakes game of brinkmanship which culminates with the Berlin blockade. Meanwhile the European colonial powers lick their wounds and are unable to prevent Chinese ingerence in their Asian possessions. China, which has placed the negotiations between independence movements and their colonial masters placed under its unofficial arbitrage, skilfully uses its seat at the permanent Security Council of the young UN to give them a multilateral dimension. A series of timetables is--sometimes grudgingly--agreed on for the accession to sovereign status of all European colonies in East Asia. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia thus become independent in 1950. Then Burma does in 1954. Indonesia follows in 1955, although Nanjing obtains that the island of Bali become a separate country. Finally, in 1958, comes the turn of Malaysia, merged with Singapore but not with the sultanate of Sarawak ; this causes some resentment from the ethnic Malays, as the inclusion of Singapore makes the Chinese the majority community. China further imposes that the retrocession of Macau take place on the same timetable as that of Hong Kong (scheduled for July 1, 1953), under threat of "unilateral liberation" of the Portuguese-controlled territory.

However, one of China’s most far-reaching diplomatic achievements of that period takes place outside of its traditional sphere of influence. Involved with observers’ status in the negotiations between the British government and the Congress party for Indian independence, Chinese diplomats weigh in on the latter’s side, and pressure Britain not to endorse Ali Jinnah’s objective of creating a separate country--which would have been named Pakistan--for India’s Muslim minority. The subcontinent’s partition along religious lines is therefore avoided ; although riots between Muslims and Hindus do take place in 1947 and 1948, a bloody war of religion is preempted. China’s support for Indian unity, it hardly needs saying, was anything but altruistic: the Chinese were simply anxious to avoid letting Indian Muslims create a dangerous precedent that might have fuelled demands for independence in one of China’s own Muslim-majority provinces, Xinjiang.

By 1948, the Cold War spills beyond Europe : the Soviet Union asserts its Jdanovian vision of global geopolitics (the struggle between an "imperialist" and a "democratic" side), seeks to infiltrate so-called Third World countries with local Communist parties, and denies Yakutia’s very right to exist. Various border incidents take place along the Ienisei during 1950, as Stalin tests the political and strategic will of China to protect its largest vassal state. But despite the odd dogfight between Soviet Mig-15s and Chinese Daweilan-8s and -9s (the licence-produced versions of the De Havilland Vampire and Venom), the situation fails to degenerate into open conflict : having understood China’s determination, Stalin backs down.

The 1950s are for China a geopolitically fruitful decade : as the former colonies of European powers become independent--mostly without noticeable incident--they have little choice but to align themselves on Nanjing in order to avoid becoming pawns in the strategic power play between the USA and the Soviet Union. So as not to alienate these new allies, China shuns any overtly dominant attitude, and instead reestablishes the old principle "give more, take less" that ruled at the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties its relationship with tributary states. As Laozi put it :

"A great country humbles itself before a small one
And thus wins it over
But if a small country humbles itself before it
The great country shall be the loser
What does a great country want but get more client states
What does a small country want but a secure overlord
Both profit from their relationship
But it is up to the great one to bow down"
(Dao De Jing, chapter 61)

China’s most enthusiastic satellite state is, predictably, Malaysia, in which Prime Minister Lee Kuan-yew governs a population that is 62% Chinese ; at the other end of the spectrum is Indonesia, where the government treads a fine line between keeping Nanjing satisfied and exploiting the population’s anti-Chinese sentiment. Most, like Vietnam (which has become a republic under the presidency of Ho Chi Minh), fall somewhere in between. The one point of contention throughout the period is the status of the Huaqiao, or overseas Chinese, who have formed powerful communities in all South-East Asia and usually control the bulk of their host countries’ economy ; lengthy bilateral negotiations, in some cases lasting into the early 1960s, are necessary to sort out their status and citizenship.

In domestic politics, the Chinese regime remains generally authoritarian, with the executive, under the control of the Emperor, firmly in charge ; but the members of the Lower House are from 1947 elected by universal suffrage (including women), with several parties represented, although the pro-government conservatives hold a de facto monopoly on legislative power until 1965, when the progressives, headed by Zhou Enlai, become the majority party for the first time. The government’s economic policy is consistently growth-oriented, and blends business-friendly measures with a strong dose of social paternalism, akin to what is being practiced in Japan (and indeed by most of China’s satellite states, with stunning results in terms of economic development). Confucianism remains the official ideology, and although freedom of religion is recognized, and most people practice the traditional blend of Buddhism, Taoism, ancestor worship and folk religions (with Islam present in Xinjiang, Ningxia and parts of Yunnan), the activity of Christian missionary movements is strictly monitored. The country’s centralized structure gradually evolves toward federalism as provinces are granted increasing autonomy in such fields as taxation and education, with special provisions in the case of Tibet, Xinjiang and Mongolia. In 1965, Emperor Guoxing declares the end of the "Great Awakening" era, and opens the "Long Prosperity" era ; he dies in 1971 and his succeeded by his son, who takes the dynastic name Wensheng (??th), "Triumph of Civilization". His reign is initially a continuation of his father’s, but he gradually reduces his involvement in day-to-day government, giving an increasingly more prominent role to the Prime Minister ; by the time of the premiership of Zhao Ziyang (1977-1989), the regime has evolved into a Japanese-style parliamentary democracy, although one with strong technocratic leanings, with the state bureaucracy remaining influential behind the scenes. Did not Confucius say :

"Should the ruler embody virtue, he need not give any order for everything to be well. Should he not, even if he multiply his orders, he shall not be obeyed." (Lunyu, 13 :6)
And : "Who, better than Shun [23rd century BC], knew how to govern through non-action ? What was action to him ? All he had to do for peace to reign, was to sit in all dignity face to the South." (Lunyu, 15 :4)

China's economic and demographic growth, 1945-1973

In economic terms, the period from 1945 to 1973 is when China completes its extensive development phase, which had begun in the early 1920s and was interrupted by the war ; the exceptions were the military-industrial complex and the industrial nexus built around Chongqing between 1934 and 1945. The wartime destructions, especially in the North-East and the coastal areas, require massive investments in infrastructures, transportation and housing, which in turn create a Keynesian effect on the economy at large. Heavy industry and consumer industry develop jointly to feed the huge and growing domestic demand, but also to take advantage of the opening of international markets from then on regulated by such multilateral agreements as the GATT. With a plentiful workforce, the investment potential of the Huaqiao, and a reactive entrepreneurial class, China’s industry closely follows Japan in its penetration of Western markets.

China’s population goes from 520 million in 1945 to 930 million in 1973, with a growing proportion of city-dwellers. This demographic boom, caused by the compounded effects of the post-war surge in birth rates and a rising life expectancy, is partially offset by emigration, mostly to the satellite states of South-East Asia, to Western Europe, and to the USA, Canada and Australia : over a 30-year period, no fewer than 25 million Chinese settle in foreign countries. This process is made easier by a series of bilateral agreements initiated by the Chinese government : just as, at the time of their retrocession in 1945, the residents of the Shanghai International concession are granted the double Chinese-American citizenship and those of the French concession the double Chinese-French concession, the residents of Hong Kong are granted the double Chinese-British citizenship when the city reverts to Chinese rule in 1953 (for fairness’s sake, residents of Macau get the Chinese-Portuguese citizenship, although few leave for Portugal until the mid-1980s) ; so millions of migrants can settle in their host country without administrative hurdles. As for emigration to the USA, Canada and Australia (as well as New Zealand), it is made possible by the repeal under diplomatic pressure by Nanjing of the anti-Chinese laws put in place in those countries in the late 19th century and applied until WW2. The Chinese authorities first obtain the authorization of family reunion for those immigrants arrived from China in earlier decades but often condemned to lifelong bachelorhood, prevented as they were from bringing in their spouses and children. Next, all discriminatory legislation specifically targeted at Chinese people is removed from the books. In spite of scattered xenophobic reactions in those countries’ public opinions--fed in some cases by populist politicians--the legal status of Chinese immigrants is everywhere normalized by 1955.

1973-1990: From Détente to the Second Cold War

The First Cold War, which is conventionally considered to have begun with the Communist takeover of the Czech government in 1948, had gradually given way to détente after what historians commonly refer to as the Havana-Berlin Tradeoff, wherein the Nixon administration, faced with the erection of the Berlin Wall by Warsaw Pact forces in August 1961, agreed with Khrushchev to condone the new German status quo in exchange for the USSR in turn ceasing military assistance to the young Castro regime in Cuba. By the following year, US forces had invaded the island and reinstated President Batista, but at the cost of a civil war between pro- and anticommunist Cubans that would last for over two decades, devolve by the mid-1980s into a Colombian-style endemic insurgency, and would only truly be over with the Clinton-brokered summit of July 1995 between President Gutierrez and Communist leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

China takes advantage of the détente both to consolidate its control over its sphere of influence and to increase its economic clout by attracting foreign capital (it becomes the world’s second destination of direct investment after the USA in 1967, and the first by 1974) and expanding its penetration of Western markets. Even with the slowdown caused by the 1973 worldwide recession, its GDP growth rate remains one of the world’s highest, along with Japan’s, Korea’s, Vietnam’s and Malaysia’s. Further, as China’s "hard power" grows, so does its "soft power" : after a parenthesis of some 150 years during which the Chinese cultural model in East Asia had been overshadowed by Western imperialism, it once again becomes prevalent in China’s traditional sphere of influence (several of the region’s countries officially adopt neo-Confucianism as a state ideology, Mandarin becomes the region’s lingua franca, and Vietnamese schools resume teaching the Chinese writing system alongside the newer, French-imposed Latin script), and in the 1970s starts spreading into the Western world, relayed locally by overseas Chinese communities. By 1975, Chinese cultural centers, language schools and universities have opened in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, Toronto, Sydney, Perth, Auckland, Jakarta, London, Paris, Rome and Hamburg ; their dual purpose is both to provide a way for the children of Chinese emigrants to remain in touch with their heritage, and to introduce Chinese civilization to the Western public at large. Did not Confucius say : "Studying knowledge to apply it at the right moment, welcoming a friend who comes from afar, are not those the greatest pleasures ?" (Lunyu, 1 :1) Nanjing likewise sponsors the opening of Taoist and Buddhist temples in large Western cities to cater to the spiritual needs of Chinese communities, although the counter cultural movement of the late 1960s sparks an interest for Chinese forms of worship among elements of the Western population as well ; while statistics are imprecise, it is estimated that some 1.5 to 2.5% of Westerners have converted to Taoism or Mahayana Buddhism by the early 21st century.

During that period, China acquires two symbolic elements of superpowerdom with the detonation in 1962 of its first nuclear bomb (designed, it later turned out, in partnership with France, which was at the same time developing its own nuclear capability), and the launching in 1971 of its first satellite, using the first of what will turn out to be a highly successful line of rockets, the Tianshen.

Détente however comes to an end in the late 1970s. The trigger event is, as is well known, the Afghan war. After India’s independence in 1947, Afghanistan had aligned itself on Iran in order to escape the geopolitical ambitions of its large Eastern neighbor and the Soviet Union alike. For three decades its position seemed secure, although the infiltration of disgruntled Muslims from the Pashtun-populated regions of Northwestern India remained a recurrent nuisance, and occasionally soured relations with India when some of them attempted to use Afghanistan as a rear base for Islamist activism across the border. But Afghanistan’s precarious stability ends abruptly when Iran falls to Khomeyni’s revolutionary forces in February 1979 : the chaos rapidly spills over across the border, and within four months the Afghan central government’s authority, flimsy at the best of times, breaks down altogether in the turmoil of ethnic, religious and political infighting that pits Sunnis against Shi’ites, Pashtuns against Tajiks, and rural conservatives against urban modernists. By August, both India and the Soviet Union claim a right to "secure their strategic interests" by sending troops to "pacify" Afghanistan ; with the USA temporarily paralyzed by the fall of its allied regime in Iran, and the new Zhao administration in China widely perceived as unwilling to take a firm stand on the international stage, Brezhnev decides to take the gamble. On September 2, the first Soviet troops cross the border ; India quickly follows suit. China decides to preemptively secure the strategic Wakhan corridor that leads to its own border, and by the end of the month the three armies are facing each other off in central Afghanistan. The Second Cold War has begun.

With Afghanistan de facto divided into three zones of occupation, the relations between China and the Soviet Union fall to their lowest level since 1950. Clashes take place between both armies, and once again the Yakuto-Russian border is the theatre of armed incidents, this time pitting Mig-23s against Huofeng-11s (the Chinese version of the Saab-37). The trilateral arms race between the USSR, the USA and China, which had cooled somewhat since the early 1960s, resumes with a vengeance in 1980. China’s armament policy remains unchanged : increasing its technological know-how by producing in its own factories local versions of whatever equipment it needs ; it is because of the reluctance of the US government to allow the sale of licensing rights for advanced weapons systems, and because it seeks to avoid dependency on a single exporter, that China prefers dealing with European manufacturers, such as Saab, British Aerospace, Westland and Aérospatiale. China does however purchase from US manufacturers long-distance transport planes (the Lockheed C-5, the Douglas C-141, and more recently the Douglas C-17), indispensable to its force projection capability, and such aircraft as the Fairchild Republic A-10, the Sikorsky MH-53 and the Bell AH-1. However, from the mid-1980s China increasingly deploys nationally designed weapons systems, as its R&D is by then able to hold its own.

Tensions remain high until 1986, when the new First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, launches his twin policies of glasnost and perestroika, in a desperate and ultimately doomed attempt to reform the terminally sclerotic political and economic structures of the USSR. New and increasingly far-reaching treaties on arms control are signed in 1986 and 1987 with US President George Bush and Chinese Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, and in 1988, the border dispute with Yakutia is finally settled when the USSR officially recognizes the Ienisei as its Eastern border (as well as renouncing any right to the territories that China had reclaimed in 1918 south of Lake Balkhash). But the Cold War is only truly over in 1989, with the mostly peaceful collapse of Communist governments in Eastern Europe.

During that decade, while the USSR’s economy slowly grinds to a halt, China’s keeps growing, and that of its satellite states along with it ; in 1985 China’s GDP is equal to 60% of the United States, which had undergone a considerable slowdown during the eight-year Ford administration, in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis (in fact, most pundits agree that without the rise of international tensions in 1979, incumbent President Ford would have lost the White House to Democratic challenger James Carter). It is also in 1985 that China launches its first manned space mission, onboard a Tianshen-7 rocket ; four years later, the Chinese have installed their own permanent orbital station.

Here is the world in 1975:
The US sphere of influence is in blue (the neutral European countries are in purple);
The Soviet sphere of influence is in green;
The Chinese sphere of influence is in red;
The Indian sphere of influence is in orange.
The rest of the world is either nonaligned, disputed or marginalized.


And The World Ten Years Later in 1985:

1990-2006 : And then there were two

By the early 1990s, China as a whole is no longer in a phase of extensive development, but in one of intensive development : while the level of economic activity in the provinces of the hinterland (with the exception of Sichuan) remain comparatively lower than in the coastal provinces, the gap is narrowing, and the completion of most infrastructural projects causes a relative slowdown of the growth rate ; from then on, China is a First World economy in its own right. In 1992, the average per capita income in Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Hebei and Shandong is equal to Germany’s, and slightly lower but catching up in Guangxi, Hubei, Sichuan and Liaoning ; in 2004, it is equal in the aforementioned provinces to California’s ; some 580 million Chinese are now economically of middle class level or above. GDP parity with the USA is reached in 2003, and after that date China is the n°1 world economic power.

The Chinese economy benefits to no small extent from the quantum leap in information technologies that takes place in the 1990s ; just as investments in more traditional sectors have reached saturation levels, high-tech electronics and online services begin to pick up. In order to maximize the potential of those new activities, industrial parks devoted to hardware and software production are created in several locations, the largest of which is in the coastal city of Dalian. As India similarly develops in own electronic industry, businesses in both countries begin merging and concluding assorted deals with each other, leading to the development of what is now known as the Dalian-Bangalore Connexion. In 2004, China has the largest absolute number of PCs in the world, with the USA coming second and India third, which explains that 47% of all online communications are in Chinese. From the early 1990s onward, China also becomes a world pioneer in the development of fuel cells and alternative fuels, as the Chinese government seeks to reduce the country's growing dependence on oil imports; from 1997, the first operational (and affordable) hybrid cars roll off the assembly lines, and by 2006 11% of Chinese vehicles are hybrids, including most public vehicles, and the proportion rises steadily.

Meanwhile, Chinese universities such as Beida and Fudan enrol a constantly rising number of foreign students not only from satellite countries and India but also, increasingly, the Western world, the Middle East and Africa, while enrolment figures in the overseas network of Chinese colleges rise at a similar pace.

The last few years of the 20th century further witness a shift in the flow of international investments : outward investment from China becomes almost as high as inward investment into the country, as Chinese businesses increasingly implant branches abroad or take over foreign firms. While economic links with satellite countries, the USA, Canada, Japan and Europe remain dynamic, China also becomes Australia and New Zealand’s first trading partner, and the second after the USA for Argentina, Chile, Brasil and Mexico. China thus expands its economic and cultural influence in the South Pacific, and makes promising inroads into Latin America.

In 2006, the total number of Chinese worldwide is 1,653 million, of which 79 million live outside of China. The breakdown is as follows :

-- 29 million in vassal Asian countries, including 13 million in Malaysia (62% of the population), 5 million in Indonesia (2% of the population) and 4 million in Yakutia (35% of the population) ;
-- 21 million in the USA (6% of the population) ;
-- 15 million in the European Union (3% of the population) ;
-- 6 million in Canada (17% of the population) ;
-- 4 million in Australia (19% of the population) ;
-- 2 million in Latin America, half of those in Brazil (0.8% of the population) ;
-- 1 million in New Zealand (21% of the population) ;
-- 1 million in South Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Pacific and Africa.

This diaspora is both highly economically dynamic and upwardly mobile. Its hold on the economy of China’s satellite states, which in several cases dates back centuries, grows more solid by the year ; and thanks to low-profile, family-based business networks that extend into every overseas Chinese community, as well as the growing integration of Chinese immigrants in the economy of their host societies, this influence--distinct from but contributing to the more classic trading links with China--begins to expand in the rest of the world. But second- and third-generation children of the diaspora take every avenue of social promotion, from the entertainment industry to politics. One of them is the current governor of California, Sonia Cheng, who moved many with her speech at the inauguration of the largest Buddhist temple in the USA, built in 2002 in San Francisco, when she praised Buddhism as "a religion that embraces science where others shun it ; a religion that gives compassion where others demand obedience ; a religion in the name of which no crusade was ever launched, nor any jihad fought."

The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe is followed within two years by the collapse of the USSR as a country ; and whereas the Soviet Union could at least project the appearance a superpower, post-Communist Russia is little more than a Third World state--and a rapidly depopulating one at that--leaving only the USA and China as global powers. The relationship between the two, while not altogether devoid of a strategic dimension, turns out to be primarily diplomatic, economic and cultural, as each deploys its "soft power" to increase its global influence. Each obviously retains a civilizational edge in its own sphere of influence, but, to an increasing extent, the two hegemonic cultures begin competing on each other’s turf. This Protean race is not the less intense for being mostly covert, and as pundits such as Joseph Nye and Benjamin Barber don’t fail to notice, it is the ultimate vindication of Sunzi’s theories over those of Clausewitz, for this "clash of civilizations" is a war without violence whose battlefields are the hearts and minds of people, and whose soldiers are universities, entertainment industries, religious organizations, websites and even restaurants. On one side are the Ivy League colleges, Hollywood, Christian missionary movements, Silicon Valley and McDonalds ; on the other, Beida/Fudan, the Shanghai and Hong Kong studio network, Buddhist NGOs, the Dalian-Bangalore Connexion and Chinese takeaways. It is, in a sense, the purest, most abstract form of warfare, between two different perceptions of history, humanity’s place in the world, and the nature of reality itself : a war between memes and possibly meta-memes. What people read, watch, hear, eat, wear and believe are so many vectors for the competition. However, as Korean scholar Park Sunghee writes, unlike conventional warfare, this conflict may ultimately turn out to be a positive-sum game, as it enriches the global cultural makeup ; in Taoist fashion, out of binary opposition a dynamic process greater than the sum of its parts can emerge. In the most controversial chapter of her seminal book "Two Beget Three : Making Sense of the Sino-US Civilizational Bipolarity" (2002), she speculates on how the global order may have turned out without this equilibrium :

"Let us imagine an international system in which there aren’t, as is the case, two competing hegemonic civilizations of equal influence, but only one. How such a system may have come into being is beside the point ; we shall simply, for the sake of argument, suppose it did. A single dominant civilization, whichever it may have been, would, lacking a counterbalance, have become overly assertive ; it would have aggressively attempted to remake weaker cultures in its image ; and these cultures, unable to compete on the same level--that of civilizational paradigms--would have responded with asymmetrical forms of resistance : petty obstructionism in the best cases, and endemic terrorism in the worst ones. A world in which a dominant civilization has no competitor would hardly be the peaceful one we have come to take for granted since the advent of the Sino-US bipolarity ; rather, it would be one of predatory cultural homogenization on the one hand, and endlessly recurrent acts of violent resistance on the other, the two trends indefinitely reinforcing one another."

Here is the world in 2006:
The Chinese sphere of influence is in brown, and the countries not technically part of it yet generally aligned on China are in orange;
The US sphere of influence is in green;
The European sphere of influence is in blue;
The Indian sphere of influence is in fuschia;
Russia is in khaki;
Iran is in yellow;
The rest of the world is either nonaligned, disputed or marginalized.

Name: Yakutia
Type: Constitutional parliamentary monarchy
Capital: Yakutsk
Ruler: Queen Angara I (born 1953, crowned 1981)
Size: 8,678,772 km2 (fourth-largest country in the world after China, Canada and the USA)
Population: 12.3 million:
Chinese: 35 %; Russian: 27%; Sakha: 15%; Buriat: 12%; Mongol: 3%; Tunguz: 3%; Chukchi: 2%; other (Even, Evenk, Tatar, Yukagir, etc.): 3%.
Religions: Buddhism (Mahayana and Lama branches), Taoism, Chinese folk religion, Shamanism, Christianity (Orthodox branch), Islam (Sunni branch).
Resources: Mining (coal, cobalt, diamonds, iron, gold, manganese, nickel, tin, uranium), oil, natural gas, hydroelectricity, timber, fishing, ginseng.
Origin: The history of Yakutia as a country only began in 1921, when Chinese expeditionary forces deployed on Russian territory to fight the Bolsheviks annexed Siberia east of the Ienisei river and turned it into a puppet state of China, with tacit Western approval. The kingdom of Yakutia was officially proclaimed on March 21st, 1922, and joined the Society of Nations the following year.


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