Changeless China (post 3,743 in a series)

Strange Maps (quite possibly the coolest blog in the universe) has this map of more-or-less Han China.

China as an island

The map comes from here, and is part of a summary of a “rise of China” article from Stratfor which is apparently some shop selling (very expensive) geopolitical analysis. Unless the Stratfor article is way better than the summary the people paying money for it are getting ripped off.

The main point of the article is that to understand China you need to know that only part of China is inhabited by “Han” the ethnic group “the world regards as the Chinese”. So far so good, but what insights can we get from this? Well we can get a lot of factual errors, like the suggestion that the dominant language in South China is Cantonese (which is true if the only province in South China is Guangdong), that China’s ports were not sites of international trade before the Opium Wars (which would be news to the entire Chinese diaspora) and that the only successful invaders of China were the Mongols (which is quite an insult to the Manchus, among others). Mostly though, we get timeless China, isolation division. Apparently China has always been an isolated country both because of geography and proclivity, and that is why it has always been so poor. (?) Chinese governments have always been worried about the dangerous prosperity that trade can bring (those backwards mandarins!) but in the  20th century they have been forced to allow it, and this creates all sorts of problems, most notably that some parts of China get rich quicker than others,  leading to civil war. That’s what happened in the early 20th century, when Chinese coastal elites allied with foreigners against Beijing and the interior. One of the common features of this sort of analysis is that its so bad its not even wrong. Nobody who knew anything about Chinese nationalism or history could try to use this model to explain the first half of the 20th century.1 Even people who knew almost nothing about China’s history would not keep using the term “Beijing” to refer to the central government since for much of the period they are talking about the capitol was in Nanjing.   We then learn that “China” has always had three geopolitical imperatives, which apparently apply to every China from the Qin dynasty to today, and which which would fit almost any country in the world about as well as they do as timeless truths about China.

  1. Maintain internal unity in the Han Chinese regions. (True of every country and unless defined much more clearly not much help )
  2. Maintain control of the buffer regions. (Also not very China-specific.)
  3. Protect the coast from foreign encroachment. (True of most countries other than Switzerland and Chad.)

This sort of glib analysis seems to be easier to get published about China, which as we all know is changeless, and thus once you have found the secret key you can unlock the whole puzzle of the China market. Yes, history matters, and possibly more in China than elsewhere, but China actually does change, and trying to draw conclusions based on the timeless nature of “China” is a fools game. I assume Stratfor does not publish articles that claim that American politics today is best understood in terms of the Slave Power and its opponents, or warning that the last 300 years of peace between Catholic and Protestant Europe can’t last, since religious hostility is one of the touchstones of European history.

The map itself is also pretty weird. Is this supposed to be a map of areas where today there are few Han? In that case all of Manchuria should be dried out. Is it a map of places that historically have not been Han? Then why are Liaodong and Gansu underwater?  Xian is not part of the Han core?

  1. It does work a bit better today. I suspect they are reading backwards 


  1. Stratfor people are idiots, and have always been self-important idiots. They do make money at doing it, but this is a matter of being a good courtesian rather than being a good expert.

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