April 19, 2007:
To understand Chinese leadership,
you have to understand some basics of Chinese history. Chinese leaders, no
matter how much they talk about the future, are always looking over their
shoulders. Chinese are very much aware of how their history continually repeats
itself, century after century, and the reasons why.
One of the major concerns is the tendency of
Chinese provinces to go their own way. This is better appreciated if you
remember that China has more than twice as many people as Europe, and is not as
culturally monolithic as Westerners think. While there is a common pictographic
language throughout the country, there are many different languages and
dialects. And with those differences in language, come differences in customs,
allegiances and, most importantly, geography. For thousands of years, those
differences have constantly worked against those who would try to rule a united
While most Chinese are proud of a united China,
their personal loyalties lie closer to home. As the old (and still popular)
Chinese saying goes, "the mountains are high, and the emperor is far away."
That quip is a common explanation for the "we'll do it our own way here, and to
hell with the national government" attitude commonly found in the provinces. To
keep the peace, the central government tolerates at lot of this local
independence. But historically, national leaders know that this tolerance often
leads to provinces becoming so independent that they operate like separate
countries. This has happened, violently,
three times in the last two hundred years, and many Chinese feel another
period of disunity is overdue.
Knowing this bit of background explains why the
Chinese government tolerates a lot of corruption in the provinces (it keeps the
local officials fat and happy), and makes such a big deal of Chinese (as in
China the nation) accomplishments. The Chinese governments use of nationalistic
ranting isn't about China getting some respect, as much as it is to keep people
in the provinces from getting too comfortable with separatist attitudes.
Even if the country doesn't break apart, as it
regularly has, the provincials can easily become less cooperative with the
central government. This is particularly the case when it comes to economic
matters. By unleashing a market economy three decades ago, the central
government gave up a lot of power. A centrally planned economy was very
inefficient, except when it came to having control over everyone, everywhere,
all the time. The government has been scrambling ever since to keep it all
together. So just remember that, as China marches into the future, the
leadership is constantly looking to avoid repeating the past.