Leadership: How The Past Threatens Chinese Unity


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 China.

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.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close