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The History of Tibet

Introduction

Sam DCruz / Shutterstock.com It comes as a surprise to many uninitiated Westerners, used to the ideal of Tibet as a peace-loving religious nation, to learn that it was once a mighty and fierce empire built on invasion and conquering of peoples. Tibet has had a long and complex history both within and outside of the Chinese sphere of influence. Those looking to history to answer the question of whether or not Tibet should be a part of the People’s Republic of China will find arguments for both sides; Tibet has both acted independently as well as been subsumed by various Chinese dynasties at different times in history. What is beyond doubt is that the history of Tibet is enormously important to understanding Tibet’s position in China, and the wider region, today.

The Birth of the Tibetan Nation

Exactly when Tibetans created a culture, language and shared set of beliefs that were identifiably Tibetan is debated among Tibetan scholars, but archaeological records date the civilization back some 3000 years. Ethnic Tibetans are believed to be descended from migrants that came from the area we now know as Mongolia around that time. Early records are particularly scant but we know that the Tibetan empire reached its zenith around the 8th century CE with an empire that encompassed parts of Southeast Asia, Central Asia, northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and also parts of what are now the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan in China. Though historical records of the empire are incomplete, it is clear that for around two hundred years the Tibetan empire was one of the most significant forces in Asia. During the Tang Dynasty, interaction with the Chinese was complex and the exact nature of it is a matter of historical dispute today. What is known is that in around 640 CE the Chinese princess Wencheng was sent to Lhasa to marry the then Tibetan emperor Songtsan Gampo. Many Chinese academics credit this as the first sign of China’s suzerainty over Tibet, though many Tibetans claim the opposite: that this was a sign of Tibet’s power and independence since the Emperor only acquiesced in sending the princess under threat of force from Tibet (a claim which is not accepted by modern Chinese historians and was not recorded in the Chinese-written Tang annals). Contemporaneously, an informal treaty was signed between the two countries in which the Tibetans claim that the Chinese recognized Tibet as equal to China. During Songtsan Gampo’s reign, Tibetan laws were codified and nationalized for the first time. Also during this period, the study of Buddhism helped spread one standardized Tibetan language throughout Tibetan land. During the 200 years following the death of Songtsan Gampo in 649 CE, sporadic battles, invasions and counter invasions were fought between the Chinese and the Tibetans, as well as between the Arabs, the Turks and the Uyghurs of the region; all were jockeying for control of the lucrative Silk Road and for supremacy in Central Asia. During this time, the Chinese army never penetrated deeply into the Tibetan plateau, and Tibet was not part of China, although some of the border regions were occupied for brief periods. Tibet also successfully incurred into Chinese territory, reaching as far as Chang’an, the then-Tang capital close to today’s Xi’an, in the 760s, yet it was never able to hold its territorial gains for any significant period.

The Importance of Buddhism

sf2301420max / Shutterstock.com The growing influence of Buddhism in Tibet, which gradually began to replace the native religion of Bon after its introduction following Princess Wencheng’s marriage to Songtsan Gampo, helped to promote a desire for peace between Tibetans and their neighbors, including the Chinese. Indeed, one of the contradictions of being both a strong military power and a Buddhist nation is that Buddhism forbids all killing. By 821 a formal peace treaty was agreed and signed between Tibet and China, known as the Tang-Tibetan Alliance, and the details of this were inscribed on a stone pillar outside of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa in both Tibetan and Chinese. This pillar remains in place today. As Buddhism became the dominant force in the country, disparate religious orders began to dominate Tibetan society, and the country gradually transformed into an inward-looking, religious state. Indeed, it is estimated that by the 20th century, 20-30% of the population were monks. Monasteries became not only places of religious study, but also served as schools, hospitals, museums, libraries, banks, old-age homes and orphanages. Their monopoly of social services discouraged central governance. As popular devotion increased, the monks grew wealthier, and monastic establishments often became concerned only with increasing their own power at the expense of other monasteries, and at the expense of the Tibetan nation. The trend toward monastic regionalism was compounded by the fact that Tibet was sparsely populated and huge, making it hard to control from its center. Later, when faced with threats from outside forces, this lack of central government meant that the country would lack the army and central leadership needed to effectively defend itself.

The First Sino-Tibetan Union

The 13th century Mongol subjugation of Eurasia brought Tibet and China under one rule for the first time when both countries became subject nations under the Mongol empire. Having conquered China, Kublai Khan consolidated his rule by proclaiming himself the Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty and the rightful recipient of China’s Mandate of Heaven, absorbing much of established Chinese governing bureaucracy. He employed Confucian ministers, created a Chinese style government, adopted a dynastic calendar, and chose the name Yuan from The Book of Changes, the classical work esteemed by the Chinese. While Kublai and his court avoided many Chinese social and political practices, the Mongols overall remained a small percentage of the overall population and by and large the success of the Yuan rule resulted from the fact that the experience of Chinese civilization remained unchanged for the vast majority of the Chinese population. The foundation of this civilization was Confucianism, although Buddhism and Daoism also influenced Chinese thinking, as did the militaristic values of the legalist thinkers. This Chinese cultural tradition underpinned the Chinese people’s self- understanding. Thus, despite the Yuan Dynasty being formed as a result of an invasion from an external force, Kublai Khan is considered in China to have been Chinese as he perpetuated China’s cultural heritage. That he was Mongolian is no barrier to this interpretation, as Mongolians are recognized as one of China’s official 56 ethnic groups. As a result, modern Chinese historians argue that it was during the Yuan dynasty that Tibet formally became part of Chinese territory and has remained so ever since. In contrast, the opponents of this view maintain that China and Tibet were two independent countries subjugated by an outside force; in emphasis, they point out the Mongols ruled the two territories separately much in the same way that the British ruled its colonies independently, and that Tibetan life remained centered on monastic Buddhism rather than Chinese cultural norms. After the collapse of the Yuan and the rise of the Ming, Tibet remained a part of what we have come to know as China, though the level of control that the authorities in Beijing had over the region is not entirely clear. There are definite records of some regional Tibetan monasteries and princes independently seeking invitations from the Ming Emperor in order to profit from tributary engagement in which the Tibetans would give token gifts to the Emperor in recognition of his superiority and their fidelity, and would receive much more valuable gifts in return. The dynasty also bestowed honorary titles on the princes monks of Eastern Tibet who were eager to trade with China. The Chinese government cites these missions and these titles as evidence that Tibet was a vassal of the Ming dynasty. However, Chinese troops were never stationed in Tibet during the Ming dynasty, and there is evidence that Tibet conducted foreign relations on its own behalf at this time, particularly with neighboring Nepal.

The Dalai Lamas and Tibetan Reunification

360b / Shutterstock.com It was during this time that the Lama system – under which a hierarchy of reincarnating lamas retains authority – became firmly established with the Dalai Lama as the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetans, ahead of other important Lamas including the Panchen Lama who has the responsibility of identifying a reincarnated Dalai. The Dalai is ordinarily identified when aged around 3 or 4, at which time a regent is appointed to educate and guide him before he can assume full responsibilities when he reaches adulthood. What this means in practice is that there can be a twenty year period in between the death of one Dalai and the assumption of power by his successor. The first Dalai Lama, though, was not even bestowed with that title until after his death in 1474. The system of reincarnation means that the present Dalai, currently in exile in Dharamsala in India, is believed to be the fourteenth incarnation of the same person. Indeed, he even talks of his own ‘personal’ memories of the lives of each of the previous Dalais. Chinese control of the territory receded after the mid-16th century though no formal renunciation of its sovereignty was ever made (there is disagreement over whether the concept of sovereignty is even relevant when studying this period of Asian history). With the help of Mongol allies, the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lozsang Gyatso, presided over the 1642 reunification of Tibet after centuries of factionalism. After Tibet was unified, the Fifth Dalai Lama continued to rely on the Mongol military leader Gushri Khan to put down re-emerging factionalism amongst deposed Tibetan kings. In 1644, two years after Tibet’s unification, the Manchus, an ethnic group originating from today’s Northeast China, captured Beijing, taking the rest of China 17 years later. Just as the Mongol conquerors of China had done, the Manchus gave their dynasty a Chinese name, Qing, and adopted Chinese administrative tools to rule their new land. With only few exceptions, Chinese civilization continued untouched for the vast majority of the population. Even more than the Mongols before, the Manchus worked to prevent their tribesmen from being absorbed into the wider Chinese population; for instance, intermarriage between Han and Manchu was forbidden and Manchu officials had to read and speak the Manchu language. In 1652, the Manchus invited the Dalai Lama to Beijing. Chinese historians today interpret this visit as a vassal paying tribute, though some Tibetan historians claim he was treated an equal with the Qing emperor and as a representative of both the Tibetan and Mongolian peoples. The unification of Tibet dissolved with the death of the Fifth Dalai Lama and as various Tibet regions vied for power, some chose to ally themselves with the Manchu emperor. This infighting was exacerbated by the fact that the next six Dalai Lamas all died before reaching maturity, so that Tibet was in effect ruled by a series of regents. This infighting allowed the Qing to get a formal foothold in Tibet by 1709, when they sent their first imperial representative to Lhasa. By 1720, the Qing Army entered Tibet, in part to help install and protect the seventh Dalai Lama, and Tibet became in effect a Qing protectorate. The Qing army remained for three years and its withdrawal sparked a resumption of factional Tibetan fighting. During the 160 year period of regency, the relationship between the Qing Emperors and the regents who ruled in the Dalai Lama’s name was ambiguous, and has been interpreted differently by Tibetans and Chinese. Tibetans further point out that the Manchu dynasty was seen by some – including many Chinese of the time – as a foreign occupation.

The 13th Dalai Lama and Tibet’s Flirtation with Statehood

The 13th Dalai Lama entered a rapidly changing international order when he assumed power from his regent in 1895, by which time both Tibet and the Qing were under pressure from predatory Japanese and European colonial powers. By 1890 the British were negotiating a treaty with the Qing to establish the border between Tibet and Sikkim, which the British sought to include within its Indian colony. Historically, the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim had been viewed as a vassal tributary state by Tibet, yet the Tibetans were not consulted during the treaty negotiations. Mainly as a result of fear that Russia was making incursions into Tibet in order to establish a sphere of influence, Britain invaded Tibet in 1904 and the 13th Dalai Lama fled into exile. The British invasion of Tibet refocused Qing attention on the region, which had been distracted by challenges closer to home that had threatened its rule in Beijing. By December 1904, Tibetan officials left in charge by the 13th Dalai Lama, capitulated to British terms in order to secure withdrawal of troops from Lhasa. In the resulting convention between Great Britain and Tibet, Tibet accepted London’s annexation of Sikkim and agreed not to conduct for relations with foreign states, including China. Tibet also had to pay war reparations. During this time, the thirteenth Dalai Lama was trying to get Russia to engage on Tibet’s behalf, yet Russian help was not forthcoming. Ultimately it suited both the British and Russians that Tibet was neither an independent state nor a vassal of an enemy. London and Moscow concluded that it was in both their interests to recognize a purposely vague Chinese claim over Tibet, especially as the British realized that it would be too expensive to turn Tibet into a true British protectorate as it had done to Sikkim. As a result, some clauses of the 1904 Convention were rejected by the Foreign Office in London, and it negotiated two new treaties with the Qing and with Russia. In a 1906 treaty with the Qing, the government of Great Britain engaged not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet. The Qing undertook to prevent other foreign states from interfering with the territory or internal administration of Tibet. The British then signed a second 1907 accord with Russia in which the two states agreed to recognize the principle of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, thus effectively denying that Tibet was an independent nation. Moreover, English legal and historical documents were beginning to equate China with all the territory of the Qing empire. At the same time, as those Han Chinese that sought to end imperial rule began to think what a Chinese nation would be once the Manchus were overthrown, they too began to define their borders by those drawn by the Manchus when they took power. The Chinese became fixated on the humiliation that they were experiencing at the hands of foreign powers so the defense of Chinese borders became a matter of national pride for the Chinese people. By 1912, a year after the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the formation of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen declared China to be a multi-ethnic state composed of Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Han and Uyghurs among others. Promoting this diverse population was one of the ways that the young republic articulated that its aim was to consolidate its country upon the larger Qing borders. Taking advantage of the chaos during the early days of the Republic of China, in 1912 the 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet’s complete independence, and a voluntary Tibetan army drove the remaining Chinese out of the Tibet. In 1913, the Dalai Lama returned from exile after an absence of eight years. Importantly, the Tibetan government also negotiated with British India over shared borders and an agreement was signed between British India and Tibet in 1912 which ceded Tibetan territory to colonial India. This is often cited as proof that Tibet acted with genuine independence as a nation state at this time, but it is the only example of Tibet ever acting as such in the modern international system. It is worth noting that Chinese authorities were included in these negotiations and the Chinese representative even initialed the final treaty. Though this is now downplayed by Beijing due to the complications of continued disputes with India over the modern border, it does raise a serious question over the ability of Tibet to act as a genuinely sovereign nation even during this sole example of it apparently doing so. Furthermore, Britain was in breach of its own Anglo-Russian Entente, signed in 1907, in which it had agreed that all matters surrounding Tibet would be dealt with through the authorities in Peking (Beijing) and that no negotiations would be conducted with Tibetan authorities.

Tibet and the People’s Republic of China

Hung Chung Chih / Shutterstock.com Tibet’s current and 14th Dalai Lama was born on July 6, 1935, 18 months after the death of his predecessor. Representatives of China visited Lhasa in 1934 to express their condolences at the death of the 13th Dalai Lama and succeeded in establishing a permanent radio presence in the city by 1940. During the struggle against Japanese occupation and the civil war between the communists and the nationalists, it is reported that Mao Zedong pledged that the periphery regions of China, such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Outer Mongolia, would be free to decide their own future. However, upon the establishment of the PRC in 1949, this policy was repudiated (with the exception of Mongolia, whose independence was accepted by the communists probably as a favor to their allies in the Soviet Union). By 1949, the Chinese were using its radio infrastructure to broadcast into Tibet its need to peacefully liberate the country. In October 1950 the PLA entered Tibet’s eastern regions. After initially rejecting the idea of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, the Dalai Lama signed the “17 point agreement” in 1951 after recognizing that it was not in Tibet’s interests to make an enemy of its giant neighbor against which it stood little chance of military success. The Chinese army had already inflicted defeats against Tibetan resistance and it was clear that the battle could not be won. The agreement accorded the Tibetans autonomy over their own affairs, recognized the position of the Dalai Lama and guaranteed freedom of religion in Tibet. Whatever one’s view on the debate over whether or not Tibet was an independent country, it needs to be acknowledged that this both demonstrates that the PRC government recognized the ability of the Tibetan authorities to act on behalf of Tibet (otherwise they would not have conducted negotiations and signed an agreement with them) and also that several of the points in the agreement have been broken by the PRC authorities, in particular the promise not to interfere with the position of the Dalai Lama and the guarantee that local religion would be respected. The Dalai Lama remained in Tibet after this agreement was signed and, according to his own account of the story, met with Mao Zedong in Beijing on more than one occasion. In March 1959, following three years of sporadic battles at the edges of Tibet between local paramilitaries and the PLA, the Dalai Lama officially repudiated the agreement citing breaches from the Chinese. What followed was an uprising from Tibetans against the increasing Chinese presence in Tibet, followed by a large military response from the Chinese and a bloody wave of repression. The Dalai Lama fled, on horseback, across the Himalaya into India where he later claimed asylum and established the ‘Tibetan government in exile’ in Dharamsala. It took a further three years to fully establish Chinese control over Tibet. The number of Tibetans killed has never been independently verified but the Tibetan government in exile claims the figure to be in excess of 86,000. It is also believed that the US was involved in inspiring the uprising by engaging in training some of the Tibetan paramilitaries, a practice that continued for several years after the uprising was crushed. The Dalai Lama has remained in exile since 1959 and has spearheaded a very public campaign for Tibetan autonomy, gaining much sympathy and support in Western countries and also in Japan. Following the crushing of another failed uprising in 1989, during which around 400 Tibetans are believed to have been killed just months before the Tiananmen Square incident, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “consistent resistance to the use of violence in his people’s struggle to regain their liberty”. The award, and the celebrity endorsements that have continued to flow (the Hollywood actor Richard Gere is the most notable), have helped to keep the Dalai’s drive for “genuine autonomy” within the PRC (he abandoned hopes of statehood in 1979) in the headlines, at least in the West. The Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most important spiritual leader who has the responsibility of identifying the reincarnated Dalai Lama after his death, was arrested shortly after being confirmed as the current Dalai’s accepted choice in 1995. Aged just six years old at the time, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was considered to be the world’s youngest political prisoner by many in the Tibetan movement. Beijing subsequently appointed their own choice of Panchen Lama, Gyancain Norbu, a somewhat difficult position for the CCP to explain given its strictly atheist constitution. Beijing’s Panchen Lama has never been accepted by the Dalai Lama and the campaign for the release of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima continues. He is reported to still be alive and living in Beijing under virtual house arrest and with an assumed identity. Since the death of Mao and the launch of the reform era in China, there has been a drive towards economic development in Tibet. While this has included some of the aspects of Chinese rule that provoke controversy among Tibetans and pro-independence groups, such as increased migration of Han Chinese into the area and the development of the world’s highest railway line that now connects the Tibetan heartland to the rest of China, it is undeniable that this has brought economic benefits to the area, with an increase in GDP per capita of around 400% during the first decade of the 21st century, an astonishing growth rate even by China’s standards. Accusations that this increase does not benefit the local population abound but statistics to support this are scant. In recent years there has been an upsurge in political activity and protest in the TAR and the surrounding Tibetan areas. The most high profile of these was a series of protests in Lhasa in March 2008, marking the anniversary of the 1959 uprising but also timed to gain maximum international attention in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. Riots across Lhasa left hundreds wounded and a reported 18 dead, mostly Han Chinese. The response from the Chinese authorities was initially relatively low key, though Tibetan groups in exile later reported that upwards of 1500 people were arrested, with many allegations of torture being used to extract confessions. Since 2008 security in the TAR and surrounding areas has increased, making it substantially more difficult for foreigners to visit for tourism and almost impossible for journalists or academics to investigate some of the claims being made. In 2012, a series of self-immolations made the headlines both in China and abroad, leading to the Dalai Lama to appeal for Tibetans not to resort to such measures, though Beijing is resolute in its insistence that such acts are committed at his behest.

Future Trends

Tibetan history can provide support to either side of the argument about China’s sovereignty over Tibet, but even the most optimistic campaigner for Tibetan autonomy acknowledges that the position appears intractable for the foreseeable future. China’s interests in Tibet are strategic, resource-driven, and psychological, providing ample motivation to ignore both external and internal pressure for reform in Tibet. The recent large-scale migration of Han Chinese into Tibetan areas and the increase in Han tourism brought about by the development of a railway that now makes it possible to take a single train from Beijing all the way to Lhasa, threatens to erode some of Tibet’s unique culture. However, an identity forged over such a long period of time and with such strong roots seems unlikely to be wiped from humanity. The Tibet issue will not be satisfactorily resolved any time soon, but it will not be forgotten either.

The Tibet Issue

Introduction

To many in the West, China’s continued rule in Tibet is often considered to be a foreign occupation, though few inside China accept this point of view. Tibet is of great psychological importance to China and to Chinese people in terms of national identity and the maintenance of Chinese national unity, as well as of enormous strategic importance with regard to China’s traditional national security and its access to water and other vital natural resources.

Geography

The Tibetan Plateau is the highest region on the planet, sometimes referred to as “the roof of the world”. With an average elevation of more than 4500 meters, it is an

inhospitable place to plant and animal life alike and frequently leaves unaccustomed visitors gasping for air. It is home to one half of the world’s highest mountains, including Mount Everest or Qomolangma as the Tibetans call it, with the peak forming the border with Nepal. Tibet is also the source of many of Asia’s major rivers, including China’s two biggest, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, as well as the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong, the Irrawaddi, the Arun, the Karnali, the Sutlej and the Indus. About 90% flows downstream to China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The sources of these rivers are the huge glaciers that exist in the Tibetan mountains, effectively forming enormous frozen reservoirs that are gradually released to flow down river. The constant flow of these rivers creates a stable source of water in regions which are otherwise dominated by monsoon rain falls. The Tibetan rivers are thus extremely important to sustaining life throughout South and Southeast Asia.

The territory of Tibet is large, with the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) spanning more than 1.2 million square kilometers. Historically, though, Tibet has often included the whole of Qinghai province, as well as the western sections of Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan, making it geographically almost the size of modern day India. These areas outside of the autonomous region maintain a strong Tibetan identity today and continue to be populated by mainly ethnic Tibetans. Indeed, many of the protests that have made the news in recent years have occurred outside of the autonomous region, predominantly in Sichuan. When the Dalai Lama speaks about Tibet, he’s referring to those parts of the plateau that were historically Tibetan and are primarily populated by Tibetans. When China refers to Tibet, it is normally referring solely to the TAR.

Demographics

Despite covering such a vast area Tibet’s population is relatively small. The harsh climate has dictated sparse population throughout its history and, even with advances of modern technology, this continues to be the case. The TAR has a population of just 3 million people, though the total Tibetan population of areas that have historically been within Tibet numbers around 6 million. Such small numbers in such huge areas make Tibet one of the most sparsely populated places on the planet, a striking contrast to the thronging cities of eastern China.

Unlike the other autonomous regions in China, Tibet has maintained its ethnic identity throughout the history of the PRC; whereas the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Hui in Ningxia, the Mongols in Inner Mongolia, and the Zhuang in Guangxi all now account for less than half of the population in their respective areas, Tibetans still represent 92% of the population in their own autonomous region. This is, however, changing rapidly. The opening of the world’s highest railway connecting Qinghai to Lhasa – an impressive engineering feat that takes trains across mountain passes over 5200 meters high – has enabled a much greater flow of people into, and out of, the TAR. Han Chinese currently make up around 6% of the population, but that number is beginning to rise as the Chinese government encourages Han migration into the areas by providing incentives such as housing, business, and pension benefits. Indeed, It is estimated that Han Chinese now make up 50% of the population of the capital city, Lhasa, and the Chinese government is heavily investing in the city’s infrastructure to raise the city to modern Chinese standards. Beijing says that the Han economic migrants have temporarily come to Tibet in order to help modernize the area. Some Tibetans fear that China will use demographics as a way to more thoroughly integrate the region into China. Visitors to Lhasa are keenly aware of the division with the city almost literally split into two areas, one almost entirely Tibetan and the other almost entirely Han.

Tibet remains overwhelmingly Buddhist, though the influence of Tibet’s native religion, Bon, can still be seen in some of the practices. Although the much of Tibetan monastic heritage was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Tibet still remains home to many large and small Buddhist monasteries and temples, with Tibetans making pilgrimages at various times of the year to sites of importance. The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa is the centerpiece of Tibetan Buddhism. It attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims yearly, particularly during the winter months when some Tibetans from rural areas may walk hundreds of miles to pay homage by prostrating themselves around the perimeter.

The Tibetan Economy

China currently invests about $2.5 billion annually in the region, primarily in the form of shutterstock_77066617infrastructure projects. Farming, forestry, animal husbandry and fishery accounted for approximately 70% of the total gross output value in 2000. Because of its high altitude and mountainous conditions, the Tibetan growing season is short, and the main crops grown are barley, wheat, buckwheat, rye, potatoes and some fruits and vegetables. Sheep, cattle, goats, camels, yaks and horses are also raised within Tibet, with the yak being particularly well suited to Tibet’s harsh winter conditions. Most of the farming, animal husbandry and forestry is still done by hand or with animal labor. Increasingly, electric and hydro-power, mining, light industry and handicrafts also generating earnings for the region. Tibetan hats, jewellery, wooden items, clothing, quilts, fabrics and carpets are all important money earners, as is tourism, with most tourists staying in Lhasa, Shigatse, and the Mount Everest base camp, though the number of foreign tourists permitted to visit Tibet has been scaled back in recent years. Tibet also has large deposits of gold, copper, salt and radioactive ores, although its lack of infrastructure to date has meant that it has been difficult to extract these minerals. China’s huge investment in infrastructure should mean that mining will be a growing sector for Tibet in the future. Overall, China’s significant investment in the region has meant that many Tibetans have seen a rise in living standards. Annual per capita income, for instance, quadrupled to $1076 between 1986 and 2006, though there are claims that this benefit is felt primarily by Han Chinese migrants and not by the indigenous population. Unemployment remains high at approximately 10.3%, more than double the national urban rate.

The Historical Argument

The Tibetan empire reached its zenith around the 8th century CE with an empire that encompassed parts of Southeast Asia, Central Asia, northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and also parts of what are now the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Yunnan, Gansu and Sichuan in China. During the Tang dynasty in around 640 CE the Chinese princess Wencheng was sent to Lhasa to marry the then Tibetan emperor Songtsan Gampo. Many Chinese academics credit this as the first sign of China’s suzerainty over Tibet, though many Tibetans claim the opposite: that this was a sign of Tibet’s power and independence since the Emperor only acquiesced in sending the princess under threat of force from Tibet (a claim which is not accepted by modern Chinese historians and was not recorded in the Chinese written Tang annals). Contemporaneously, an informal treaty was signed between the two countries in which the Tibetans claim that the Chinese recognized Tibet as equal to China. By 821 a formal peace treaty was agreed and signed between Tibet and China, known as the Tang-Tibetan Alliance, and the details of this were inscribed on a stone pillar outside of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa in both Tibetan and Chinese. This pillar remains in place today.

The 13th century Mongol subjugation of Eurasia brought Tibet and China under one rule for the first time when both countries became subject nations under the Mongol empire. Having conquered China, Kublai Khan consolidated his rule by proclaiming himself the Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. Despite the Yuan Dynasty being formed as a result of an invasion from an external force, Kublai Khan is considered in China to have been Chinese as he perpetuated China’s cultural heritage. That he was Mongolian is no barrier to this interpretation, as Mongolians are recognized as one of China’s official 56 ethnic groups. As a result, modern Chinese historians argue that it was during the Yuan Dynasty that Tibet formally became part of Chinese territory and has remained so ever since. In contrast, the opponents of this view maintain that China and Tibet were two independent countries subjugated by an outside force; in emphasis, they point out the Mongols ruled the two territories separately much in the same way that the British ruled its colonies independently, and that Tibetan life remained centered on monastic Buddhism rather than Chinese cultural norms. Tibet continued to move in and out of the Chinese sphere of influence throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties that followed the Yuan, leading up to the end of the 19th century.

The 13th Dalai Lama entered a rapidly changing international order when he assumed power from his regent in 1895, by which time both Tibet and the Qing were under pressure from predatory Japanese and European colonial powers. By 1890 the British were negotiating a treaty with the Qing to establish the border between Tibet and Sikkim, which the British sought to include within its Indian colony. Historically, the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim had been viewed as a vassal tributary state by Tibet, yet the Tibetans were not consulted during the treaty negotiations. Mainly as a result of fear that Russia was making incursions into Tibet in order to establish a sphere of influence, Britain invaded Tibet in 1904 and the 13th Dalai Lama fled into exile. The British invasion of Tibet refocused Qing attention on the region, which had been distracted by challenges closer to home. By December 1904, Tibetan officials left in charge by the 13th Dalai Lama, capitulated to British terms in order to secure withdrawal of troops from Lhasa. In the resulting convention between Great Britain and Tibet, Tibet accepted London’s annexation of Sikkim and agreed not to conduct for relations with foreign states, including China. Tibet also had to pay war reparations.

During this time, the thirteenth Dalai Lama was trying to get Russia to engage on Tibet’s shutterstock_94573753 resizedbehalf, yet Russian help was not forthcoming. Ultimately it suited both the British and Russians that Tibet was neither an independent state nor a vassal of an enemy. London and Moscow concluded that it was in both their interests to recognize a purposely vague Chinese claim over Tibet, especially as the British realized that it would be too expensive to turn Tibet into a true British protectorate as it had done to Sikkim. As a result, some clauses of the 1904 Convention were rejected by the Foreign Office in London, and it negotiated two new treaties with the Qing and with Russia. In a 1906 treaty with the Qing, the government of Great Britain engaged not to annex Tibetan territory or to interfere in the administration of Tibet. The Qing undertook to prevent other foreign states from interfering with the territory or internal administration of Tibet. The British then signed a second 1907 accord with Russia in which the two states agreed to recognize the principle of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, thus effectively denying that Tibet was an independent nation. Moreover, English legal and historical documents were beginning to equate China with all the territory of the Qing empire. At the same time, as those Han Chinese that sought to end imperial rule began to think what a Chinese nation would be once the Manchus were overthrown, they too began to define their borders by those drawn by the Manchus when they took power. The Chinese became fixated on the humiliation that they were experiencing at the hands of foreign powers so the defense of Chinese borders became a matter of national pride for the Chinese people. By 1912, a year after the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the formation of the Republic of China, San Yatsen declared China to be a multi-ethnic state composed of Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, Han and Uyghurs among others. Promoting this diverse population was one of the ways that the young republic articulated that its aim was to consolidate its country upon the larger Qing borders.

Taking advantage of the chaos during the early days of the Republic of China, in 1912 the 13th Dalai Lama proclaimed Tibet’s complete independence, and a voluntary Tibetan army drove the remaining Chinese out of the Tibet. In 1913, the Dalai Lama returned from exile after an absence of eight years. Importantly, the Tibetan government also negotiated with British India over shared borders and an agreement was signed between British India and Tibet in 1912 which ceded Tibetan territory to colonial India. This is often cited as proof that Tibet acted with genuine independence as a nation state at this time, but it is the only example of Tibet ever acting as such in the modern international system. It is worth noting that Chinese authorities were included in these negotiations and the Chinese representative even initialed the final treaty. Though this is now downplayed by Beijing due to the complications of continued disputes with India over the modern border, it does raise a serious question over the ability of Tibet to act as a genuinely sovereign nation even during this sole example of it apparently doing so. Furthermore, Britain was in breach of its own Anglo-Russian Entente, signed in 1907, in which it had agreed that all matters surrounding Tibet would be dealt with through the authorities in Peking (Beijing) and that no negotiations would be conducted with Tibetan authorities. The chaos and confusion in China after the fall of the Qing left Tibet’s status relatively unaddressed. During this period, the 13th Dalai Lama passed away. Tibet’s 14th and current Dalai Lama was born on July 6, 1935, 18 months after the death of his predecessor.

Tibet under the PRC

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During the struggle against Japanese occupation and the civil war between the communists and the nationalists, it is reported that Mao Zedong pledged that the periphery regions of China, such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Outer Mongolia, would be free to decide their own future. However, upon the establishment of the PRC in 1949, this policy was repudiated (with the exception of Mongolia, whose independence was accepted by the communists probably as a favor to their allies in the Soviet Union). By 1949, the Chinese were using its radio infrastructure to broadcast into Tibet its need to peacefully liberate the country. By October 1950, the PLA had entered Tibet’s eastern regions. After initially rejecting the idea of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, the Dalai Lama signed the “17 point agreement” in 1951 after recognizing that it was not in Tibet’s interests to make an enemy of its giant neighbour against which it stood little chance of military success. The Chinese army had already inflicted defeats against Tibetan resistance and it was clear that the battle could not be won. The agreement accorded the Tibetans autonomy over their own affairs, recognized the position of the Dalai Lama and guaranteed freedom of religion in Tibet. It needs to be acknowledged that this both demonstrates that the PRC government recognized the ability of the Tibetan authorities to act on behalf of Tibet (otherwise they would not have conducted negotiations and signed an agreement with them) and also that several of the points in the agreement have been broken by the PRC authorities, in particular the promise not to interfere with the position of the Dalai Lama and the guarantee that local religion would be respected.

The Dalai Lama remained in Tibet after this agreement was signed and, according to his own account of the story, met with Mao Zedong in Beijing on more than one occasion. In March 1959, following three years of sporadic battles at the edges of Tibet between local paramilitaries and the PLA, the Dalai Lama officially repudiated the agreement citing breaches from the Chinese. What followed was an uprising from Tibetans against the increasing Chinese presence in Tibet, followed by a large military response from the Chinese and a bloody wave of repression. The Dalai Lama fled, on horseback, across the Himalaya into India where he later claimed asylum and established the ‘Tibetan government in exile’ in Dharamsala. It took a further three years to fully establish Chinese control over Tibet. The number of Tibetans killed has never been independently verified but the Tibetan government in exile claims the figure to be in excess of 86,000. It is also believed that the US was involved in inspiring the uprising by engaging in training some of the Tibetan paramilitaries, a practice that continued for several years after the uprising was crushed.

Prior to China’s ‘liberation’ or ‘occupation’ (what it is called depends on one’s own viewpoint) there is no doubt that life in Tibet was a long way from the idealistic vision of a harmonious, peace-loving, and free society that some in the West tend to paint it as. Life expectancy was just 36 and the overwhelming majority of the population was illiterate. A majority of Tibetans were hereditary serfs of varying statuses, allowing the elite – including the religious leaders – to live a luxurious life on the backs of a poor, uneducated society that was structurally condemned to remain in poverty through the following generations. In essence, this was precisely what the international communist movement sought to bring to an end. Tibet had no roads, poor sanitation, and no monetary system. Until the 1960s, there were virtually no vehicles of any kind, motorized or otherwise. Punishment for various crimes was barbaric, including amputation of limbs and eye-gouging.

However, whatever the rights and wrongs of the legal or moral claim that China may have over Tibet, there is no question that many Tibetans suffered both during the ‘liberation’ and after, particularly through forced collectivization and during the Cultural Revolution. In this latter period many temples were destroyed and monks forced to tend pigs, sometimes within the walls of their own religious institutions, a grievous insult. While it is important to keep such acts in context – the Cultural Revolution was a chaotic and unpleasant time for most people in China, regardless of ethnicity – it does not excuse such acts in the minds of Tibetans, and many continue to harbor ill feelings over this. Despite the orgy of destruction that ensued in the late 1960s, it is thought that the Potala Palace, the former winter home of the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s most famous symbol, was preserved at the behest of Zhou Enlai who recognized its significance.

The Dalai Lama has remained in exile since 1959 and has spearheaded a very public campaign for Tibetan autonomy, gaining much sympathy and support in Western countries and elsewhere, including in Japan. In 1989 another attempted uprising, marking the fortieth anniversary of Dalai’s flight from Tibet, was crushed on the orders of the then-Party Secretary of Tibet, Hu Jintao, who would later go on to become China’s president and supreme leader. During the incident around 400 Tibetans are believed to have been killed. This occurred just months before the Tiananmen Square incident but did not receive a similar level of coverage due to a lack of media presence on the plateau at the time. Later that year, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “consistent resistance to the use of violence in his people’s struggle to regain their liberty”. The award, and the celebrity endorsements that have continued to flow (the Hollywood actor Richard Gere is the most notable), have helped to keep the Dalai’s drive for “genuine autonomy” within the PRC in the headlines, at least in the West. He abandoned hopes of Tibetan statehood in 1979, though the PRC government continues to paint him as a “splittist” seeking to create a separate country, and maintains that Tibet can exist within the PRC to the chagrin of some of his followers who would prefer a cleaner separation.

The Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most important spiritual leader who has the responsibility of identifying the reincarnated Dalai Lama after his death, was arrested shortly after being confirmed as the current Dalai’s accepted choice in 1995. Aged just six years old at the time, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was considered to be the world’s youngest political prisoner by many in the Tibetan movement. Beijing subsequently appointed their own choice of Panchen Lama, Gyancain Norbu, a somewhat difficult position for the CCP to explain given its strictly atheist constitution. Beijing’s Panchen Lama has never been accepted by the Dalai Lama and the campaign for the release of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima continues. He is reported to still be alive and living in Beijing under virtual house arrest and with an assumed identity. This complicates any future succession the Dalai Lama. Under the system in place in Tibet for more than five centuries, the Panchen Lama has the responsibility to identify the reincarnated Dalai, something he clearly will not be able to do whilst under house arrest in Beijing. Any reincarnation identified by Beijing’s hand-picked Panchen is unlikely to garner support from grassroots Tibetans and will be probably be seen as simply a puppet of the Chinese. With this in mind, the current Dalai Lama – who, while in good health, is already in his late seventies – has suggested that his reincarnation might be found outside of Tibet.

In recent times, particularly since the death of Mao and the launch of the reform era in China, there has been a drive towards economic development in Tibet. This has included some of the aspects of Chinese rule that provoke controversy among Tibetans and pro-independence groups such as increased migration of Han Chinese. Most controversial has probably been the development of a railway line that now connects the Tibetan heartland to the rest of China, making it possible to take a train from Beijing all the way to Lhasa (an extension to Shigatse will open in 2014). While this railway represents a notable engineering feat – with passes as high as 5200 meters it is the highest railway in the world – concerns over damage to Tibet’s delicate ecosystem have not been allayed. Furthermore, the massive increase in internal tourism that has accompanied the launch of the train service threatens to erode Tibet’s unique culture even further, turning important historical and religious sites into Disneyland-esque tourist stops. While it is undeniable that this has brought economic benefits to the area, with an increase in GDP per capita of around 400% during the first decade of the 21st century, an astonishing growth rate even by China’s standards, accusations that this increase does not benefit the local population abound. The truth is difficult to ascertain as the Chinese government does not release relevant statistics and may not even keep them itself.

Over the last few years there has been an upsurge in political activity and protest in the TAR and the surrounding Tibetan areas. The most high profile of these was a series of protests in Lhasa in March 2008, marking the anniversary of the 1959 uprising but also timed to gain maximum international attention in the run up to the Beijing Olympics. Riots across Lhasa left hundreds wounded and a reported 18 dead, mostly Han Chinese. The response from the Chinese authorities was initially relatively low key, though Tibetan groups in exile later reported that upwards of 1500 people were arrested, with many allegations of torture being used to extract confessions. Since 2008 security in the TAR and surrounding areas has increased, making it substantially more difficult for foreigners to visit for tourism and almost impossible for journalists or academics to investigate some of the claims being made. In 2012, a series of self-immolations made the headlines both in China and abroad, leading to the Dalai Lama to appeal for Tibetans not to resort to such measures, though Beijing is resolute in its insistence that such acts are committed at his behest.

China’s Traditional and non-Traditional Strategic Considerations

Tibet provides a buffer region between the Chinese heartland and both India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers. While neither of these two countries poses an apparent and immediate threat to China (they are normally more focused on each other) this is a consideration that any strategist would make. In particular China’s relationship with India has been problematic and the two fought a border war in 1962, and have a continued dispute over territory. A sparsely populated region such as Tibet is an ideal way to keep tensions at a minimum between two such nations. Allowing any form of independence to Tibet risks creating a kind of power vacuum that might be filled with Indian influence. From the point of view of national self-defense, no government in the world would countenance this if it did not have to.

Access to water resources will be crucial to China in the coming decades as it seeks to continue its rapid economic growth and improvement in living standards. China has less than half the per capita average of available water resources and large areas of the country suffer from serious drought on an almost annual basis. For this reason, the large rivers that flow through China are essential to the survival and prosperity of its people. Several of China’s largest and most important rivers have their sources in Tibet, including both the Yangtse and the Yellow River which, combined, provide water supplies for more than 500 million people. The Tibetan Plateau is the greatest store of fresh water outside of the North and South Poles. Although not explicitly acknowledged by the Chinese government in any discussion of the question of sovereignty over Tibet, it is clear that this remains a significant consideration for policy-makers when addressing the issue. The control of these river sources is an important advantage that no country would give up willingly, particularly one that is in such a precarious position with regard to its water supplies.

The Psychological Importance of Tibet

Knowing China’s modern history is crucial for understanding its perspective on many contemporary issues. Moreover, comprehending the Chinese interpretation of that history is the key to unlocking much of the Chinese view of the so-called “Tibet issue”. China’s view of itself as a victim of various powerful nations that took advantage of it while it was fragile, and sought to keep it weak by breaking it up, is a powerful lesson both for those in government and for the citizens of modern China. This “century of humiliation” was (in the Chinese narrative) brought to an end by the Communist victory in the civil war in 1949 but the scars remained in the form of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. What is viewed in China as the rightful “return to the motherland” of the first two went some way towards redressing this and the continued desire to “reunify” with Taiwan demonstrates its continued role. Given that nearly all Chinese start from the view that Tibet is part of China, efforts to remove it from the unity of the PRC are viewed through this lens, and foreigners who involve themselves in the issue are ordinarily seen as trying, once more, to “split” China. This is a particularly potent storyline during a period of time in which China’s power is clearly rising and fears from outside are evident.

The View from the West

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Tibet is frequently presented as an almost-mythical “land of snows”, populated by peace-loving religious people who live a simple (indeed, backward) life. The mythical Shangri-La is widely believed to be in Tibet (it has officially been designated as Zhongdian in northwest Yunnan but this is purely for tourism purposes). Tibetan people are portrayed as being deeply religious and almost entirely homogenous in their devout commitment to their religion and its leading figure, the Dalai Lama, as well as to the path of peace that he passionately advocates. In many ways Western depictions of Tibet and its people are simplistic, romantic, and occasionally patronizing.

When Tibet comes into the consciousness of Westerners it is often through the activities of high profile groups such as the International Campaign for TibetTibet House and Free Tibet, all of which are based in major Western cities such as New York, Brussels and Berlin. Richard Gere’s role in several of these groups has raised the profile further and reached audiences that do not ordinarily pay a great deal of attention to international political issues. The involvement of celebrities has sometimes been frivolous; the British rock band, Oasis, was denied visas to play concerts in Beijing and Shanghai in 2009 because of the involvement of Noel Gallagher, the band’s guitarist and lyricist, in a ‘Free Tibet’ concert twelve years previously despite Gallagher’s own confession that he had no recollection of the event and no interest in the movement. Condemnation of human rights abuses in Tibet frequently comes from senior figures in the US political scene as well as from independent NGOs across the Western world, lending such reports an air of credibility despite the difficulty in corroborating many of the individual stories that constitute the reports. The explanations offered by these groups for China’s continued presence and interest in Tibet focus entirely on the economic benefit that China can gain from the region. Free Tibet, for example, cites only the vast reserves of minerals and the sources of much of China’s water supply as its motivation, making China’s motives appear entirely selfish and materially-based.

The most visible manifestation of this feeling in the West came in 2008 with the protests Sam DCruz / Shutterstock.com surrounding the Olympic torch relay, particularly in European cities such as Paris and London. Large crowds of people displayed banners and waved Tibetan flags while some attempted to extinguish the Olympic flame. This was in direct response to the reports of riots in and around the Tibetan Autonomous Region in March of that year. The riots were misreported by some parts of the media in the West (this was not helped by the Chinese authorities preventing many outlets from entering the territory) and so it is not fully understood that many of those that died were Han Chinese, killed or burned alive by Tibetan rioters. These acts, if carried out in a US domestic context, would have been labelled as terrorism. This reporting caused anger among many Chinese who cannot understand where the Western bias comes from and consider it to be simply “anti-Chinese”.

No country in the international system recognizes Tibet as an independent nation and all who have diplomatic relations with Beijing acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over the region (indeed, even those few countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei instead consider it to be part of the Republic of China). The last country to fall into line and recognize Tibet formally as part of the PRC was the UK, which did so in 2008, blaming a bureaucratic oversight for not having done so previously. Even the Dalai Lama himself no longer calls for independence, but for “genuine autonomy” within the People’s Republic.

The Future of Tibet

The Tibet question is one that has shown no sign of simply going away. The Dalai Lama’s successful internationalization of the issue has made it infinitely more complex for the Chinese leadership to handle but their legitimate and rational security concerns, combined with the crucial issue of maintaining territorial integrity of the Chinese nation, mean that the Dalai’s wish for genuine autonomy is unlikely to be granted. The Chinese government, despite its intermittent negotiations with representatives of the Dalai (the last of which took place in 2008 prior to the riots), shows no intention of shifting position and appears to be playing a waiting game, apparently believing that Tibetan resistance will subside after the death of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Having captured the Panchen Lama and appointed their own, they consider themselves to be in charge of the future of that particular institution. However, the Dalai himself has raised the possibility that a future reincarnation of himself may be born outside of Tibet (previously believed impossible) which might allow for a continuance of a government in exile that maintains some level of loyalty from the Tibetan people. Furthermore, he has already announced that he intends the position to be one only of religious leader and that the head of the Tibetan government should be democratically elected. Even without this, there is no guarantee that the Chinese waiting game will pay off in the long run; there is some evidence, particularly in the wake of the 2008 protests and the recent spate of self-immolations, that Tibetan youth is becoming radicalized in the face of an apparently immovable Chinese position, and without the calming influence of their spiritual leader it is possible that further violence might erupt.

China continues to focus on the economic development of Tibet, hoping that continued economic prosperity will help Tibetans feel more integrated into China. China has invested heavily in Tibetan roads, housing, schools and electrical grids so that it may feel the benefits of being part of China. Yet proposals that carry with them the prospect of greater prosperity, such as the proposal to extend the railway from Lhasa further into Tibet, are also viewed with suspicion by some Tibetans who fear that they are just another tool for the Chinese military to ensure control over the region is maintained. To assuage these fears, China needs to pay more attention to the legitimate complaints of Tibetans who feel that their culture and history is being destroyed. This loss cannot be compensated with the kind of economic progress that has, so far, satiated other parts of Chinese society.

Women in China

Introduction

Modern older women workers (shutterstock_108277505)

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, promoting greater equality between men and women has been a stated goal of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Mao Zedong famously proclaimed “in China, women hold up half the sky.” By this Mao appears to have meant that, if women were treated equally to men, China could better achieve its potential by taking advantage of the full complement of its population and workforce. The CCP thus supported the promotion of equal rights in all aspects of a woman’s life, at least at a rhetorical level.

Yet, even from its earliest days pre-dating the founding of the PRC, the support of Chinese women’s rights has been less about a woman’s potential to realize herself as an individual, and more about ways to use women’s emancipation as a tool to achieve national objectives. Before the revolution, the mainly male voices which advocated changing the traditionally subservient role of Chinese women did so in the belief that educated, more capable Chinese women would better be able to raise intelligent, morally sound sons. These sons could then build a strong China that could defend itself from foreign imperialism.

Similarly, the CCP believed that engaging women in productive labor outside the home would help advance the creation a true Communist state built on a robust and growing economy. Yet, time and again, the CCP sacrificed the secondary goal of women’s emancipation when its policies primary policies faltered; its commitment to follow through on gender equality promises such as the right to divorce and the right to work ebbed and flowed depending on how these policies facilitated the CCP’s other, higher-ranked objectives.

Despite CCP proclamations, a long historical tradition of male dominance and patriarchal authority has been deeply embedded in China’s culture since dynastic times. The CCP’s rise to power brought radical changes to Chinese society; but this traditional male dominance in both the work and social spheres has proven difficult to overturn, despite the real progress that Chinese women have made in obtaining the right to be educated, to work, to choose whom they marry, to divorce, to own and inherit property and to participate in political affairs. On the one hand, the profound changes that economic reform has brought to China have brought unprecedented opportunities to Chinese women; for instance, China has more self-made female billionaires than any other country. On the other hand, the government’s commitment to fight women’s inequality has taken a backseat to its desire to promote economic growth. As a result, in many ways, there has been a return to traditional gender expectations which have hampered the progress of Chinese women’s emancipation.

Women Under China’s Dynasties – Confucianism and Women

China’s deep roots of discrimination against women lie within its ancient Confucian traditions. The Confucian system, whose origins lie in the 551-479 BC period, encompassed the notion of “filial piety” – that women should obey men, citizens should obey their ruler, and the young should obey the elderly. For a woman, this meant that she was expected to be absolutely dutiful to her father, husband and sons.

Confucian tenets reinforced the moral justification of this strict regulation of gender. Confucians writers believed that the base elements of universe, yin and yang, were comparable to the state of marriage between woman and man. Woman was the yielding, passive, enduring, submissive feminine yin opposite the hard, aggressive, active masculine yang. By conceptualizing the differences between man and woman as yin and yang, Chinese intellectuals cast the differences, and the social hierarchy that resulted from them, as part of the universe’s natural order; in this way, men’s dominance of women was perceived to be not a social convention, but a natural law. Confucians intellectuals believed that, while yin and yang were complementary forces, they were not strictly equal. Just as the yang force dominated the yin, Confucian scholars believed that it was right for Chinese society to be patriarchal, and that a woman’s place was naturally in the home acting in support of her husband. This was expressed in Confucianism as “Threefold Obedience” – an unmarried women must obey her father; a wife must obey her husband; a widow must obey her adult sons.

Even those women who gained influence, such as the Confucian scholar Ban Zhao (45-116 AD) who worked as a royal advisor to the Empress and as a literary scholar, helped to uphold the status quo. In her influential Lessons for Women Ban Zhao encouraged women to modestly yield to others and to put others first. Ban Zhao said that a woman had seven virtues to master:- humility, resignation, subservience, self-abasement, obedience, cleanliness and industry.

Marriage in Dynastic Times

Traditionally in China, a woman was betrothed at a young age. Her husband was selected by her parents, aided by a matchmaker and by senior female relatives in the family. The goal was to find a husband that would benefit the daughter’s family either socially or economically. A woman often did not meet her husband until her wedding day. Once married, a woman was sent to live with her husband’s family. Traditionally, living with her husband meant that she gave up the protection and care of her natal family. This caused a profound sense of loss – not only the loss of the relationships that had previously been her whole world, but also the loss of her previous identity and status. Effectively, she became a possession of her husband and his family. From the time of her marriage onward, she would see her own family infrequently, if at all. Once in the husband’s house, she was to submit entirely first to her husband and his male relatives, then to her mother-in-law. She worshiped her husband’s family ancestors, rather than her own. The daughter’s contribution thus primarily benefited her husband’s family and not the family of her mother and father.

A husband was allowed to take multiple wives. These wives were arranged into a hierarchy, its order determined by factors such as order of the marriages, the birth of male sons, a woman’s beauty and how much the husband liked her. Men could divorce on grounds such as barrenness, jealousy, and talkativeness, but could only do so if there was a family to which the wife could return. There were no grounds on which a woman could divorce her husband. Men could also sell women as if they were property.

A Woman’s Life in Imperial China

Both as children and adults, women were restricted almost entirely to the domestic sphere, and were mainly uneducated. In books such as the Confucian classic, Book of Rites, the importance of physically separating the world of men and women was stressed to ensure that yin did not dominate yang. Even houses were to be divided into an inner and an outer section, with the women staying in the inner part. To the extent that women were educated, their learning was for the sole purpose of helping them better educate their sons.

Women were completely dependent on men due to their lack of property and inheritance rights, and to their inability to earn an income. This dependence on men created an environment where wife-beating and female infanticide was often overlooked and where a woman who bore daughters was not valued, as only men stayed in the natal family. This preference for boys was reinforced by Confucius’ teachings. Confucius’ follower Menicus said that the worst of the unfilial acts was to fail to have boys to continue the line of one’s ancestors.

That said, a woman in pre-modern China did have some influence, although that influence was not hers by right but delegated to them by men and circumstance. For example, besides domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning and childcare, a woman might contribute to household income by working at jobs such as spinning cloth, shucking oysters and processing tea which created real earnings that could gain her favor within the family. Moreover, her role in arranging marriages was important in building alliances that could strengthen the family fortunes. As she bore sons, a woman’s position within the family rose. She became even more powerful when she had a daughter-in-law under her control. She became most powerful in old age, particularly if she had both sons and daughter-in-laws as she was then respected both as a producer of men and as an elder. At the imperial court, when a young emperor inherited the throne, his mother, as Empress Dowager, could exert power on his behalf until he came of age or behind the scenes until he grew old enough to rebuff her influence. Chinese men nevertheless regarded a woman in power as unnatural and associated her with intrigue, manipulation and selfishness.

The isolation a woman could feel in her husband’s home was offset in some regions by the practice of taking “sworn sisters”. In Hunan, for example, women were allowed to organize themselves into groups of seven friends -– sworn sisters -– who would then provide friendship and comfort to each other throughout their lives. The sworn sisters often developed a secret language and system of writing which enabled them to communicate safely, even when expressing discontent with their circumstances.

Foot Binding

Girl with bound feet c19th century (girlboundfeetc19th) http://visualisingchina.net/#hpc-ch-s01An important symbol of a woman’s subservience was the practice of foot-binding which endured for over a thousand years. Foot-binding began in the tenth century when an emperor decreed small feet to be a most desirable aesthetic of female beauty. The custom began first with the Chinese gentry and then spread to the general population as families jockeyed to ensure that their daughters married into a family of higher class. In foot-binding, at the age of five or six, a girl would have her toes forcibly bent under the soles of her feet and bound their permanently by tight cloth. Eventually the arch of the foot would break and the tight cloth stopped the feet from growing. The ideal was to create a foot approximately 3 to 4 inches (around 8 to 10 centimeters) long by the time the girl became a woman. The deformed feet caused a woman to walk in a tentative, painful gait that Chinese men found alluring; the deformed feet were also considered to be very erotic. The impaired movement of the bound feet helped restrict a woman to her home which in turn increased her dependence on her husband.

Lisa See, in her novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, imagines poignantly what it must have been like emotionally for women trying to make their life in such a circumscribed and difficult environment:

“We women are expected to love our children as soon as they leave our bodies, but who among us has not felt disappointment at the sight of a daughter or felt the dark gloom that settles upon the mind even when holding her precious son, if he does nothing but cry and make our mother-in-law look at you as though your milk were sour? We may love our daughters with all our hearts, but we must train them through pain. We love our sons most of all, but we can never be a part of their world, the outer realm of men. We are expected to love our husbands from the day of Contracting a Kin, but we will not see their faces for another six years. We are told to love our in-laws, but we entered those families as strangers, as the lowest person in the household, just one step on the ladder above the servant. We are ordered to love and honor our husband’s ancestors, so we perform the proper duties, even if our hearts quietly call out gratitude to our natal ancestors. We love our parents because they take care of us, but we are considered worthless branches of the family tree. We drain the family resources. We are raised by one family for another. As happy as we are in our natal families, we all know that parting is inevitable. So we love our families, but we understand that this love will end in the sadness of departure. All these types of love come out of duty, respect and gratitude. Most of them, as women in my country know, are sources of sadness, rupture, and brutality.”

Encounters with the West Expose 19th Century China to New Ideas on Women

Female rural workers, 1920s (femaleworkers1920s) http://visualisingchina.net/#hpc-ar03-062As the West began to encroach on China in the nineteenth century Chinese leaders – Dynastic and subsequently Republican and Communists leaders -– began to search for ways to modernize and strengthen China so that it could free itself from encroachment by foreign powers. A woman’s role in society was increasingly scrutinized by intellectuals, especially those who had been exposed to western ideas. Some of these new ideas came from Western missionaries working in China. The Christian missionaries taught that the way a society treated its women was indicative of its level of civilized development. Following on from this idea, Chinese reformers began to think of the status of Chinese women as symbolic of all that was wrong with the country. They began to argue that improving the lot of women would be one road towards modernizing China. Educated and capable women could better run households and could better raise intelligent, morally-sound sons. These sons could then undertake the task of building a new China. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, foot binding began to be opposed as an example of China’s backward thinking and it was banned by the Republican government in 1912, although it was not fully wiped out until the 1949 Communists Revolution. It was also banned in Taiwan by the Japanese occupying administration in 1915. The majority of intellectuals supporting women’s emancipation at this time were men, although there were some exceptions. In 1904, for instance, women’s advocate Qiu Jin escaped from her marriage to a wealthy husband and took flight to Japan where she called on Chinese women to fight against their subservient status. Qiu Jin believed that Chinese women led a life tantamount to slavery and believed that women should be given a chance to work outside the home. With their own money, women could break free from their dependence on men and their families.

May 4th Feminist Thinkers

Re-evaluating a woman’s role in society took on renewed momentum during the May 4th Movement of 1919 in which student protests led to a larger examination of China’s society and its government. Known as the May Fourth Feminism Movement, its discourse continued to be driven by male Chinese nationalism. The movement was less about a woman’s potential to realize herself as an individual, and more about ways to change China’s society so as to save China from Western and Japanese Imperialism. That said, during the May 4th Movement, some urban women marched with men in organized political demonstrations and, to a limited extent, engaged in public affairs.
Engagement with Western scientific discourse persuaded many Chinese male intellectuals to believe in a biological determinist approach of the understanding of gender. While not necessarily a re-play of the theories of yin and yang, biological determinism stated that gender roles were the result of biological differences between men and women. Gender hierarchy was thus natural: since women bore children, they should have the predominant responsibility for housework and the care of family members. This biological determinist understanding was reflected in attitudes and policies adopted both in the Mao and post-Mao eras.

The 1949 Communist Revolution and Marxist Theory on Women

At first, the nascent women’s movement and its effects were restricted to the cities. There began to be a growing discrepancy between how women lived in urban and in rural environments where traditional practices still held sway. It took the 1949 Communist Revolution to begin to change the lives of China’s hundreds of millions of rural women. Communism came to China with the promise of equality, not only between rich and poor, noble and common, but also between men and women. By promoting policies such as marriage reform, the CCP hoped to gain support from rural women still trapped in traditional lifestyles. The CCP allowed women to join the Party, and by 1925, it had 100 registered women members. Some women even started serving in the People’s Liberation Army.

The emancipation of women was supported by Marxist theory. To Marxists, women were one of the classes exploited by capitalist societies. The Marxists believed that social relations and social structures were determined to a significant degree by the economic institutions that produced– farms, factories, etc. To achieve equality for women, Marxists thus argued that society must first assume ownership of the means of production by establishing a command economy with nationalized industry. The Marxists therefore took a collectivist approach to women’s emancipation where women’s liberation depended upon liberation for all. The first priority for men and women was thus to work together to achieve revolution. In 1949 when Mao Zedong took power, he reconfirmed the CCP’s commitment to women’s equality by his now famous quote, “in China, women hold up half the sky.” As women made up half of China’s population, building a great socialist society would be facilitated if women were liberated to engage in productive activity.

The 1950 Marriage Law

Once in power, the CCP passed the Marriage Reform Law in 1950. Prostitution, arranged marriage, child marriage, polygamy and the use of concubines were outlawed. Chinese were allowed to marry because they loved each other, not because they were obligated out of deference to their families. It became easier to divorce. Indeed, between 1950 and 1953, divorce rates spiked as women took advantage of the law to dissolve loveless “feudal marriages”. Contemporaneously, a huge effort was made to move women into the workforce. Many women were relocated from the countryside into the cities where they worked as textile laborers. Female literacy was promoted and 16 million women learned to read between 1950 and 1957.

By 1953, however, the Marriage Law began to experience growing and widespread opposition from men. Between 1953 and 1958, the CCP began to backtrack on its promotion of women’s equality. Instead, collective stability was prioritized. Propaganda campaigns were launched to promote the concepts of the socialist housewife and the model mother. These campaigns re-enforced the importance of domestic duties. It became more difficult to divorce and the CCP stepped up its efforts to keep couples together.

Collectivization, The Great Leap Forward and the All-China Women’s Federation

In 1958, Mao launched agricultural collectivization in preparation for the industrial push known as the Great Leap Forward in which it was Mao’s goal to catch-up with the West in agricultural and steel production in five years. Agricultural collectivization grouped peasants in large communes where they lived and worked together. Collectivization changed women’s lives radically. Housework was socialized and communal dining halls fed families; childcare became a collective effort, as did washing and sewing. This freed women to move into the fields while men worked on large-scale irrigation works, industrial projects, steel making and mining.

Established in 1949, the All-China Women’s Federation (“ACWF”) was a mass organization whose main functions were to help implement CCP policy through the mobilization of women and to promote gender equality. For many in the ACWF, the Great Leap Forward represented an unprecedented opportunity to increase women’s liberation as it provided women with real work outside the home. Mao believed that China’s ability to leap forward in steel and agricultural production was dependent on its ability to move women into the fields so that men could be freed up to engage in other work.

However, the reality of CCP policies for women during the Great Leap Forward differed from the vision of women’s liberation that the CCP promised women if they were willing to enter the workforce. Despite socialized housework, women continued to be responsible for all remaining domestic work, regardless of how many hours they worked outside the home. For instance, women in the 1950s and 1960s made their family’s clothes by hand, including spinning yarn and weaving cloth. After a long day in the fields, women often spent many hours at night making clothes and doing other work on behalf of their families. This additional contribution to the family household was not valued through the allocation of work points, continuing the persistent undervaluing of women by men.

Additionally, mostly men did not like seeing women trained in what they considered male skills or receiving a higher level of pay and thus put pressure on the CCP to preserve their dominant status. As a result, not only were men given the jobs which paid the highest work points, but even when men and women performed the same work, men mostly received more work points than women. Moreover, work done by all members of the family was usually tallied as a whole. Its value was then distributed to the male head of the household at the end of each work period. Rural women thus were not able to exercise any direct control over the income they earned.

In the cities, men were overwhelmingly assigned to technical jobs and women to non-technical, auxiliary and service jobs regardless of their educational levels. This gendered employment practice helped to re-establish women’s subordinate position despite the fact that she was now allowed to work. The difference in work opportunities was often justified by citing the differences in men and women’s biology; a woman’s weak physique was better suited to light, female-oriented work. Women were also less likely to be given work in large state-run enterprises where health, pension and housing benefits were provided. Rather, they were given jobs in the lower paying community- and neighborhood-run industries that offered few benefits. Unlike rural communes, however, urban women were able to collect their own wages which did give her voice in the family’s decision-making.

Inside the urban family, the traditional patriarchal patterns still persisted. Men could more easily secure housing accommodation from their work units. Single men slept in dormitories while women remained with their families until they were married. These housing policies continued the practice of men providing housing in marriage, reinforcing the idea of female dependency, and making marriage materially necessary for women. It also made women vulnerable if marital problems arose. Additionally, regardless of the hours worked outside the home, like their rural counterparts, urban women were still responsible for the majority of domestic work and family care.

As the hours that women worked in and outside of the house sharply increased, the health of women – particularly rural women – began to suffer due to overwork and malnutrition, especially as the ill-conceived Great Leap Forward policies pushed much of the country into famine conditions. There was enormous pressure on women to overcome the physical limitations of their bodies through the sheer force of their wills. Women became liberated not by being valued in their own right, but by emanating men and by denying the realities of their own physicality. Miscarriages and prolapsed uteruses became common as women were encouraged to carry out strenuous and difficult work regardless of pregnancy or recent birth. Despite these hardships, however, many women have looked back on the Great Leap years as ones in which they were freed from the isolation of the home and they could laugh and communicate all day in a shared work space.

After the failure of the Great Leap Forward, the CCP retrenched on all fronts. As steel making efforts subsided with the failure of the backyard furnaces and as new irrigation works were completed or abandoned, women were forced back into domestic roles in order to make room for the men in the fields. Women’s new-found emancipation was to be once again sacrificed for the good of the country.

The Cultural Revolution

The 1966-1976 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a social-political movement launched by Mao Zedong whose objective was to deepen the Chinese Communist Revolution by removing what he believed were the bourgeois elements that were subverting the government and Chinese society with the goal of restoring capitalism. Mao argued that these revisionist elements needed to be removed through violent struggle and called on China’s youth to form Red Guard troops to stop the return of capitalist tendencies. In the violence that followed, millions were persecuted, suffering public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sustained harassment and the seizure of their property. Millennia old historical relics and artifacts were destroyed and education was largely suspended.

For women, the Cultural Revolution brought them once again out of their homes to engage in production and politics. Women were told to prioritize their responsibilities to the collective over their responsibilities to the family. In 1970s, an anti-Lin Biao, anti-Confucius Campaign attacked the traditional family structure and purported to explore the causes of women’s subordination. During the Cultural Revolution, women engaged in violence so as to shed the traditional view of them as submissive and gentle, qualities that Mao said were bourgeois. It was not uncommon for women to interrogate and then physically beat up “bad elements”. Women were also encouraged to enter politics, and by 1975, 24% of the National People’s Congress members were women.

Yet, as it had been in the past, the CCP’s support of women’s emancipation during the Cultural Revolution was used primarily for the purpose of advancing Communist Revolution as opposed to rectifying inequality itself. Cultural Revolution slogans such as “Now the times have changed. Men and women are the same” were cried out, yet any references to the special problems of women were denounced as bourgeois. Once again, women dressed like boys, cut their hair short and scrubbed their faces of makeup. Women were attacked if they looked too feminine, as femininity was deemed a backward element. The art, literature, films, operas and ballets produced during the Cultural Revolution featured androgynous women proletariat heroes – farmers, workers, militant fighters and political activists all committed to the collective cause. After having been discouraged from divorcing since 1953, women again initiated divorces in record numbers as they, and at times their husbands, tried to distance themselves from their spouses when they got into political trouble.

However, despite all the rhetoric, the chaos of Cultural Revolution prevented the implementation of any meaningful women’s liberation policies. For instance, women sent down to the country still usually only received half the work points of men. As China began to recover from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution which formally ended after the death of Mao, women once again were encouraged to take up traditional roles. The numbers of women participating in politics gradually began to drop and divorce was again frowned upon. That women have repeatedly been asked to give up new found freedoms for the good of the nation has served to devalue women’s emancipation as a real goal.

The One Child Policy

In the early years of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Mao considered a large population to be a positive asset, both as an aid in economic development and a resource in national security. As a result, the majority of China’s population continued the tradition of seeking to have as many sons as possible and China’s population almost doubled in less than thirty years, from just over 550 million in 1950, to just over 1 billion in 1982. In 1970, concerns regarding China’s exploding population caused Beijing to implement a voluntary birth control system supported by campaigns promoting later marriages, longer birth intervals, and fewer children and contraceptive was made more widely available. As a result, China’s total fertility rate plummeted from 5.8 births per woman in 1970 to 2.7 in 1978. In September 1980, in order to reduce the birth rate further, the so-called “one-child policy” was introduced, which in most cases limited couples to having only one child.

Female rural workers, 1920s (femaleworkers1920s) http://visualisingchina.net/#hpc-ar03-062For women, the one child policy removed the traditional pressure that they felt to keep having children in order to produce sufficient sons. As a result, the policy helped reduce the burden of housework that many children generated, thus enabling women a greater bandwidth to seek work outside the home. The one-child policy has also meant that China’s tradition of equating sex with procreation shifted. While promoting family planning, the government also began distributing literature about the pleasurable aspects of marital intercourse.

That said, the one-child policy demonstrated in stark relief the continued Chinese preference for boys. Incidents of female infanticide and the abortion of female fetuses rose significantly after the implementation of the policy. The 2010 census suggested that there are about 118 males births for every 100 female births in China. By 2020, there will be 24 million more young Chinese men than women according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. One ironic consequence of the policy might be the increased value of Chinese women in that their scarcity means that men will have to compete more aggressively in order to obtain a wife. Indeed, the government is beginning to acknowledge the imbalance between the sexes as a real social problem and have launched campaigns to encourage parents to value and raise daughters. These campaigns reflect the government’s fear that a future surplus of unmarried males could result in social unrest. In some areas, trafficking of women from less developed parts of Asia such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Cambodia, has started to fill some of the demand for brides.

Women and Market Opening

In December 1978, the CCP led by Deng Xiaoping began a series of economic reforms that introduced capitalist market principles into the Chinese command-driven economy. The first stage included the decollectivization of agriculture, the gradual shift away from communal living, the freedom of Chinese households to start up small-scale businesses and to buy and sell goods on their own behalf, and the opening up of the country to foreign investment. The second stage of reform, which took place during the late 1980s and 1990s, saw the privatization of many state-owned industries, the lifting of price controls, and the reduction of protectionist policies and regulations.

Market opening has, in some respects, had a negative effect on the fight for women’s equality in China. The government’s commitment to fight women’s inequality has taken a backseat to its desire to promote economic growth. This retreat from its promotion of women’s emancipation has helped encourage a return to more traditional gender expectations. The androgyny of the Cultural Revolution gave rise once again to images of women who were sweet, beautiful and feminine. There was a return to themes such as that of women as a gentle companion awaiting the guidance and protection of her successful husband. The Chinese male was to create China’s economic success and woman’s primary job was to support him. Yet as market opening has progressed, there has begun to be a growing number of ideals competing to define the perfect woman. Contemporary China now sees traditional culture, the legacy of Maoist socialism and global capitalism contending with each other to influence the new norms of Chinese society.

In rural areas, the de-collectivization of agriculture and the dismantling of communes initially returned women to the house where she once again too up traditional roles within the household. Women in urban areas have also been displaced from the work sphere. From the 1980s onwards, the returned youth from the countryside and privatization of state-owned industry has meant that there has been tremendous pressure on women to return home so as to free up work for their male counterparts. As the privatization of state owned enterprises gained increasing speed throughout the 1990s, women were the hardest hit with the job losses; indeed, 62.8% of the people laid off were women. The non-technical, auxiliary and service departments in which women overwhelmingly worked were some of first to be dismantled when state owned enterprises were privatized. Women over 40 were made to retire while their male counterparts were allowed to continue to work until 50. Once China’s economy began to take-off after reforms were in place, men were re-hired in significant larger numbers compared with women.
Part of the reason that men fared better during the privatization of urban businesses was that they had better business connections or guanxi. One reason for this was that women were hampered by their domestic responsibilities. The extra demands that managing the household required meant that women had less time to develop the business network needed to help secure their employment. Those women who did try to develop their networks were often condemned as being “loose” or as being women who had slept their way to the top. Indeed, men in senior positions often used their status to sexually harass women, and, as a consequence, women frequently avoided men to evade being placed in compromised positions. Additionally, as women had the worst jobs, it meant that those connections they did succeed in making were often less powerful than those of their male counterparts. This created a self- perpetuating cycle where low-skilled work led to less powerful connections which meant they had less chance to receive promotion.

Moreover, as the implementation of a market reform progressed, Chinese companies began having an increasing need for skilled and well educated workers. Women were again disadvantaged as they had poorer access to schooling, especially at the university level. When assessment tests began to be used in the 1980s to qualify workers for jobs and promotion, women were again in a less favorable position as their significant domestic responsibilities meant that they had less time to revise for examinations.

Party officials also preferred to lay off women because when they lost their jobs, they went home quietly where men sometimes took to the streets in protest. Party officials were heavily invested in preventing social unrest in the cities. Once women lost their jobs, they had no recourse other than to go back to relying on their families for survival.

Market reforms initially unleashed a massive exodus of rural male migrants who went to the cities in search of work, again opening a place for women to move into the fields. A 2000 census showed that 69% of all women work in farming compared with 61% of men. That said, eventually some young unmarried women joined the migrant stream, although in lesser numbers and with greater risk to their reputations and their safety. While often trapped in the lowest paying jobs with few protections, market opening has allowed women an opportunity to earn their own wages.

Trends

Empress Dowager Cixi (empressd) http://visualisingchina.net/#hpc-jw-s02Chinese women have made great strides since Dynastic Times. Specifically, life for women in China today has vastly improved since the Communists took power in 1949. Above all, Chinese women are better educated, have more work and political opportunities, and by and large, are free to marry and divorce as they choose.  In addition, China’s rapid economic growth has meant that washing machines, rice cookers and microwaves and other time-savings conveniences have transformed Chinese domestic life, and are even widely available now in China’s less-developed provinces. The One Child Policy has also freed women from the need to have endless children in an effort to produce sons for the husband’s family. This trend toward greater personal and economic autonomy for women will continue in the coming decades. Indeed, China’s economic reform has brought unprecedented opportunities to Chinese women; China today, for instance, has more self-made female billionaires than any other country.

As a counter trend, Chinese women continue to face real limitations and inequalities. A long tradition of patriarchal authority has been deeply embedded in China’s culture since dynastic times. This male dominance continues to influence Chinese society today. A 1990’s All-China Women’s Federation survey found, for instance, that a third of both male and female Chinese respondents considered men more inherently “able” than women; and more than half agreed that a woman’s place is at home caring for her family.  Most Chinese women continue to take full responsibility for the home, children and family elders, regardless of the hours that they work or the income they earn.

This traditional patriarchal influence has been flourished given the recent absence of CCP leadership on gender inequality. Since market opening, the government’s fight for women has taken a backseat to its efforts to promote economic growth. Today, women’s emancipation remains a secondary priority.

As a result, women struggle to take advantage of modern developments in employment, education and politics, while trying to balance continuing traditional expectations about their appropriate and proper role in family and society. This continued battle with traditionalism has created a situation in which women from all walks of life can find themselves limited in what they can achieve, despite a rise in college degrees, incomes and political influence.

Rising Income Inequality in China: A Price Worth Paying?

Introduction

J. Margolis

China, a country of continental scale, has experienced inequality in many shapes and forms throughout its 4000-year history. Part of this inequality is regional; attributable to China’s sheer size and the diversity of its geography. Lack of water, arable soil, and good links to transport networks significantly affect an area’s ability to prosper. Areas that suffered from such deficiencies in China 1000 years ago tend to be the same areas that struggle with limited resources today. For instance, China’s southeast, with its abundantwater resources and excellent access to international markets, continues to be one of the wealthiest parts of modern China. China’s western plateaus, sparsely inhabited, with poor arable land and water resources, limited transport and infrastructure systems, remain poorer areas of the country today.

Inequality during the Mao Era

During the Mao era, the Chinese government set income equality across China as an important goal, although it was never fully achieved. Topographical advantage remained determinative, even in the face of economic policies aimed at reducing it. The CCP enforced a hukou family register system, which eliminated the ability of China’s citizens to move about the country, limiting them to the area in which they were born and their family registered. What this meant in practice was that those born in regions that lacked resources, or those born in the countryside, had relatively less wealth than those born in more resource-rich regions or in urban areas. Thus inequality during the Mao era was principally between urban and rural areas, as opposed to between individuals in the same area. Nevertheless, high ranking party officials did enjoy more relative wealth than those who were not part of the Communist Party, yet the lack of consumer goods and isolation from the international economy meant there were not many opportunities for even high-ranking party officials to have conspicuous consumer advantages over rank-and-file citizens. In fact, until the Reform era brought more consumer goods to China, most Chinese citizens merely strived for the four “must-haves”: a bike, a watch, a radio, and a sewing machine.

Inequality in the Reform Era

J. Margolis

In 1978, this all began to change with the implementation of the Dengist reforms. Deng explicitly declared that some should be allowed to ”get rich first”, with the implicit understanding that others can get rich later. This was a significant alteration in policy; for a communist government to accept, and even encourage, societal inequality was certainly groundbreaking. As China began to make the transition from planned- to market- economy – a journey that has, by no means, been completed – income inequality increased in measure with its transition towards capitalism. However, the early years of the reforms, at the beginning of the 1980s, were marked by a fall in overall inequality, driven by the loosening of restrictions on rural areas selling their excess produce for profit. This allowed those rural producers of food to close the income gap with their urban counterparts. Chinese official statistics struggle to provide an accurate picture of Chinese incomes today; the wealthy often under report their earnings and the very poor can be underrepresented as their geographical isolation and high illiteracy rates can make them difficult to track. Yet even those official figures that can be produced, which may try to disguise large disparities, have shown income disparity to be increasing. China’s Gini coefficient – the most commonly used measure of inequality under which an entirely equal society would have a coefficient of 0 and one that is entirely unequal would register as 1 – stands today at 0.47. This is considerably above both the World Bank’s ‘critical threshold’ of 0.4 and the US Gini of 0.41, and shows signs of reaching the extreme levels that plague Latin America. This statistic becomes even more alarming when viewed against the levels of inequality at the outset of the economic reforms: in 1980 the Gini coefficient was 0.28. In essence, inequality has risen in China by over 50% in thirty years. While this is in line with the Dengist policy of ‘letting some get rich first’, it is evident that continued increases on anything approaching this scale over the next thirty years would cause difficulties for the CCP both in terms of potential social unrest, something that is already a growing problem, and of its ability to undermine the CCP’s legitimacy base. The CCP has begun to recognize this rhetorically as well as in policy with speeches from Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao peppered with references to the need to address income divisions.

Regional Inequality

BartlomiejMagierowski / Shutterstock.com

Today, the biggest discrepancy of incomes can be seen between regions. China began its capitalist experimentation in the Pearl Delta region of Guangdong province, where its workers sewed piecework for Hong Kong textile manufacturers. As more and more of China’s GDP began to be generated by international trade, this and other industries spread northwards along its coast. Consequently, China’s east coast is now its most developed area, with income levels at purchasing power parity (PPP) approaching those of countries such as Saudi Arabia or Singapore.

In the first 12 years of economic reform, growth in China’s interior regions was driven by a re-introduction of private markets in the agricultural sector, as well as increased productivity during the ‘green revolution’. This increased productivity allowed peasants to move into rural industry, such as the manufacturing of farming equipment, further driving rural GDP and income growth. Although this did initially cause the income gap between urban and rural areas to fall in the early 1980s, geographical inequality has since been rising and shows little sign of reaching a plateau.

TonyV3112 / Shutterstock.com

When it comes to inequality between coastal provinces and their poorer inland neighbors, differences in income have been rising ever since the start of the reform era, as the coastal east has benefited from China’s export driven economic growth. Apart from the obvious geographic advantages for trade, coastal provinces have benefited from government initiatives such as favorable tax and financing regimes. As a result, through much of the 1990s, coastal growth rates were three percentage points higher than those of inland regions and China’s coastal provinces remain more affluent than its interior regions. There is, however, some evidence that the phenomenon of coastal GDP growth outpacing the interior is starting to change, as rising wages in coastal areas and the consequent reduction in international competitiveness, has driven some industries inward in search of lower costs. One notable example is Foxconn, the giant consumer electronics manufacturer that produces goods for companies such as Apple and Sony, which has relocated part of its production line to the interior. That said, China’s interior western provinces still have a long way to go. In 2011 Guizhou, China’s poorest province, had a GDP per capita of 16,000 RMB (approx. $2,400), while Tianjin’s was 84,000 RMB (approx. $13,000). The three provincial-level cities in the east – Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai – have the largest incomes per capita by some distance, each with a per capita GDP of in excess of 80,000 RMB, while Tibet, Gansu, Yunnan and Guizhou – all in the far west of the country – are all under a quarter of this total.

Although huge differences in income between regions evidently remain, the central government has shown an increased interest in resolving this inequality. In 1999, President Jiang Zemin announced the “Develop the West Program”. As well as addressing ecological and security concerns, the “Develop the West Program” was intended to stimulate development in China’s least prosperous provinces and to soften the blow to China’s interior as China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001. This policy has had reasonable success; in particular, it has encouraged significant infrastructural investment in China’s western provinces. However, though it may have slowed down the rate of increasing inequality between east and west, the pattern has continued throughout this time, leaving those in the west relatively poorer than they ever have been.

Getting Rich First?

ValeStock / Shutterstock.com

Within any one region, individual income inequality is also now evident. Economic development tends to lead to income inequality in every society and China has been no exception. In June 2012 it was reported that the number of dollar-millionaires in China had reached 1.4 million, while the number of billionaires has been placed at between 100 and 600, second only to the US; at the same time there are still 400 million Chinese who live on less than $2 a day, and around 172 million on less than $1.25. Many workers have seen great returns on their education and skill levels; those with higher levels of education, experience, and skills were rewarded with increased incomes. Some were well positioned during privatizations, having party and other connections which allowed them to win contracts or acquire state assets at significantly reduced prices. Studies show that CCP membership is positively correlated with income. A report in 2009 said that around 90% of China’s billionaires are so-called “princelings”, the sons or daughters of leading Communist Party cadres. China does, however, have a long history of entrepreneurship and many Chinese have embraced this tradition. Some were just plain lucky, had a good idea, or were in the right place at the right time. Zhang Yin, for example, rose from humble roots to become China’s first female billionaire. She earned her fortune by buying scrap paper from the US, importing it to China where she turned it into cardboard before selling it back to US manufacturers.

Gender Inequality

project1photography / Shutterstock.com While one can point to stories of women such as Zhang Yin as examples of the relative freedoms and opportunities offered to Chinese women, nevertheless there remain real income differences between the sexes even within the same geographical area. Though Mao declared, “women hold up half the sky,” meaning that women were to be freed from the subordinated expectations of dynastic China, and to work as equals with men, this is seen by many not as demonstrative of his opinions surrounding gender equality, but rather his obsession with increasing the Chinese labor force. The male communist worker was still, on average, better compensated than his female compatriot. Yet the income-earning opportunities of women in the Mao era were unimaginably better than those of their ancestors, many of whom were confined to the house, teetering on 3 inch feet. Today, the pay gap between male and female workers shows no signs of decreasing. This is by no means confined to the elder generation; female graduates earn on average 13% less than their male contemporaries. Still, opportunities for women in China are often strong when compared with those of many other countries. For instance, 19% of Chinese companies employ female CEOs, compared with 9% and 5% in the EU and North American markets respectively.

Ethnic Inequality

Ola Lundqvist / Shutterstock.com

Another group that has consistently been at China’s lower income levels is China’s ethnic minorities. Part of this inequality may be caused by the fact that most Chinese minorities live in the western fringes of the country which often suffer from water scarcity, short growing seasons, and difficult access to transportation systems and international markets. The minority populations living in these areas often suffer from lower wages and living standards than those who have made their way to the east and the gap between Han and ethnic minorities can, to some extent, be explained in these geographical terms. Still, it is also true that the average Chinese ethnic minority suffers at least some discrimination regardless of where location, and often does not have the same opportunities as the average Han Chinese.

Inequality at what cost?

China has tolerated its growing inequality in order to achieve the rapid rates of economic growth that is has experienced since the 1980s. The CCP’s fear is that once economic growth starts to slow, which grows more likely given the continuing financial and economic challenges of the west, then the unequal distribution of wealth at various levels will cause major social unrest. The Tiananmen Square incident of June 1989 was partly caused by high levels of income inequality and in reaction to high levels of inflation that were squeezing the living standards of the poorest in China. Beijing is wary of the possibility of the reoccurrence of such an event, especially given the recent events taking place in the Middle East in what has come to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’, itself partly driven by dissatisfaction with levels of inequality. Additionally, as the poorest provinces in China are generally those with the highest percentage of ethnic minorities, China fears that their social unrest may exacerbate feelings of resentment towards Beijing and stoke ethnic tensions within society. Violence directed towards Han Chinese has already occurred in several parts of Chin, notably among the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, the Tibetans in Lhasa, and the Hui in Henan.

Chinese intellectuals today debate whether economic growth at all costs should be tolerated. Many propose a more “socialist” or European model of social development, where the state shares some of the responsibility for ensuring that all its citizens reach a basic level of economic prosperity. This prosperity would be significantly aided by the re-creation of China’s health and pension systems, which were often commune-based and largely dismantled when China privatized many of its state-owned industries. Developing its national healthcare and pension systems would also help China shift its economy from being largely export driven to being one that relies on much greater domestic demand. Currently, the average Chinese citizen saves aggressively in anticipation of future healthcare and pension costs that will need to be self-funded. A first attempt at providing a very basic social security was launched in 1999 with China’s creation of the Minimum Living Standard Guarantee Scheme (Dibao) designed to aid those most in need in the form of a very basic welfare package. The income limit for becoming eligible to this however is incredibly low. In urban areas, the average level is just over 200 RMB ($30) per month, while for rural areas it is below 100 RMB ($15) per month.

Future Trends

The persistence of inequality in China today is a thorn in the side of the CCP. Having largely moved away from its communist ideological base, the CCP’s legitimacy is largely based on nationalism and the promise of economic prosperity. China is faced with the double challenge of not only ensuring that its economy continues to grow, but of trying to see that its wealth is shared out as equally as possible. The potential for friction in society – and the threat that might pose to the CCP – is implicitly acknowledged in Hu Jintao’s drive for a ‘harmonious society’, the principle tenet of his ideological musings. It is important to note that despite the rise in relative inequality, the absolute living standards for almost every single Chinese person have increased since the economic reforms were implemented. Since the reform era began, China has lifted around 400 million people out of absolute poverty, an achievement unmatched anywhere in the world and throughout human history. This should not be underestimated even as the problem of relative wealth disparity is, correctly, addressed as a pressing issue.

It is of course impossible for any nation to be completely equal and most developed countries have their own problems with unequal distribution of wealth. China, with its vast size, enormous population, and varied geography, will always struggle with inequality. Inequality persists throughout China. While it is true that the west is poorer than the east, there are pockets of abject poverty even in the richest provinces and rich parts in the poorest areas. From the Communist Party’s perspective, its key task is to prevent income inequality from rising to such levels that widespread social unrest threatens its control of power. As China’s wealth grows, and as it invests large parts of its enormous surplus within its own borders, more government initiatives are expected to be designed to develop the prosperity of provinces and sectors of society that lag behind the rest. Nevertheless, in the short term, income inequality will continue to increase as China’s rapid economic development lifts its population from poverty at varying rates. The mammoth task for the CCP will be to ensure that inequality doesn’t rise at a faster rate than GDP growth. While the living standards of the majority are being raised it is likely that increases in inequality will not prove perilous for the authority of the CCP, especially as much of this inequality is between areas that are thousands of miles apart. The next 30 years will prove very difficult for China to maintain the balance between consistent economic growth and raising the living standards of those at the very bottom of the income ladder, although this can be managed as long as China continues to move towards a domestic demand-led, and not export-driven, economy.

Political Articles

Defining the 21st Century: the Sino-US Relationship

Introduction

The Sino-US relationship is, without question, the most important bilateral relationship in the international system today, and is likely to define the twenty-first century. At stake will be whether China and the US can become “strategic partners”, as Bill Clinton argued they ought to be, or whether they will remain the “strategic rivals” as they were characterized by George W. Bush. In other words, can the two develop a working relationship that serves the core interest of both parties as well as the stability of the international system, or are they destined to clash over key interests? The answer will depend on careful management by both sides of the many tensions that exist between the two powers. In truth, given the complexity of the Sino-US relationship, it is unsatisfactory to characterize the relationship in such simplistic partner-rival terms; a productive and stable relationship between the world’s two greatest powers will surely have to encompass elements of both partnership and competition. A constructive Sino-US relationship will be one in which the partnership element is at the fore.

The Cold War and Normalization

After the end of the Second World War, the international system in general, and US bilateral relations in particular, came to be defined by the dichotomy between Communist and non-Communist nations. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) fell firmly into the Communist camp, while the US was at the head of those opposing communism. US relations with China were further complicated by the existence of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, which was an ally of the US and still recognized as the legitimate government of the whole of China by most countries in the non-Communist bloc. Additionally, the ROC held China’s UN Security Council seat. The two sides actually fought an armed conflict in the Korean War, which resulted in the deaths of nearly two hundred thousand Chinese soldiers and over thirty thousand Americans.

The first steps towards Sino-US reconciliation came somewhat out-of-the-blue in the early 1970s, although, with hindsight, there was clear motivation for wanting rapprochement on both sides. The US was mired in the Vietnam War and still feared the “domino effect” of communism toppling state after state across the world. The US leadership felt that they needed a breakthrough to split the most powerful country within that bloc (the USSR) from other significant players. This coincided with a Sino-Soviet rift of the 1960s that had, by the end of the decade, become a serious threat to the PRC’s own perception of its national security, exemplified by a series of border skirmishes that occurred between the two former allies at that time.

In the autumn of 1969, there existed no official channel of exchange between the People’s Republic of China and the United States, so that when Nixon wanted to indicate to China his willingness to create conduits of communication between the two countries, he had to relay the message through the Pakistani and Romanian leaders who then communicated with China. Having received no reply from China, Nixon tried again in December 1969. The US ambassador to Poland approached his Chinese counterpart at a function in Warsaw. This time China responded, albeit in a circuitous manner through the two countries’ respective ambassadors to Pakistan, indicating that the two respective ambassadors to Poland might meet in Warsaw in January 1970. In this meeting, the US expressed willingness to send an envoy to China. In a second meeting China communicated that if the Americans wished to upgrade their diplomatic relations with China, they would need to recognize that Taiwan was a part of China and to withdraw all US forces from the Taiwan area. Nixon again pushed to establish a direct channel of communication with Beijing so that the two countries could more effectively discuss Taiwan and other issues. However, events in Southeast Asia complicated the process, with the US deeply entrenched in the war in Vietnam and China involved in a power struggle with the Soviet Union involving both Cambodia and Vietnam.

An acceleration in the Sino-US reconciliation came in March 1971 when the US and Chinese ping pong teams met in Japan, during which the Chinese invited the American team to visit China. The visit of the American ping pong team to China received prominent coverage in Chinese media. During the visit, the American team met with Premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People, where he declared that the Americans’ visit had “opened a new chapter in the history of the relations between the Chinese and the American people.” This “ping pong diplomacy” paved the way for Henry Kissinger’s clandestine visit to China in July 1971, which laid the groundwork for Nixon himself to make his historic visit to Beijing in February 1972. The famous image of Nixon walking down the steps of the plane with his hand extended came about because Kissinger had caused great offence by refusing to shake hands with Zhou Enlai on his own visit. Nixon’s gesture was appreciated by the Chinese who considered it a restoration of ‘face’. During the visit, President Nixon agreed to withdraw US forces from Taiwan, and to publicly recognize that there was only “one China” as Taiwan was part of Chinese territory. Although it paved the way for a normalization of diplomatic relations between China and the US, thus driving a wedge between the two major Communist powers of the Soviet Union and China, the ‘one-China’ concession was viewed as highly controversial, with many in the US as it was considered an abandonment of a long-term ally. This controversy, along with the disruption caused by the deaths of both Mao and Zhou Enlai in China, meant that it took a further seven years before diplomatic relations were finally established between the US and the PRC, causing the US to cut official ties with Taipei in the process. In order that agreement could be reached within the US, the Taiwan Relations Act was passed. Under the terms of the Act, the US allows Taiwan to be treated as a normal state in its relations in everything but name and, even more significantly, it legally obliges the US to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character”. These provisions were essential to the acceptance of the switch of diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, allowing the two countries to formalize their diplomatic relations. Yet these provisions also created the greatest source of current tension between the two countries.

Taiwan

The status of Taiwan cannot be ignored in any aspect of China’s international relations; it is impossible for any state in the international system to have diplomatic relations with Beijing without recognizing the PRC’s sovereignty over the island. This is especially pronounced in the relationship with the US, and in almost every high level political meeting it is incumbent on the representatives of the US to reiterate their support for the “one-China policy”. The special relationship that exists between the US and Taiwan is at the root of this sensitivity, but it is more serious than a linguistic exercise in diplomacy. The US has, on several occasions, demonstrated its willingness to defend Taiwan should it be subject to an unprovoked attack from the PRC. This was evidenced in the 1996 deployment of warships to the Taiwan Strait in response to PRC missile testing in the region. Additionally, the US has continued to meet its legal obligation to provide Taiwan with defensive arms which provokes strongly worded protests from Beijing on each occasion. Since 1990, according to a US Congressional report, Taiwan has made major purchases in every calendar year except for 2006 and 2009. The most recent purchase, agreed in January 2010, included 114 PAC-3 defense missiles and 60 Black Hawk helicopters in a deal worth almost $6.4 billion; one of the largest ever agreed. In 2011, the US reached a decision to refurbish Taiwan’s fleet of F-16s, stopping short of approving the sale of new planes, but going far enough to anger China. While there are now some calls among American academics to rethink this alliance, it is unlikely to alter in the near future.

Belgrade Embassy Bombing and Hainan Spy Plane Incident

At both the political and popular levels, the reputation of the US in China has suffered greatly in recent years for a number of reasons. The most notable incidents were the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by US forces in 1999, and the collision of a US spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet close to Chinese territory two years later. The embassy bombing, which resulted in the deaths of three Chinese staff, occurred during the action against Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. It was blamed by the US on outdated maps that failed to identify the building as the Chinese embassy, despite the fact that it had been in that location for three years. This version of events has never been fully accepted by the Chinese. The reaction in China was one of anger and outrage. Popular protests in Chinese cities culminated with an attack on the US embassy by a mob of protesters who threw stones and other projectiles, and tried to set fire to the building with the US ambassador still inside. A similar reaction occurred in 2001 when a US spy plane was intercepted by Chinese jets and ultimately collided with one of them, killing its pilot and causing the US plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan. Its 24 crew were captured and held by the Chinese authorities, who refused to release them until an apology was issued by the US government, though the eventual apology was deliberately ambiguous and designed to allow both sides to claim a moral victory.

Economic Interdependence

Trade relations and the growing level of economic interdependence that exists between both countries cannot be ignored in any assessment of the bilateral relationship. The level of trade is a cause of concern for some in the US, both because of its exceptionally high trade deficit with China and because of the belief that this deficit is caused in large part by the PRC’s policy of maintaining a debased RMB. The high level of trade dependence, while viewed by some as a sign of US weakness, is in fact seen by many as a reason for optimism. Some scholars argue that high levels of economic interdependence lead to stable and peaceful relations between states due to the resulting greater levels of bilateral interaction and the increased costs to both sides of conflict. There are concerns in the US that Chinese ownership of US debt puts the US in a position of weakness vis-à-vis China; in theory, if China decided to sell its debt and its other holdings of US currency en mass, it could trigger a collapse in the value of the dollar and an economic crisis in the US. However, the result of such an action would be catastrophic for China as well given that any collapse in the value of the dollar would diminish the value of their huge reserves, as well as triggering a global economic downturn that would unquestionably affect China detrimentally. Indeed, recent Chinese criticism aimed at the US about its debt ceiling management indicates that China understands fully how much it has invested in the prudent management of the US economy and its currency. Thus, it seems well argued that the economic relationship is mostly beneficial to the overall condition of the political relationship between the two states.

Human Rights

On the agenda at every high-level meeting between almost any Western nation and China is the issue of human rights and political reform. In no Chinese international relationship is this more prominent than with the US. While many in the US consider this to be an important issue that their leaders have a moral responsibility to tackle with China, the issue of human rights is perceived by the CCP leadership as, at best, an irritation and, at worst, a hypocritical infringement of China’s sovereignty. The annual report issued by the US State Department on China’s human rights record is frequently critical of the lack of, among other issues, freedom of religious expression, the failure to liberalize politically, and the practice of detention without trial. In 1998, in direct response to this criticism, China began to publish its own annual report on the US record on human rights. In 2004, for example, this report highlighted the abuses of Iraqi prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib. While this report is not taken seriously in the US, it is designed to reveal what many on the Chinese side view as double-standards from the US over this issue.

Perhaps the most prominent ongoing issue of human rights in China that concerns the US government and many of its citizens alike is the issue of Tibet. Although the US explicitly recognizes Tibet to be sovereign Chinese territory, it frequently expresses concern over apparent human rights abuses in the region. The position of the Dalai Lama, dismissed in Beijing as a “splittist”, is a constant thorn in Sino-US relations. Every US president since George Bush Senior has met with the Dalai Lama – though, with the exception of George W. Bush’s presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tibetan leader in 2007, these meetings are never in public – and, on each occasion, Beijing reacts with venomous language. In 2010, a Chinese official issued a veiled threat over President Obama’s planned meeting, calling it both “irrational and harmful” and warning that China “will take necessary measures to help them realize this (US mistake)”. However, such rhetoric has yet to sway any president from a planned meeting with the Dalai Lama, though the US continues to give limited publicity to such meetings; just a single photo of Obama’s meeting was released.

China’s Military Development

A key concern in the US regarding China’s increasing power in the international system pertains to its military development. There is a widespread perception that China’s rapidly developing military capacity and its year-on-year double-digit increase in expenditure has positioned it as a military rival to the US. Such views, however, are not accurate. While it is true that China’s military expenditure has grown by significant amounts in recent decades, it is important to put this into some kind of perspective. According to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the most widely-respected research organization that reports on such matters and one that uses educated estimates to include military spending that is not declared in official statistics, China’s military expenditure as a proportion of GDP has actually fallen from 2.5% in 1990 to 2.2% in 2009. For comparison, the figures for the US show military expenditures were at 4.7% of GDP in 2009. More significantly, despite the sharp increase in absolute terms, and even using the higher estimate provided by SIPRI, China’s military budget remains less than one fifth of that of the US, whose own expenditure exceeds the combined total of the next 17 largest military budgets. Similarly, apparent advances in military technology, while unquestionably real, appear to have been exaggerated. The reports of the testing of a new Chinese Stealth fighter earlier this year were, in some quarters, treated as proof that US superiority is being eroded. Yet this seems premature; conservative estimates suggest that even if the testing was successful, and there is no evidence in the public domain that it was, then it will likely be at least seven years until the technology is battle-ready. Given the consistent levels of investment in military technology in the US, it is improbable that its own arsenal would stand still over this period and, in any case, it already has in excess of 130 stealth fighters that are ready for military deployment.

Future Trends

As with most bilateral interaction in the international system, there are causes for both optimism and pessimism in the Sino-US relationship. There are signs of both the rivalry

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and partnership that Presidents Bush and Clinton identified. The economic interdependence has two principle benefits that ought to aid relations. Firstly, the increased mutual reliance on each other’s economies raises the cost of any potential conflict for both parties, which ought to at least alleviate some tensions. Secondly, the higher amount of interaction at a societal level that results from the natural course of trade should foster a greater understanding between the two peoples, and go some way towards mitigating the mistrust that has developed over recent decades. As demonstrated above, the oft-cited military build-up is not as great a threat to the balance of power as is sometimes suggested. Additionally, the number of contacts between the two militaries is reason for cautious optimism.

Nevertheless, there are other issues that may come to the fore which, if not handled sensitively on both sides, may cause Sino-US relations to deteriorate. For instance, as China’s involvement in, and financial contribution to, major international organizations such as the World Bank and IMF has increased, it has also jockeyed for more influence within the organizations still dominated by the US and Europe; in 2008, Justin Yifu Lin, a Chinese citizen who was born in Taiwan but defected to the PRC, was appointed as Vice-President at the World bank. The US has been reluctant to weaken its positions of prominence and this has caused resentment in China. In some cases, this resentment has contributed to China’s decision to work outside of existing frameworks. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which China plays the leading role, has been termed as a potential competitor to NATO. China decided to work within the G77 instead of joining a G9 so that its interests would not be overwhelmed by the other Western-oriented members. China’s creation of rival international frameworks not only frustrates a US accustomed to global control, but it also creates concerns about China’s ultimate aims and intentions.

Similarly, as China’s economy expands, it will be a fiercer competitor with the US for natural resources and basic commodities around the globe. This affects the Sino-US relationship in three ways. Firstly, as natural resources are finite, there may become a time when there will not be enough resources to go around and China’s acquisition of resources may be at the expense of the US. Secondly, rising global demand, much of which has been driven by China’s booming economy, has sent global prices for commodities to record levels. In April 2011, the IMF raised its global inflation forecast from 3.7% to 4.5% due to these commodity price gains. Similarly, the IMF revised its 2011 US inflation forecast to 2.2% in 2011 up from 1% in 2010 due to higher food and energy prices. If inflation continues to increase, the US may feel pressured to raise interest rates to curb its rise, thus putting at risk the already weak Western recoveries. Finally, China’s eagerness to secure supplies of natural resources has led it to form alliances with countries which Western powers have tried to ostracize. Such Chinese alliances directly conflict with US policies in the region, and can inflame citizen passions on both sides. Mia Farrow, for instance, led protests against Beijing’s “genocide Olympics”, so-called because of China’s continued support of the Sudanese regime despite its actions in Darfur. The Chinese reject such claims out of hand, and viewed Western attempts to meddle with the Olympics as insulting and an attack on its national honor. China maintains that it does not interfere in internal affairs of other countries. This position stems from China’s own experiences of occupation and meddling in its affairs by Western powers during the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as the brief, but unsuccessful, period in the early years of the PRC when Maoist policies were exported to other countries. It is certainly observable that the no-strings attached approach to infrastructure investment in Africa has had some significant benefits for China in terms of promoting itself there.

Yet despite these many issues of concern between the two countries, some form of which will undoubtedly remain between the two powers as the US adjusts to a more vocal and powerful China in the international arena, outright conflict between the two powers is highly unlikely. Instead, current and future issues between the two countries will continue to be resolved, or at least mitigated, through negotiation and diplomacy.

The wildcards in this prediction are Taiwan and the ongoing dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands with Japan. The special relationship that exists between the US and Taiwan, and the US’s own legal obligations to defend the island should it be attacked, render the possibility of military conflict between China and the US over Taiwan a possibility, however unlikely. Vigilance on both sides – and in Taiwan – is essential in order to avoid a conflict that would be to nobody’s benefit. Similarly, the US is committed to defending Japan, its closest ally in Asia, should it be attacked. The simmering tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands that boiled over in 2012 continue to cause concern for US policy-makers. The US will continue to push for diplomatic resolution on this issue but an outside chance of a low-level military conflict cannot be ruled out.

China and the European Union: Principles and Pragmatism

Introduction

One of the fundamental difficulties with assessing the relationship between China and the EU is one that is inherent in all analyses of the EU: that it is not a single entity. Constituted of 28 member states (since Croatia joined in 2013) ranging in size from Malta (with fewer than half a million inhabitants) to Germany (home to over 80 million people), the EU is linguistically, economically, culturally, and demographically incredibly diverse. While there has been a much increased pooling of sovereignty within the EU in recent years, each member state retains the right and ability to conduct its own external affairs. However, the EU has worked hard to increase its unity on the international stage. For example, in 2009 the EU appointed a President of the EU Council in order that its external relations are managed more coherently. Even before then, the EU negotiated numerous treaties with key partners in the international arena. These treaties play major roles in the relationships between these international partners and both the EU has a whole, as well as its constituent member states. Additionally, any state wishing to conduct high levels of trade with individual EU member states cannot realistically do so without dealing directly with the EU, alongside its dealings with the states in question. For these reasons, it is valid to speak of the relationship between China and the EU, though with the caveat that the China-EU relationship does not always supersede China’s bilateral dealings with particular EU member states.

Trade

Without question, the single most important factor of the China-EU relationship is trade. The EU, taken as a whole, is China’s largest trading partner accounting for more bilateral trade than even the US or Japan. It is the largest market for China’s exports and has been a significant source of China’s economic growth in the reform era. The importance of the relationship is not just one-sided; China matters to the EU just as much and it is its second largest trading partner after the US, and would be its largest if trade with Hong Kong were to be included in the figures.

As with the China-US relationship, there is tension within this economic success story, particularly in the form of a considerable trade deficit. In 2010, the total value of two-way trade reached its highest point to date at $527 billion, but this resulted in the EU stomaching a deficit of almost $225 billion. Preliminary figures for 2012 show a drop in trade of around 4%, probably driven by Europe’s economic travails, but the overall deficit remains fairly constant. While this represents a significant amount, it also demonstrates that the imbalance in the trading relationship is not as severe as exists in China-US trade; although the figures for absolute deficit are fairly similar (the figure for the US in the same period was equivalent to approximately $236 billion) the EU deficit was generated from a two-way trade figure that was more than one third larger than that of China-US trade, meaning it was proportionately much smaller. It is also important to consider that although this deficit is high, it is relatively stable as both exports and imports continue to grow at a similar pace. Thus, whereas the trade deficit in 2007 was $222 billion, only fractionally lower than it was in 2010, this represented more than half of the overall two-way trade for that year. In fact, across the last five years exports to China from the EU have grown at an average of 15% per year, making China Europe’s fastest growing market by some margin, while imports grew at just below 10%. A continuance of this trajectory will see the trade imbalance become even less of an obstacle to relations in the future.

There is, of course, imbalance within the EU regarding the importance of China as a trading partner. As outlined earlier in this article, while the EU often negotiates as a single entity on the international stage, it is an organisation that has 27 member states, each of which retains its sovereignty. The result of this is that the figures on two-way trade above perhaps give a skewed outlook on the relationship. Of the $527 billion in two-way trade in 2010, fully one third was between Germany and China, and the majority of the trade is with the EU’s four largest states (Germany, UK, Italy and France). When separated out this way and placed into the context of the global economy, the figures are not entirely surprising. It is to be expected that Germany is China’s largest European trading partner, both because of the size of its economy and the level of complementarity, as the majority of trade with Europe is in industry and machinery, sectors in which the German economy is strong. However, the significance of even smaller countries within the EU lies in the collective negotiating position that the EU has, allowing them to be part of a much larger negotiating team in dealings with China; this has the twin effect of increasing these countries’ relative leverage as well as to enhance the EU as a whole vis-à-vis China.

vpix / Shutterstock.comChina has taken on an even greater significance to the EU and its member states since the economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent debt crises that have emerged in Europe, particularly in those countries that use the Euro. There have been some quite naked attempts from within Europe to woo the Chinese into buying up bonds to ease this situation. China has vested interests in ensuring the stability of the European market on which it relies so heavily for exports, prompting the leadership to issue broad statements of support and pledges to invest in Eurozone debt, especially from Italy, one of the countries most heavily in debt. However, these statements and pledges have also been augmented by warnings from China that Europe must do more to put its own problems right in this area and, most importantly, to protect Chinese investments in the EU. While it is clear that China holds most of the cards in this predicament – the Europeans cannot realistically solve the debt crises without Chinese investment – it is not in China’s own interests to exacerbate the situation and assistance is, therefore, likely to be forthcoming.

The European Debt Crisis

In order to join the European Union, potential member states had to sign the Maastricht Treaty which was to bind them into limiting their deficit spending and debt levels. Some European Union member states, Italy and Greece for instance, dodged this obligation by hiding their debt and deficit levels through the use of complex currency and credit derivative structures. Having entered the Eurozone, Greece and several other EU countries continued to run large deficits through the 2000s. In the early part of the decade, these deficits were less problematic as they were supported by economic growth. In Greece, this growth was driven by its shipping and tourism industries. With the 2008 financial crisis and the accompanying slowdown of the world economy, however, Greece’s debt, and that of other EU countries, began to rapidly build-up.

As government budget deficits and sovereign debts have increased sharply, a crisis of confidence has emerged which has resulted in Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal’s credit ratings being downgraded, and in increased borrowing costs for those countries. These sovereign debt issues have become a perceived problem for the Eurozone as a whole, not the least because many of the struggling southern euro countries have received bank loans from France, Germany and other more solvent Eurozone members. France’s banks in particular have extensively lent to southern European governments. In September 2011, two of France’s largest banks, Societe General and Credit Agricole, were downgraded because of their exposure.

By April 2010, the EU and IMF agreed to an initial bailout package of €45 billion for Greece. In May 2010, austerity measures were proposed to reduce Greece’s deficit, as the country’s slow growth meant that it would be unable to repay its debt without significant cuts in spending. Many Greek citizens were unhappy with the severe austerity measures and have held national strikes in protest. A protest on 5th May 2010, for instance, was widespread and became violent, resulting in three deaths. Nevertheless, in the same month the IMF and the euro zone countries approved a €110 billion loan for Greece, conditional on the implementation of measures to reduce government spending. The Greek loan was followed by a loan of €85 billion for Ireland in November, and a €78 billion rescue package for Portugal in May 2011.

In May 2010, the 27 member states of the European Union agreed to create a €440 million European Financial Stability Facility, a legal instrument designed to maintain financial stability in Europe by being able to provide rapid financial assistance to European governments in need. These funds were to be made available in conjunction with €250 billion from the IMF. In January 2011, the European Union designed the European Financial Stabilization Mechanism, a €60 billion emergency lending program backed by all 27 European Union members. The idea is that EFSF and EFSM are to be replaced by the European Stability Mechanism due to be launched in mid-2013.

In order for Greece to be eligible for the next tranche of its bailout loan, in May 2011, the IMF proposed spending cuts amounting to €28 billion over five years. Greek citizens again took to the streets in protest. In October 2011, leaders of the 17 year zone countries met in Brussels to discuss a package aimed at addressing the crisis. A deal was reached in which it was recommended to write-down by 50% the Greek sovereign debt held by banks, to enlarge the European Financial Stability Facility to €1 trillion, to increase the mandatory level of bank capitalization, to ensure that Italy would make commitments to reduce its national debt, and to pledged €35 billion in credit enhancements to offset losses incurred by European banks. The package has yet to be put into effect, however, as Greek citizen resistance to continued austerity first caused Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to propose a referendum on the package, then to withdraw the referendum, and eventually, to step down as the Greek Prime Minister. The Greek political situation currently remains unclear with voters apparently unwilling to sanction to agreement to slash public spending on which its bailout money depends.

Currently, the situation remains unresolved. Borrowing costs in Spain, Italy, Portugal, France and Greece have continued to rise up to the point where their debt levels could become unsustainable. In fact, bailouts for Irish and Spanish banks were issued in 2012. Part of the issue has been that the weaker economies of southern Europe have not been able to devalue their currencies in order to remain competitive as they surely would have done if they were single, sovereign entities, while Germany has enjoyed an artificially depressed currency allowing their exports to rapidly grow. Individually, the southern European countries could have more easily preserved their competitiveness through greater tolerance for inflation and corresponding regular devaluations. They would have had the ability to keep interest rates low and to engage in quantitative-easing and fiscal stimulus. They could have supported job-targeting economic policies, instead of introducing inflation- targeting policies as they are required under their current commitments.

This inability to make competitive adjustments through currency variations has created an imbalance of payments in the southern European countries. To correct this imbalance, without the ability to individually raise interest rates or to impose capital controls, the southern European countries have been borrowing to fund their deficits. As their deficits have reached unsustainable levels, they are now being asked to reduce their consumption in order to hike their savings rate and to reduce the capital outflows. This has come at a time when slower GDP growth rates have led to slower growth in tax revenues and higher social security spending, increasing deficits and debt levels further. The French May 2012 election of Francois Holland may mark a shift toward EU economic policies that emphasize growth instead of just austerity; certainly there has been a big upsurge in calls for simulative economic policies. In what form these policies take shape is still under negotiation.

Ultimately, the long-term sustainability of the Eurozone will require a common fiscal policy in addition to a common economic policy. Whether sovereign countries will be willing to let outsiders dictate their tax and government spending policies is yet to be seen. European economies, with high wages, large government social services and subsidies, and complex regulations and taxes are becoming increasingly uncompetitive in the global economy. These factors have been aggravated by Europe’s aging population, the growing use of technology to replace skilled labor, and globalization which has caused European manufacturing and services to relocate to lower-cost production centers.

What China’s role will be in the debt crisis remains to be seen. In the short term, Europe’s debt crisis is likely to be stabilized through financing from the EFSF, the IMF’s use of special drawing rights, or a combination of the two. Exactly how of if China contributes funds to this process is still an open question. Europe is China’s largest export market. If Europe derails, it also will drag down the global economy, which will negatively impact China’s own economic expansion. Although it is not known for certain, it is estimated that a quarter of China’s approximate $3.2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves are denominated in euros, so China has a vested interest in maintaining their value. China continues to need to diversify its foreign reserve holdings and Europe represents one potentially viable area for investing excess Chinese funds; China can only invest so much in its domestic economy without worsening inflation, creating asset bubbles or mal-investing. Playing a more active role in the European crisis might help solidify China’s positioning as a responsible power and enhance its clout on the global stage. It may also boost Beijing’s leverage with Brussels on issues such as gaining “market economy” status, increasing its role in international organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank, and on getting the US to stop pressuring it to ease its foreign currency controls.

That said, it is likely that bailing-out Europe would prove unpopular at home. On a per capita basis, China is much poorer than Europe; bailing-out Europe would give the impression that China is supporting rich foreigners at the expense of its citizens, especially given the widespread sentiment in China that Europe is in crisis in the first place because of its own profligate spending. The safety of EFSF issued bonds is also a concern for China. On numerous occasions, China has insisted that it cannot consider investing until Europe’s financial house is in order. Also, as China rises, disquiet in the West about China’s intentions intensifies. Depending on how China handles it, its efforts at assistance could be misconstrued as opportunistic mercantilism, especially if it invests in industries that it could later use as a springboard for further market penetration, as opposed restricting its investment to buying bonds.

Human Rights

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The EU describes its core interests in the relationship with China as going beyond trade to incorporate matters of human rights and political reform. The way in which the EU seeks to alter China’s actions in this area is governed, as the rest of the relationship is, by the 1985 EC-China Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). Although originally negotiated by a European Community that consisted of just 9 states, the TCA has since been updated and remains the bedrock of EU-China relations today. Under the terms of the TCA, the EU commits itself to engagement with China, particularly with regard to trade, in order that it may encourage the liberalization of China both politically and economically. The EU’s China policy, therefore, rests on a fundamental assumption that engagement is good and will encourage liberalization in China.

As part of the agreement the two sides hold regular summits on specific issues, including a biennial “Human Rights Dialogue” during which representatives of the EU offer assessments on the extent to which China has fulfilled previous human rights commitments and has the opportunity to raise individual cases of concern with their Chinese counterparts. This process is not entirely one-sided; the Chinese side frequently uses these meetings to point out what it considers to be issue of discrimination against people of Chinese origin within the EU, though the evidence produced for this is ordinarily quite unconvincing. The Europeans point to some limited successes from these dialogues, particularly in the release of political prisoners, such as Tibetan activists, ostensibly at the request of EU representatives. However, examination of the reports of these dialogues released by the EU shows that frequently the same cases are repeatedly raised, usually without any concrete action resulting. On the occasions where cases have been resolved there is little evidence that this has happened as a direct result of EU concern. However, it can be argued that a success of the EU’s approach is that it has institutionalized China’s acceptance of the discourse on human rights, allowing regular reporting to take place on its record in this area by an external party. Critics may see this as paying lip service to the idea, but others argue that this is just one stage in a long-term process of norm development.

The gulf in perceptions of human rights between Europe and China came to the fore in the run up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Following the series of protests that occurred in Tibetan regions of China in March of that year, and the concomitant crackdown by Chinese authorities, many groups in Europe sought to register their anger and protest by targeting the Olympic torch relay as it passed through Europe. The reaction was strongest in France, where several protestors tried to grab, or even extinguish, the flame, while numerous pro-Tibet banners and flags lined the route. These scenes were mirrored in other EU countries, including the UK, and caused serious disquiet amongst both Chinese politicians and the general public, many of whom considered it to be an undeserved sleight on the Chinese nation. What followed was a period of particularly frosty relations, especially between France and China. A fairly widespread internet campaign, for example, urged the boycott of Carrefour, a French supermarket chain that has almost 200 stores in mainland China. After much speculation that he would boycott the opening ceremony of the games, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy appeared to back down and made public his intention to be present. This calmed the atmosphere at the political level, and the controversy now appears to have had no serious lasting impact on either Franco-Chinese or EU-China relations.

Arms Embargo

The biggest and longest running issue in China-EU relations, however, remains an arms embargo that was put into force in 1989 following the Tiananmen Incident. The embargo was the centerpiece of the European response to the crackdown which had been widely condemned among Western countries. It remains the only sanction imposed during that time not to have been lifted. What it means in practice is that no EU member state may sell weaponry to the PRC and this includes a responsibility to ensure that no third country acts as an intermediary. During a period of rapid modernization in the Chinese military, this has been a source of concern both to the Chinese government, who would like the freedom to purchase advanced military technology from EU suppliers, and also to some in the defense industry in Europe, which considers China to be a massive untapped market. It is an item that is on virtually every agenda at summits between the EU and China, but there is currently no realistic prospect of it being lifted. A groundswell of opinion did begin to form around lifting the embargo in the early years of the twenty-first century, with the then French president, Jacques Chirac, chief among those calling for at least a limited amount of arms sales to be permitted. While some countries supported this idea, it was opposed strongly by the US, a crucial ally of the EU. In direct response to US concerns BAE Systems, a British firm which is the largest manufacturer of arms in the EU, stated publicly that it would not countenance selling weapons to China even if the embargo were lifted. The debate came to an end in 2005 when China passed its Anti-Secession law, explicitly authorizing the use of force to regain sovereignty over Taiwan. Following this, even the most pro-Chinese European leaders realized that ending the embargo was a political impossibility. The question of lifting the embargo continues to be raised within Europe from time to time, most recently by the Spanish in 2010, but the prospects of it being lifted seem distant and unlikely. This is a continuing cause of irritation in China, where it is viewed, probably correctly, as more of a strategic decision than a statement on its human rights record.

Future Trends

All relationships that involve the EU are complicated by the fact that it is both a single entity and a diverse collection of 28 sovereign states. The diversity of the EU brings with it an incoherence in its strategy towards China. While all states value the increased and increasing levels of two-way trade and understand the centrality of China to future European economic growth, other aspects of the relationship are not dealt with in such a unified manner. The trajectory of economic expansion seems set to continue and the growth of exports to China within this expansion mean that any tensions that are caused as a result of the trade deficit will not be of great significance to the relationship. While the EU continues to define the issues of human rights and political liberalization as core to its China strategy, it could be argued that it is now taking a much more pragmatic approach in this respect. The policy of engaging with China in order to promote these aims rests on the fundamental principle that such engagement will help to bring about the desired changes in China, but this is not really borne out by the evidence. It seems unlikely that the EU will make serious inroads into its human rights and political reform agenda in China and, for their part, the Chinese seem willing to engage discursively in this process while continuing to place economic growth at the center of their strategy. With the core interests of both sides seemingly converging around trade, the issue of human rights seems likely to take more of a back seat. The exception to this will continue to be the arms embargo which is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, though this has now taken on more of a strategic importance, both to states within the EU as well as to key allies such as the US, rather than genuinely seeking to address issues of liberty in China.

In terms of the Eurozone debt crisis, it is hard to predict future outcomes given the incredible volatility of the current situation. Given all that China has at stake in Europe, it is unlikely that it will remain categorically on the sidelines. Given a choice, China has expressed a preference to buy European assets as opposed to government bonds, although it anticipates that Europeans may likely be more resistant to this idea. In such a case, it is likely that China will be more willing to provide funds for Europe through the IMF, especially if it’s increased funding buys it a greater voice in IMF policy making. Gaining greater clout in international organizations is a Chinese objective. Additionally, supporting the IMF will be easier to sell at home than investing in a strictly European-based financing mechanism. The IMF’s authority and experience at restructuring countries struggling with their finances will also provide China with additional comfort that its investments will not be squandered.