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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.

Part VII – China’s Last Dynasty: Qing Dynasty 1644 – 1911

Introduction

British flax-mill factory industrail revolution Leeds c 1800 - wiki

The Industrial Revolution caused Europeans to seek out raw materials and new markets

As China entered into the Qing Dynasty, the last of its long dynastic line, it became increasingly challenged by a desire to reaffirm traditional Confucian values in order to preserve its historic agrarian, hierarchical, patriarchal society in the face of the pressures of a rapidly changing world. As the Manchus consolidated their minority rule over the country, they reaffirmed Chinese tradition in order to gain acceptance from the wider Han population. Moreover, the Han Chinese themselves veered toward greater conservatism, feeling that a lapse in Confucian values had been a key cause of the large-scale peasant revolt at the end of the Ming, and of the Han Chinese loss once again of the Mandate of Heaven to foreign occupants. Yet, as China tried to stay still, the world around them was quickly changing.

Driving this change was the Industrial Revolution in Europe, which resulted in European powers becoming more assertive in their quest for increased international trade. From China, these powers desired porcelain, lacquer ware, silk and tea. While China was willing to engage in limited one-way trade, there was nothing from Europe that China wanted. Eventually, Europeans became impatient with the Qing’s imposed trade restrictions and with their growing trade deficit with China. Taking advantage of their military and technological superiority, the West increasingly forced China to engage in international trade on its terms, much to the significant harm of the country. This Western pressure, along with the challenges of managing significant population growth between the 1700s and the 1900s, eventually brought down the Qing Dynasty, and ended dynastic history in China.

The first two Qing Emperors – Kangxi and Yongzheng

The Manchus, Chinese Traditions to rule the Chinese People, Tibet and Contact with Western Barbarians

17th Century painting of Manchu people hunting

Unlike other tribes living outside the Great Wall, the Manchus were not nomadic people, which meant that they had well-established military and administrative machinery that was efficiently spread throughout the country. Where the Chinese people capitulated, Chinese life and culture continued in peace and prosperity. Where the Chinese resisted Manchu rule, their population was looted, raped, and killed. After years of rebel peasant riots, many scholar-officials welcomed the stability of the Manchus. The one act of subservience required of the Chinese by the Manchus was to adopt the ‘queue’, the Manchu hairstyle in which the front part of the male head was shaved and the remaining hair was worn in a long braid in the back, something which did cause resentment, albeit rarely expressed. It took until 1681 before the last remnants of Ming loyalist resistance to Manchu rule were eradicated.

Qing-era silk production image shows workers with Manchu queue hair style

Having taken control of the government in 1669, the Kangxi Emperor of the Manchus, who held the throne for 60 years, was considered to be one of the most effective emperors to ever rule China. As the Manchus made up less than 2% of China’s entire population, the trick for Kangxi was to consolidate his rule in a way that won the hearts and minds of the Chinese people. To this effect, Kangxi recruited committed Chinese officials to the bureaucracy and continued the traditional examination system. Hard-working, and a good judge of character, Kangxi valued and rewarded honesty. Chinese officials who refused to serve the Qing were honored as long as they did not engage in active resistance to his rule. In order to show his respect for Chinese culture, he commissioned the history of the Ming Dynasty, giving those reluctant to serve the Qing directly a way of being involved at court. Similarly, he patronized Chinese art, philosophy and poetry, and commissioned everything from the Kangxi Dictionary of Chinese to the Complete Poems of the Tang Dynasty. He also instigated effective tax reform in 1712, replenishing the state treasury and creating a more egalitarian tax system.

Kangxi was a conqueror and an effective military leader. As such he successfully extended the Chinese empire northward and westward, creating borders with Korea and Russia which remain largely in place today. He occupied Tibet and led successful campaigns against the Mongols in Central Asia. Armed with cannons and other modern weapons, which provided them with military superiority over the Mongolian nomads who had only bows and arrows, Kangxi was able to dominate the steppe, effectually ending 2000 years of defense problems from the nomadic tribes.

Painting of the Kangxi Emperor

As a ruler of a now multi-ethnic empire, Kangxi favored Tibetan Buddhism at home, while forming marriage alliances with Mongol princes and ensuring that his court demonstrated moral leadership in terms of Confucian values. Thus, through his political skill sensitivity to his empire’s diverse cultures, and his genuine dedication to Confucian values, Kangxi was able to bend resentment toward the Manchus into acceptance, which eventually developed into loyalty. Areas such as Tibet and the largely Muslim areas of central Asia were ruled lightly. The local population was permitted to maintain their own religious leaders, to keep their own dietary rules, and to not wear the queue.

The Kangxi Emperor was also open to Western learning brought by the Christian Jesuits, who were welcomed at the Qing court. In particular, he was intrigued by their theories of astronomy, calendar calculations, mathematics, geography and military technology. Initially, Kangxi, had a relaxed attitude toward Christianity, and permitted churches to be built in the capital and provinces. The Jesuits were successful in converting many Chinese to Christianity by drawing parallels between Chinese and Christian traditions. However, when Pope Clement I ruled that Chinese folk religion and Confucian rites were in conflict with Christian teaching, Kangxi banned Christian missions in China, although he kept the Jesuits at court, largely in secular functions.

St. Sophia Church, Qingdao China

Kangxi was succeeded by Yongzheng in 1736, followed by his son Qianlong. During the 13 years of his reign, Yongzheng undertook a comprehensive reform of the state tax system, changing Qing fiscal policy to deliver a reliable revenue stream at the local and national levels. The historical system concentrated entirely on providing adequate funds for the central state, leaving the administration of regional government expenses entirely up to regional officials, which created much opportunity for corruption. The new system gave local officials an understanding of the funds available to them so that they did not have to personally extract revenue from their populace in order to maintain roads, for example, or to carry out granary construction. Additionally, Yongzheng ruthlessly tried to rid his empire of widespread government corruption. Without Yongzheng’s tax reforms and his improvements to the bureaucracy, the prosperity of Qianlong’s reign would not have been possible.

Emperor Qianlong

Painting of Emperor Qianlong riding

Qianlong was emperor for 60 years, fulfilling a promise to abdicate one year short of his grandfather’s record 61-year reign in a gesture of filial piety, though he continued to retain effective rule until his death four years later. Qianlong consolidated Qing rule in Tibet, extended Qing control further west into Mongol regions of Chinese Turkestan – today’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region – effectively creating the borders of today’s China. Like his grandfather before him, Qianlong presented different images to the varied ethnic groups within his empire. To the Tibetans, for example, he established himself as the reincarnation of Manjusri, one of the most important bodhisattvas of Tibetan Buddhism. To the Han Chinese, he was a scholar and patron of Chinese learning and art. For instance, Qianlong created an enormous art collection of jade, ancient bronzes, seals, paintings, calligraphy, and ceramics, making him a great preserver of Chinese cultural heritage. Additionally, two of China’s greatest novels were written during the 1700s: Unofficial History of the Scholars and The Dream of the Red Chamber. More importantly, Qianlong commissioned the Complete Works of the Four Treasures which was to contain a copy of every significant work ever published in Chinese, and which was the largest single publishing project in Chinese history.

Begun in 1772, the Four Treasures took 20 years to finish. The four treasuries covered the major categories of traditional Chinese knowledge: classics, history, philosophy, and literature. A total of 13,254 books were collected throughout the empire, and thousands of scholars were engaged in the endeavor. Over four million pages were recorded by thousands of copyists. Even to this day, the Four Treasures remains a valuable resource for academics. Just as importantly, from the Manchu perspective, the Four Treasures enabled the Emperor to carry out a countrywide campaign of censorship that lasted from 1772-1788. All books gathered were examined. Any that held sensitive or offensive anti-Manchu sentiments were delivered to the court. Even books chosen for inclusion in the Four Treasures went through censorship, sometimes having parts rewritten or passages deleted. Problematic scholar-officials could be charged with sedition or other crimes by using, as proof, poems or articles selected from the body of work they had provided to the Emperor from their own libraries.

More Assertive Foreign Powers

Largely ignorant of European expansion and the accompanying slave trade throughout the 15thto 18th centuries, the Chinese came under increasing pressure from the British at the beginning of the 19th century, as their demand for tea, silk, and porcelain caused the British to seek more open trade relations with the Chinese.

Macao during Qing Dynasty

The Portuguese were the first to establish a permanent trading post with China in 1557, in Macao. In 1684, Kangxi allowed four cities, including Canton (Guangzhou), to do business with foreign traders. By 1757, the emperor had scaled those four cities back to just Canton. Additionally, he limited trading to the winter months. He also insisted European traders reside in special quarters along the banks of the Pearl River, outside Canton’s city walls. These quarters were known as the thirteen factories, with factory being used to mean a trading house. The thirteen factories remained the principal center for Western trade until the First Opium War in 1839.

Europeans, especially the British, developed a taste for tea. As tea imports rose, the British became frustrated with Sino-British trade for two reasons. Firstly, the British began running a significant trade deficit with China. Secondly, the East India Company increasingly balked at the trade limitations imposed by the Canton system. The East India Company thus petitioned the British government to send a diplomatic mission to China to negotiate better terms of trade. This mission was dispatched in 1793 and led by Lord Macartney. From the British perspective, this mission was unsuccessful. All requests from the British regarding the development of trade, the dispatching of an ambassador to Peking, and many other matters were refused. Distracted by revolution in continental Europe, Britain did not respond to China’s rebuff until the French threat had been resolved.

Caricature of Lord McCartney before the Chinese emperor

The Chinese had no desire to engage in active international trade. Furthermore, at the end of the 18th century, China still believed itself to be the world’s dominant power. With the exception of the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, which determined the border between the Russian and Chinese empires, China had never engaged in equal diplomatic relations with any foreign country, and saw no need to begin with Britain.

To some extent, the poor results of the diplomatic effort were also caused by cultural misunderstanding. Lord Macartney refused to kowtow to the Emperor as was the tributary’s custom, upsetting court protocol. Additionally, the carefully chosen presents by the British that were to be given to the Emperor on the occasion of his birthday, which represented the latest in European scientific achievements and craftsmanship, and which were to provide a basis for trading relations in the future, also offended both the emperor and the court. The emperor, while secretly treasuring the gifts, dismissed them as worthless baubles. Tributary states were to present the Emperor with token gifts. In turn, the Emperor was to present the tributary states with more valuable presents.

Evidence of Dynastic Decline by the End of the 1700s

By the end of the 18th century, signs of dynastic decline were evident. A surge in population put enormous pressure on food production. China became increasingly dependent on sweet potato and maize crops that could grow on drier, less fertile, soil. Multiple harvesting, particularly in the rice-growing south, became more commonplace. Yet more effective use of land and new crops alone were not sufficient to cope with the rising population. The government thus supported migration within the country, moving people to more remote areas such as Xinjiang.

Han migration into Xinjiang led to deforestation and increased desertification

Having Han Chinese peasants emigrate to basically non-agricultural land altered the nature of the local economy and the local way of life. Deforestation and over-cultivation of grasslands for agriculture significantly damaged the already fragile environment, increased the process of the desertification in Northwest China, and deepened the problem of water scarcity. Han relocation also had serious political and social consequences, as local populations were forced to compete with Han Chinese for land and other resources. Furthermore, tax revenues did not keep pace with the surge in population.

Compounding the insufficient tax harvest was a spectacular case of embezzlement. One of Qianlong’s favorite bodyguards, Heshen, embezzled millions of ounces of silver from the treasury. Heshen was arrested the day after Qianlong died; his stolen wealth was said to have equaled half the value of the entire treasury. This theft and the inadequate tax collection, coupled with continuous military expeditions, financially crippled the Dynasty by the beginning of the 19th century. Additionally, by the end of the 1700s, China was again plagued by peasant revolt, under the same White Lotus banner that had harassed the Mings.

The Qing in the 19th Century – the First Opium War

Opium den during the Qing Dynasty

As soon as the British had overcome the Napoleonic threat, it once again turned its attention to its growing trade deficit with China caused by its large imports of tea as well as of silk, porcelain and lacquer ware. The East India Company petitioned King George III to dispatch a second delegation to China to negotiate improved trade terms, but China again resisted British exigencies. Britain’s solution to this impasse was to export to China opium grown on its plantations in India. When smoked, opium proved highly addictive, relieving boredom along with physical and mental pain. By the mid-1820s, the success of the British strategy was apparent as its trade deficit turned to surplus. By the 1830s, approximately nine million taels (a tael equals 38 grams) of silver were flowing out of China annually and it was importing up to 13,000 chests of opium, enough to sustain the addiction of about 2 million Chinese. The British skirted Chinese laws forbidding opium trade by exporting the drug into China through smuggling networks.

In 1839, the trade commissioner Lin Zexu determined to suppress the opium trade. Lin arrested 350 Western traders and confined them into their warehouses until all their opium inventory was given to his officials. Ultimately, Lin destroyed more than 20,000 chests. The British retaliated by sending an armada of warships to fight the Chinese. Outclassed by Western military technology, the Chinese were soundly defeated.

The Unequal Treaties and Extraterritoriality

Having no choice but to surrender, the Chinese signed the Treaty of Nanjing which forced China to pay an accumulated $21 million dollars of war reparations, to cede control of the island of Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity, to open four new coastal cities to British trade, and to treat Britain as an equal country in diplomatic negotiations, in contrast to the way all Chinese dynasties had operated previously. In a supplementary treaty, China was made to fix its tariff rates on its trade with Western countries at 5%, to exclude Westerners from prosecution under Chinese law under (what was to be termed extraterritoriality), and to allow Britain to also have any new privilege gained from China by other foreign powers under a Most Favored Nation clause. The opium trade continued unhindered.

The Signing of the Treaty of Nanjing

In Chinese eyes, Britain’s actions were a case of the morally repugnant imposing its will on those in China trying to do the right thing. This moral dimension to the war made it more politically and psychologically difficult for the Chinese to adopt any aspects of Western civilization, even when it became increasingly obvious that without western technology, China would never regain control of its country.

Second Opium War or the Arrow War

Between 1858 and 1860, a Second Opium War broke out when Chinese officials boarded the Hong Kong-registered boat The Arrow, and arrested twelve Chinese suspected of smuggling. The British demanded their release as the Chinese vessel was registered in Hong Kong and, thus, protected under the Treaty of Nanjing. The Qing government insisted the Chinese sailors were pirate smugglers and refused to release them. In retaliation, the British, requesting the help of the French, Russians and Americans, readied for war. While the United States and Russia supported Britain, they did not go as far as sending military aid, but the French did join forces with the British.

Chinese officers tear down the British flag on the Arrow

The British and French launched the Second Opium War by capturing Canton, modern day Guangzhou, and maintained control of the city for four years. They subsequently invaded Beijing, burning the Emperor’s Summer Palace and imposing further so-called “unequal treaties” on the Qing. The 1860 Treaty of Tianjin stipulated the opening of a total of fourteen treaty ports to Western trade, ceding further land in Kowloon to the British, indemnities of eight million taels of silver to France and Britain, the right of Western diplomats to reside permanently in Beijing, and the freedom of religious institutions to be established in China. After 1860, Westerners assumed control of the complete administration of China’s taxes on trade and commerce, making the Qing Empire in effect a semi-colony of the West. At the same time, Russia forced China to revise the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, which gave Russia the right to establish a port on the Pacific coast, where it founded the city of Vladivostok in 1860. The Russians also insisted that the Qing sign the Supplementary Convention of Peking in which Russia gained a further 4000 square miles of land from China.

The Nian, Panthay, Muslim and Taiping Rebellion

Compounding Qing dynastic troubles were further internal rebellions. Taxes were paid by peasants in copper, which had a fixed exchange rate with silver. As China began exporting growing quantities of silver to pay for its opium imports, the exchange rate between the copper of the peasants and the silver of the tax collector rose, making it increasingly difficult for the peasants to pay their taxes. This rising tax burden, coupled with famine, population pressure, scarcity of resources, and government corruption sparked a series of rebellions throughout China.

The Nian Rebellion (1853-1868) was caused initially by the bursting of the Yellow River’s banks in 1853 and 1855, causing widespread flooding and loss of life. Because of its reduced finances, the Qing court was unable to respond to the disaster with sufficient financial and human aid, causing wide spread revolt. The Panthay Rebellion (1856-1873) began in Yunnan province as a result of fighting between Han Chinese migrants and the native Hui (Chinese Muslims) over access to mining resources. The Muslim Rebellion (1862 -1877) erupted in the Xinjiang, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces over continued minority resistance to Han Chinese territorial infringement.

Taiping Rebels chased by Manchus

The largest rebellion during this time, however, was the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). In 1850, a failed examination candidate from the Hakka minority group in South China, Hong Xiuquan, had visions during a nervous breakdown which convinced him that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Hong advocated surprisingly modern policies including the abolition of private property, the promotion of a classless society, the advancement of equality between men and women, the suppression of foot binding, and the eradication of opium use. He quickly amassed a dedicated army of peasant followers who, by 1854, had occupied Nanjing, which they proclaimed to be the capital of their new Heavenly Kingdom. By 1855, Hong was within 20 miles of Beijing. At first, Western missionaries were elated at the thought of a Chinese Christian uprising. Yet Hong’s unorthodox Christianity and his opposition to opium were eventually determined to be a threat to Western interests.

The Qing rallied the government Banner Forces (so named because of the particular flags under which they operated) to put down the rebellion, but by this point the Banner Forces were so ill-trained that they proved ineffective. The Qing Court then had no choice but to disperse power to regional Chinese officials who recruited their own armies from their own home districts. Allowing the amassing of regional armies had historically proved very dangerous to a dynasty’s longevity, and that the Qing court was forced into this strategy was good evidence of its weakness. An estimated 20-30 million died during the rebellion.

Self-Strengthening

Westerners share technology with China to improve access to its markets

By the end of the 19th century, in the face of constant foreign incursions into its territory and infringements of its sovereignty, the Qing Dynasty began a program of self-strengthening. In many ways, the basic idea of this program was a modified version of the traditional yiyi zhiyi (“use barbarians to control barbarians“), although in this case it was more of an instance of using barbarian technology to defeat barbarians. Reformists argued that China should employ Western technology such as railroads, modern weaponry, steamships, and telegraph lines in order to modernize China, while learning Western languages in order to gain access to Western technologies. Conservatives at the court argued that such policies would lead to the abandonment of traditional culture for modern barbarism. Reformists countered that China would maintain fundamentally Confucian and Chinese in culture, only using the Western technologies to arrest Western incursion into Chinese territory and Chinese sovereignty.

Yet despite reformists’ enthusiasm for change, few understood the rapidity with which Western science was developing improved technology, or that up-to-date weapons alone would not be enough to defend China without modernized training and leadership. What was true was that knowledge of the West was gradually improving. Modern newspapers, with up-to-date coverage of world affairs, began to appear in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Information was also acquired through visits abroad. By 1880, China had embassies in London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Washington, Tokyo and St. Petersburg.

At the heart of the Chinese challenge was the fact that no Qing Emperor of the 19th century was very capable, although even an extremely able emperor would have struggled to meet the twin challenges of internal rebellion and external aggression. The lack of effectiveness of these emperors was compounded by the rise of Empress Dowager Cixi, who entered the Qing court as a low ranking concubine. From 1860 to her death in 1908, she held more power and influence in Chinese politics than had any woman since the Tang Empress Wu. Modern Chinese historians have often blamed the Empress Dowager for promoting her own interests at the expense of the Chinese people. What is true is that she resisted all early self-strengthening reforms which risked undermining the power of the palace.

The Qing Dynasty population boom led to poverty as China struggled to employ and fed its 400 million people

Also at the essence of Qing’s challenge was China’s huge population surge. In 1800, China had about 300 million people, compared with Russia’s 40 million, Japan’s 30 million, and Britain’s 11 million. From 1800 to 1850, China’s population increased to 400 million. The population explosion had repercussions for every aspect of Chinese life. Villages and towns grew closer, farms grew smaller, deforestation accelerated, and labor was in surplus, suppressing wages and escalating the competitiveness of everyday life. Until the end of the 18th century, these processes were, to a large extent, beneficial, as they fostered regional development and commercialization. Yet, by the dawn of the 19th century the negative consequences of China’s population explosion were becoming more pronounced. Chinese surplus labor would work at industries now industrialized in Europe at such low rates that urban factories could not compete, which in turn impeded China’s industrialization. Additionally, the rise in population exacerbated social tensions, as conflicts over water and other resources surged with population growth, and disputes between ethnic groups, lineages, or villages became common. Hard times also led to the rise of female infanticide, leading invariably to a shortage of marriageable women, which in turn reduced the incentive for young men to stay near home and do what their elders told them. Those who left often joined roving gangs or immigrated to the cities to search for work as boatmen, porters, sedan chair carriers, and rickshaw pullers.

Millions of Chinese chose to emigrate from China completely, heading primarily to Southeast Asia, but also to the US and Europe. In Buddhist countries like Thailand and Vietnam, the Chinese often assimilated, intermarrying with the local population and adopting their language and customs, while in Muslim countries and in the US, Chinese immigrants often chose to live independently from native populations. Those that did not assimilate often organized themselves into voluntary associations such as Triads, as local authorities preferred to let the Chinese govern themselves.

1885 War with France, the 1894-1895 War with Japan

Negotiating the Shimonoseki Treaty after the first Sino-Japanese War

The first sign that China’s reforms had not strengthened China sufficiently to repulse foreign aggression occurred when it was defeated in 1885 in war with France over Vietnam, a traditional tributary state. More humiliating, however, was its defeat to Japan in a battle for influence in Korea, another traditional Chinese tributary state. This defeat shocked both China and the West, as China had always viewed Japan as its inferior, and as Japan was a fraction of China’s size. The resulting Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to cede Taiwan to Japan, to pay Japan 200 million taels of silver, and to recognize the independence of Korea.

Fearing China’s imminent collapse, Western nations began pressuring China to grant them special trading, taxation, and other privileges in their own spheres of influence, while jockeying with other Western powers in order to extend their territorial reach. The US, preoccupied elsewhere, did not at first join the dash for concessions. In 1889, however, John Hay, America’s secretary of state, fearing the fragmentation of China, issued a series of Open Door Notes to Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and Japan, calling on all foreign powers operating in China to allow free trade in all spheres of influence. Eventually, the European powers backed off, not because of Hay’s influence, but because they too feared the break-up of the country. Every country except Russia agreed to the Open Door Policy, although most had no intention of enforcing it.

100 Days of Reforms

Guangxu Emperor

The terms of the humiliating Treaty with Japan were made public when thousands of provincial graduates were in Beijing for the metropolitan examination. In December 1898, Kang Youwei, a Confucian scholar, gained an audience with the young Guangxu Emperor. Spurred by the scholar’s suggestions, in the space of 100 days, the Emperor issued a multitude of edicts designed to thoroughly modernize the country, including introducing Western subjects in Chinese education, eliminating thousands of sinecure positions, attacking government corruption, and embarking on a rapid and intensive program of industrialization and Westernization. Sensing a threat to the conservative dominance at court, the Empress Dowager crushed the reform movement, and effectively imprisoned the Emperor within the Summer Palace. Kang Youwei fled to Japan, and six of his followers were executed. The court sank again into wider inaction, having preserved its own powerful interests.

The Boxer Rebellion

Execution of Boxers at the end of the Rebellion

Yet inaction would not remain an option for long. Formed initially in Shandong and adjacent areas in Henan and Hebei, a secret society of peasants and illiterate day laborers emerged. They called themselves the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (known as the Boxers in the West), and eventually amassed thousands of followers. The Boxers practiced martial arts and chanted magic spells that they claimed made them impervious to physical pain and bullets. The Boxers believed that their hardship was caused in large part by foreign aggression. Spurred by the severe drought of the summer of 1898 their growing anger and frustration became directed at “foreign devils” who they determined to expel from China.

An obvious target was the Christian missionaries who had moved into many parts of the Chinese countryside by the end of the 19th century. While many missionaries provided the Chinese with social and medical services which brought real benefits to the population, the Boxers nevertheless linked Christianity with the arrival of the same foreigners who spread opium in Chinese society. Aggravating their sense of injustice was the fact that these missionaries lived in walled compounds, were protected by extraterritoriality, and enjoyed higher standards of living than the people to whom they preached.

Return of the Emperess Dowager in 1902

Initially, the Qing court felt obliged to crush the Boxer Rebellion. But by the summer of 1900, the court tried to use the Boxers, whose numbers had swollen to close to a half million, to drive foreigners out of China. An eight-nation invasion force made up of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary, the US, and Japan, rapidly captured Beijing. In 1901 China sued for peace, agreeing to pay 400 million ounces of silver in damages to the Western invasion force. By the time the rebellion was finally put down in September of that year, more than 70,000 Chinese people, including Chinese Catholics, Protestant missionaries, Chinese Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and other ordinary Chinese were dead.

During the fighting, the Empress Dowager fled Beijing disguised as a nun. On her flight into the countryside, she was confronted for the first time with the reality of China’s poverty. After peace had been secured, she finally began to promote the same modernization for which she had imprisoned the Emperor. Specifically, an effort was made to create a Western-style army, armed with Western weapons and trained in Western methods. Another was to continue efforts to build a modern railway system. However, these endeavors were too little, and came too late.

Sun Yat-sen and the overthrow of Qing Dynasty

Sun Yat-sen

Ensnared in an international economic order stacked against latecomers, an order whose rules China had no ability to shape, many Chinese increasingly felt that the Qing Dynasty specifically, and dynastic rule generally, lacked the agility and versatility to successfully negotiate the changing world in which it found itself. In the Qing’s defense, the centralized bureaucratic monarchy, the patriarchal family, and the scholar-official elite, all of whom focused on creating stability through the replication of the agrarian past, were so deeply entrenched in Chinese culture that it took a century of bad news to weaken people’s belief that they represented the best organizational structure for Chinese society.

For the first time, many Chinese began to study abroad, primarily in Japan, but also in Western Europe and the United States. Many of these returned to campaign for the deposition of Qing rule. One of these was Sun Yat-sen (generally known in China as Sun Zhongshan, his name in Mandarin Chinese). A Christian, and trained as a medical doctor, Sun Yat-sen became an increasingly called toward politics as China floundered at the beginning of the 20th century. In all, Sun Yat-sen led ten attempts to overthrow the government, each of which failed. However, his tireless efforts to promote revolutionary fervor within China were a catalyst which led to strengthening revolutionary sentiment throughout the country, including that among the officers and troops of the New Army.

When the Qing dynasty eventually fell, the end came serendipitously, and as a result of a relatively rapid series of events. In 1905, when the examination system was abolished as part of the stipulations imposed upon the Chinese after the Boxer Rebellion, a whole segment of society lost their reason for engaging with the government. In 1908 the Empress dowager died, leaving a three-year-old Imperial Prince on the throne, meaning China yet again had no effective emperor. Additionally, the newly constructed railways had been built using foreign funds and were in the hands of foreign companies. Public opinion advocated that these railways should be in Chinese hands. The Qing court attempted to nationalize the railways, alienating many small Chinese investors, while Western powers insisted that they would continue to build railways within their spheres of influence regardless of Chinese national policy. To many, the railroad management issues were just another example that the Qing dynasty lacked the means to deal with China’s worsening domestic and international situation.

Republic of China presidential election, 1911

Revolutionary discontent continued to build. In 1911, in the Chinese city of Wuchang, a group of revolutionaries loosely affiliated with Sun Yat-sen were secretly stockpiling ammunitions for a revolt, when one of the bombs exploded. Realizing that the police were certain to investigate, they declared war on the Qing state and quickly took control of the city. Word of this revolt spread quickly, and many newly trained troops joined the rebels as opposed to fighting for the infant Emperor. Sun Yat-sen read about the rebellion in Denver, Colorado where he had been trying to raise money from overseas Chinese. The Qing Dynasty looked to the top military official in the Empire, Yuan Shikai, to suppress the rebellion. Instead, he effectively negotiated the end of the Qing dynasty.

Much to the relief of the revolutionaries, the Qing Dynasty was disposed without China breaking into civil war, and without the Western powers and Japan slicing up the country. For his role in overthrowing the dynasty, Sun Yat-sen agreed that Yuan Shikai could become the first president of the new Republic, which was proclaimed on February 12th, 1912. While the revolutionaries were united in their desire to dispose the Dynasty, they remained at conflict on how the country should be ruled going forward. Sun Yat-sen and his followers organized a new party, the Guomindang (the Nationalist Party, frequently referred to as the Kuomintang or KMT) which they viewed to be a loyal opposition party designed to compete in electoral politics with the followers of Yuan Shikai. Other parties were formed as well, and Assembly elections were held in December 1912. Approximately 40 million men were eligible to vote – those who owned property, paid taxes, and had an elementary school education – about 10% of the population. The Nationalists won approximately 43% of the vote, in an election that succeeded without major incident. Sun Yat-sen, head of the railroad development, was pleased with the outcome.

Yuan Shikai at center with army officers

Yuan Shikai was not. He disliked Nationalist criticisms of his policies and felt that their electoral success threatened his efforts to create a strong central government. In 1913, Song Jiaoren, the Nationalist campaign manager and a Prime Minister-hopeful, was assassinated, probably on the direction of Yuan Shikai. The Nationalist party responded to the murder by calling for Yuan Shikai’s resignation, and soon revolted. Yuan Shikai crushed the revolt, and Sun Yat-sen fled to Japan, once again in exile. Yuan Shikai supported a strong, modern, industrialized state, but he envisioned that this state would be ruled in dynastic fashion, with himself as Emperor. Yuan Shikai eventually died in 1916 of kidney failure, leaving both a power vacuum and no national consensus about how China should move forward politically. Yuan’s generals began to vie with each other for regional control and power. This began a period of warlordism in China, during which the country was once again fragmented.

Dynastic Themes Present in China Today

Themes of Qing history can be seen in evidence in China today. The first is a sense of Chinese culturalism and self-sufficiency. Until the fall of the Qing Dynasty, China had always felt that its rich cultural history was a sufficient source of inspiration from which to develop its foreign policies to deal with barbarians, to provide governmental and societal structure, to manage its economy, and to stimulate its artistic achievement. While always convinced of its moral, economic, and technological superiority – which it indeed maintained for thousands of years – China never felt the need to impose its systems on countries outside its immediate sphere of influence.

Confucius Center opening at Khazar University, Azerbaijan

Today, China engages in the world primarily as a means to promote its own economic development. It no longer makes any effort to promote communist revolution abroad (though it did at various stages of the Mao era) or any other value-based revolution arising from its hybrid capitalist-authoritarian society. While it is true that China is building, worldwide, an ever growing number of Confucian Centers designed to promote the learning of Mandarin and the understanding of Chinese culture, these centers are intended to serve China’s economic interests by creating a better understanding of China, as opposed to exposing a Chinese cultural perspective which it hopes will be adopted by local populations in the way that the US, for example, promotes democracy internationally.

The Chinese government today still considers the ‘Century of Humiliation’ (1839-1949) as an inflection point in the way that China engages in the international arena. Indeed, even today, many Chinese and Taiwanese history books still divide Chinese history into the pre- and post-Opium war worlds. From 1939 onwards, China was thrust into a world whose rules it did not understand and could not control. Consequently, during the 1839-1949 period, China was riven by peasant uprisings which were frequently fuelled by or were partly in consequence to the growing Western presence in China, and by what was viewed as Qing acquiescence to foreign demands. Additionally, the Century of Humiliation led to the ultimate collapse of its millennia-old dynastic system and China’s loss of sovereignty over almost a third of its territory.

Animal personifications of Russia, England, Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Japan fighting over China – the dying dragon – while the US as eagle looks on

The Century of Humiliation today remains essential to the way that China interacts with the world. Both scholars and government officials in China still frequently characterize the international system as one dominated by a West determined where the west using the current international framework to block China’s rise. Under this view China needs to be wary of Western intent at all times so that it is never again out-maneuvered and subjugated. Others Chinese scholars feel that China’s progress within the Western built international framework has been so overwhelming that, far from being a tool to benefit exclusively the West and its allies, the current international system is reasonably fair, and has very much played to China’s advantages. Within this framework, China has returned to a position of significant influence and power. Consequently, China should continue to operate within, and to support the current international framework as it has been designed. Other Chinese thinkers feel that China should use its growing economic and political status to bend the international system so it reflects more of China’s values.

The Century of Humiliation is also essential to China as it is a fundamental aspect of the nationalism that the Chinese Communist Party has cultivated since it has switched from a command to market economy. The Century of Humiliation is the narrative of China’s subjugation which was exorcised by the Communist Party. From its earliest formation, the Communists gained the support of the Chinese people by creating an image of themselves as willing to fight the Japanese after they invaded in 1931. The Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek were often painted as being more focused on defeating the Communists than they were on fighting the Japanese. This narrative helps legitimize Communist Party rule as it reminds the Chinese people that it was the Communists who pulled China from its lowest point, restoring the country once again to its natural place of preeminence. Moreover, the Century of Humiliation is also a discourse used by the Communist Party to deflect foreign criticism of its policies. This discourse in effect argues that the West and Japan have always been full of schemes to harm China, and therefore their arguments and actions today still cannot be trusted.

Sino-Indian Relations: Realists and Rivals

Introduction

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The two most populous nations in the world, China and India share a disputed border, are both on the rise economically and politically, and both possess fearsome nuclear arsenals. Their rapidly changing economic and diplomatic positions have put not only their relationships in the wider world in flux, but they have also created a shifting engagement with each other. While China and India’s ever-closer economic ties have created a degree of optimism that their developing relationship will be harmonious and productive, territorial disputes, competition for spheres of influence within South Asia, and increasing friction over water rights will continue to significantly challenge their relationship.

Historical Ties

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Throughout ancient times, the link between India and China has been limited; theHimalaya formed a formidable natural barrier between the two civilizations. The most significant Indian contribution to Chinese culture was the transmission of Buddhism into China during China’s Age of Division 220-618 CE. Although the exact time and manner of Buddhism’s spread to China is still debated, it is likely that it made its way to China over the Silk Road, following merchants engaging in trade between the empires. Chinese scholars and monks also travelled to India to study Buddhism and to translate its scriptures. The most famous of these monks was Xuanzang, whose travels to and seventeen year stay in India were fictionally immortalized in the Chinese story, “Journey to the West”, considered one of the four great classics of Chinese literature.

In the modern era, with India colonized by the British, exports of opium to the Chinese mainland eventually led to the two Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860 between Britain and the Qing Dynasty of the time, though the involvement of what we now think of as India was incredibly limited, as it was a colony of Britain at the time. The post-Second World War period was a time of dramatic change for both countries. India was granted its independence from Britain in August 1947. The process of India’s independence was complicated by its separation from Pakistan which the British enacted immediately before granting independence to both nations as separate entities. Violence followed between the two new countries. Indeed, more than six decades after their separation, India and Pakistan remain at odds on many issues. Similarly, in China, violence ensued until the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949 as Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, and Mao Zedong’s Communists fought for control of the country. This meant that two giant new nations, both with extensive territories and massive populations, both recovering from differing forms of colonialism and struggling to find their place in the new world order, were created within a very short space of time. Despite their very long histories as civilizations, China and India are thus relatively new nation states. Their early dealings with each other have reflected their struggles to adjust to their relatively new country status and their efforts to find their place in the post WWII international order.

One early contribution that the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship made to wider international relations was the 1954 agreement in which was stated the “five principles of peaceful coexistence”. These principles were agreed as part of a treaty relating to Indian trade with Tibet, over which China had regained suzerainty. The five principles became both the founding principles of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – a grouping of countries that sought to distance themselves from the Cold War by refusing to align with either superpower – and the cornerstone of China’s foreign policy, at least rhetorically. The five principles were: mutual respect for territorial integrity and national sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in the other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence. At the heart of these principles is the agreement not to infringe the sovereignty of another country. Yet, despite their mutual commitment to these principles, within just a few years China and India were at war with each other.

The 1962 Border War

Following the 1959 Tibetan uprising – which was repressed by the Chinese military and resulted in the Dalai Lama’s fleeing into exile in India – there were several skirmishes between Chinese and Indian troops along the border. The border had never been successfully demarcated between the nations of China and India. An agreement reached in 1913 over the border between British India and Tibet – at the time conducting affairs as a pseudo-independent nation following the breakup of the Qing Dynasty – has been consistently rejected by the PRC, despite the apparent presence of Chinese representatives at the negotiations. China refuses to acknowledge any agreement made with the Tibetan authorities as it declines to recognize that Tibet had any level of suzerainty in this period of history. Interestingly, China’s refusal to recognize this agreement has some validity as it was, in fact, in breach of the Anglo-Russian Entente. Signed in 1907, but annulled in 1922, it stated that all dealings with Tibet must be conducted through the Chinese authorities in Beijing.

In October 1962 China invaded Aksai Chin and Arunchal Pradesh, the two largest portions of disputed territory over which it claimed sovereignty, but which were occupied by the Indians at the time. The simultaneous invasions were over a thousand of miles apart. The war lasted precisely one month, with the Chinese winning a military victory and successfully occupying much of the disputed areas. However, once military superiority had been established, a ceasefire was called and the Chinese unilaterally withdrew from all the territory they had gained in the offensive. While China’s real reasons for unilaterally withdrawing and ending hostilities are still debated, it is likely that a key reason for their retreat was the prospect of US involvement in the conflict, which raised concerns in China of an unwanted and unnecessary war with the superpower. Premier Zhou Enlai insisted that the withdrawal was a signal of good faith and that China had always wished to resolve the dispute peacefully.

The casualties in the war were relatively small, with an estimated 2000 Indians and more than 700 Chinese troops thought to have been killed. However, the consequences for the relationship and the region as a whole were extensive. While the Chinese succeeded in demonstrating their military superiority over their Indian rivals, the invasion harmed their international image and fed the belief in the West that China was a belligerent power intent on using aggressive means to expand its territory and influence. The lesson learned by India was that its military was woefully underprepared and wholly inadequate for purposes of self-defense. It therefore set about wholesale modernization of its military capabilities.

Territorial Issues

 

Territorial disputes are probably the greatest issue of difficulty between China and India. The disputes involve ten separate portions of territory, though several of these are tiny. There are two particularly significant areas: the more than 60,000 square km – around three quarters – of what India, and most other countries in the world, consider to be the state of Arunachal Pradesh; and the 37,000 square km Chinese-administered Aksai Chin, to the west of Nepal. It was these two areas over which the 1962 war was fought. At the time the Arunachal Pradesh was sparsely populated, but is now home to around one million Indian citizens. Since the 1962 war there have been many skirmishes along the disputed area, most notably in 1967 and 1987.

Given the size of the larger territories under dispute, it is politically difficult for either country to concede the territory to the other. This is especially true in the case of Arunachal Pradesh, which would be tantamount to the the Indian government effectively giving away the majority of an established Indian state. The other major disputed area, Aksai Chin, is considered by India to be a part of Kashmir and therefore complicates the matter further, given that India is already contesting Kashmir with Pakistan. Certainly, no solution to the current impasse appears imminent and the failure of the two great powers to resolve this remains a constant thorn in the side of diplomatic relations of the two. With that noted there has been some limited success in reaching agreement over the Indian state of Sikkim; initially claimed by both India and China but effectively operating as an independent state, Sikkim voted to join the Indian Federation in 1975. China originally refused to recognize this and continued to display Sikkim as a separate state on maps produced in the PRC. In 2004, it finally accepted it as an Indian state, although it did so with little fanfare.

As with most territorial disputes around the world the problem is exacerbated by nationalists on either side, who are prone to react to even the slightest provocation. Though nationalist responses in China are not as prominent as those that are directed against Japan or the US from time to time, India has emerged as a target for outpourings of nationalist sentiment, particularly over the issue of the disputed territory. Simon Shen, an academic who specializes in Chinese online nationalism, has identified that China’s online nationalists have turned their attention to India in recent years and use the government’s reaction to any perceived provocation as something of a litmus test. India also has its share of hotheaded protesters who make themselves heard whenever China acts in ways considered to infringe on India’s sovereignty over these areas.

Tibet

For historical, religious, cultural and geographical reasons, India continues to play a role in the Tibet issue. Homeland to the Tibetan people, and located on the high plateau of the north-eastern Himalaya, Tibet was unified in the 7th century, but then fractured into various territories which have since been controlled at various times by Tibetans, theDaniel J. Rao / Shutterstock.com Mongols and the Chinese. Tibet has been part of the People’s Republic of China since 1951, though full control by Beijing was only established following a military advance into the region in 1959. While China’s sovereignty over Tibet is accepted by the international community, its continued rule there remains controversial with the Dalai Lama continuing to campaign internationally for the Tibetan people to be allowed greater autonomy. Though China insists that the Tibet issue is a purely domestic matter in which no other country must interfere, India is inescapably intertwined in the problem. This is, primarily due to the fact that when the PLA rolled into Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India where he was given asylum, and allowed to establish the Tibetan “government in exile” – in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala. There have certainly been times since 1959 when the Indian government has wished it could bring an end to its own involvement in order to ease its strained relationship with China over this issue, but the Dalai Lama’s successful international promotion of the Tibetan cause has made this an impossibility, at least while he remains alive. For its part, China continues to raise this matter with Indian leaders, particularly whenever Tibetan refugees flee across the border to seek asylum there.

Competition for Water Resources

Tibet is also relevant to Sino-Indian relations as it is the source of the Brahmaputra River which provides significant water and power resources for Bangladesh and India. To take advantage of Tibet’s vast hydro power, China is planning a series of dams on the various transnational rivers that originate there. One of its proposed mega-dam projects is on the Brahmaputra, where it does a big U-turn in the world’s deepest canyon before entering India, close to one of the borders disputed by the two countries. This bend on the Brahmaputra is considered to be one of the world’s largest concentrations of river energy on earth. This mega-dam at the Brahmaputra is just one of what is estimated to be as many 28 dams on the Brahmaputra that are either planned, completed or under discussion by China. While China denies it, some Indian scientists also fear that China might also be planning to divert 200 billion cubic meters of water a year from the Brahmaputra to the Yellow River and other Chinese rivers.

China’s damming of the Brahmaputra puts control of a key source of Indian water into Chinese hands. More than 185 million people in north-eastern India and Bangladesh depend on the Brahmaputra. In the Indian state of Assam, 80 per cent agriculture relies on water from the river. Damming also affects a river’s ecosystem, altering silt and nutrient flows that risk impacting India’s downstream fertility and fisheries. Additionally, India derives significant power from its own hydroelectric projects on the river and its tributaries. The efficacy of these dams could be affected if China significantly alters the river’s flow volumes

Competition for Influence

As large and now rising nations, China and India have competed for and will continue to compete for influence in Asia and abroad. One keen area of competition is in Nepal and Myanmar. There is a difference in motive for the two of these countries. Nepal is considered to be a buffer state between the two powers, so that influence and access within Nepal is a strategic priority for both China and India. In any potential conflict between the two countries, Nepal would have clear tactical importance. Myanmar, on the other hand, is important to both countries as a source of natural resources, particularly natural gas. To seek influence in Nepal and Myanmar, China and India provide both countries with badly needed infrastructural investment; both Nepal and Myanmar have some of the worst infrastructure in the world. China in particular has been focused on building crucial road links throughout Nepal and into China, boosting trade and enhancing ties between the two countries.

While Nepal and Myanmar are important considerations, the relationship with Pakistan is potentially explosive. China has been Pakistan’s long term ally, while Pakistan remains India’s greatest foe, a consequence of the fact that most Indians opposed Pakistan’s separation from India before independence. During the Sino-Indian 1962 border war, Pakistan saw an opportunity to develop a strategic relationship with a large neighbor that would help to balance against what it perceived as the threat of Indian invasion. For its part, China sees its relationship with Pakistan as a way to offset what it believes to be a US strategy to contain China, which the US employs by forming strategic partnerships with significant powers surrounding China, revolving around the axis of Japan, Australia and India. There is unquestionably some truth in this analysis of US intentions, and India’s position within this alliance system is very important. The continuance of friendly relations with Pakistan is one way China works to counter this US strategy, though this has been complicated over recent years by the US-Pakistan alliance that formed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. China’s engagement with Pakistan involves it in India’s most prickly international issue, Kashmir, which in turn causes further friction with India at both the government and the societal levels.

China and India are also now beginning to come into direct competition for influence and access to resources in Africa. China’s engagement with Africa has increased significantly in the last two decades as it looks to Africa both as a source of raw materials and as a market for its goods. India’s foray into Africa is still in its early stages, but it is already clear that both countries are pursuing differing strategies within the region. India’s investment strategy has been led by the private sector, where China’s incursion into Africa has been led by large SOEs and government ODA seeking access to Africa’s raw materials such as its oil and timber. Indian multinational companies are seeking to penetrate African markets by exploiting the comparative advantage of a significant Indian diaspora on the continent, as well as the ability of its nationals to speak English. That said, as competition for the continent increases, India’s government seems increasingly willing to engage to secure its competitive position. In 2011 for instance, Manmohan Singh, India’s Prime Minister, announced a three year aid package to Africa worth $5 billion. While significant, it is still dwarfed by Chinese aid that currently tops $20 billion per annum. As the China and India continue their rapid development, this competition for access to Africa’s resources and markets is likely to increase in the future though, for now at least, China appears better placed to take advantage.

Bilateral Trade

Though bilateral trade is not as large as one might expect given the sizes of the two nations, it offers one of the best chances to promote a cooperative coexistence between the two Asian giants. China is already India’s largest trading partner and in 2011 bilateral trade topped $74 billion, though this fell back slightly in 2012 to $66 billion. The 2012 reduction in trade was driven almost entirely by a 20% drop in Indian exports to China, with the trade deficit now $29 billion. Total bilateral trade is projected to reach $100 billion by 2015 with potential for even faster growth after that.

China does not offer India economic complementarity in the way that it does to some ofjbor / Shutterstock.com its richer neighbors to the east, such as Japan and South Korea. India, whose population is expected to surpass China’s within two decades, also competes to be a hub for low-cost manufacture out-sourcing. However, India provides China with raw materials; ore and slag, for instance, account for more than a quarter of all Indian exports to China. India also exports $1.5 billion dollars of cotton to China annually, providing a crucial source of supply to China’s critical textile industry, which is the world’s largest and responsible for a quarter of all Chinese exports. In contrast, Chinese exports to India are predominantly in manufactured goods, in particular electrical machinery which represents around a third of total Chinese exports to India. The fact that India exports raw materials to China and China returns finished goods reflects a slightly imbalanced relationship; indeed, India ran a trade deficit of around $20 billion with China in 2010. Nevertheless, deeper economic ties with China remain in India’s long term interests. Overall, India is developing its own economy in different ways to China. Specifically, India has focused on information technology and services. China’s rapidly growing IT market, which already boasts the greatest number of internet users in the world, offers opportunity for India’s leading IT firms. For instance, Infosys Technologies, an Indian IT firm, set up a Chinese subsidiary as far back as 2004. While its Chinese subsidiary still derives the majority of its income from outside of China, the Chinese domestic market now accounts for one third of its profits; this is projected to grow in the coming years. By 2014, Infosys predicts its Chinese subsidiary will employ 10,000 people, triple what it does today. The Tata Group, through Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), has also established a significant presence in China. It exports IT services to the Chinese banking sector, with Bank of China among its most notable clients. Its workforce in China is expected to quadruple over the next three years, taking the total number of its employees to over 5000. Following in TCS’ wake is India’s Wipro Technologies which has plans to center its Asian operations in China’s western city of Chengdu, in order to focus on growing its Asian market, and to diversify away from the US and Europe. India’s other great success story in China has been Mahindra & Mahindra, a manufacturer of tractors. Mahindra & Mahindra has established two joint venture tractor manufacturing companies in China which, combined, account for more than 30,000 employees and produce more than 30,000 tractors each year, many of which are exported to Europe or India. Indian IT firms are also seeking Chinese investment. By June 2009, the total Chinese investment in IT in India reached almost $30 billion. Much of this came from the Chinese giant Huawei.

Like many foreign companies working in China, Indian firms have also complained of barriers to their entering and expanding within the Chinese market. These barriers are increasingly being raised at the highest political levels. Complaints from the Indian side are met with calls from China for a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Although India has been reluctant to agree to this until its trade deficit with China has been tackled, such an agreement, if signed, would represent the largest free trade area in the world measured in size of populace.

The BRICS Nations

Another area of promising cooperation between China and India is their involvement with the BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The name originally came from an economist working for Goldman Sachs, who coined the term ‘BRIC’ in 2001 (South Africa was not included in either the original thesis or the initial gatherings of the countries) when writing about the shift in global power balances from the large developed western countries to the large developing ones. Initially not a formal structure, the four BRIC countries sought to capitalize on the success of the term by launching annual summits in 2009, where the countries meet to discuss their positions in the global order and to call for greater equity within it. South Africa was invited to join at the end of 2010 and attended its first summit in 2011. Both Brazil and India seek to exploit the status of the alliance in order to promote their aspirations for permanent membership of the UNSC, though declarations from the BRICS summits do not go as far as to directly call for this. Questions have been raised about the continued relevance of the grouping with varying degrees of economic growth; in 2012, only India and China surpassed GDP growth of 5% with South Africa as low as 2.8%.

Future Trends

Of the potentially disruptive issues that remain in the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship, the territorial dispute is probably the thorniest. There is seemingly some room for maneuver on China’s part in the disagreement over Arunachal Pradesh; certainly it seems impossible that the Chinese would try to make good their claims on an area that is widely recognized internationally as Indian territory and which is populated by more than one million Indian citizens. However, other disputes seem more intractable, particularly where Kashmir comes into the equation. Acts of insensitivity on either side are likely to continue to provoke minor spats, but the prospect of armed conflict between the two is highly remote. Indeed, informal talks on this very issue were held in Beijing in December 2012, though without any significant movement. The last formal negotiation on the matter took place in January of the same year.

The Tibet issue seems likely to continue to be an irritant as long as the Dalai Lama survives. It is probably China’s own calculation on this issue as a whole, not just with India, that the Dalai Lama’s death will help to remove Tibet from the intense international focus that it has been under for the last few decades. From India’s perspective, the trouble the Dalai Lama has caused has likely overwhelmed any soft power that it may have accrued as a result of it providing the Tibetan leader with asylum. There is probably understanding at the highest political level in the bilateral relationship that there is little that can be done in the short term over this issue.

China’s water disputes with its neighbors will likely be a growing problem, particularly given the unprecedented level of its dam building. Tension over water rights with India will be no exception. What is unclear is what its downstream neighbors can do about China’s hydro ambitions. It will likely be an increasing source of acrimony between China and India, especially as India plays catch-up to China’s water projects. India might voice these concerns more vocally on the world stage. It might also gain influence and leverage with other countries that are similarly vulnerable to China’s hydro ambitions to place economic and other pressures against the country.

It is in the economic ties that the greatest reasons for optimism lie. The different directions that the two economies have taken in their development mean that the potential for bilateral growth is significant. For both countries economic development is key and will continue to be so. They share much in common in terms of the continued need to raise large sections of their population out of poverty, a problem that is particularly pronounced in India. The incentive to stay focused on trade rather than to get tied down by territorial disputes or regional competition should remain at the forefront of the minds of policymakers on both sides of the Himalaya.

The election of Narendra Modi as India’s new prime minister in 2014 brought some new-found optimism given his pragmatic approach to international relations and prioritisation of economic cooperation. Modi was already popular in elite circles in China thanks to his careful diplomacy when serving as a regional leader in Gujurat, during which time he made numerous trips to Beijing. Nevertheless, the many thorny issues in the relationship cannot simply be washed away and the presence of Tibet’s prime minister-in-exile at Modi’s swearing in ceremony indicated that he would not simply roll over and acquiesce to all of Beijing’s demands.

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

Falk Kienas / Shutterstock.com

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.

Hydro-Power and Hydro-Hegemony: China’s Prolific Dam-Building

The History of Hydro-Power in China

Before 1949, only 22 large dams existed in China. A dam study by Oregon State University concluded that since that time, the People’s Republic of China has undergone four waves of dam construction. Socialist agricultural policy between 1949 and 1960 encouraged the construction of many small and medium-sized irrigation dams. In particular, the 1958-1960 Great Leap Forward policy advocated that each of China’s 1,465 counties build at least one water conservation dam. As a result, tens of thousands of dams were built in China, mainly by peasant-led teams with limited equipment, materials and training. During the period from 1968 to 1980, the pace of dam construction increased. Water projects grew in size and complexity and were progressively constructed for hydropower and flood control. While fewer dams were built between 1980 and 2000, those that were constructed were larger in scale and more technically difficult. The 1978 market reforms allowed China to import foreign technology, know-how and funding, enabling the building of dams that previously had been too difficult and expensive to undertake.

Government measures since 2003 have led to a decentralization of hydropower production. The State Power Corporation was disbanded, its assets were distributed and development rights on China’s main rivers were shared out. While the central government has a majority of stock in each of the companies into which the State Power Corporation was split, in general, the enterprises act quite independently. The “corporatization” of China’s hydropower sector has created a significant increase in domestic and overseas dam building as companies compete to secure existing assets and to develop new hydro-projects.

Today, China runs about half the world’s approximately 45,000 dams larger than 15 m in height. In total, the number of dams in China is estimated to exceed 85,000. In 2009, China’s installed hydropower was calculated to be approximately 200,000 MW, representing about 17% of China’s total electricity power. According to recent reports, of the 37 GW hydro-power capacity added worldwide in 2014, a full 22 GW (nearly 60%) was added in China alone, dwarfing developments in other nations (the five largest contributors behind China added a combined 8.7 GW). This has brought China’s hydro-power capacity up to 27% of the world total. China continues to set high goals for itself, with China’s National Energy Agency planning to increase China’s hydro-power capacity to approximately 380,000 MW by 2020. Huge hydropower cascades have been proposed and are being constructed on some of China’s remaining pristine river basin systems including the Lancang, (upper Mekong), the Nu (Salween) and upstream of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze. It is estimated that China has relocated a total of almost 23 million citizens since 1949 to make way for its water projects.

The Three Gorges Dam

Large dams are enormous interventions into highly complex ecosystems. Their impact can be felt thousands of kilometers away and often occur many years after construction has been completed. It is impossible to anticipate and mitigate all the social and environmental impacts that such projects can cause. The Three Gorges Dam provides a good indication of the challenges that such large dams pose.

Originally conceived by Chairman Mao and supported by Zhou Enlai, the Three Gorges Dam, and its related infrastructure, is the largest water project in the world. It stretches approximately 2km across the Yangtze River, which flows 6,418 km eastward from the Tibetan glaciers through China’s southwest, central and eastern regions before eventually emptying in the East China Sea at Shanghai. The Three Gorges Dam reaches nearly 200m in height, and has created a reservoir 600km long with a storage capacity approaching 40 billion m³. Three Gorges generates approximately 22,000 MW of electricity, equivalent to the burning of 50 million tons of coal annually, compared with Hoover Dam, for instance, that has an installed capacity of only 2080 MW. It was built at an estimated cost of $27 billion, although if hidden costs are taken into account, some appraise the dam’s actual cost to be in excess of $60billion. Hidden costs include losses incurred as a result of the reduction in commercial fishery production, the cost of landslides caused by frequent fluctuations in water levels and the further population resettlement that these landslides are likely to require, the costs of water pollution as raw sewage and fertilizer run-off collect in the Three Gorges Reservoir instead of being flushed downstream, the shrinking of the Yangtze river estuary, and the weakening of downstream dikes caused by the dam’s faster than anticipated water discharge. Besides generating emission-free energy, the Three Gorges Dam was built to control flooding, to improve water resource utilization and river navigation. Access to the major port of Chongqing, for instance, which receives 90% of its goods by water, has improved markedly even though it is located more than 600 km upstream of the dam. The Three Gorges’ lock system is one of the world’s largest, and has also helped to increase the amount of cargo able to move into the river’s upper reaches.

Despite these real benefits, the Three Gorges Dam has also generated significant problems. Most important of these has been the disruption of the Yangtze’s ecosystem. When the river flowed naturally, it helped to cleanse industrial pollution. It also traditionally transported large sediment loads from the river’s upper reaches to the East China Sea. The Three Gorges Dam has significantly decreased downstream sediment transport, changing the river’s chemical balance, temperature and flow. This in turn is impacting fish habitats. In addition to changing the river’s ecological characteristics, the dam is also blocking fish migration, impacting access to spawning grounds; it also may have contributed to the extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin. Between 2003 and 2005, annual fish harvests from below the dam were 50% to 70% below previous baselines; larva and eggs levels have dropped off even more sharply. Although pollution and other factors were already causing a reduction in fish stocks before the dam was constructed, the Three Gorges accelerated the trend.

The river’s reduced silt load has also deprived downstream agricultural land and fisheries of nutrients. Additionally, because less silt is reaching the river’s mouth, approximately 980 acres of coastal wetlands are disappearing each year. This has allowed sea water to intrude further upriver, affecting coastal agricultural and drinking water. Silt buildup within the reservoir is also impacting its overall storage capacity, causing higher volumes of water to be released from the dam, stressing downstream levees.

Landslides around the Three Gorges Reservoir have also been a greater problem than was first expected. The fluctuating water levels of reservoir have weakened hundreds of miles of its slopes, triggering massive mudslides. Controlling this erosion is projected to require a further investment of $10 billion or more. In some cases, landslides have produced massive waves as high as 50 meters, causing even more damage to the reservoir’s edges.

Every large dam built in China has led to the resettlement of local people because of China’s high population density along its major rivers. Over 1.2 million people have already been resettled as a result of the Three Gorge’s construction. Originally, residents were to be shifted to higher ground nearby, given new homes and new jobs. Yet, greater than anticipated erosion and landslides made large uphill areas unsuitable for building, so the displaced were eventually resettled to 11 different provinces. In late 2007, it was announced that another 4 million people – a number equivalent to the entire population of Scotland – are likely to be relocated from the Three Gorges Reservoir area in the next 10 to 15 years. Officials dispute that these are related to the reservoir’s landslides and ecological degradation, arguing instead that they are part of the national experiment to ease regional overpopulation and to provide greater opportunities for industrial development.

Many scholars are now finding that people displaced due to construction projects face the long-term risk of continued food insecurity, lack of access to good arable land, joblessness and social marginalization. Displaced women are often more severely affected than men. Taking farmland from the host population to give to the resettled groups has also often caused tensions and conflict between the two groups. Studies indicate that early resettlement efforts at the Three Gorges have indeed led to diminished living standards for many of the displaced. Local government corruption has aggravated resettlement challenges as 12% of the resettlement funds were estimated to be embezzled; hundreds of local officials have now been imprisoned.

In addition to the social costs, many now believe that large dam reservoirs can also cause seismic events as their weight can place unsustainable pressure on local faults. The Three Gorges Dam sits on two major fault lines, and scientists have acknowledged that seismic activity has increased slightly since the reservoir first started impounding water. Earthquakes can also damage a dam’s structure. Many of the new hydro-projects outlined in 12th Five-Year Plan are to be constructed in China’s mountainous southwestern region, which is crossed by numerous active fault lines. The tectonic movement in the three parallel Rivers area of the Nu, Upper Mekong and Upper Yangtze is one of the strongest in the world, for instance, yet China is planning to erect a cascade of dams in these areas. Research in the Chinese Journal of Geology and Seismology has recommended that further study be undertaken to determine the role that dam reservoirs play in triggering quake activity.

Environmental Movement Impacts Hydro-Power in China

The Chinese government has tried to address some of the problems associated with dams by improving the legislation which regulates the industry. While not always enforced, recent legislation has required more stringent procedures for environmental and social impacts assessment. A September 2003 law, for example, obliges companies planning projects with significant environmental impacts to conduct environmental impact assessments, and to have the assessments approved by the appropriate Environmental Bureau or the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Additionally, public participation in environmental impact assessment is increasingly encouraged. 2008 legislation has laid-out basic instructions on methods for public disclosure of environmental impact assessments, when to involve the public in the environmental impact assessment process, and who should be included in public participation. Indeed, in 2004 for instance, criticism from environmentalists, the public and the international media at least temporarily halted the development of a 13 dam cascade planned for the Nu River in Yunnan province, one of China’s last free flowing rivers. Laws passed in 2006 made efforts to better protect those displaced by dam construction by setting out appropriate land compensation, requiring that displaced people be provided with a level of livelihood similar to or greater than that which they had prior to the dam being built, and that resettlement plans must include economic development strategies as opposed to simply providing one-off monetary compensation.

Damming of Trans-boundary Rivers – Hydro-Hegemony

Many of China’s new planned hydro-engineering projects are on trans-boundary rivers, including the Mekong, Salween or Nu, Brahmaputra and Amur. On the Brahmaputra River, for instance, a series of five dams is planned to be built close to disputed territory between China and India, which will impact India and Bangladesh downstream, causing concern that China may divert the Brahmaputra’s water for its own needs. Many of the planned dams on trans-boundary rivers are being designed as cascades – one dam after another – or as mega-dams – with walls of 100 meters or higher-both of which have a greater impact on a river’s ecology. One of the new dams approved for the Brahmaputra, for instance, is to be twice the size of the Three Gorges Dam and situated almost on the contested border with India.Overall, about a third of China’s geography is within an international river basin, and China shares 18 rivers with its neighbors, many of which originate in China. Indeed, the Autonomous Province of Tibet provides China with access to some of the best untapped hydro-power in the world as does its Yunnan province, often termed China’s hydro-power storehouse. China is acting as “hydro-hegemon” in regard to its shared rivers as it is damming without the support and partnership of its neighbors, and at times in outright opposition to their wishes. But it is not just the unilateralism of its damming on international headwaters that upsets downstream countries; it is also the opacity around which it builds and runs its dams. China does not readily share environmental or technical information with its neighbors when building the dams nor, many feel, does it give real weight in its decision making as to how its dams will impact river ecology downstream. Indeed, many of China’s international river dams will provide it with the physical ability to change the hydrogeology of the rivers it is damming, thus creating new hydro-strategic and hydro-political realities, and thus allowing it to dictate the status quo of water allocation. By controlling large parts of Asia’s water tap, in an area where per capita freshwater availability is less than half the global average, China is acquiring tremendous leverage over its neighbors.

Yet, China considers developing large-scale hydropower to be critical to meeting its future energy needs and thus its national security. The Chinese government has thus worked to keep these resources under its control, and has been unwilling to sign any comprehensive water sharing agreement with downstream riparian nations or to join any river basin associations such as the Mekong River Commission, which was established in 1995 “to promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being.” It is also one of only three countries that voted against the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Watercourses which lays down rules on the shared resources of international watercourses. Additionally, China has been reticent to share information on water levels and flows with its downstream neighbors once its dams are operational. China is now impounding water for the large reservoir behind the Xiaowan dam on the upper Mekong, for instance, which some believe exacerbated 2010 drought conditions downstream. Only after the drought became severe, and China came under significant pressure from the Mekong River Commission, did it start to provide information on daily water flows from its dam cascade.

China has tried to offset complaints and the potential creation of anti-Chinese alliances by its downstream neighbors by using trade and development incentives – developing the Southeast Asian electricity grid and building sewage and road infrastructure in Cambodia as examples – to weaken their ability to challenge China’s dam-building activities. It also engages in a public discourse that not only advocates the importance of hydro-power to its national security, but emphasizes exclusively the benefits of the dams without considering how they will disrupt downstream ecosystems and water access. Specifically, it talks about flood control, reduction of Chinese CO2 emissions, and the benefits of improved navigation and water flow during the dry season. In many cases, it is also helping to fund and construct dams downriver in places such as Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Their own independent construction of dams with Chinese financing has weakened downstream riparian neighbors’ ability to protest the ecological destruction that China’s upstream dams are causing.

The Lancang Cascade

The Lancang Cascade is an example of China’s dam building on trans-boundary water. China is currently halfway through construction of a cascade of eight dams on the Upper Mekong (called Lancang in China). The Mekong River flows 4,800 km from the Tibetan plateau, across China’s Yunnan province, through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, before pouring into the South China Sea. The Lancang comprises only 16% of the Mekong’s total discharge as measured in the delta, yet it accounts for 100% of the flow at the Laos border, 45% of Cambodia’s average flow in the dry season, and originates 50% of the river’s total sediment. The upper basin is characterized by deep gorges, with more than 80% of the drop in elevation occurring in Yunnan province. Indeed, Yunnan and Laos have the greatest hydropower potential in the basin. The lower basin is characterized by plains and deltas which support large-scale irrigation, fishing, and transportation. The Mekong is vital to the food, water supplies and transportation of over 60 million inhabitants in the region. An estimated 8 out of 10 people within the basin depend on the Mekong River for subsistence, either in terms of fish catch or agriculture, with at least 50% of Cambodia’s animal protein consumption coming from Mekong fish and the Mekong Delta supplying waters for more than 50% of the agricultural component of Vietnam’s GDP.

The Lancang cascade is part of China’s “Develop the West” program. Initial plans for the Lancang cascade were developed in the 1980s, before Yunnan opened to foreign trade, and when China’s political relations with its lower Mekong neighbors were not as robust as they are today. Currently, four of the eight dams have been completed with construction on the fifth dam at Nuozhadu expected to be completed by 2015. China espouses that the Lancang cascade will benefit its lower riparian neighbors by providing flood control in the wet season, increasing water supply in the dry season, improving irrigation and navigation, and reducing overall carbon emissions.

Yet, as seen with the Three Gorges Dam, large hydro-power projects change the hydrology of a river. Of key concern for the Mekong is whether the dams will negatively impact the hydrological dynamics of the Mekong’s “flood pulse” resulting from the river’s seasonal flooding triggered by the annual monsoons. Diminishing the flood pulse could result in declines in biodiversity and volumes of fisheries by altering spawning and migration cues could affect its transfer of nutrients, and could limit the drift of eggs larvae and juveniles to the floodplain habitats. It could also impact rice harvests as 80% of rice production in the lower basin depends on water, silt, and nutrients from Mekong flooding. It might also cause increased salinization as seasonal flooding flushes delta areas, constraining sea water intrusion. The countries downstream are also concerned that the effective powering of their own dams will be dependent on China to discharge sufficient water. Impacts to water levels and fisheries have already been recorded in the lower Mekong basin which is one of the world’s biggest sources of fish. Indeed as water levels reached 50-year lows in 2010 in the Mekong River Basin, China’s dam building along the upper Mekong was blamed as a significant contributor to the drought.

Building Dams Abroad

In addition to damming trans-boundary rivers, China has also stepped up its dam building internationally. As China has absorbed and copied complex hydro-engineering technology initially supplied by the West during the 1980s and 1990s, it is now able to export its own domestically produced turbines, generators and other hydro-equipment to countries abroad, along with its dam building expertise. These exports are supported by a set of schemes known as the “Going Out” strategy introduced in 2001. This strategy encourages investments, exports and subcontracting in overseas engineering projects. Specifically, the government has aided China’s hydro-engineering companies with country-specific research, financial subsidies, and cheap credit. These advantages have helped Chinese companies to position themselves as low-cost competitors. This cost advantage has also been aided by the fact that Chinese construction companies often import cheap, highly productive labor from home to staff all or at least part of their workforce. Their extensive hydro-engineering experience has also allowed them to gain real efficiencies not shared by their competitors. As a result, in 2012, it was estimated that China was involved in more than 300 dam projects in 66 different countries, including the construction of 19 of the world’s 24 largest hydropower stations.

It is not uncommon for these international hydro-engineering projects to help support Chinese strategic interests. Because of its relative isolation from international markets until the early 1980s, China has been late to develop international sources of raw materials, particularly oil, timber and mineral resources. Yet, its position as “the world’s factory” has meant that its demand for natural resources has significantly increased over recent decades. As a result, China has implemented a strategy of retrieving resource deposits which had not heretofore been developed because they have been deemed insignificant in size, geographically remote or politically risky. In many cases, accessing these raw materials has obliged China to invest in secondary infrastructure such as pipelines, roads, railways, dams, power plants and transmission lines. For instance, the Belinga Dam in Gabon is being constructed by China to power a Chinese-built and financed iron ore mine whose output is destined almost exclusively for China’s construction industry. The dam is located in the Invindo National Park, and was planned by China with no public environmental impact statement. Myanmar recently decided to halt the massive China-backed the Myitsone Dam project, which has been opposed by green groups and opposition parties because of its significant environmental and social impacts. The dam was to generate some 6000 MW of power, most of which was to be exported to China, while creating a reservoir the size of Singapore with the depth of nearly a 70 story building, displacing tens of thousands of people.

China’s flurry of rapid international dam building has been driven in large part by its ability to self-finance its projects. This has allowed it to fast-track projects that the World Bank and the European Investment Bank, for instance, have been less quick to consider because of their environmental and social risks. China’s Exim Bank, the official export credit agency of the Chinese government, has delivered vital funding for many controversial large dams, including the Merowe Dam in Sudan, which resulted in a ruinous deterioration of living conditions among displaced people. The state-owned China Export and Credit Insurance Corporation, the China Development Bank, and the China-Africa Development Fund are all also increasingly involved in financing energy projects overseas. In some cases, hydro-engineering companies provide their own financing to their international customers. Sino Hydro, for example, a large state-owned company involved in at least 42 major dam projects, often invests in many of the projects it builds as does China’s International Water and Electric Corporation, China’s National Heavy Machinery Corporation and China Southern Power Grid. For the period 2010 to 2012, Sino Hydro directed over $1 billion towards dam-building and related projects in Zambia. In 2014, the total value of contracted projects in Africa was estimated at $70.8 billion. This self-financing has put increased pressure on Western financial institutions and construction companies to also circumvent internationally recognized – but unenforced – social and environmental standards when designing and building infrastructure abroad, so that they can compete with Chinese banks and construction companies.

China remains wary of Western-dominated environmental norms circumscribing its investment and construction activities abroad. China does not accept any country imposing on it their values, social systems or ideology, nor, as stated in its ‘principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country’, does it feel that it should impose its value systems on other countries. China has also defended its approach to overseas investments by insisting that developing countries should not operate at the same standards as developed nations; developed countries also polluted first and then cleaned up after as its economy and technology developed. China has argued that it is unwilling to impose environmental policies on foreign countries which might slow their growth.

Yet, recently there is some evidence that China’s leaders have started to reassess the long-term costs that can come with a no-strings-attached approached to construction overseas; reckless practices, in some cases, have prevented Chinese companies from growing business internationally. The ecological destruction that some of China’s dams have wrought have aggravated anti-Chinese sentiment at several sites in Asia, Africa and Latin America. For instance, in 2006 violent protests broke out at the $2 billion dollar Merowe Dam in Sudan resulting in three dead and dozens injured. Ultimately 15,000 people were displaced, often forcibly, by the reservoir. Protests renewed in 2011 when 1000 people staged a sit-in to protests the government’s failure to compensate them as promised.

China’s frequent policy of employing a Chinese workforce to build dams and other projects abroad reinforces the perception that it is engaged in exploitative practices. To counter this criticism, in 2006, the China’s State Council issued nine principles which should guide the work of firms working abroad. These principles included safeguarding environmental protection, protecting the livelihoods of local communities and peoples, obeying host laws and regulations, and employing local workers in a friendly and fair manner. The principles, while lacking specificity as to who should regulate overseas construction companies, and as to what domestic regulatory tools should be applied to Chinese companies operating overseas, do indicate the Chinese leadership’s desire to avoid future high-profile disasters such as those occurring around the Merowe dam in Sudan. However, without specific regulatory control or penalties for breach of standards, these principles remain mostly theoretical. Some Chinese companies have begun to establish their own environmental policies; China’s Exim Bank and China’s Development Bank, for example, both have environmental policies which are to guide their lending practices, but again these policies lack detail, and do not appear to be well enforced.

Trends

At present, 3,700 dams with greater than 1 MW capacity are currently planned (83%) or under construction (17%). These projects are spread across several continents, but focused mainly in Brazil, Argentina, Central Africa, and China. Even if all of these dams were constructed and realized their anticipated electric output, China would remain the world’s hydropower hegemon with an annual potential of nearly 1.8 million GWh (gigawatt-hours). While China’s position in the hydroelectric field may not be challenged in the coming years, its share within that sector is expected to diminish from 31% of world hydropower produced to around 25%.

China’s 12th Five Year Plan prioritizes the continued development of China’s hydro-power capacity so as to maintain its lead in production. Indeed, China’s National Energy Agency plans to increase China’s installed hydropower from approximately 200,000 MW to 380,000 MW by 2020. While greater efforts will certainly be made to better resettle those displaced by dams in the coming decades, environmental concerns regarding the impacts of China’s large hydro-engineering projects are unlikely to stop their future construction, particularly given the corporatization and increasing power of China’s hydro-power industry.

China’s construction on trans-boundary rivers is also likely to continue even in the face of growing international concern. China will continue to follow a “carrot” strategy to blunt the criticism of these dams, providing downstream countries with infrastructure and other needs where possible in order to get them on-side with China’s actions. China has the construction ability and the finance to proceed with the construction of many of these dams quickly. There is some argument that China plans to get the dams in place before the international community can rally effective support to pressure China to reconsider its actions.

The speed of China’s dam-building has helped many of its projects, both domestic and national, bypass international environmental standards and impact studies. Though hydropower is not an exceptionally high-emission source of energy in the long run, it has been shown to be rather carbon-intensive during initial phases. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that short-term emissions from damming and dam-related activity might be ten times the emissions that could have been saved if governments reduced fossil fuel usage via other means. The short run emissions are largely a result of the large reservoirs that form behind newly constructed dams. As these young bodies of water undergo various hydrological changes, they often emit larger quantities of greenhouse gases.

Over many years, however, total hydropower-associated emissions are nearly 30 times lower than coal, which is currently China’s most dominant energy source. In 2013, coal accounted for 73.8% of China’s total 5,396 TWh generated, while hydropower ranked second with a 16.9% energy share. Despite the prevalence of coal as an energy source, coal usage decreased 1.2% through October 2014, and this trend is likely to continue into the future as northern China feels the strain of dwindling local water sources. Coal mining and processing requires an extraordinary amount of water that China can no longer afford to divert, given the drinking water demand of its citizens in northern urban centers like Beijing and Tianjin. If anything, the decline of coal will lead to an increase in the dominance of hydropower, which is already well-established in China. Dams may well supplant coal entirely, and become the primary source of Chinese energy.

In July 2014, China reaffirmed its commitment to pursue further hydroelectric projects on the Jinsha River (the upper Yangtze), Yalong River, Dadu River, and the Lancang Cascade (the Chinese portion of the Mekong River). It will also continue to aggressively pursue the international dam market, both to meet its own energy needs abroad and to create renewable, clean energy infrastructure for other countries. China’s commitment to Africa remains steadfast, with water conservancy and electric power as two of four key focus areas (the other two being communications and construction of ports, bridges, and railways). With these developments and even more plans in place, China is quickly becoming the largest, most experienced and most competitive dam builder in the world.

Water in China: A Thirsty Country

Introduction

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China faces severe water shortages. Its current water per capita is one quarter of the world average, yet its overall per capita usage is still low by international standards but this will increase over the coming decades. The water that China does have is often badly polluted and is inefficiently used. Moreover, China’s water is unequally distributed with the Yangtze River basin and areas to the south enjoying 80% of China’s naturally available water compared with just 20% in China’s north.

China’s water scarcity will challenge its future economic expansion. Already, agriculture, industry and China’s growing cities all compete for scarce water resources, as do China’s different regions. Decades-old economic priorities such as food self-sufficiency will be increasingly difficult to maintain because water used in industrial output creates more economic value than it does in agriculture. Water scarcity could also test China’s political stability. Increasing illness caused by polluted water is driving up healthcare costs and generating more internal dissent. In 2005, the Chinese government acknowledged that 50,000 environmentally related “mass incidents” (a euphemism for protests) occurred, many of which were sparked by water degradation.

Population, Ecology and Water Scarcity

Right from China’s earliest dynasties great attention was paid to agricultural productivity. The Chinese bureaucracy mobilized the Chinese masses to construct irrigation systems and to clear land. This created a feedback loop, where increased agricultural productivity led to a rise in population, requiring further hydro-engineering and agricultural innovation to maintain China’s swelling numbers. In this way, China has remained the world’s most populous country for thousands of years. Yet, until the 1978 market reforms, China remained a largely agrarian society. China never achieved sufficient per capita economic growth to drive down a natural reduction in the country’s birth rate. Instead, large families of many sons offered rural parents security both in terms of providing labor for farming and care in old age. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, peace and improvements in nutrition, sanitation and healthcare saw Chinese mortality rates plummet. Moreover, until 1970, Mao Zedong encouraged population growth. As a result, China’s population doubled in less than thirty years from approximately 550 million in 1950 to a little over 1 billion in 1982. China’s population stands at 1.35 billion today, and is expected to peak at between 1.4 and 1.5 billion by 2030.

Impact on the Hydrological Cycle

In order to feed its enormous population, since the 1950s, China has increased efforts to create new agricultural and grazing land through the clearing of forests, the filling of lakes, the draining of swamps and wetlands, and the creation of large irrigation projects. This process has impacted China’s hydrological cycle. When land is cleared of plant life through unsustainable farming and grazing methods, the local hydrological cycle is disrupted, and desiccation – the drying out of the environment – occurs. Instead of catching precipitation which then permeates the soil, areas that are deforested, over-grazed and over-farmed allow surface water to run immediately into streams, instead of returning repeatedly to the region as rain through the process of evapotranspiration. China’s areas of desert or deforested land have increased significantly since the 1950s. Today approximately 27%, around 2.5 million km², of China’s land is desert or suffering desertification, although China’s deserts have begun to shrink since 2005 due to a massive reforestation campaign launched by the government. In the north and northwest of China, it has been estimated that the average annual precipitation has decreased by one third between the 1950s and the 1980s; overall China has 350 billion m³ less water than it had at the start of the century, equivalent to the amount of water that flows through the mouth of the Mississippi River in nine months. Desertification and deforestation have also caused sediment levels to significantly increase in all of China’s river systems due to severe soil erosion. Soil erosion has forced Chinese peasants to constantly seek new, often less suitable, land for farming and animal husbandry, in what has become an environmentally destructive feedback cycle.

Water Scarcity

As China’s population has swelled over the millennia, its per capita water has decreased. China now has an estimated 2,029 m3 of water per capita per annum, one quarter the world’s average. This per capita water figure is expected to decline further as China’s population peaks. This water scarcity is exacerbated by China’s uneven water distribution. China’s precipitation patterns are heavily affected by the East Asian monsoonal climate. Its mountainous geography drains the monsoonal rains as they move from the southeast into the northwest of the continent. In 2000, for instance, southern China, the Yangtze River basin and areas to its south, received approximately 80% of China’s naturally available water, yet the areas supported 54% of its population, 35% of its arable land, and 55% of its GDP. Northern China collected only 20% of China’s water to maintain 46% of the population, 65% of the arable land and 45% of its GDP. In some northern areas, strains on water resources are even worse. Beijing’s and Tianjin’s Hai River basin, for instance, receives approximately 1.5% of China’s water to support 10% of its population and 11% of its arable land.

Approximately 400 of China’s cities currently face water shortages, and over 300 million people drink water contaminated with pollutants including arsenic, excessive fluoride, toxins from untreated factory wastewater, agricultural chemicals, leaching landfill waste and human sewage. Moreover, China’s per capita water footprint is growing. China will not only have more people competing for its finite water resources in the coming decades, but each person will individually demand more water. Today, China’s overall water footprint per capita is still about half that of the US, but is expected to grow by between 40% and 50% by 2030. Factors such as higher living standards, increasing urbanization and further industrialization are driving water demand. China’s rising wealth has meant, for instance, that its citizens are eating substantially more meat. The production of one kilogram of beef requires 600 liters of water compared with the 100 liters required for a kilogram of wheat. This shift in diet can be seen in China’s food footprint numbers. In 1961, China used 260 m³ of water per capita to grow food; by 2003 this figure had more than trebled to 860 m³.

Agricultural, Urbanization, Industrialization, Water Wastage

Currently, 62% of China’s water is used for agriculture, a sector which is responsible for approximately 13% of the country’s GDP. In the agricultural sector, demand for water for irrigation is currently about 400 billion m³, but this is projected to reach 665 billion m³ by 2030. Yet agriculture water usage is extremely unproductive, with 45% of agricultural water lost before it even reaches crops. Water used for industrial output is 70 times more productive in terms of financial value than that used in wheat production. As water becomes increasingly scarce, the agricultural sector risks losing water resources to industrial production, especially if China increases the price of water to better reflect its true scarcity.

China’s growing urbanization is also requiring more water per capita. 70% of Chinese citizens are projected to be living in cities by 2030, up from 51% today. This is significant because urban dwellers consume three times as much water and energy as rural residents. Between 2000 and 2010, for instance, the World Bank estimated that China’s urban water consumption increased by 60%. Moreover, it is estimated that 25% of China’s future electricity growth needed to power its cities will be generated by coal plants. Coal mining, processing, combustion and coal-to-chemical industries are responsible for 22% of the nation’s total water consumption, second only to agriculture. By 2020, the coal sector is expected to consume about 27% of China’s total water. Moreover, China’s urban water distribution networks are particularly leaky. These leaks equal 18% of total urban water supplies on average, or about 1.5% of China’s total water withdrawals.

Overall, the industrial sector uses 23% of China’s water. China’s major industrial water ValeStock / Shutterstock.com users are the metallurgy, timber processing, paper and pulp, petroleum and chemical industries. Water productivity in Chinese industry is also low by international standards. Only 40% of its industrially-used water is recycled, compared with up to 85% in developed countries. Indeed, China’s overall water productivity is poor, estimated to be $3.60 per m³, lower than the average of $4.80 per m³ for middle-income countries, and $35.80 per m³ for high-income countries. The one positive aspect of all of this inefficiency is that there is ample room for improvement with relatively simple measures.

Depletion of Aquifers and Lakes

Extensive irrigation has always been essential to China’s agricultural productivity. Indeed, massive irrigation works built during the Maoist era enabled food production to keep pace with the rapid population growth of the time. China draws on both its rivers and large underground aquifers to irrigate its crops. Irrigated land produces nearly 75% of China’s cereals and more than 90% of its cotton, fruits, vegetables and other agricultural commodities on around half of the farmlands throughout the country. Yet, according to the Ministry of Water Resources, China now uses as much as 60% of the water running in many of its rivers, including the Liao and Yellow Rivers, and as much as 90% of the Huai River. China has increasingly turned to aquifers and lakes to meet water demands no longer satisfied by rain and river water alone. Groundwater now provides potable water for nearly 70% of China’s population and irrigation for approximately 40% of its agricultural land. Nationally, groundwater usage has almost doubled since 1970, and now accounts for 20% of China’s total water usage.

Aquifers are especially important in China’s north, where farmers have been relying heavily on groundwater resources to increase agricultural yields. Yet China is now draining its aquifers at an unsustainable rate. At current rates of depletion, the World Bank estimates that China’s northern aquifers could effectively run dry in as little as 30 years. China’s northern megacities now rely on underground water sources for two-thirds of their needs. For example, in Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, aquifer levels are dropping by approximately 3 meters annually, forcing the digging of ever deeper wells which increases the risk of both saltwater and arsenic intruding into the water supply, as well as increasing the likelihood of land subsidence. With aquifers and rivers suffering from overuse, lakes are also diminishing. The province of Hebei has already lost a staggering 969 of its 1052 lakes.

Water Pollution

Despite China’s efforts over the last three decades, water pollution has spread from the coastal to inland areas and from the surface to underground water resources. An estimated 70% of China’s rivers and lakes are now polluted. In 2009, 57% of the 7 monitored river basins had pollution levels of I-III, suitable for drinking, swimming, household use, and able to support aquatic life. 24% of China’s rivers had levels of IV-V, water unfit for swimming, but suitable for industrial purpose. 19% had V+, meaning that the water is considered useless, unfit for industry or agriculture and unsafe for human contact even after treatment. 23% of China’s key lakes and reservoirs had water grades of I-III, 42% IV-V and 35% V+. 2.3% of groundwater in 8 regions was rated I-II, 23.9% was graded III, and 73.8% ranked IV-V.

Only a year later (2010), party officials outlined their goals for the future in the 12th Five Year Plan, which aimed for 60% of water between grades I and III, with no more than 15% in the Grade V and V+ categories. As of 2013, 44.3% of the water in the Songhua River Basin was classified as Grade IV and below. In the Huai River and Hai River Basins, 40.4% and 60.9% of all water fell into the Grade IV or worse category, respectively. Though these numbers are still relatively high, they are on track with China’s goals set forth in the 12th Five Year Plan.

Township and village industrial enterprises, in particular, often do not treat their waste water. These small-scale enterprises have little environmental monitoring and are frequently engaged in all manner of heavily polluting production, such as the operation of paper mills, tanneries and breweries. Similarly, townships and villages often inadequately treat their domestic waste. About 80% of China’s 7500 most polluting factories are located on rivers, lakes, or in heavily populated areas. These factories frequently release untreated waste and chemicals into China’s waters either intentionally or by accident. A recent example was the 2012 cadmium spill in Guangxi which polluted an approximately 100 km stretch of the Longjiang River at a level of more than five times the official limit, contaminating water supplies for Liuzhou, a city of 3.2 million people. Cadmium is poisonous and can cause cancer. The same factories also release dangerous airborne pollutants that are absorbed into groundwater or contaminate rivers by way of urban runoff. Some of the most harmful are categorized as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and an estimated 90% of water located in sources near Chinese cities is now dangerously polluted because of their presence.

Rural areas have also seen an increase in water pollution due to chemical pesticides and fertilizers seeping into groundwater sites. For millennia, China’s farmers produced agriculture through “organic” farming methods. Farmers collected every bit of organic waste to ferment for fertilizer. Nothing was wasted, and even human waste, or “night soil”, went into “honey buckets” to transport to the fields. Every winter and spring farmers dredged nearby rivers and canals to add sediment to the fertilizer. Particularly in the south, dense grass at the water’s edge was added to pig fodder, which, after being digested by the pigs, produced manure and helped keep the rivers and lakes clear from vegetation. The entire process of recycling was labor-intensive but efficient. The rivers and lakes remained relatively clean despite thousands of years of intensive farming.

Yet, since 1978, fertilizer applications in China have increased fivefold. In general, animal and human feces are no longer collected for fertilizer, and instead are discharged untreated into rivers. Chemical fertilizer runoff has significantly accelerated eutrophication of many of China’s lakes such as Dian Chi in Yunnan Province, Chao Hu in Anhui Province and Tai Hu in Hubei Province where algae blooms absorb a significant portion of the lake’s oxygen, choking off fish and other aquatic life. Large algae blooms also broke out right before the 2008 Olympics, forcing Beijing to launch a massive emergency clean-up to ensure the sailing events could go ahead as scheduled in Qingdao, in Shandong.

Economic and Health Cost

The World Bank estimated that China’s water crisis is reducing China’s GDP by pcruciatti / Shutterstock.com approximately 2.3% annually, with 1.3% attributable to water scarcity, and the other 1% caused by the cost of water pollution. These estimates do not include the costs of ecological deterioration caused from the drying up of lakes and rivers and from eutrophication. Nor do they reflect the economic cost of disease caused by water pollution, conservatively estimated at an additional 0.5% of GDP. In 2002, the WHO reported mortality from water-borne diarrhea-related illness in China at 108.4 per 100,000, compared with 11 per 100,000 in Vietnam and 5 per 100,000 in Thailand. In 2007, the OECD estimated that 30,000 rural children die each year from diarrhea because of water pollution. In China’s most polluted areas, water has also been blamed for the recent high rates of various health abnormalities including liver and stomach cancer, stunted growth, miscarriages and birth defects.

Regional and national food supply has also suffered due to water pollution. A study in Xingang Village in Jiangsu Province showed that rice yield dropped 77% from 9,750 kg per hectare to about 2,250 kg per hectare. The remaining crop is also of dubious quality, often showing signs of heavy metal leaching from polluted local water. In 2011, it was estimated that up to 10% of China’s rice crop might contain unsafe or nearly unsafe levels of cadmium as a result of widespread irrigation with cadmium-poisoned water.

China has also seen a stunning rise in cancer rates, often localized to certain villages located near areas of heavy industrial activity, where the air and water are both extremely polluted. These villages have become colloquially known as Aizheng Cun, which literally translates as “Cancer Village.” In 2010, the annual death rate for Chinese citizens as a result of blood, bone, breast, liver, and lung cancers was estimated to be 1.2 million lives lost per year. By 2014, that figure doubled with The Lancet Oncology estimating that 2.4 million premature deaths in China as a result of various cancers.

Sanitation also remains a key issue with regard to China’s water supply. In 2008, 327 million Chinese did not have direct plumbing access to drinking water and 535 million were without properly sanitized water. This led to an estimated 62,800 deaths, mostly affecting young children. By 2011, the number of people lacking proper sanitation decreased to 471 million, but the number of Chinese lacking piped-in drinking water increased to 401 million. This sanitation improvement comes on the heels of annual US$10.8 billion government-driven investments from 2006-2010 in domestic sanitation. Water-borne disease, however, is still a major economic drain for China, costing around US$11 billion annually.

Flooding – Yellow River and Yangtze River

Not only are desertification and deforestation exacerbating China’s water scarcity, they are also aggravating China’s flooding challenges. The Chinese Minister of Water Resources, Chen Lei estimated in 2007 that China has lost 2% of national GDP annually to flooding since 1990, and a recent study placed the total costs of floods from 2000 to 2012 at 105 billion RMB annually (US $17 billion). Flooding has challenged Chinese rulers for millennia. From 602 BCE to 1938 AD it is estimated that major collapses of Yellow River dikes occurred once every two or three years. Then, every hundred years or so, the river would change its course. Many of the resulting floods were some of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded. For millennia the Chinese constructed dikes along the lower reaches of the Yellow River trying to contain its torrents, yet constant ecological destruction along the upper reaches increased erosion which intensified river silting. The silting raised the river bed above the countryside. This “suspended” river greatly increased flood damage when the river inevitably breached its dykes. After 1949, the CCP built almost 3000 dams on the Yellow River, and heavily reinforced its levees and embankments. These hydro-engineering projects involved the equivalent of 500 million workdays and 1.4 billion m³ of reinforced concrete – enough to build 13 Great Walls. Yet many of the Yellow River’s dams have fallen short of physical and economic targets, and have resulted in huge losses of forest lands, wildlife habitat and aquatic biodiversity. Global warming has also increased evaporation at many of the dam sites.

Similarly, parts of the Yangtze River have flooded continually for millennia. Yet, as deforestation and reclamation of land has increased, floods have become more frequent and more destructive. The CCP attempted to solve the flooding by increasing the height of 3600km of embankments and more than 30,000km of levies. The work required more than 4 billion m³ of dirt and stone, or enough material to put a wall around the globe three times. Yet these raised structures could not offset the loss of water absorption capacity caused by the rapid deforestation and agricultural land reclamation that occurred during the same period. As a result, the Yangtze experienced a series of significant floods in 1980, 1981, 1983, 1991 and 1996. Then in June 1998, China suffered one of its worst floods in 40 years, leaving 3,700 people dead, 15 million homeless and causing $26 billion of economic damages. The reinforced embankments and levees proved largely ineffective, with approximately 9,000 of them collapsing. As well as providing hydropower and improved navigation, the controversial Three Gorges Dam was built in large part to control the Yangtze’s flooding, although many scientists believe that the Yangtze is still vulnerable. Additionally, after the 1998 flood, China began to place greater importance on the role of ecology in flood prevention, and has begun an extensive campaign of reforestation and forest preservation.

Drought

Because of the variability of the monsoonal rains, like flooding, drought has plagued the country for millennia. Yet desiccation in many areas has significantly increased China’s drought challenges. Overall, droughts have become more severe, prolonged and frequent during the past 57 years, especially for northeastern and central China. China has been essentially self-sufficient in grain for decades. This self-sufficiency camouflages the fact that China produces one-sixth of the world’s wheat output and one-fifth of global corn. China is thus enormously important to the world’s food supply. If drought forces China to import large quantities of food, it significantly impacts world food prices. Yet, in every year since 2005, drought placed China’s grain crops at risk, and the government was forced to spend billions of dollars digging wells and cloud seeding to encourage rain. Most recently, in 2010-2011, northern China suffered its worst drought in 60 years, impacting most of China’s wheat producing regions. At its peak, it is estimated that 36% of China’s northern wheat fields were affected, and that 2.57 million people and 2.79 million livestock suffered from a lack of water. The water shortages also affected around 161 million people, with an economic cost estimated at $2.8 billion.

Drought has not been restricted to China’s drier north. In western Sichuan, for example, rapid deforestation caused Sichuan’s forest cover to fall from 3.6 million hectares in in 1985 to 2.34 million hectares in 1995. In the 1950s, serious droughts hit Sichuan about once every three years. In the 1960s, this became once every two years and by the 1980s, drought troubled Sichuan counties annually. In 2010, more than 20 million people in Yunnan, Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan and Chongqing were left without adequate drinking water and a 2011 Sichuan drought affected almost 8 million people.

Guangxi provides another of the many examples throughout the country where drought conditions have worsened in recent decades. Historians have written that from 1618-1943, major droughts hit the region once every 33 years. From 1946 to 1972, the interval fell to every six years, and in the 1980s, it fell to every two years. There were four major droughts in the three-year period from 1989 to 1991. Since 2000, drought has plagued Guangxi annually. In 2004, for instance, 1100 Guangxi reservoirs went dry, and hydropower generation was cut dramatically. In 2007, one million residents in Guangxi and 250,000 in Guangdong faced water shortages during the worst regional drought in more than 50 years. In 2009, Guangxi, which produces 60% of China’s sugar cane, had a 10% drop in its production due to drought conditions. In 2010, 12 of the 14 cities in Guangxi were affected by water shortages.

Climate Change

How climate change will impact China’s water scarcity is still being studied. However, global warming is having an undeniable effect on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, which is the source of both the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. An estimated 80% of Tibet’s 46,377 glaciers are now melting more quickly than originally thought, at an average rate of 7% per year. Himalayan glaciers release water steadily throughout the year, most critically during the hot, dry sunny periods when water downstream is most needed. Complete disappearance of the glaciers could eventually cause China’s Yellow River to flow only during the rainy season. Greater melting rates could also increase short-term runoff from the plateau, worsening soil erosion which in turn could lead to greater desertification. Already, recent glacial retreat and desiccation has impacted the local ecosystem. Over a third of the Tibetan grasslands has transformed into semi-desert conditions, which has forced approximately 700,000 Tibetan nomads to abandon animal husbandry. Global warming also seems to be aggravating the evaporation of Qinghai-Tibetan lakes and wetlands.

Power Outages and Reduced River Navigability

China’s water scarcity has also resulted in lower water levels of many of China’s major river systems. For instance, Chinese researchers have discovered that the volume of water entering the Yangtze River at its source on the Tibetan plateau has dropped by 15% over the last four decades. Persistent low levels in China’s rivers mean that the country will be challenged by power outages due to inadequate flow through its hydropower dams. Hydropower accounts for approximately 22% of China’s total installed capacity. It is estimated that the lack of water to run hydropower dams has cut hydroelectric power production by 20% and China may be forced to burn 1 million more metric tons of coal a week to cover the shortfall.

Low levels of water also mean that parts of China’s rivers will continue to become periodically unnavigable, disrupting inland shipping routes. In May 2011, the water level of the Yangtze was so low that officials closed a section of the river from Wuhan to Yueyang. More than 60% of goods transported on inland rivers in China travel down the Yangtze, with shipping volumes at 910 million tons in 2010.

Trends

Serious water scarcity looms in China’s future. This scarcity is likely to increase conflict and competition between regions, sectors of the economy and between urban and rural residents. It will also raise tensions between the government and parts of society that lack access to adequate, clean water sources. Moreover, the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is a source of rivers that reach India, Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. China’s damming, polluting, and use of international rivers is likely to increase tensions with these countries. Many of these countries, especially India, are already facing their own severe water crisis, which will only be exacerbated if China diverts river water that needs to be shared internationally. Additionally, China’s rapid industrialization and poor waste treatment systems now threatens to export China’s pollution and water-borne disease to its neighbors downstream. Political relations could be further stressed if water shortages cause mass migrations of people. In fact, some analysts suggest that the so-called “oil wars” of the 20th century could be replaced by “water wars” in the 21st. China’s food supply is increasingly vulnerable to water shortages. In the future, it is likely that China will need to turn to global food sources to meet its future nutritional needs. This in turn will increase food prices around the world.

China’s immediate water solution is to use water more conservatively, and to improve pollution control. Historically, China has solved growing water demands through the construction of massive hydro-engineering projects such as theThree Gorges Dam and the South-North Water Diversion Project. In the future, China will increasingly need to solve its water deficit through ecological conservation, pollution management, more efficient water usage, and a redistribution of economic output by raising the price of water to reflect its scarcity and true economic value.

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.

Tibetans Fight China With ‘Weapon of Weak’

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Typi non habent claritatem insitam; est usus legentis in iis qui facit eorum claritatem. Investigationes demonstraverunt lectores legere me lius quod ii legunt saepius. Claritas est etiam processus dynamicus, qui sequitur mutationem consuetudium lectorum. Mirum est notare quam littera gothica, quam nunc putamus parum claram, anteposuerit litterarum formas humanitatis per seacula quarta decima et quinta decima. Eodem modo typi, qui nunc nobis videntur parum clari, fiant sollemnes in futurum. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit, sed diam nonummy nibh euismod tincidunt ut laoreet dolore magna aliquam erat volutpat. Ut wisi enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exerci tation ullamcorper suscipit lobortis nisl ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis autem vel eum iriure dolor in hendrerit in vulputate velit esse molestie consequat, vel illum dolore eu feugiat nulla facilisis at vero eros et accumsan et iusto odio dignissim qui blandit praesent luptatum zzril delenit augue duis dolore te feugait nulla facilisi. Nam liber tempor cum soluta nobis eleifend option congue nihil imperdiet doming id quod mazim placerat facer possim assum.

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