Nibbling Around the Edges: China’s Geopolitical Trauma in the 20th Century

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This pattern is itself already a reversal of Diamond’s game plan, for the invaders were NOT environment privileged or able to extend their natural modes of production into warmer climes, nor acclimatized (immunized) to the “humidity” diseased (malarial was always the the cliche about the sub-Yangtze South) and, in adjusting to the “South” always found their moral fiber or self-confidence eroded by the higher density of marketing and urban settlement. Easy in, but not easy stay; somehow the Northern rim was always slip sliding away once its most robust populations had pushed their conquest zone below the Yellow River.

But the north-south axis was even more of a problem when military conquest/expansion had to go the other way: that is, from the South (or southeastern littoral) up across the Yangtze and into the relatively poorer Yellow River basin or yet further up in the direction of “the Northeast”. Such an advance meant moving flatcountry failed-peasant (or hillcountry “ethnic”) recruits on tedious marches ever further into “horse country” then bitterly cold semi-desert, where eating off the land was suddenly no longer possible. To somewhat simplify, the mental exhaustion would have been highly similar to what experienced by Romans then Italians whenever they tried to move over up and over the Alps. Food diminishing, roads (rivers were now useless) worsening, temperatures falling. If N. It seems hardly surprising but nonetheless instructive that the largest and most feared grand insurgency of China’s late imperial era, the Taipings, were never able to get anywhere nearer than 100 miles of Beijing, the seat of the regime they challenged: though different reasons are given for the rout of Lin Fengxiang’s Guangxi regiment of 70,000 in 1853, climate and diet were most likely the villains. “Acclimatization” either way is inevitably more traumatic when major latitudinal hurdles are attempted, but most of all when moving from “plenty” to “paucity”, the usual transition when attacking northward. Even Jefferson Davis never contemplated the conquest of the Yankee north – only its tiring after too many moves southward had failed. This is why insurrectionarists at both bookends of the Ming-Qing almost mechanically chose Nanjing as their Jerusalem, and floundered strategically once they had it in their pocket.

I think it is not far off course to suggest that China’s “self-ness” in the “modern” (post-imperial/dynastic century that precedes us has been that absorption of extra-marine (Europe+the US) civilization has always been earliest and strongest in the far richer and more urbanized South, whilst the discipline and encroachment driven logistics needed to conquer and rule have consistently favored the poorer North (Yellow River and above). The seat of military and military-industrial power was and remains to this day in the belt running from Shenyang to Xi’an – one has only to check where the key air force and space-launch commands are located (these days, Lanzhou) to see this. Shanghai, enriched with Taiwanese etc capital, and American education, is by all measures well ahead of Beijing in cultural terms, but Beijing remains intent on a kind of thralldom-relinkage, no matter what the cost (viz., the HSR). The Expo 2010 (China’s first) may have been staged in Shanghai, the best place (after perhaps Guangzhou) for showcasing China’s civil-sector progress in architecture and urban planning. Or concert-hall splendor. But it was the 2008 Olympics – also China’s first – that drew most of the central government’ support, PR and $-wise, and that of course was never anything but a Beijing event.

The Missed Opportunity/Vision: Colonizing/Developing “The West” (and the NE too…)

Axes of expansion, in globally comparative terms, were (until the last century) on the whole driven by population movement or overflow, the moving of state boundaries to some extent a lag variable struggling to keep up or sometimes further open the way. More colonists, more food, more food more supply, more supply more territory.

But there is even in pre-industrial circumstances a non-population-intensive benefit that can accrue, and thus greatly antedate later physical expansion.
We take our cue again from Habsburg Spain, whose expansion into the SA Andes (and prox) seemed – in compensation – to gain force as its status on the Eur mainland crumbled.

The great gain was in precious metals – gold and esp. silver, whose extraction and retrotransport to the Old World not only kept the (otherwise) population-stagnant Parent country in the arena, but even hastened the growth of longterm public and private credit, the sine qua non of all expansive polities after the 17th century. Ths “hard” (non-human) bridge accounts in large part why Madrid’s “mold” never sank – or needed to sink – very deeply into the autochthonous substratum of Amerindian (Aztec/Inca/Mayan) culture, since the modernizing or updating of the colonial economies was never a major goal: thus it was that New Spain was ready to fall dissolve by the early 19th century with so flimsy a re-harnessing effort by the mother country, which remained involved only in the slave/sugar economies of the Caribbean.

Oddly enough, given its ideological and cultural disparity, the Yankee empire moved westward very much by the same reward: it was California gold then Nevadan silver that in the end paid off the huge public credits used for railway building in the first place, and which then sparked RR and canal building across the Isthmus of Darien. Conestoga wagons did eventually deliver a farming “colony”, but that was slow in the building, since a new agricultural (export) structure had first to be developed, based on refrigerated fruit and vegetable shipments back East.

But none of this was in the stars for the Qing and Repubican Sinopolique. The biggest challenge has been and remains the former’s dislinkage with the two great “Western” territories of Tibet and Sinkiang. Odd, for these (now) troublesome outposts were once (in the Tang) pivot-posts of para-ethnic power reaching into the Center: the Dzungars and the (pre-lamaist) Tibetan monarchs ruled powerful military states that had to be reckoned as allies, or else…

But those were more cosmopolitan times; the 20th century obsession with Race and thus Han supremacy has made of these huge “subalterns” a contested territory that defied cultural reunification, and will go on doing so.


The question then logically arises: what about the mineral resources of CHINA’s underdeveloped West and NW? Were they not also “strategic”, worth state backing, which might then have smoothed or accelerated land-seeking peasant farmers?

The answer is yes and no. Though later (Japanese-triggered) efforts in the NE showed (via Manchukuo) that iron ore and possibly coal could be strategic assets, thus justifying colonization, this could not have happened EARLIER when there was still time for preemptive settlement, for industrial steel smelting and energy extraction were simply not “on the map” during the critical 18th century. And of course, Manchu tribal self-protection mandated (again until too late) that the Banner homeland remain as untainted by (Chinese) peasant colonists as was possible.

Ironic indeed, then, that only after the virtual obliteration of the original (Qing) empire, whose hand had indeed reached into the West, was the mineral treasure of “the West” laid bare, in, of all places, Tibet – where of course Chinese agriculture had no prospects.

But it is no irony that, for example in the 2008 Olympics “History Pageant” the Tang “Silk Road” is made emblematic of the true greatness of imperial China, inasmuch as the Tang (along perhaps with the Han – and [quiet] the Mongol Yuan) was/were the only instances of drang nach Westen, of connectedness with trans-Pamir high culture(s) such as Persia. Though in dream only, perhaps China’s overlords still rue that their ancestors fell into the habit of defining the empire (imperial core) as delimited by the Taklamakan and Altai.

Colonizing Xinjiang. 1757 ff.

If we conceptualize the “West” as the adjacent provinces of Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Tibet, the dimensions of under-colonization are most obvious in the northernment of the three, which (1950) was appended to the PRC as one of its more promising development zones, as well as access routes for foreign aid and or intervention. However weak the follow-through, it was the frontier along which the Manchu dynasty was most proactive: it was/is the only province scale unit which underwent a colony-settlement-designative name-change, from Huijiang (Moslem frontier) to Xinjiang (“new” frontier) in 1884 after the reduction of a trans-Pamir occupation and then a Czarist encampment in the Ili valley.

It is perhaps debatable whether the “marcher” territory could have played a role anything like the American (overland) Far West or the Spanish “New Spain”, with its Inca-settled Potosi mines, but the US Far West comparison is still relevant, in that the “new territory” was hatched in competition with or to preempt “foreign” settlement or political intervention-and remained a priority through the early 20th century because of Soviet buildups and overflights occasioned by the Japanese drive into N and E China. It is also relevant in that (even more than in the US case) the space between the coreland and the mountain “fortress” of the Tianshan Pamirs (Altai) was not quite empty: in the approaches to that mountain chain a series of khanates of Mongol-Moslem pedigree had extended into the Tarim and Ili valleys (the two entry routes from Trans-Pamir Kazakhstan and Kyrghistan) and by the 1700s controlled the entirety of the more prosperous, pastoral economy of the latter (The “North”) subterritory, which was and remains the more readily resettled and mineral abundant part of the aggregate. Had the rat race pressures from the transmontane (Khazakh/Siberian) trans-West not kept resurfacing, there would have been no investment at all, and probably only tiny soldier-colony enclaves to stake out a skeletal “garrison” (though against whom is unclear: the Dzungars (approx. 800,000) who had confronted the Manchu empire in the Ili corridor seem to have been virtually wiped out, mainly it would seem by smallpox, not Manchu genocide.

What is today the province of Xinjiang comprises over 17% of the PRC’s total surface area – thus its largest province by far, but all but one (after Tibet) its emptiest – still.

Pop. (Millions) Density/km^ Area km^2 as % PRC surface area as % PRC population (2010)

21.8 13.1 1,660,000 17.1% 1.77%

This is contrast to the average density of 196/km^2 for the entire PRC or 70.6 for “Manchuria”+Inner Mongolia.

Perhaps inevitably, settlement and development programs, such as they were, were (and remain) largely reactive or preemptive: before the frictions with the USSR led to an overhaul, it was (only) with the rise of a cross-frontier warlord, Jaqub Beg (1865-7), who invaded and annexed most of the region from a transmontane base in Khokand (Khyrgistan), and then of course with Soviet dabbling in the 30s, that anything like a() government sponsored development plan
begins to be bruited – ironically including (from 1860) an edict of “toleration” for opium poppy growing to help out with the finances.

At the other end, not to be forgotten, is the Pacific littoral, anchored in/on Taiwan and Japan, but beyond (or because of) that always in the grace of U.S. goodwill and money. We may have put the Pacific War out of memory, but I think the Chinese, though only on its edges, have not and will not, which in turn is the only way of accounting for Xi Zhiping’s ongoing ramp-up of naval and air-defense budgets when there is no threat over the horizon.

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