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  • Dec 26, 2014
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PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 December, 2012, 6:50am

China's narrative of Han expansion

Philip Bowring says that China's focus on its role as a victim of past humiliationsis tempered by the historical spread, both inside and outside its current borders, of its largest ethnic group


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

With the 18th party congress behind us and Xi Jinping now installed as leader, can China ease off on the narrative of victimhood which has been so apparent in recent months? The main target may have been Japan, but 100-plus years of humiliation at the hands of Westerners, Japanese and Russians have provided a constant refrain not only to be contrasted with today's high standing, but also to justify, for some, thoughts of revenge.

The victim narrative is true, but it is not the only one. There is a parallel narrative that is equally true and of which China's neighbours are acutely aware. The successful early Qing dynasty vastly expanded the frontiers, bringing their native Manchuria, adding Xinjiang and Mongolia and establishing a presence of sorts on Taiwan. But then the period of greatest weakness of the Chinese state - as represented by the alien Qing dynasty, and then, until 1980, by either weak or inward-looking regimes - coincided with a dramatic expansion of the Han Chinese footprint. This was driven partly by demographics and partly by the weakness of the state. Out of a Manchu/Qing empire emerged a Han nation with relatively few minorities. The paradox of weakness and expansion is significant - and contains the seeds of reversal.

Take Manchuria itself, the ancestral home of the Jurchen tribes who formed the Manchu dynasty. For almost 200 years after their conquest of China, they prevented Han settlement of what are now Liaoning , Jilin and Heilongjiang as well as that part of old Manchuria that is now Russian. For sure, the ban had loopholes, and many Han settled regardless. But it took a Russian threat in the mid-19th century for Beijing in 1860 to open the floodgates to settlement by Han and develop the pastures into arable land. It was further encouraged during the rule of warlord Zhang Zuolin . Assimilation and war deaths added to the Manchu decline so that those who identity themselves as Manchu now amount to 7 per cent of the combined population of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang at most.

The demographic dynamics of Chinese Mongolia have been quite similar. The Han settlement of southern (Inner) Mongolia was promoted in the 19th century as a buffer against Russia. Thus, by 1945, the province was 80 per cent Han. But fearful that their land would suffer similar Han colonisation, leaders of Outer Mongolia turned to Russia for protection in 1911. Under communism, that proved brutal, but it ensured no such influx of settlers, which explains why today it is independent and its population is almost all Mongol.

In the cases of both Manchuria and Mongolia, Japan's rise and defeat of Russia in 1904 stopped the Russian advance and thus helped much of Manchuria and Mongolia to remain Chinese-ruled, and the Han settlement to continue.

Xinjiang had been under China's rule on and off for centuries and was brought firmly under Qing control in the 18th century when a Han minority settled in the north. Many left or were driven out following the collapse of the Qing government and, by 1953, just 7 per cent of the region's population were Han, so it needed massive immigration to bring the percentage up to today's 40 per cent - and over 70 per cent in the cities of Urumqi and Karamay.

Taiwan was saved from probable incorporation into the Spanish-ruled Philippines by the Dutch, and the alien Qing dynasty was the first to assert sovereignty over the island. Most settlement by the Han was informal and did not come until very late in the Qing period. But Taiwan was a fractured entity in terms of settlement and wasn't administered as a single entity until China ceded the island to Japan in 1895.

Last but not least of the contributions to Qing humiliations by Westerners was the expansion of overseas Chinese communities. Western-driven trade and imperialism in the 19th century spurred migration into Southeast Asia and then to the Americas and elsewhere. China's rapidly growing population was recruited to work in British Malaya and Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, while hundreds of thousands more joined existing Chinese communities in Burma, Siam and elsewhere.

This expansion of the Han presence both inside and outside the current borders of the People's Republic was not just a coincidence. It was linked to China's mix of political weakness and demographic strength. The Qing bequeathed an empire which had rarely been bigger and certainly had never been so Han.

Political and military strength is now China's guardian against humiliation, but a stagnating population is a danger, as Russia found when ethnic Russians either failed to procreate as fast as their Kazakh and other neighbours, or simply found life on the fringes of the empire too harsh. China's neighbours are now in awe of its power. But on the fringes of China, non-Han are breeding faster, and neighbours such as Vietnam and Korea have become fierce defenders of their own cultures and borders. The more China focuses on avenging past humiliations, the more it will raise awareness among neighbours of the previous 200 years of mostly Qing-era expansion of the Han state and its global presence.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator


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This article is now closed to comments

'The more China focuses on avenging past humiliations'. When has it done so?
Pretty regularly for the last couple of years as to the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan, let alone matters involving Taiwan and an invasion of Vietnam. And lest we forget the recent refrains about the US seeking to contain China as it re-asserts its dominance from the last century. Does that help?
One note re emigration of Chinese in the late 19th and very early 20th century. Many (most) Chinese recruited to work in Malaya, Australia, etc over 100 years ago were actually recruited by Chinese snakeheads, even back then. These newly arrived Chinese labourers were desperate for work, whatever the wage and conditions as they needed to pay off the snake heads and ensure their family's safety in China. Yes, these new colonies needed workers, however in many areas, newly arrived Chinese labourers replaced local labourers as the Chinese were willing (had no choice) but to work for less to ensure they paid their debts. Separately, Is the situation that different in Africa today?
I would point out that the Manchus did not exist until 1635, when Nuerhaci's son declared the name of their nation. Before 1619 and the Saerhu Campaign, much (indeed most) of the so-called Manchuria was either Ming directly-administered territory or territories held by the Jurchen enemies (vassals and allies of Ming) of the Manchus, for 200+ years. Prior to 1650, there was no such a thing as a unified Manchuria barred from Han settlement. Bowring repeatedly emphasize that the Manchus are "alien", but sinicization set in even BEFORE 1600s, so that by 1730s, the "alien" emperor Yongzhen was chiding his Manchu bodyguards for chatting in, alas, Chinese. But what's the use! The last emperor could only say "Stand up!" in Manchu. That was how "alien" the Manchus finally became. If the Manchu attitude towards Chinese culture and political values even remotely resembled the Brits in India, I am very willing to see them as "aliens" and "colonists" in China. Western historians, reading on the surface, has been fooled by Sun Yet-sen into seeing the West-inspired Republican Revolution of 1911 as a Han Nationalist revolution, as though if a Chinese sat on the throne there would have been no revolution. Peoples do get absorbed by a stronger collectivity and assimilate and vanish as an independent category. What Brits today would still insist that they are Normans, not English? Chinese is no longer identical to Han, but like the term "Americans", encompass all ethnicities in China.
my new life in asia
Victimhood would be wrong if the world in which China exists were not the world shaped by Western powers. The author should have highlighted the extensive military presence of the US in Asia as well as the fact that after WWII the "West" has acted as a hegemon in world affairs.
Western powers, in their post-Cold War arrogance, proclaimed the triumph of Western democracy and capitalism, and they failed to realize what was going on in Asia. And so they were caught by surprise when it became clear to them. Now they react hysterically.
If the USA and its allies had not monopolized world organizations, waged wars and failed to help the poor of the planet, it would have been easier for China to forget past grievances.
For sure, Chinese nationalism is not a solution for China. But we should show them that we are true friends, instead of fearing and mistrusting them.
To be clear it is the USA and not Western powers reacting to China's rise. Also the USA is not behaving hysterically. The USA, since its entry into the 2nd World War has always required a bogeyman - an ideological and supposed military threat to itself to justify its actions. Much of this is driven by domestic politics and especially in light of the large scale industrial exodus to Asia by a need to continue to employ large numbers of people and capital in the production of weapons.
1941 - 1945 Japan and Germany
1945 - 1990 USSR
1989 - Present PRC
Such things as 911 and countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran cannot justify spending such huge sums of money on defence. It is difficult to know if they don't have the PRC who they can have as the bogeyman?
The Central Kingdom is never what it is being touted. There is little shared value among the
many ethnic groups - even between the "south" and the "north", or among the provinces.


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