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Living with Reform: China since 1989

Living with Reform: China since 1989

by Timothy Cheek


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 2901842777236
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 11/12/2006
Series: Global History of the Present Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.44(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Timothy Cheek holds the Louis Cha Chair in Chinese Research at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia.

Read an Excerpt

Living with Reform

China since 1989

By Timothy Cheek

Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2006 Timothy Cheek
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84277-723-7


Making sense: what is 'China'?

China is more a continent than a country. In terms of geography, population, and ethnic diversity, China corresponds to no other country on the planet other than India. It is simply vast, with a wide range of geographic areas, an immense population, and a dizzying variety of ethnic communities and identities. While the modern state of India corresponds in many ways to the geographic and ethnic diversity of China, it does not carry China's long heritage of political unity or recent experience as a Leninist state. What, then, is China? In our preface we noted that it is not helpful to think of 'the Chinese' as a unitary group. How shall we look at the land, the people, the society, and the political entity we call 'China'?

If China were placed over the northwest corner of Eurasia, it would stretch from Dublin to Damascus and from Moscow to Marrakesh: hugely different physiographic regions with independent sub-histories. We have to ask: why is it one country and not at least a half-dozen? A first answer is history. One way to make sense of this tension between geographic diversity and political unity in China is to imagine that the Roman Empire had recovered from Germanic attacks and reconstituted itself as an effective, stable, and powerful regime in the sixth century CE, comprising the lands not only of Augustus's empire but what became the Byzantine Empire – all under the central control of Rome – and that this Roman Empire lasted (with Mongol invasions and interregnums) until 1912. History matters, but it does not predetermine current choices. Life in the social, economic, and political systems that define the People's Republic of China (PRC) knits a diverse range of people together and makes the 'idea of China' real and compelling to them despite immense differences in their personal circumstances.

This is a fundamental dialectic in Chinese life and thought today: the contrast between the unity of 'China' widely felt by the majority Han population (not to mention the government) and the actual physical, economic, and social diversity of life in the PRC and among 'Cultural China' (Hong Kong, Taiwan, and more than 100 million Chinese in Southeast Asia and across the world). The purpose of the chapter is to suggest how we can make sense of these forces of integration and diversity by focusing on how the system works and contrasting how different major social actors experience their place in that system. Thus we move from geography, to demography, to economic activity, to political order.

If we are to understand how living with reform in China today operates and what it means for those in it (as well as for those of us outside China), then we must understand some of these basic facts of life, of social order and experience. We need this detail to begin to answer the questions of reform: why does privatization look so different to workers in northeast China and farmers in southwest China? Why do some women complain that life since the end of Mao's rule is worse, while other women cheer the changes of the past three decades? Is the CCP getting stronger or weaker? The context of China's systems will help us answer these questions.

China's systems

Like any polity, China is built on land, climate, people and their social organizations, economic activity, and political order. Within these systems different groups and individuals have a wide range of experiences and thus divergent interests. It is this complex, but functioning, set of systems which organizes life in China today.

The land China's land mass is about equal to that of the United States: 9.6 million square kilometers, and only slightly smaller than Europe's 10.15 million. China's population, however, clocking in at 1.26 billion in the 2000 census, is four times greater that the USA's at slightly less than 300 million and well over twice the size of Europe's population of some 480 million. One in every five persons on the planet lives in China. This huge population is not spread evenly over the area of the PRC. Population density for China as a whole is 622 persons per square kilometer, but rises to three times that (1,800/sq. km) in the eastern coastal regions and falls to a tenth of that (60/sq. km) in the western regions. And, as one would expect in an area the size of Europe, geography and climate vary widely across China, contributing to different local economics and lifeways.

Geographic China can be envisioned in two parts, north to south, and three layers, east to west. The biggest divide in China is the separation of warm, wet, rice-growing south China and hot/cold, dry, wheat-growing north China. In the south, wet-rice agriculture defines the landscape with flooded paddy fields and the intensive cultivation of two and in the far south three crops of rice a year. Temperatures are moderate and rain fairly regular. In the north, the land looks yellow from the dominant soil, loess, the wind- and water-borne soil from the northwest that gives the Yellow River its eponymous colour. The weather is more continental with freezing winters and hot, dry summers. Rains are not reliable enough to sustain wet-field agriculture, so dry farming of wheat, barley, and other grains predominates. One simple and obvious difference in lifeways that stems from the geographical and climatic differences between north and south China is that traditionally southerners eat rice more often, while northerners claim noodles and breads as their traditional fare.

In the western regions this separation is erased by altitude. The three layers of China from west to east begin with the Tibet/Qinghai plateau, which lies some 4,000 meters above sea level and occupies fully 20 percent of China's landmass. This huge western region is sparsely populated and is home to several non-Chinese 'minorities' (i.e. peoples that claim the area as their own, such as the Tibetans, but which count as minorities in the PRC). Radiating out from this plateau are the major rivers of China, as well as of South and Southeast Asia: the Yangzi, the Yellow, the Mekong, the Red, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra. Moving east from the Tibet/Qinghai plateau there is a series of lower plateaus descending to the major plains of coastal China, in particular the North China plain that runs from Beijing to nearly the Yangzi, and the Northeast or Manchurian plain (in the provinces just north of Korea). Population density increases as one goes east and to lower altitudes. Land in China thus ranges from sea-level plains to alpine parks, from zero to 4,000 meters. On the globe it stretches from 50 degrees north to under 20 degrees, with Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, as well as Hong Kong, and Hainan Island in the tropics, while winter lows in China's northeast regularly reach minus 25–30 degrees Centigrade.

Accounts of China's geography usually feel compelled to explain China's international isolation (a product of the cold war) by invoking the name in Chinese for China: zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom. Historical research has long since shown that the geography of China - with high mountains to the west and big oceans to the east, dry deserts to the north, and impenetrable jungles to the south – no more inhibited trade and contact with eastern and Southeast Asia than did mountains, rivers, and deserts in Europe and North Africa. Established trade routes across the Siberian steppe, through the Tarim basin, down the Red River into what is now Vietnam, and especially on the 'Southern Seas' operated throughout Chinese history. Famous examples include Chinese military expeditions well into Central Asia, as well as continuing trade along those routes extending to India, Persia, and the Mediterranean, during the Han Dynasty (205 BC–220 CE), the Tang (618–907), the Yuan (1279–1368), and the Qing (1644–1912). Of course, the last two examples were Chinese governments run by non-Chinese, the Mongols of the Yuan and the Manchus of the Qing. This only emphasizes the connections between China and its neighbors.

Yet the image of a 'closed China' lurking behind the Great Wall remains. This comes from European experience with China in the Early Modern period and from the anomaly of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). When Europeans arrived in some numbers and with official patronage in the sixteenth century, they came to trade and to convert. For the next two hundred years Europe was the suitor and China the not very interested 'prize.' China was better ruled, more prosperous, and the producer of goods wanted by European traders (porcelain, silk, tea, and, of all things, rhubarb). For Jesuit priests and a range of European merchants, and ultimately British diplomats at the end of the eighteenth century, it was a case of frustration as the two different diplomatic and economic systems failed to connect in the way the Europeans wished. The talisman of this friction is the mission of Lord Macartney in 1793. This was part of a quasi-diplomatic effort on the part of the British East India Company to the Qianlong Emperor in Beijing. The mission, its hundred-plus members, and the array of British manufactures and technology were viewed as 'tribute from England' under the Chinese diplomatic system of the day. Macartney's efforts to get China to act like a Westphalian European nation-state, and thereby to grant Britain a diplomatic mission in Beijing, were dismissed by the Qing state out of hand. Things did not change until Britain was able to project sufficient military power to force the Qing to accede to their demands. This they did in 1842. By that time China was decidedly not better ruled and no longer able to defend itself against new military technologies from Europe. Political corruption associated with dynastic decline and dramatic population growth in China combined fatefully with industrialization and imperialism in Britain to create a reversal of fortunes. The Opium War – over Chinese efforts to limit British opium imports – saw the military defeat of the Qing forces and the diplomatic subordination of Chinese foreign affairs to the norms of civilization in what we today call the period of high European imperialism.

This history – rather than geography – has left two enduring impressions. For Europeans, the negative views of frustrated opium traders and imperialists have become general: China is weak, corrupt, doesn't want to be modern, and actively tries not to engage with the civilized world, yet, as Adam Smith famously opined, China represented the golden, nearly boundless market for European manufactures. For the Chinese, the outraged confusion of the Qing elite endures: the West is predatory, violent, self-righteous, and uninterested in Confucian civilization, but it is fearsomely powerful and brings some wonderful technologies. These ambivalent feelings on both sides endure, to be engaged or enflamed as contemporary events prompt, but they come from historical experience and not geographic or cultural determinism.

People and local society What geography and climate have contributed to Chinese life is internal diversity. People living in different ecological zones naturally have different foods, farming, and other activities. In addition, across this range of geographic and climatic areas are spread some fifty-five different ethnicities. China and 'the Chinese' are not uniform. The two biggest realities of ethnicity in China are, first, that there are nearly 100 million members of minorities who feel themselves to be meaningfully different from the Han majority, and second, the Han majority really is an overwhelming majority – comprising nearly 90 percent of the population of China. Unlike in Russia, the dominant ethnicity, in China's case the Han, is not threatened with demographic submersion under the numbers of non-dominant ethnic groups. Indeed, the problem, as we shall see, runs the other way: various minority areas, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang, run the real risk of being swallowed up by Han in-migration. They face not 'ethnic cleansing' but 'ethnic drowning.'

Yet the dominance of the Han is not a uniform experience. There is a wide diversity among the Han, based not only on region and economic class, but on dialect and local identity. The net result is what Susan Blum has aptly described as 'China's pluralism,' built around three axes: ethnic diversity, cultural diversity based on general lifeways, foodways, and language, and diversity of religious expression. These three building blocks – ethnicity, local cultural identities, and religious practices – are the foundation of personal identity and community experience in China. They create identity but also difference. One of the challenges for the PRC is how to embrace this de facto social and cultural pluralism and the differential experiences and responses of different ethnicities, localities, and religious communities, since this social diversity structures the experience of living with reform in China.

China's minority populations are vibrant human communities and many have links with neighboring countries, such as the Uighurs in the west, Koreans in the northeast and groups that cross China's borders with Southeast Asia. Additionally, minority populations are predominantly spread along the border regions of China – including a quarter of China's total land area in the thinly populated western regions of Tibet, Qinghai, and Xinjiang. In all, the territories that are largely inhabited by minority groups account for over half the entire area of the PRC. Thus, for China as a whole, these minority populations and where they live connect to three critically important issues for China today: border issues and national security, natural resources for development, and 'room to live' for the overcrowded Han populations in eastern China.

The Chinese government has put a great deal of effort into its minority policies, including special arrangements and affirmative action, as well as repression of threatening ethnic organizations or demonstrations. The PRC has established five provincial-level autonomous regions in areas where minorities have traditionally been majorities and in which these groups are meant to have political leadership at the local level. Of China's twenty-eight provincial-level units, the five autonomous regions designed for ethnic minorities are: Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang Uighur, Ningxia Hui, Guangxi Zhuang, and Tibet (see map). Autonomous administrative districts for minorities extend down the governmental chain to thirty-one autonomous prefectures and ninety-six autonomous counties in other provinces. In these areas, for example, government work may be done in both the locally designated minority language, as well as in Mandarin Chinese. Generally, the Party and government leadership in these areas includes many of the relevant ethnic groups, and quite often there are special subsidies or other preferential policies to help what are usually rural and poor communities of minorities. As we will see under political organization, below, autonomous does not mean independent.

A brief look at a few of the fifty-five ethnic groups gives a sense of China's astonishing pluralism on the ground. The largest ethnic group is, of course, the Han. With well over a billion people, its customs are China's official customs, as is its language. As we shall see below, there is considerable sub-ethnic diversity in language and customs among the Han. The largest of the minorities is the Zhuang, with nearly 16 million. Most Zhuang live in the southwest province of Guangxi and are related to people across the border in Vietnam. The odd thing about the Zhuang is that by the 1950s they had assimilated to a considerable extent with Han culture when the new PRC state encouraged them to pay more attention to their own cultural characteristics! The Guangxi autonomous region was established for them in 1958, very likely as a trial run for the establishment in 1965 of China's last and most controversial autonomous region, Tibet.

Muslim or Hui identity makes up ten of the fifty-five recognized ethnicities (Hui, Uighur, Kazakh, Tatar, Tajik, Uzbek, Kyrghyz, Dongxiang, Salar, Bonan). They total about 17 million people and speak a range of languages from Indo-European to Turkic/Altaic to Chinese. Two of China's autonomous regions – Xinjiang and Ningxia – are dominated by these Muslim communities. The Uighurs alone are the fifth-largest ethnic group in China, with a population of about 7 million. Uighur separatist groups have been staging violent incidents in recent years in Xinjiang and militating for closer ties with other Turkic-speaking Muslims in Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, and Tajikistan. The Uighurs in Xinjiang are a prime example of the political-economic-security issues of minorities in China. The government is deeply anxious about Islamic militancy, claiming that Uighur agitation is none other than 'Islamic terrorism.' Xinjiang has many valuable minerals and natural resources, and finally, Xinjiang has space. Han in-migration into the area has been immense in recent years, bringing the local majority of Uighurs to a minority percentage of the population – a classic example of 'ethnic drowning.'


Excerpted from Living with Reform by Timothy Cheek. Copyright © 2006 Timothy Cheek. Excerpted by permission of Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     vi
Chronology     vii
Map of China     x
Preface: what does Tiananmen mean?     1
Making sense: what is 'China'?     13
Living history: what was Maoism?     32
Reform: Mao is dead, long live Mao!     54
Brave new world: reform and openness     74
Winners and losers: reactions to reform     103
China in the world today     122
Conclusion     145
Notes     150
Suggested reading     163
Index     165

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