Where is China’s center?

Where is China’s center?
Where is China’s center?
Posted on 2010-08-13

An article from General Liu Yazhou (刘亚洲) of the National Defense University has appeared online and drawn a great deal of attention. The first section of this article is about how China should place high priority on its strategy for development of China’s western regions. The second section discusses the relationship between our social and political systems and our rise as a nation.

“The secret to America’s success does not lie with Wall Street,” Liu Yazhou writes, “nor does it lie with Silicon Valley. The real secret lies in its unfailing system of rule of law and the mechanisms that lie behind this rule of law.”

Readers of Liu’s article have been picking and choosing, some talking about westward progress, others about systems and institutions. Few people seem to have noticed, however, that there is a clear disjointedness between these two parts, and that there are also points of contradiction.

One journalist who called to interview me already had picked up on this fact. Why, she asked me, did there seem to be such a huge leap between the first and second sections of Liu’s essay. It was as though at one moment we were on westward development, and the next on to a totally different conclusion.

In fact, the root of this issue lies in General Liu Yazhou’s shifting identity and perspective as he explores different problems. When he launches into a major discussion of western development, he is an unparalleled military strategist, showing great acumen and breadth of vision (he pointed out the importance of westward development more than a decade ago, in fact). But after this he changes identities, and becomes an even more masterful political thinker.

As a military strategist, General Liu considers the significance of westward progress in opposing China’s containment by the world, and there’s not a soul who could argue this point with greater perspicacity. But when, out of concern for his country and his people, he is driven onto a completely different stage — becoming a thinker on China and the world, on China’s rise — he starts advocating “progress inward” (内进), which is about resolving the problems that exist within our system, and about considering our values and “what, other than money, is important.”

This post isn’t about assessing the General’s article, or discussing the strategy of westward progress with him. He understands these issues far better than I do. Nor is it my intention to discuss the second portion on institutions and China’s rise, because these are irrefutable things about which we are already in complete agreement.

Still, there are a number of sentences in the piece that kindled my intellect, and I want to take this opportunity to talk about why we should need westward progress.

So why? Why must China “drive westward”?

Let’s look first at one of Liu Yazhou’s sections where he talks about China’s need for a drive westward:

“Today, Xinjiang stands as more than a buffer zone. It has a key natural resources role, with great strategic importance for China’s energy security. And particularly, Xinjiang is an important strategic springboard: Xinjiang’s western overland routes connect it to the Middle East, and south through Pakistan one can reach the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz.” “Aside from its importance in geopolitics, Xinjiang also supports China’s sustainable development in the 21st century as a place of alternative resources.” “China’s west is a vast region. To the west lies not only our strategic orientation, but also our hope, or even the destiny of our generation. Its excellent geographic position (right at the center of the world) gives us great motive power. We should see our western regions as the interior of our progress and advancement, not as the margins.”

The first feeling these words gave me was of a mass of Chinese living at the center and planning to drive boldly ahead into a region critically important to their survival and development, for the sake of the nation’s strength and rise, and opposing containment by the world . . .

My second feeling was that China’s west does not belong to China, or it’s a region of minimal importance that is very far from China. Over there (in the west, or Xinjiang) there is no one at all to speak of — or at least none of us “Chinese” (people of the “middle kingdom”). But now, for the sake of the stability of our nation’s center, we should take a fresh look at this region. Maybe it really is a good springboard . . .

My third feeling is one that stuck. And I would ask everyone to please recall with me how, in the early 1990s, an old retired man, just like a God, marked out a line near the South China Sea, and thereupon was Shenzhen. Before long, leaders emerging from Shanghai and marked out a map there too, and thence, in the east of China, emerged the world’s most rapidly developing city.

So now, it has come to the west?

Just to be clear, please note that for General Liu to employ such words in a discussion of military strategy and a westward push is beyond reproach. I’m simply seizing on this as an opportunity, because I want to talk a bit about our country’s mode of development, about my own perspective on our country and its people, and about the strange circle from which we seem unable, as a collective nation capable of “gathering forces to achieve great things”, to find any escape.

I had the good fortune of working in Hainan Province for several years. Like Xinjiang, Hainan should be regarded as the periphery. During that time I felt a deep sense that we were waiting for “China” (for the Central Party) to announce a new policy for the development of Hainan. Also waiting, of course, were the local leaders — who were being changed out like children on a merry-go-round — and roughly six million Hainan residents who had no way of getting off. It seems almost comical, looking back now.

As to what kind of place Hainan is, and how it should be developed, the local people — and remember, they too are “Chinese” — should make their own determination based on their actual circumstances. Instead, leaders came and went, nothing special happened to the Hainan Special Zone, and the policy favors went instead to Shenzhen and Shanghai.

Ah, poor Hainan. For two decades it waited. And during these 20 years, the dust gathered over the “Hawaii of the East,” over “China’s Bali” and other such branding efforts. Could it be a Hawaii? It could never become Hawaii, because Hawaii is the American interior, don’t you know? This Hainan Island of yours is just a chicken dropping under the ass of the great miser. [NOTE: The word "miser" in Chinese is literally "iron rooster," and Yang is using this as a reference also to China's land mass, which is said to resemble a rooster. The suggestion is that the central government has been miserly in withholding beneficial development policies from Hainan.]

And then there’s Xinjiang. But what we see isn’t Xinjiang, nor is it the Chinese people who live there. What we see are the resources. What we see is the positioning toward the Middle East. What we see is the world decades from now and China’s position in it. What we see is where America, Russia and Turkey are likely to compete for dominance. What we see is the threat instability there poses to stability at the “center” . . . So thereupon, we must push into and develop and advance Xinjiang — we must see it as an “interior,” as our own homeland . . .

Can you glimpse yet the silly and regrettable aspects of this logic?

Since ancient times, have the people who have lived in Xinjiang, or the people who have lived in Hainan, ever been Chinese, or people living in the “middle country”? Why is it that only when the nation has a need do we decide to go and develop these areas? Or that we finally introduce policies allowing them to develop themselves? Why is it that hitherto we have only recognized the existence of these places under the slogan of “preserving the territorial integrity of our nation”?

The theory behind this logic is the idea of “the state as the base” (以国为本). The state has become the center leading 1.4 billion people. Or the state, you can say, has been abstracted, so that all “regions” and all people become vassals of the state, and exist for its purpose. Development serves the state, as do sacrifice and backwardness . . . As to which areas should be developed, and what kind of lives the people should live, these are questions of whether or not it ultimately serves the interests of the state, whether it serves the great plan of “the whole country” (全国一盘棋).

This is a unique characteristic of ours as Chinese. Go to the U.S. State of Hawaii and ask people, and they will definitely tell you that they are the American interior. Go to the State of Alaska and ask around, and you’ll find that local oil resources have, first and foremost, brought riches to the local people.

President Hu Jintao’s slogan of “people as the base” (以人为本) is meant to correct the concept of “the state as the base,” but of course the road is still long.

Even Liu Yazhou, excellent thinker though he is, has not leapt beyond this strange circle of thinking. When he discusses national strategy, westward development and ethnic policies, he persists in seeing Xinjiang as a “springboard,” as an interior into which we must advance.

What Liu overlooks is that, for those who live there, Xinjiang is already their “interior,” and the leap that needs to be made from this springboard is the economic development of their western region, the improvement of the lives of those living in the west. It’s not about some “national rise” . . .

Naturally, when General Liu Yazhou later examines his own westward strategy in terms of political thought and institutional rethinking, he comes to a conclusion that may feel to us to be a bit out of joint.

So the center of China is . . . ?

What do we mean when we say “people are the base”? If you look at our mode of economic development you’ll discover that “people as the base” is a long way from becoming a working part of our governing mentality. It is even farther from becoming part of our values as a population. We’ve always taken the state as our base.

And when the state has become the center, you’ll discover that the state stands in for all individuals. Moreover, all provinces become “peripheral regions” (边疆).

People as the base means the people of Hainan as the base, the people of Wuhan as the base, the people of Xinjiang as the base, the people of Hong Kong as the base. It’s not about those who deign to represent the people and the nation gazing down from the heights and saying, “You are the base.” Rather, everyone is their own base. Only when we have achieved this “people as the base” will we be able to realize the greatness of China and the beauty of China. Only then will we be able to answer the question: where is China’s center?

Is it Beijing, or Shanghai? Is it Wuhan, or Nanjing?

Having had the opportunity to live in both America and Europe for more the a decade all told, I am struck by the degree of autonomy and self-governance shown by their states (which are like our Chinese provinces). As migrants, we flock to our country’s largest cities, because we feel that they are somehow China’s “center”? As time went on, though, I really felt how much, in these other countries, there was a high degree of regional autonomy, and how every person was so conscious of “people as the base” (and the individual as the base), not as an abstract concept but as a concrete way of life.

As a result, as most Europeans and Americans will tell you, the place where they live is the “center.” Or, you might say, they completely don’t buy the notion of a “center.” You won’t find anyone who will say that Washington, D.C., or Canberra is the center of the United States or Australia. Nor will you find anyone in the northwestern American city of Seattle waiting anxiously for the government to come and develop this “peripheral region.”

Well then, where is China’s center?

What we can all anticipate is this sort of answer . . . China’s center is where you are standing right now. It’s in Qiqiha’er, where you are now, and in Hothot, and Haikou and Hong Kong and Urumqi and Nanning and Qinghai and Taipei . . .

When Xinjiang, Haikou, Hong Kong, Wuhan and such places become China’s “center” . . . [NOTE: Yang purposely leaves this thought unfinished.]

China is a big place, and you’ll often hear people say it’s very difficult to manage as a result. But having developed to this point, shouldn’t China change out its way of thinking and allow local governments and populations to manage their own affairs?

Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland are very different in this respect. I was fortunate also to have had the opportunity to work in Hong Kong for several years. When I was there I had contact with many mainland officials and cadres (some of whom even had the power to affect policy decisions concerning Hong Kong). When I look back now, I shiver all over at the thought of how few actually understood Hong Kong and the Hong Kong people. What gave them the right to determine Hong Kong policy?

After the problems in Xinjiang last year, the statement that most saddened me was: “They are seeking to . . . ” Well, who are “they”? In the hearts of many of us, “they” are those Chinese who are different from us, or perhaps even are no longer “Chinese.” They want to splinter China, and to destroy our harmonious environment. “They” think nothing of overall priorities, and even deign to think that they are the masters of that region.

I have appreciation, of course, for the CCP policy toward Hong Kong, which shows some respect for the views of Hong Kongers and allows for self-governance. But I am even more appreciative for pending changes in our policies toward Xinjiang. These policies aren’t actually difficult to rework. It requires only getting out of the office, stepping out of one’s element, and really moving among the Chinese people of Xinjiang — living, working and thinking among them. Then you will know how they think, what they want, and what they despise.

When you understand this, you realize that like us they are all Chinese. However, they too believe that Xinjiang is the center of China, so naturally they are the bosses there! But you have no need to fear. Because when they proudly believe that the places where they live — Xinjiang (or Haikou, Hong Kong, Wuhan, Shanghai) — are the “center” of China, you’ll have no need to go and open things up, to develop the periphery.

And then too, harmony will truly come.

This essay appeared originally in Chinese at Yang Hengjun’s Blog.

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