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The New Politics of Sinophone Asia

Eric B. Brown & Charles Horner

In 1987, it became legal for Taiwan’s opposition parties to contest elections, eventually to the highest level. The president of the Republic of China (ROC) is now directly elected and, last January, in the most recent of five consecutive contests, the incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang, was re-elected. He was inaugurated on May 20. 

This should be one of many reminders that there have been in fact two polities that have been contesting for control of “China” since the end of the last imperial dynasty in 1912. One of them, the Republic of China, now a polity of 23 million citizens, has been confined territorially to the island of Taiwan since 1949. For much of its history, many have assumed that the republic on Taiwan is destined for extinction. Indeed, the real fear of being swallowed up by the mainland has helped fuel a popular desire in democratic Taiwan to become entirely separated from it. 

Yet, after more than 60 years the contest between the far bigger regime on the Asian continent and the regime on the island continues, albeit in a form far different from the brutal civil war that convulsed China for decades. Indeed, in 1979, it took another turn, as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) embarked on a radical transformation of its economy and, therefore, in its relationship to the world in general and to Taiwan in particular. 

This is but another chapter in the long and complex relationships between a core China, that is, the society and polity on the Asian mainland, and a peripheral China, that is, the many societies and places that have come to comprise what we today call “Greater China”. 

These interactions have had important consequences across the centuries and, today, that relationship has entered yet another phase, which could well overturn the conventional wisdom about the future of PRC-ROC relations and China as a whole. Indeed, it is now possible to imagine that the PRC’s many internal problems have made its future more than problematical, while the ROC’s successes in dealing with the political and economic challenges of modernity have made it a compelling model for political reforms on the Chinese mainland. 

While President Ma is into a new term in office, the centrally planned political transition in the People’s Republic of China isn’t going nearly as smoothly. The lead-up to the change in Party leadership slated to occur in November 2012 has been racked by scandal at the highest levels. 

In a widely publicized gambit, the Chinese Communist Party purged Bo Xilai, a member of its Politburo and an aspirant to power even greater than that. Bo had become famous as the Party’s man in Chongqing, a huge metropolis of more than 30 million people and the core of a booming economy in the western part of the country. 

In the Western press, Bo had routinely been described as populist, flamboyant, and charismatic, and also as an advocate for reviving a version of pre-1980 “left-ism” as a way of coping with the many problems that had arisen in China in the past 30 years. Those who engineered Bo’s removal from power simultaneously began a guerrilla public relations campaign to discredit him and, through well-placed leaks to eager Western media, spread a lurid tale of intrigue, venality, sex, and even murder. Some of it may even have been true, but no one really knows, and no one probably ever will. 

The purge of Bo Xilai is now fodder for analyses of many kinds. There is indeed more to think about than just the highly personalized struggle for power that exists at the highest level of China’s Communist Party. Bo’s rise and fall suggest that we also need to look more closely at the substructure of power within the country and that we try to gain a better appreciation of the many ways in which the New China of the past 30 years has scrambled many preexisting notions about the way things work there. 

Which China is China?

In the first place, “China” is more than just the People’s Republic headquartered in Beijing. It can more usefully be understood as a Greater China that includes the mainland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and a farther diaspora of Chinese speakers, principally in Southeast Asia, but also around the world. This is not a new phenomenon. The various parts of this world have been interacting for centuries and, especially in the 20th century. The most important deep relationship within the Sinophone world is the one that has developed between the “Sinophone core” on the Asian mainland and a “Sinophone periphery”, that is, the many Chinese societies and populations on the margins of the two Republics – the Republic of China of 1912 and the People’s Republic of 1949 – which have been the competitive heirs of China’s last imperial dynasty. 

Each of the people and places on the Sinophone periphery has its own historical connection to China “proper”. Singapore and Hong Kong were British colonies for a long time; the former is now independent, the latter since 1997 a unique part of the PRC. On Taiwan, large numbers of people long disputed the very idea that they were “Chinese” at all and the democratic polity that has been institutionalized there since 1987 has allowed that once-repressed sentiment to become a wholly legitimate and very potent political force. 

There are also dynamic Chinese communities in maritime ports and trading towns throughout the Greater Pacific region. Two of the most important thrive within the predominantly Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. 

The ongoing interrelationship between the Sinophone periphery and the Sinophone core has been a very powerful, albeit often underappreciated, force in driving the history of today’s PRC and the Chinese-speaking world at-large. Indeed, since the late 19th century, if not earlier, the Sinophone core has drawn repeatedly on the Sinophone periphery for political ideas and political energy.

In overthrowing the Qing dynasty, Sun Yat-sen’s republican movement had relied on the patriotism and money of Chinese outside the country. Chinese who lived outside the Republic of China also played a role in institution-building and reform post-1912. Later on, Chinese outside the country also contributed important political and financial support to the Republic of China’s resistance – when that government still controlled part of mainland China – against Imperial Japan during what is known in Asia as the Great Pacific War. 

The Sinophone periphery’s demonstrated power to make and un-make the political order on the Asian mainland helps explain the PRC’s obsession with it and its desire to control it. Indeed, the creation of a Beijing-centered New Sinophone Order wascentral to the PRC’s strategic vision over the last half of the 20th century – and it remains so in the 21st. 

Yet the periphery, however “Chinese” it may be, presents major challenges to the PRC’s grand ambitions. The periphery’s many successes in politics and economics have given it a legitimacy all its own, one that more than rivals the legitimacy of the PRC itself. Indeed, in the things that seem to matter the most in today’s world, it is the PRC – widely heralded as the world’s next great superpower – that has become Sinophone Asia’s trailing indictor. How has this happened? 

Clash of Themes

Discussion of the future of Asia has become a noisy cacophony as the sounds of “Rise and Fall” compete to be heard. The major theme, prominent for at least a decade, is still heard loud, but no longer clear: the 21st century will be the “Chinese Century”; the PRC will dominate the world; the South China Sea will become a PRC lake; Latin America and Africa will be integrated into the Chinese mega-economy; the PRC’s method of political economy – the “Beijing Consensus” – will supplant the “Neo-Liberal Consensus;” a new, PRC-centered order will take shape in Asia and then spread to the world beyond. 

But another orchestra, consisting mostly of enterprising journalists who report about actually existing China, has been sounding another theme. Every day, they add a blizzard of new notes to the score and they step up the music’s tempo. Like any great symphony, the tension is building and the crash of a crescendo seems imminent. 

Thousands of riots; violent protests against government actions; a demographic calamity of too few women and too many old people; public health problems of every description; environmental calamities; endemic corruption; a crisis of confidence in the political leadership that the leadership itself publicly acknowledges; a military buildup directed only secondarily toward foreign antagonists but primarily against the Chinese people themselves. 

Makers of national strategy around the world would, of course, prefer but a single, dominant, theme, the better to get in line. But it is within Sinophone Asia, not in North America or Europe, where the argument about the future of China will be settled. Two generations ago, the world concluded that the great struggle over China’s modern incarnation had been resolved when the communists routed their enemies. But the 21st century has begun with a renewal of that struggle and, once again, the victor is in doubt. 

Periphery to the Rescue

When Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in l949, he did so on behalf of all Chinese: “The Chinese people have stood up,” he said. But by the time of his death in 1976, Mao’s policies had brought Chinese society on the Asian mainland to ruin. The rise of China that we see today began in l978 with the repudiation of the Maoist model that had held sway between l949 and Mao’s death. 

In order to become a going concern, the PRC had to remake itself and also build connections to the larger world and, especially, to the Sinophone World. This could not have happened by Beijing’s choice alone. Chinese who lived outside the PRC had to decide to come to the rescue of those who had the misfortune of living inside the PRC – and they did. 

The severity of the crisis can be appreciated by Mao’s successors’ decision to junk the economic and social system they had inherited. Fortunately for the Communist Party of China, it had a lot to fall back on, though its own propaganda had successfully disguised that fact – and still does. Patriotic Chinese throughout the world had once been called on to support the Maoist dispensation in their ancestral homeland. Now, they received a new appeal to their patriotism – that they provide a multi-billion dollar bailout to keep their homeland afloat as new policies were implemented. They responded, and their investments fueled the first phase of the PRC’s renovation. 

They were able to respond as they did because, in the late 20th century, another Rise of China had been underway in Hong Kong, Singapore and, especially, on Taiwan. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were patterned on the achievements of these other Chinese societies in building highly productive economies. In this, the Sinophone Periphery offered a generation of experience for the PRC to emulate. 

At one level, these other survivors in the century-long battle to define Chinese modernity may have seemed woefully mismatched vis-a-vis Beijing, but the existence of conspicuous alternatives to the PRC’s way of doing things was, and remains, very consequential. The Chinese who thrived outside of the PRC had leapt ahead of their compatriots, and they still remain ahead. By every modern metric – economic, financial, organizational – they remind the PRC how far it must yet move in order to catch up with even its own kith and kin, let alone the rest of the modern world. 

Right now, the term that best describes the gap between today’s PRC and its future is “Cross Strait China”, that is, the major relationship across the Taiwan Strait. In 2010, well over half of the US$100 billion foreign direct investment in China came from the Sinophone periphery and the lion’s share of that came from Taiwan. Almost all of Taiwan’s investments are concentrated in the coastal provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Shandong, making Taiwan a, maybe even the, center of gravity of the PRC’s coastal economy. And there is certainly more to come. 

Taiwan has a war chest of $400 billion, the fourth-largest holding of foreign reserves in the world. As the PRC seeks to move up the high-technology, value-added, ladder, Taiwan will expand the already enormous economic infrastructure it has established inside China. Foxconn, the Taiwan company that employs about a million workers in China who manufacture gadgets for Apple and similar companies, is only one of the many Taiwan-owned and operated companies that employ millions of Chinese workers and generate real economic growth. 

Indeed, it was Taiwan which built and managed many of the facilities that absorbed the tens of millions of Chinese workers who migrated from the interior to the coast, the workers who powered the PRC’s post-1978 takeoff. In so doing, Taiwan played a historic role in helping to create what is the single most important fault line in today’s PRC – the vast disparity in wealth between the eastern coast and the western hinterland. 

It is that gap that has come to define an ongoing struggle in Beijing, now made famous by the purge of Bo Xilai. Indeed, it is in large part the infusion of Taiwanese capital that is now driving the growth in China’s interior and western provinces, and which is thus potentially inaugurating a new, more continentally centered phase in China’s rise. 

How does the increasingly hard-pressed Communist Party in Beijing propose to keep up with these changes? At the moment, it appears to be scrambling just to keep up with the trend, even as ever more Chinese are moving to keep themselves ahead of it. For one potent example, many of the PRC’s newly rich beneficiaries of the existing dispensation nonetheless want out. Their patriotic sentiments or their feelings of gratitude to the Party seem less in evidence by the day. 

They are smuggling huge amounts of money out of the country; they buy safe houses in British Columbia and California; they send their children to Oxbridge and to the Ivy League; they also have other than PRC passports tucked away. 

There are prominent, culturally creative people inside the PRC who may not necessarily want to leave it, but who certainly do not want to see the PRC continue many of its present practices either. In particular, distinguished writers and artists do not want to be imprisoned or harassed by the PRC’s Ministry of Public Security. And, as we are learning every day, there are millions living a more mundane life in rural villages who also may not want to leave but who nonetheless take increasingly violent exception to the PRC’s current mode of governance. 

The Communist Party of China seems to believe that at least one way to deal with this widespread deterioration in civic morale is to deprive Chinese on the mainland of the sight and the sound of an alternative “Chinese” way of doing things. This is what the PRC’s desired “liberation” of Taiwan is all about. There may be useful economic co-operation between Taiwan and the PRC but, politically, the PRC knows that Taiwan’s present drives the vision of the future among the genuine political reformers on the mainland. 

For many, even most, foreign observers, it has become axiomatic that today’s ever-expanding economic relationship between Taiwan and the PRC will, over time, bring Taiwan to heel. But the more one closely examines the deeper structure of Taiwan-PRC relations, the easier it is to believe that the balance of influence is moving in the opposite direction. 

Today, the Republic of China on Taiwan presents a far more robust, and sustainable, political model for the Chinese-speaking world than does the PRC. Whether Taiwan will also prove to be the engine of democratization on the mainland is a separate matter. 

And yet, between the two Chinese republics that have staked rival claims to China’s future, it is the RoC on Taiwan which today best represents the future and it is the PRC which is falling further behind. In 2012 alone, the Sinophone world has already hosted one great political transition – the inauguration in May in Taipei of a president, democratically elected in January. The other, expected in October, will be a one-party dictatorship’s stage-managed and opaque succession in Beijing, one that has already been marred by the all-too-public purge of Bo and the increasingly publiv suppression of human rights activists. 

The Future That Might Work

Greater China is a place where anniversaries matter. In 2011, the Communist Party of China celebrated the 90th anniversary of its founding and Chinese people around the world marked the centennial of the uprising that led to the end of the Qing dynasty and the demise of China’s ancient imperial system as a whole; 2011 was also the year of the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, let us remember, was once widely hailed as the most modern, the most scientific, the most advanced all-around, and the most potentially productive society in the world – the future that worked, as one famous phrase had it.

In the PRC, the study of the Soviet collapse has been an academic cottage industry and a Communist Party preoccupation, as well it should be. It has hovered over the country’s debates about domestic policy and international strategy ever since. Shortly after the Soviets’ demise, Deng Xiaoping, architect of the l978 reforms, took a famous tour of coastal China in l992 and conspicuously reaffirmed his faith in the reforms and the need for them to continue. 

Others were nervous and wanted backsliding. Until the past few years, that debate remained relatively quiescent but, as we have noted – and to use some Party lingo – the “contradictions” built into Deng’s project are becoming more “antagonistic” to the point where many in the Party think they have become regime-threatening and, therefore, in need of close scrutiny and re-evaluation. 

Of course, we cannot know how this particular situation will resolve itself. It is entirely likely that the PRC will, as it has repeatedly done in the past, seek to rein in all of China’s inherent contradictions by force. But we do know that, at critical times in modern China’s history, the Sinophone periphery has intervened dramatically and exercised an influence well beyond what customary analyses would have predicted. This alone suggests that the balance of power in Sinophone Asia is on the verge of another great shift. Will the experience of those on the Chinese periphery once again intervene with a model to transform China?

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