Sun, Mar 23, 2008 - Page 8 News List

Kosovo, Taiwan, Tibet rattle China

By Wen Liao

Why is China behaving as it is in Tibet? What makes Tibet so important to the government in Beijing? At the heart of the matter is the fact that nothing worries China's rulers more than when the country's unity is called into question. And nothing makes them more anxious than their fear that a regional dispute might, if not brought to an end quickly, steamroll into national disintegration.

Kosovo's recent declaration of independence sharpened the Chinese government's anxieties over the protests in Tibet. Although supporters of Kosovo's independence argue that it sets no international precedent, China's rulers fear otherwise. Moreover, Taiwan's presidential election has further ratcheted up the tension for China's government.

It may sound strange to the outside world that China, which has known nothing but economic success for three decades, should feel its unity to be so fragile. But China's history, both ancient and modern, suggests that there is nothing permanent or stable about the country's current unity.

Indeed, today's unity was secured only with Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) victory in 1949.

From the Warring States period (403BC to 221BC) to the warlord period of the 20th century (1916 to 1928) -- and many times in between -- China's territory has splintered into separate, rival regions. So, while loudly proclaiming the unity of the Chinese state, the leadership is obsessed with the country's fragility and works constantly to reduce tensions between provinces.

The government's failure to eradicate chronic regional tension underscores the limits of central authority in China, which was partly intentional. An integral feature of the reforms that Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) launched 30 years ago was greater autonomy for local authorities -- a move aimed at fostering accountability and creating incentives for growth.

But some provinces have gone further. The central government's loss of authority is reflected in the number of its appeals -- usually unsuccessful -- that it makes to local government for compliance with limits on investment or controls on pollution.

In any country as vast as China, far-flung regions are bound to have different interests and identities. Though few in China speculate aloud about it, there are some who believe that such differences may continue to tug the regions away from the center, and that some might one day break away.

This is the fear gnawing at China's rulers as they confront the unrest in Tibet. Of course, to judge from official rhetoric, there is no threat to unity. All of China's peoples, including non-Chinese in annexed territories such as Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, are firm and loyal supporters of the system, Beijing says. But the government's frequent rotation of local officials tells a different story. Keen to prevent any coalescence of regional identity and local authority, senior officers in China's seven military districts are also rotated regularly.

Another precaution taken by the central government is to shape the military districts so that they do not overlap with natural regional or economic divisions. This arrangement is designed to ensure that military and economic regionalism will cancel each other out. But it also reflects the Chinese government's constant fear that regional tensions may lead to national fragmentation.

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