Geopolitics within China

The year 2017 has short, medium, and long-term significance in China.

Its short-term significance comes from the Communist Party’s quinquennial leadership transition, which is being held a week from today.

Its medium-term significance comes from being the twentieth anniversary of the most recent notable geopolitical transition in China; namely, of Hong Kong leaving the British to join (in effect) China’s largest province Guangdong, and of Chongqing leaving China’s formerly-largest province Sichuan, in 1997*.

Its long-term significance comes from being the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution; of which, with the Soviet Union now long gone, the Chinese Communist Party is the only major remnant. The Party’s centennial is itself arriving in 2021, the first deadline in Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”.

It is interesting to think on how these factors may overlap. The Russian Revolution of course brings to mind the Soviet collapse. That collapse occured 69 years after the Soviet Union’s formation; next year will be 69 years since the People’s Republic of China’s formation. These memories may be reenforcing the desire of China’s leadership to avoid the mistakes they perceive Gorbachev to have made. In a small way, this might be contributing to the Party’s granting more power to Xi Jinping. The promotions Xi makes this week are being watched closely, worldwide, as a yardstick of his clout.

Geopolitics within China 

The twentieth anniversary of the political changes to the Hong Kong-Guangdong and Sichuan-Chongqing regions are, arguably, deeply relevant to this issue.

First, the two men Xi is expected to highlight as long-term successors of himself and of Premier Li Keqiang currently lead those regions. Chen Min’er is the party chief of Chongqing, Hu Chunhua is the party chief of Guangdong. Both will have an incentive to keep their regions pliant, in order to realize this rise to the top.

Second, the strongest moves in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign have been taken against top leaders in the Sichuan-Chongqing region: against Sun Zhengcai, party chief of Chongqing, a few months ago, and against Zhou Yongkang, a former chief of Sichuan, in 2015. Sun will be the first Politburo member kicked out under Xi. He will be just the third incumbent Politburo member to fall in the past 20 years, and yet the second party chief of Chongqing (the other being Bo Xilai, in 2012) to do so.

Third, Guangdong and Sichuan are by far the largest of China’s “peripheral” provinces (see graph); provinces outside of the part of China that, roughly speaking, lies between or near Beijing and Shanghai. Few recent Chinese leaders have been born in peripheral provinces; the new Standing Committee that Xi is expected to pick will not have anyone born in a peripheral province. Neither was anyone on the current Standing Committee* born in a peripheral province. Indeed, nobody born in Guangdong or Sichuan holds any of the 43 positions within the Communist Party’s Politburo, Secretariat, or Central Military Commission.

China's Peripheral Provinces

Read the full article here: Geopolitics within China

Labour Strikes in China

The China Labour Bulletin website provides maps displaying incidents of labour strikes that have occurred in recent years. While of course these should be viewed with a hefty grain of salt, they may be worth scrutinizing all the same.

This image below shows the number of strikes in general that have occurred since 2011: as you can see, they have been becoming a lot more common since the beginning of 2014.

since 2011 map

Yet this may be somewhat misleading: nearly half of the strikes indicated in the map above are thought to have had fewer than 100 people participate in them. It may be better to look just at the number of larger strikes that have occured, as the following two maps do:

1000-10,000, 2011.png

more than 10,000 persons since 2011
4 out of the 7 labour strikes involving 10,000+ people since 2011 occured in Guangdong province, according to the China Labour Bulletin

These maps above show that the larger strikes, with 1000-10,000 people and 10,000+ people, respectively, occured most often in 2014, unlike the smaller but more numerous strikes that occured most frequently in 2015 and so far in 2016. Since 2015 there have not been any strikes involving more than 10,000 people, according to the China Labour Bulletin.


Now let’s have a closer look at the differences between China’s many provinces. Below I have tried to graph the number of strikes that have occurred in each province, first since 2011 and then since 2015:


2015Guangdong, China’s most populous province, finished at the top of both graphs, while Tibet, Qinghai, Hainan, Tianjin, Ningxia, Gansu, and Xinjiang finished at the bottom of both graphs. All of the provinces of China are more or less in the same position in both graphs, in fact. And there are no major regional patterns that can be gleaned clearly from either list.

1000 - 10,000 since 2015.png
Labour strikes since January 1, 2015 involving at least one thousand people. Guangdong had 27, followed by Jiangsu with 9 and Shandong with 8.

What if we adjust the figures to take into account the population size and GDP of each province?  Then we get the following graphs:

2011 pop

2011 gdp

Here Guangdong and Tibet again finished at the top and bottom of both graphs, respectively. Ningxia, however, which had finished fifth from the bottom before adjusting for population and GDP, has now moved up to second from the top. Ningxia is China’s third least populous province (the two Tibetan provinces, Tibet and Qinghai, are the least populous), is one of China’s five “autonomous regions” (the others are Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Guangxi), and, along with Xinjiang, has by far the highest concentration of Muslim inhabitants of any province in the country.

In the adjusted-for-population graph, China’s relatively small and wealthy “direct-controlled municipalities”, namely Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, and Chongqing, were much higher up than they were on the adjusted-for-GDP graph, with the exception of  Chongqing. (Chongqing is quite a bit less urbanized than the three others are). Shanghai and Beijing were third and fifth, respectively, while Tianjin, which was the least strike-prone of any province when adjusted-for-GDP, was close to the middle of the pack when adjusted-for-population.

Another big change was Hainan, China’s southernmost province and only island province (not counting Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan), which was third from the bottom before adjusting for population size or GDP, but fourth from the top when adjusting for GDP and eighth when adjusting for population size. Shanxi and Shaanxi, meanwhile, two neighbouring provinces located in and around the mountains of north-central China, moved from around the middle of the pack to near the top once adjusted for GDP and population.


Shanxi in particular is China’s major coal producing region, and the coal industry has come under a lot of pressure in recent years, which may help explain Shanxi’s high position on both of these graphs. (Shaanxi too is a top coal producer. Inner Mongolia, though, China’s second biggest coal producer, is admittedly near the bottom of the GDP-adjusted labour strikes graph). Shanxi has also been arguably the main provincial target by far of Xi Jinping’s intense “anti-corruption” campaign.

Still, these graphs again do not prioritize large strikes over smaller ones. Below, then, are the strikes with between 1000 – 10,000 participants that have occured since 2011. Since there have been very few strikes with more than 10,000 participants, the 1000-10,000 category accounts for an overwhelming share of the large labour strikes that have taken place:

1000 since 2011

1000 since 2011:pop

1000 since 2011:gdp

The graph showing labour strikes with more than 1000 people since 2011, adjusted for GDP size, is I suspect the most important one. The population-adjusted graphs tend to somewhat misleadingly overemphasize the wealthiest provinces, like Shanghai or Tianjin, since they have lots of per capita economic activity and therefore also lots of per capita labour strikes. The graphs that are not adjusted at all skew in favour of populous provinces, meanwhile. The GDP-adjusted graphs, though, are perhaps the most indicative of provinces in which there may be growing social challenges to China’s political or economic establishment.

Notably, this GDP-adjusted graph is also the only one in which clear regional divisions can be seen. Apart from Guizhou, nine of the ten westernmost provinces in China- Tibet, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Yunnan,  Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, Chongqing, and Gansu – are in the bottom thirteen provinces of the list, and six are also in the bottom seven of the list. Seven of the top nine provinces on the list, meanwhile, are seven of China’s eleven eastern coastal states. These also happen to be the seven most southern coastal states on the Chinese mainland.

Beijing and the provinces around Beijing, like Liaoning, Hebei, Henan, Tianjin, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, and Shandong, are near the bottom or the middle of the list. Shanghai on the other hand, as well as two of the three provinces that surround Shanghai, namely Jiangsu and Anhui, are quite close to the top of the list. Guangdong, which is the most populous province in China, remains far ahead at the top of the list. Three of Guangdong’s four neighbouring provinces, namely Jiangxi, Guangxi, and Fujian, are at the top of the list as well.


Remarkably, Guangdong’s GDP-adjusted figure for large labour strikes is roughly twice as high as any other province and five times the nationwide average. Guangdong has also been home to four of the seven labour strikes in China involving more than 10,000 people since 2011, according to the China Labour Bulletin. Given Guangdong’s enormous size and revolutionary history, this may be worth noting.


The other biggest outlier is the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, which apart from Guangdong had by far the most large strikes adjusted for GDP size. Heilongjiang has been a major oil and coal producing province, which may partially help to explain this. Strikes in the province have been putting its governor Lu Hao, the youngest provincial governor in the country, under a lot of political pressure of late.

Heilongjiang’s position also highlights an interesting trend: China’s most peripheral provinces, like Tibet, Guangdong, Heilongjiang, Xinjiang, Guangxi, Yunnan, Qinghai, Inner Mongolia, Hainan, and Jiangxi, are either at the very top of the list or at the very bottom of the list. Heilongjiang itself has the longest international border in China outside of the three “autonomous regions” of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. Heilongjiang’s border with Russia is only slightly shorter than the entire US-Mexican border. Hopefully Donald Trump will move there once he loses the election this year,  and trouble America no more.

The China Labour Bulletin maps also zoom in to show which cities the strikes occured in, and gives basic information about them. For example:


It also breaks down the strikes by the response they are thought to have received, in five categories: “police”, “arrest(s)”, “government mediation”, “negotiation”, or “other”. According to the site, “Guangdong also led the country in the number of police interventions in labour disputes, accounting for about 19 percent of the total 831 incidents in which police were deployed and 24 percent of the incidents in which arrests were made”.

“Worker protests accounted for 38 percent of all mass protests by Chinese citizens last year, according to statistics published on the well-respected Wickedonna blog.”

To close, here are the numbers of strikes of all sizes since the beginning of 2015, adjusted for provincial population size and provincial GDP size. Guangdong is finally not at the top of either:

2015 pop

2015 gdp

But if you look only at large strikes since 2015, then Guangdong is back on top:

1000 - 10,000 since 2015.png
Labour strikes since January 1, 2015 involving at least one thousand people. Guangdong had 27, followed by Jiangsu with 9, Shandong with 8, and Sichuan with 5. There have been no strikes with 10,000+ people since the beginning of 2015, according to the China Labour Bulletin

The Provincials — Image of the Day

the provincials

The graph above shows the size of countries’ largest provinces or states in relation to their  overall populations. So California, for example, is home to approximately 12 percent of the total population of the United States, whereas Ontario is home to 39 percent of Canada’s population and Punjab to 47 percent of Pakistan’s.


The biggest standout here, though, is Argentina’s largest province Buenos Aires, which is by far the most populous of Argentina’s 24 provinces. In fact, the population of the province of Buenos Aires does not even include that of the “Autonomous City” of Buenos Aires – see map above – which is itself the fourth most populous province in the country. In Argentina’s presidential elections this past October, the two candidates were the leaders of the province of Buenos Aires and the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, respectively.

Below is a graph, made using data taken from Wikipedia, which shows the GDP sizes of the biggest provincial/state economies around the world, in nominal terms. It is led by California, which is thought to have an economic output of nearly $2.3 trillion these days, larger than all but seven of the world’s countries. Given the nature of this information, though, this graph should probably be taken with a decent-sized grain of salt.

nominal gdp

13 of the 34 provinces/states in the graph above are in the USA, 9 are in China, and 13 are in other countries. Germany and Japan both have 2, but they are the only countries apart from the US or China to have more than 1 province on this graph.

No Indian states made it on to the graph above. On the graph below, however, which shows the 34 most populous provinces/states in the world, 11 are from India, whereas California, the most populous US state, is ranked 33rd. 17 out of 34 on the graph below are Chinese, and 6 are neither Chinese nor Indian. This graph also shows the territory size of each province.


Note the dominance of India’s province Uttar Pradesh. In fact, India’s five most populous states – Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, and Madhya Pradesh (combined population: approximately 580 million) – border one another in a direct line, and Uttar Pradesh also directly borders India’s seventh most populous state, Rajasthan, as well as India’s most densely populated state, Delhi (India’s capital). In China and the US, in contrast, some of the largest states, notably California, Texas, Florida and Illinois in the US and Guangdong and Sichuan in China, do not border any of the other most populous states within their own country.


In Germany, meanwhile, the fifth most populous state in the country, Hesse, directly borders all four of the most populous German states: North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemburg, and Lower Saxony. Hesse’s chief city is Frankfurt, a European finance and transport hub.


Finally, in Brazil, the three most populous states, namely Sao Paulo (which is by far the largest), Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro, directly border one another. Sao Paolo also borders the sixth largest state, Parana, while Minas Gerais also borders the fourth largest state, Bahia. The four largest Brazilian states are home to 48 percent of Brazil’s overall population.



China’s Hidden Regionacracy, part 1: China’s Borderlands


How can one measure China’s economic stability? In the West, it is common to look to Hong Kong and Tibet as litmus tests of the strength of the central Chinese government. While it is true that both Hong Kong and Tibet are very important places, their combined populations do not account for even one percent of China’s overall inhabitants.

To get a better sense of China’s stability, then, one must also examine the other areas of China where the dictates of the central government are most likely to be resisted. Arguably, these include the following six regions: Southwestern China (namely, the provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou, plus the “Autonomous Region” of Guangxi), Southeastern China (the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, and Hainan), Northeastern China (the provinces of Heilongxiang and Jilin), the Sichuan plateau (the province of Sichuan and “Direct-controlled Municipality” of Chongqing), and the “Autonomous Regions” of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

These regions have a total population of over half a billion. They are home to a majority of China’s 120 million or so ethnic minorities, 300-400 million speakers of languages other than Mandarin, tens of millions of speakers of dialects of Mandarin that are relatively dissimilar to the Beijing-based standardized version of Mandarin, 20-30 million Muslims, 50-100 million recent adopters of Christianity, and tens of millions of family members of the vast worldwide Chinese diaspora.

Together, these regions form a cordon around the flat, triangle-shaped Chinese heartland that extends for more than a thousand kilometres from Beijing to Shanghai, where most of the rest of China’s population lives. Several other provinces, meanwhile, such as Shanxi, Gansu, Hunan, and the Hui Muslim “Autonomous Region” of Ningxia, arguably fall somewhere in between China’s central and peripheral territories, from both a geographical and political perspective.

Along with the high-altitude Tibetan(-Qinghai) Plateau and the Chinese Himalayas, these six peripheral regions possess by far the most rugged, expansive, and insular terrain within China. Their territories consist either of:

  • subtropical hills and mountains (throughout most of Southeastern and Southwestern China)
  • vast semi-desert plateaus (in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia)
  • enormous mountains (in Xinjiang, where mountains cover an area larger than England and regularly reach heights higher than the highest Rockies)
  • mountainous or hilly islands (within the archipelagic coastal waters of Southeastern China, in places like Hong Kong, Macau, Hainan province, Xiamen, Zhoushan, Pingtan County, and nearby Taiwan)
  • mountain-enclosed riverlands (in Sichuan and Northeastern China)

Not surprisingly, Chinese central governments, whether they are controlled by ethnic Han Chinese as is the case today, or else by outside invaders like the Manchu or Japanese as was the case for most of the past half-millenium, have almost always had trouble subduing most or all of these areas.

Indeed, China’s peripheral regions contain all of China’s land borders, which are the longest in the world, more than two thousand kilometres longer than all of Russia’s land borders and well over double the length of the continental United States’. These borders remain almost impossible for the Chinese government to fully control, not only because of their incredible length and difficult terrain, but also because they are located an average of between one and a half thousand and three thousand kilometers away from the Chinese heartland. Only two significant railway lines cross the western half of this enormous distance as of yet.

Complicating matters further, China’s borders are shared with fourteen different countries, nearly all of which possess either ethnolinguistic or religious ties with the areas of China they are adjacent to. These include:

  • the long Himalayan border that separates Tibet from India, Nepal, and Bhutan, across which the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leadership resides
  • the even longer border that seperates Inner Mongolia (where more than one-fifth of the population are ethnic Mongols) and Xinjiang from the country of Mongolia (which in turn shares a three and a half thousand kilometer-long border with Russia)
  • the Manchurian-Korean border, where China is terrified of millions of refugees flowing in from North Korea in the event of a disaster there, and where nearly two million people living in the Manchurian provinces of Heilongxiang and Jilin are already Korean
  • the twin Siberian borders with Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria; Xinjiang’s borders with Khazakstan, Kyrgystan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir, where, as in Xinjiang, a plurality of the population is Muslim and/or ethnolinguistically Turkic
  • the southeastern and southwestern Chinese borders with Southeast Asia, throughout which there is a diaspora of tens of millions of southern Chinese, and where ethnic minority populations span both sides of China’s borders with countries like Myanmar and Vietnam.

As the economies of these peripheral Chinese regions as well as China’s neighbouring countries emerge, as in recent years many have begun to do at a faster pace than the Chinese economy has as a whole, they may deepen this array of cross-border relationships, and in turn could undermine efforts by China’s central government to enforce national unity within the huge Chinese economic and political system. The Chinese have certainly been worried about their neighbours within the relatively recent past: China sacrificed hundreds of thousands of its citizens during the Korean War in the 1950’s and then thousands during the Sino-Vietnam War in 1979, which, as a point of comparison, may be more casualties than the United States has suffered in all of the wars it has ever fought put together.

Since the 1980’s, however, as the China-US alliance took root and the Chinese economy began rapidly expanding, and as the economic growth of most of China’s neighbours collapsed in the early 1990’s (Japan and the Soviet Union), late 1990’s (South Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and British-era Hong Kong), or during the the 2008 global recession (Russia, Japan, Taiwan, Europe, and North America), while around the same time the power of China’s English-speaking rivals became preoccupied with Afghanistan and Iraq throughout the 2000’s, China has not had to worry about its borderlands nearly so much.

This is not to say that these regions were problem-free during this period. The Chinese government has in fact been concerned with many of them, including, for example:

Yet all such risks proved to be manageable ones, eased as they were by the amazing Chinese economic boom that was then still in full swing, and by the fact that China, which until 2010 still had an economy thought to be smaller than Japan’s, had not yet attracted the full attention of other powers intent on containing it.

Lately, in contrast, just as the United States has been disengaging from Afghanistan and Iraq and the economies of the US and Britain have begun speeding up again following their multi-year post-recession slog, and just as Japan, which continues to have the third largest economy in the world by a large margin, has finally begun to rebuild its will to implement an aggressive economic stimulus program and outwardly post-pacifistic foreign policy, many of China’s peripheral provinces and most of the countries surrounding China either grew or accelerated their economies at a faster pace than did the overall Chinese economy, which has slowed significantly in recent years.

In some of these areas, for instance on both sides of the border between south-western China and northern and eastern India, growth in 2014 accelerated at a much faster pace than in China as a whole. While China’s overall economic growth nevertheless remains quite strong compared to most of the rest of Asia and the world – at least, according to Beijing’s own official estimates, which admittedly are dubious – this constellation of recent trends does not bode well for its central government going forward.

Internal Chinese Geopolitics, part 1

How can one measure China’s stability? In the West, it is common to look to Hong Kong and Tibet as litmus tests of the strength of the central Chinese government. While it is true that Hong Kong and Tibet are important places — Hong Kong because it one of China’s major financial and service centres, Tibet because it encompasses around 15 percent of China’s territory and contains the headwaters of China’s, India’s, and Southeast Asia’s most important rivers — the inhabitants of Hong Kong and Tibet do not even account for 1 percent of China’s overall population.

To get a better sense of China’s political stability, then, one must also examine the other areas of China where the dictates of the central government in Beijing are most likely to be resisted. Arguably, these include the following seven areas: the Sichuan basin, Southwestern China, Southeastern China, Northeastern China (formerly known as Manchuria), the Shanghai Municipality, and the “Autonomous Regions” of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

With the exception of Shanghai, not a single person born in any of these areas has become the ruling General Secretary of the Communist Party of China or the Premier of the People’s Republic of China. And yet, taken together, these areas have a population of almost 600 million people – close to half of China’s total population. So, let’s take a brief look at each one of them:

The Sichuan Basin –  Population: 111 million

See that red circle in the centre of China’s population density map (pictured below), and the greenish-yellow circle in the centre of China’s physical topography map (pictured below that)? That is the Sichuan basin, which consists of the province of Sichuan (population 81 million) and the city-state of Chongqing (population 30 million).



Close up topography of the Sichuan basin and surrounding areas: 

Physical map of Sichuan.

To the west of the Sichuan basin is the sparsely populated Tibetan plateau, which is more than 4000 metres higher above sea level than Sichuan is (to put that into context, the tallest building in Manhattan is only 540 metres tall). South and southeast of Sichuan there are mountains and plateaus that are about 1000 metres higher than Sichuan. To the east there are also mountains, which separate Sichuan from the middle reaches of the Yangtze River valley, where the elevation is about 350 meters below that of Sichuan. And to the north there are a series of high mountain ranges and narrow valleys that have historically helped to insulate Sichuan from the northeastern coastal plain where most Chinese people live.

The Sichuan basin’s geographic insularity and large population (larger than any single Chinese province) have historically made it one of China’s more independent-minded regions. In the 3rd century AD, for instance, during China’s famous Three Kingdoms era, a state basically corresponding to modern-day Sichuan was one of China’s three independent political entities (see left map below). A somewhat similar thing occurred in the 10th century AD (see right map below).


More recently, Sichuan played a significant role during the Xinhai Revolution just prior to WW1, which overthrew China’s last emperor, and during the “Warlord Era” which followed it. Sichuan then became a critical component of the Communist Party’s rebellion against the ruling Chinese Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War from 1927 – 1950. Mao’s infamous “Long March” went through the outskirts of Sichuan province, for example, and one of the two largest original Communist armies during the Civil War, led by Mao’s rival Zhuang Guotao, was based there as well. Finally, after the Communists turned the tables on the Nationalists, gaining the upper hand in the Civil War, Sichuan ended up becoming the last base of the Chinese Nationalist leadership prior to its retreat to the island of Taiwan in 1949.


Sichuan, in other words, often became a centre of resistance against whichever group, whether Chinese or foreign, happened to be ruling China at the time. Indeed, when the Japanese controlled much of China during WW2, Chongqing even became the official capital city of the parts of China that were still free of Japanese control (see map above). Much more recently, during the protests of 1989, there were actually two, rather than just one, major government crackdowns: one in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which most people in the West have heard of, and the other in Sichuan’s capital city of Chengdu, which very few people have heard of.

While it is difficult to speculate on the extent to which the Sichuan region may become a nuisance for China’s central government in the future, there have arguably been some troubling signs of late. Most notably, the two most prominent “purges” of high-ranking Communist Party leaders in recent times were both from the Sichuan basin.

The first was Bo Xiliai, the leader of Chongqing, who many had thought might become China’s next top leader, but instead was exiled from the Communist Party and given a life sentence in prison on a corruption charge in 2012, following a curious, alleged incident involving his wife, the Chongqing chief of police, and the murder of a British businessman.

The second was Zhou Yongkang, the former leader of Sichuan province, who was arrested on corruption charges in late 2014, only a few months ago, becoming the first member of China’s seven-person Politburo Standing Committee (the top leadership of the entire country) to be expelled from the Party since the 1980s. Many of Sichuan’s other top leaders have recently been targeted by the central government on corruption investigations as well, because of their associations with Zhou. Of course, the fact that Bo and Zhou were both the most powerful modern leaders the Sichuan basin has seen might just be a coincidence, having more to do with personal politics within the Communist Party than regional geopolitics within China as a whole. But it is somewhat suspicious nonetheless.


Politically, in spite of the region’s large population, not one person born in Sichuan or Chongqing currently holds a position in any of the 43 positions in the Communist Party’s Politburo, Secretariat, or Central Military Commission, at or around the top levels of China’s political hierarchy.

And yet, all of the previous recent Communist Party leaders of Chongqing (none of whom were actually born in the region) have gone on to some of the top jobs in the entire country. Three of the past four have even become members in China’s Politburo Standing Committee, the 7-man group which de facto holds the highest Party positions of all. And before them, Deng Xiaoping, by far the most infamous post-WW2 Chinese leader apart from Mao, served as Mayor of Chongqing, and was born in one of its suburbs. (Though in Deng’s day Chongqing was more important in China than it is today, since its insular location had allowed it to serve as the capital city of “Free China” during the Japanese occupation of eastern China in WW2).

The promotion of former party chiefs of Chongqing (but not Sichuan, even though Sichuan is much larger) to top positions in the central government in Beijing might also be just a coincidence. It does, however, seem suspiciously like a divide and conquer tactic the government has been using to keep Sichuan and Chongqing apart, by winning Chongqing’s favour. Chongqing holds a particularly strategic position, as it is the spot where the Yangtze River flows out of the mountain-enclosed Sichuan basin, entering into the rest of central China and eventually reaching Shanghai on the Pacific.

Indeed, the reason Chongqing was even made a city-state to begin with — one of only four city-states within mainland China, the others being Beijing, Shanghai, and Beijing’s port city of Tianjin — may be because China’s leaders were worried about having to deal with a politically united Sichuan basin, which prior to Chongqing’s independence from Sichuan in 1997 had been China’s most populous province. This is probably also why the “Municipality” of Chongqing, unlike those of Shanghai, Beijing, or Tianjin, is the only one to have been given large rural areas around it to govern, so that it controls a population of 30 million even though its urban areas are home to around just 10 million.

The current Party chiefs of Chongqing and Sichuan are two of the youngest in the entire country. They are 51 and 58 years old, respectively; most other provincial party chiefs in China are in their sixties or seventies, and the 51-year-old Chongqing leader is actually the youngest of all 25 current members in the country’s Communist Party Politburo. Having the youngest provincial party chiefs or governors is usually not a good sign, since Beijing tends to pick the youngest, most ambitious governors for areas it is most concerned with, the idea being that such governors will be willing to do whatever is necessary in order to maintain order, so that they can later be promoted to one of the Communist Party’s highest offices. Hu Jintao, for instance, had served as the party chief of Tibet prior to becoming a major political figure. Indeed, we will continue to see the pattern of relatively young and ambitious party chiefs and governors in the other potentially trouble-making regions we will discuss in this article.

Finally, also notable is the Sichuan Earthquake of 2008. The earthquake, the epicentre of which was only about 80 km from Sichuan province’s main city of Chengdu (population 14 million), killed an estimated 80,000-90,000 people and caused an enormous amount of physical injury and property damage, leaving 5 – 15 million people homeless. It is one of the deadliest natural disasters in the world in modern times, and the deadliest in China in over three decades. By comparison, that is about 20,00 more casualties than the United States experienced in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam combined.

The Sichuan earthquake was mostly overlooked by people in the West, not only because it took place deep within the unknown Chinese interior, but also because it was overshadowed by a flurry of notable world events that took place during the months immediately following its occurrence, such as the global financial crisis, the first Obama election, the Beijing Olympics, the Russian invasion of Georgia, the first Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza, and the Mumbai terrorist attacks. The same week as the earthquake, in fact, California became the second US state to legalize same-sex marriage, and the debate discussion of this decision even got much more American news coverage than the disaster in Sichuan did.

The earthquake was, however, obviously an event of huge importance within China, and it is still quite fresh in some people’s minds. Its tenth anniversary will be approaching in 2017, the same year as China’s once-a-decade top leadership changeover. Crucially, many Chinese people believe that the central government are at least partly to blame for the earthquake (though it is difficult to know how many people believe this, given Chinese censorship). This is because the government created the gigantic nearby Three Gorges Dam, which finished being constructed just prior to 2008, and many think the weight of the dam – which can produce almost twice the electricity of any other dam in the world – and the reservoir of water it created was the catalyst for the earthquake. (Even before the earthquake, the Dam crushed the previous record for people displaced from their homes by a hydroelectric plant: the number of displaced Chinese was estimated at more than 1.2 million people, most of them from the province of Hubei, which directly borders the Sichuan basin).

And the thing about earthquakes is, of course, that you never fully know when another one is going to happen. If a second large one were to occur and affect Sichuan, it could bring back the memory of 2008 – and potential Sichuanese anger with the central government  – along with it. In fact, this may have already happened to a certain extent: China’s highest-magnitude earthquake since the Big One in 2008 occurred again in Sichuan, in 2013, only about 115 km from Chengdu. It killed an estimated 200 people (according to the Chinese government) and injured more than 10,000.

Southeastern China —  Population 154 million


In a previous article, we discussed a large number of differences between southern China, where nearly all of the country’s tens of millions of ethnic minorities and hundreds of millions of linguistic minorities live, and northern China, where most of the country’s enormous majority of ethnic Chinese and Mandarin speakers live. So we will try to repeat only some of the basic facts of the region that were discussed there, and then focus specifically on why this part of China could potentially become the most problematic region for the Chinese central government to handle.

Southeastern China consists basically of three provinces: the province of Guangdong (population 107 million), which has the largest population and economy of any Chinese province, and which is the only province which borders Hong Kong; the province of Fujian (population 38 million), which is located directly across the 180 km long Taiwan Straits from Taiwan, speaks the same dialect of Chinese as is spoken in Taiwan, and, in spite of having less than 3 percent of China’s total population, accounts for perhaps 15 percent of all China’s trade with Taiwan (and China trades roughly 40 percent as much with Taiwan alone as it does with the entire US); and finally the province of Hainan (population 9 million), which is the only island province in China. The first bridge linking Hainan to the Chinese mainland (specifically, to Guangdong), is supposed to be finished between 2016 and 2020, and is likely increase Guangdong’s level of influence on the island.

As you can see from the population density map below, southeastern China is very different from northern China, in that its population centres are almost entirely situated on the country’s Pacific coast. The reason for this is that southern China, unlike northern China, has a very difficult climate and topography to deal with – it is extremely hilly, mountainous, often forested, and sub-tropical (see the other two maps below) – so that its population has moved to the only places where economic development was not extremely difficult to achieve, namely the narrow coastal flatlands that sit next to its numerous natural harbours.



or, for a different perspective of the topographic differences between southeastern China and central-eastern China:


Because southern China’s challenging geography has tended to impede internal movement of people and goods – especially in the past, but to a decent extent also in the present – southeastern Chinese coastal cities have also become relatively close to, and dependent on trade with, the outside world, with foreign economies like Japan, the United States, Canada, and Europe, as well as with Taiwan. The relationship between Hong Kong (population 7.2 million) and Britain is of course the most obvious and significant example of this, but it is not the only one. Macau (population 600,000), for instance, on the borders of Guangdong, is a former Portuguese territory that is China’s only “Special Administrative Region” apart from Hong Kong. Macau is also by far the wealthiest of any political subdivision within China, with a per capita nominal income of more than $90,000.


According to the Economist, Guangdong and Fujian alone account for 30-40 percent of all Chinese exports. Most of China’s gigantic global diaspora – which is 50 million strong, perhaps, and is located all over the world, but particularly in places like North America, Australia, Peru, and especially Southeast Asia – is also from Southeastern China. In fact, it has been estimated that one out of every seven Chinese Americans have their roots in the Guangdong area of Taishan, even though Taishan itself only has around 1 million inhabitants today. More recently, in the 1980s, emigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong came to countries like the US and Canada in very large numbers. If, therefore, globalization forces continue to deepen, and if the economies of Southeast Asia and Taiwan continue to emerge, it could have a huge influence on this part of China, in a sense pulling it away from the rest of China.

Southeast Asia alone is home to an estimated 27 million Chinese people (though admittedly, these statistics vary widely depending on which numbers you trust, and on which criteria you use to define who is and is not “Chinese”, since many have been living in Southeast Asia for many generations now). Southeastern China also directly borders a potentially rapid-growing Vietnamese economy, the capital city of which, Hanoi, is only about 100 -150 km from the southeastern Chinese border, only 400 km from Guangdong’s enormous capital city Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and only 250 km from the Chinese island province of Hainan.


Along with the adjacent provinces of Hunan, Jiangxi, and Zheijang, Southeastern China also has by far the most intra-Chinese linguistic diversity in the country. In it, non-Mandarin Chinese languages are spoken by an estimated 300 million people (though increasingly, most people are also able to speak the standardized, Beijing-region dialect of Mandarin) — see map below. Like Sichuan, this region has also been politically disenfranchised to a certain extent, with not a single one of China’s 43 positions in the Party’s Politburo, Secretariat, or Central Military Commission held by someone born in Guangdong or Hainan, and only one held by someone born in Fujian. Currently Beijing has also given Guangdong the second youngest party chief (aka party secretary) in the country, a 51-year-old who has spent most of his career working in Tibet.


Recently, this region has also been slowing economically as a result of the effect that Europe’s and Japan’s stagnant economies have had on demand for its exports. As a result, and also given the recent (and perhaps ongoing) protests in neighbouring Hong Kong, the province of Guangdong should be watched very closely at this time.

Historically, to be sure, Southeastern China has been a huge pain for Chinese central governments. From roughly 200 AD to 500 AD and from 1000 AD to 1200 AD, for example, there was a general north-south political divide in China (see maps below).

china 900 china 200

In modern times, during the anti-emperor Xinhai Revolution prior to WW1, Guangdong and Fujian were two of the original centres of the revolution. Later, in 1925, the Chinese Nationalists (the Kuomintang) set up an alternative Chinese capital city in Guangzhou, Guangdong, and from it successfully led a campaign to overthrow the government in Beijing, at which point the Chinese capital was moved to Nanjing (next to Shanghai).

Only a few years after that, in 1930, there was a very deadly civil war within China, the Central Plains War, which among other things pitted Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, who was ruling out of Nanjing, against Hu Hanmin, who had the support of the Nationalists across Guangdong and the rest of southern China. This rivlary had in fact been presaged by an earlier one in 1922, when the top Nationalist leader at the time, Sun Yat Sen, was forced to flee Guangdong from a different, more regional-minded Nationalist leader, Chen Jiongmin.

Around the same time, the Guangdong capital of Guangzhou was also one of the main bases of the Communist movement in China. The Communists were gaining momentum across various parts of southern China: in 1933, just to give one example, an alliance between a portion of the Communist movement and a portion of the Nationalist movement emerged, leading to the Fujian Rebellion: the creation a self-governing leadership in Fujian province that aimed to overthrow the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-Shek. The provinces of Hunan and Jiangxi, directly on the border of Guangdong, also became very important for the Communists.

Finally, when the Communists took over and were about to win the Chinese Civil War, Guangdong became the final base – along with Sichuan – of the Nationalists prior to their retreat to Taiwan.

While it is probably unwise to make generalizations about Chinese history, there does seem to be a bit of a pattern here: Guangdong, or more broadly southern China, tends to resist centralized Chinese leadership. It has always seemed to lead the anti-government movements in the country, whether it be the anti-imperial uprising against the Qing Dynasty at the begining of the 20th century, the Nationalist move to overthrow the Beiyang government (which had replaced the Qing) in the Northern Expedition, the attempt by regional leaders within the Nationalist movement to get rid of the Nationalist central government of Chiang Kai-Shek that ruled out of Nanjing, the emergence of Communist movements opposed to the ruling Nationalists (with whom they had previously been allied), or, finally, the retreat and resistance of the Nationalists in the face of the ruling Communists.


The thing which makes southeastern China so potentially difficult for the central Chinese government, however, is not so much its history as it is its wealth. If you take Guangdong and Fujian, and add in neighbouring Taiwan, Hong Kong, Zheijang, and the Municipality of Shanghai (and we will discuss Shanghai later in part two of this article), you get a coastal region with a GDP that, as recently as 2009, was approximately 80 percent as large as the rest of all of mainland China’s other provinces put together.

Such wealth not only gives southeastern China economic influence, but has also made its internal politics complicated – and potentially dangerous – through the creation of divisions between the native inhabitants of the region’s cities, and the migrants from its rural areas and from the rural areas of poorer Chinese provinces, who are in search of work in its cities. Guangdong alone has an estimated 27 percent of China’s inter-provincial migrant population. And in China, “rural-urban” is not only a geographic or demographic distinction, but also a legal designation with significant  financial and social implications. Rural Chinese populations, even when they have moved to urban areas, are generally denied many of the social services, such as subsidized housing or education, which are provided for the native urban populations.

Finally, parts of central-eastern and southeastern China in recent years seem to have become the main centres of China’s potentially enormous transition toward Christianity. Today, according to the Economist, arguably more than 100 million people in China are Christian, up from perhaps as few as 15 million as recently as the 1990’s. If these numbers are accurate, then the growth of Christianity within China during the past two decades represents one of the largest religious adoptions in all of human history. The Economist more recently argued that the relationship between Christianity and the Communist Party in China has been becoming much more tense  in the past year.

Neighbouring Hong Kong has long had a significant Christian population, meanwhile, and remains around 10-15 percent Christian today. A number of the Hong Kong protest organizers were practicing Christians, in fact. And, notably, the Chinese government may have begun to crack down on parts of this growing Christian religion within China during the past year or so.

Southwestern China Population: 120 million

Southwestern China (containing the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, and the “Autonomous Region” of Guangxi, one of only two Autonomous Regions apart from Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia) is by far the most mountainous of any populous Chinese region. Partly as a result of this, it also has by far the most ethnic diversity in the country, with a regional population that contains tens of millions of non-Chinese peoples (most notably the 15 million or so Zhuang ethnic group), some of whose homelands extend across the Chinese border with Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar. Like the other regions discussed so far, southwestern China has historically been a challenge for Chinese central governments. During the 1950’s, for instance, in the largest southwestern province, Yunnan, an anti-Communist Islamic guerrilla insurgency took place, orchestrated in part by the Nationalists who were ruling Taiwan. Today, as in Guangdong or Sichuan, not one person who was born in southwestern China is currently serving within the highest echelons of the Chinese government.


Southwestern China is the only part of China to border most of Southeast Asia. It could in the future become particularly close with the northern part of Vietnam, which is nearby, populous, and can serve as an alternative route for southwestern Chinese goods to reach the Pacific. It could also become close with Myanmar, which can serve as a direct route for it to reach the Indian Ocean via the commercially navigable Irrawaddy River (see map below), or to reach India and Bangladesh overland without having to cross the virtually impassable Himalayan Mountains and Tibetan Plateau (see other map below). Notably, Vietnam and Myanmar have seen a great deal of economic growth in recent years, and Myanmar has politically been re-opening itself to the West after decades of isolation. Economic interaction between Southwestern China and these potentially emerging countries could present some challenges for the Chinese central government.


In addition, and also potentially troubling for the Chinese central government, the region of southwestern china also has ties to southeastern China via the Pearl River, which is by far China’s longest commercially navigable river apart from the Yangtze, and which meets the Pacific at the place where Hong Kong and Guangdong’s capital city of Guangzhou are located (see map below). Southwestern China also directly borders both Sichuan and Tibet.


(In the graph above: Kunming, Guiyang, and Nanning are the capital cities of Southwestern China’s provinces. The Greater Guangzhou-Hong Kong area in Southeastern China, which has a total population of perhaps more than 50 million, is arguably the most populous urban area in the entire world)

In part two of this article we will take a look at Shanghai, Xinjiang, the former Manchuria, and Inner Mongolia.