China’s Porcelain Empire

Remember when China was supposed to be the next up-and-coming superpower? With a fifth of the world’s population, a totalitarian regime seemingly secure, and a well-earned reputation as a rising industrial powerhouse, "Red" China has long been one of the War Party’s favorite bogeymen. When all else failed, in the post-cold war world, and the supply of potential enemies seemed exhausted, they just hauled out the Chinese scarecrow to scare the doves away. There was that incident over Hainan Island, you’ll recall, a spy scare that turned out to be completely phony, and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during Clinton’s war on the former Yugoslavia, which provoked energetic anti-American demonstrations on the mainland. Both times we were treated to a full-court press on the alleged mightiness of the Red Chinese, who were supposedly just waiting for the opportunity to exercise their awesome power and challenge Uncle Sam in the world hegemony sweepstakes.

It never happened. What happened, instead, was that China moved steadily along the road of economic development. Meanwhile the US deindustrialized itself and ran up a record deficit, which the Chinese bought up — and relations between the two countries rapidly improved. Yet a certain amount of resentment remained, at least on the American side: after all, if Beijing called in all that debt, or even a portion of it, the US government would soon be in receivership, and that’s not a position we’re used to. The American media, in particular, is Sinophobic to a noticeable degree, and this came to the fore during the Beijing Olympics, when US journalists were shocked – shocked! – that porn sites and Falun Gong propaganda (as well as the BBC and other mainstream Western media) were inaccessible. Every time the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident rolls around, the Western media rolls out the outrage machine, with interviews, photos (the guy standing in front of that tank), and endless reiterations of the alleged casualty count.

Part of this is fear, with equal parts envy and white-skin privilege thrown in for good measure: after all, we’re supposed to be the "hyperpower," as the French put it, and allegedly above all that. It wasn’t that long ago when the Western powers, were picking off Chinese port cities and gobbling up bits of the disintegrating Chinese empire. Today, of course, no one would think of doing such a thing, because China is a monolithic empire that exercises total dominion over all 3,696,100 square miles of its territory, and not only that, but maintains absolute control over its 1,330,044,605-plus people – right?

Well, not quite. China is populated by 56 officially recognized minorities, and no doubt more than a few unrecognized ethnicities, and cultural-religious sub-groups: contrary to popular mythology, which characterizes China as a nation of Commie-atheists, where all religion is ruthlessly persecuted, tens of millions of Chinese practice Islam, as well as various forms of Christianity, and the government rarely interferes as long as adherents pray in "official" churches, and religious leaders stay out of politics. Far from being a totalitarian monolith, where everybody wears a regulation Mao-suit, and the only god is Mao, China is a wildly diverse society, over which the Communist Party manages to maintain an increasingly tenuous hold.

The Party’s less-than-firm grip on power was underscored, recently, when the Uighurs (pronounced Wee-gurs), concentrated in the westernmost province of Xingjiang, erupted with violent fury. The occasion was the alleged murder of two Uighur workers at a factory, and the apparent indifference of the authorities. A protest, supposedly peaceful, was called in the capital city of Urumqi, which soon turned into a melee, pitting Han Chinese (the majority) against the Uighur underclass.  

Uighurs mobs, armed with crowbars, rocks, and anything they could lay their hands on, attacked Han Chinese in the streets, beating several to death and sending hundreds to the hospitals. The Han retaliated, attacking Uighur restaurants and neighborhoods, while the police stood by – and the Uighur counterattacked.

For Chinese President Hu Jintao to abruptly depart from the G-8 summit in Italy highlights the CCP’s nervousness: they know they are sitting atop a volcano that could erupt at any moment, and they were ready for this one: internet communications, including Twitter and Facebook, were immediately shut down throughout the troubled province, as thousands of Chinese troops poured into Urumqi and environs, separating Uighur from Han and establishing a very visible presence, complete with checkpoints and daily parades through the capital city. As rioters retreated they were showered with propaganda pamphlets released from planes flying overhead, attacking one Rebiya Kadeer, leader of the World Uighur Congress, an exile group headquartered in Washington, D.C., as the instigator behind the riots: she quite plausibly denied it. Whatever influence she and her group have inside China, it no doubt amounts to very little: surely not enough to provoke an eruption such as we are witnessing in Xingjiang today. 

The Uighurs complain of discrimination at the hands of Han Chinese business owners, and there is a strong current of resentment against the entrepreneurial Han, who have come into China’s western regions in increasing numbers. They are now the majority, and the Uighurs – who have their own religion, their own language (Turkic in origin), and their own proud history – are not at all happy about it.  

What broke out in Urumqi, and surrounding villages, wasn’t a rebellion against the authority of the Communist Party, nor was it a pro-democracy upsurge that can be valorized by Western media as a heroic-but-doomed effort to emerge from a living anachronism into modernity: rather, it was an old-fashioned full-fledged race riot. The Communist system, which was supposed to have abolished racial divisions, along with economic inequalities, has done neither: indeed, these divisions seem to have grown into veritable chasms, in recent years, as China barrels down the "capitalist road" – or, as the ChiComs would put it, the road to "socialism with Chinese characteristics."  

China’s split seams are clearly showing, and this instance goes a long way toward exposing the sheer brittleness of the regime. The claim is being made that Urumqi is fully pacified, but Western reporters – who have not been barred from the scene, but are being bussed around under government tutelage – say that tensions continue to boil just beneath the surface, with several fresh incidents occurring daily, albeit quickly crushed by the authorities.  

China presents itself to the world as a unified entity, marching determinedly along the road to the "Four Modernizations," and fully prepared to take its place as a world power alongside the US, the European powers, and its former Russian allies. Yet the reality is quite different: in fact, the central government in Beijing has a very difficult time exerting dominance over outlying provinces, and the leadership, far from being unified, exhibits several competing centers of power.  

What’s more, ethnic conflict is nothing new in the recent history of China: in 2004, a traffic dispute between two villages in Henan province, one Han Chinese and the other Hui (Muslim), escalated into a riot that ended only when 10,000 troops were called to the scene. In April of this year, ethno-religious conflict again exploded into violence, reportedly sparked by a description in a local newspaper of a Hui leader as "king of the pig-raising." As one Hui observer wryly remarked, "One should bear in mind that we Muslims would never raise pigs.

The discovery of oil in the region has fueled resentment against the Han, and given the small but vocal separatist movement visions of an economically viable independent state. Turkey, whose government is motivated by an extravagantly ambitious pan-Turkic nationalism, has offered a visa to Ms. Kadeer, and invited her to come to Turkey: Istanbul somewhat crazily envisions a Pan-Turkic Union that straddles Central Asia, reaching from the shores of the Bosporus to Xingjiang’s border with Outer Mongolia.  

The Chinese leadership is fully aware of the fragility of their regime, and is determined to hold on to power: this means, above all, maintaining the undisputed power of the central government, and reining in all "splittist" elements as they appear. Yet they are forced to maintain a delicate balancing act, one that also keeps a tight rein on Han ultra-nationalism even as it tries to counteract centrifugal forces – racial, religious, and economic divisions – that threaten national unity.

It is an act that cannot be successfully pulled off forever, for the simple reason that China is far too big, and its government woefully top-heavy and out-of-touch. Communism in China is but a formalistic religion, all ritual and no real content, and yet that is the only factor – embodied by the Communist Party of China — keeping the country together. Whether this hollow dictatorship can retain its hold much longer is very much up in the air. Events in Urumqi augur the break-up of the Communist state, just as the Polish upsurge led by Solidarity prefigured the implosion of the Soviet empire. China’s empire, thought to made of steel, may very well turn out to be fragile porcelain.

Whether such a turn of events will redound to our favor is a question that is far too interesting to tack on to the end of a column, and we’ll save it for another day. Suffice to say that, in China, our assumptions and cultural prejudices tell us very little about what is going on, and what the future will bring. Prepare to be surprised.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].