Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Rising Sectionalism in China?

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Rising Sectionalism in China?

Article excerpt

It is not unusual for moments of crisis to become opportunities for renewal. China's political crisis of 1989 is an excellent example of such a moment; it exposed the cracks in the political monolith of the Chinese Communist Party while at the same time freeing the imaginative power of many China scholars and popular commentators. Whereas scholars had previously tended to agree that China would manage to muddle through economic reforms with the continued political dominance of the Communist party, in fact in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crisis there suddenly emerged a stream of publications questioning whether China would be able to hold together and offering scenarios about how it might split apart.

Many of these writings pointed out that resources, as well as obligations, were being decentralized from the central to local governments and argued that the increasing level of resources available to local governments was moving China toward what has been termed regionalism. A number of these scholars believe that rising regionalism will lead to the disintegration of the Party-state, as it did in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.(1) One Japanese professor even went so far as to suggest that 11 republics-Hong Kong,

Guangdong, Fuj ian, Taiwan, Tibet, East Turkestan, Inner Mongolia, Northeast, Sichuan, North China and South China -- may emerge out of China's breakup to form a loose Federal Republic of China."(2) The chorus of predictions on China's future reached a crescendo in 1993 when two scholars hailing from China itself warned of China's possible disintegration.(3)

While the writings about China's collapse have indeed attracted attention, we believe that proponents of the breakup thesis have not adequately sustained their argument. After all, a country of China's size must accept a certain amount of decentralization in order to take full advantage of local initiatives throughout the country Regional differentiation, however, does not imply dissolution.

In this essay, we deal with three questions that will allow us to assess the strength of the centrifugal forces in China. First, are the local initiatives being encouraged within a stable institutional framework which effetively manages relations between the central and local governments? Second, has the central government adopted adequate measures to address the causes of regional divisions? Third, is the Chinese economy becoming integrated into a national market? If the answer to each of these questions is "yes," then we believe that we can say that these three trends will moderate the centrifugal forces in China. A negative response to any of them, however, will strengthen the breakup thesis. To anticipate our conclusion, we believe that the Chinese central government appears to be making good progress in alleviating the leading causes of political regionalism.

Decentralization, Local Interests and Central Control

Does decentralization necessarily lead to fragmentation? Are the local initiatives encouraged by decentralization being formulated within a stable institutional framework which effectively manages relations between the central and local governments? In order to consider the relationship between decentralization and regionalism, we begin by defining our terms. Following common usage, we use regionalism to refer to the persistence of subnational and transnational differences, identities and commitments.(4) In other words, regionalism is rooted in both objective conditions (such as uneven regional development) and subjective perceptions of these differences.(5) The political effects of regionalism manifest themselves when politicians tap a people's regional consciousness and loyalty in pursuit of political goals. The political consequences can range from efforts to preserve local culture and identities to a quest for greater local autonomy or even political independence.

Since the late 1970s, there has been a significant devolution of economic resources to local governments in China. …

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