The Big Picture

The China Complex

What is China? How ancient Chinese principles help explain the preservation, power and problems of modern China.

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What is China? Where is it going? What is it going to do?

The world’s most populous country, an economy set to become the biggest in the world, a communist state, a developing nation, the world’s oldest surviving civilisation at the cutting edge of a technological revolution, an authoritarian regime brutally suppressing its minority groups – China is many things to many people, but running through its core, like a continuous silk thread, is one central principle: order.

The order really starts from within the family ... China is one of those cultures where relations are much more important and people are defined in a sense by roles.

by Professor Bin Wong, director of the China Institute, UCLA

The Big Picture: The China Complex traces the roots of this principle to find how ancient philosophical models such as Legalism that promoted the strict, often brutal imposition of the law, and Confucianism, the moral bedrock of Chinese culture, have been the foundations of how China has been ordered for more than two and half millenia.

The China Complex examines how they have been applied by ruling dynasties, nationalist republicans, communist revolutionaries all the way through to today’s Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping. And at the heart of any leader’s authority, we find a higher ideal: the Mandate of Heaven (tianming), legitimising the rule of emperors and paramount leaders alike.

The suppression of Tibetan Buddhists and majority-Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang have been uncompromising. Viewed through the prism of order, new light is shed on how such oppression serves the greater Chinese interest.

Leaked documents detailing the state-sanctioned abuses perpetrated within so-called “vocational education camps” in Xinjiang point to a regime unable to accommodate any divergence from a rigid, long-instilled notion of order.

Those seeking to stand apart from Han-majority China are beaten down, forced to assimilate with majority rule or suffer the consequences.

“Xinjiang was gradually being transformed into a kind of a police state … It’s absolutely alright for them to be Uighurs if they’d simply eat pork and drink alcohol. And preferably even smoke cigarettes like good Han Chinese citizens always do,” says Professor Steve Tsang, director of China Institute, SOAS

In Hong Kong, demands for greater democratic rights has been given short shrift by Beijing. What the protestors in Hong Kong have demanded does not fit into the Chinese Communist Party’s notion of what China stands for – a deference to authority, a hierarchy of respect, an adherence to order.

“In the minds of an authoritarian dictator, the last thing you do is back down and let the people win,” says Professor Sharon Hom, New York University.

As China is in the grip of an autocratic government, criticised for human rights abuses at home and imperial adventurism abroad, can the age-old ideas bleeding through China’s historic rise also tell of how it may be set to fall?

As The China Complex shows, to understand China today and China tomorrow, it is first to understand China of long ago.



Chinese Cultural Revolution images by Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images from “Red Color News Soldier”