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From the Ruins of Empire…arise the nation-state

One of the best books on empire, colonialism, and de-colonization I have read in the past few years is Pankaj Mishra’s brilliant From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. It’s a sprawling story told through the biographical sketches of major Asian intellectuals such as Liang Qichao, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Abdurreshi al Ibrahim, near contemporaries who witnessed the crumbling of empire and worried about what might come next in a world still dominated by North Atlantic states and Western value systems.

Mishra has a new book coming out, A Great Clamour, a collection of essays specifically about China (and Greater China.) I haven’t read it yet (I will soon) but in a Q&A with Ed Wong of the New York Times this morning, Mishra touched on a number of topics related to China, including the Hong Kong protests, the administration of Xi Jinping, and the difficulties that the CCP has had dealing with issues of nationality and ethnicity in border and minority regions of China.

NYT: You’ve written about the peripheries of China and their importance to Beijing. We’ve seen strong rebellions in Tibet and Xinjiang, and now in Hong Kong. What is your take today on how China is managing the aspirations of people in its far-flung regions? Are the problems China is facing the same ones that empires had before? Do you see potential political solutions to these problems that would be consistent with the ethos and behavior of the Communist Party?

Mishra: I don’t think it has been sufficiently recognized that the C.C.P. has been incredibly adaptive since the days of Mao. The fact that it has not only survived great disasters but also grown and strengthened itself by including people from all sections of Chinese society shows that it has the capacity to absorb and defuse many apparent contradictions. But it has yet to demonstrate that it can deal with challenges from outside its circle of influence — the ethnic minorities and, now, Hong Kong. The usual method of incorporating local elites through bribery and coercion into the network of capitalism and modernization doesn’t work. The Tibetans, for instance, still feel trampled upon, their dignity defiled, their identity dishonored. I am still waiting to see a new initiative from Xi Jinping in this regard. And this is a bigger problem for Beijing than the ones faced by empires like the Qing or Ottoman. The latter were not asking their minorities to radically overhaul their societies and lifestyles or forcing changes in their identity. Even British and French imperialists left many minorities alone for the most part.

I complete agree. I wrote something very similar in a 2008 post on Tibet entitled “From Imperial Subjects to National Citizens.”  Former students will recognize parts of this because it is a key component in my lectures on Qing Empire and the relationship between the Manchu rulers and their subjects:

The Manchus did maintain garrisons on the Τibetan plateau while administering the region through local elites. The Qing rulers, great patrons of Lamamism, consolidated their rule by maintaining cultural and religious ties with Τibet beyond mere military occupation. They also–generally but not always–ruled with a light touch, allowing relative autonomy in religious and cultural matters, which suited the situation quite well. The Qing Dynasty was, after all, a large, multi-ethnic empire, and maintaining order and peace in outlying territories was the utmost concern.

The problem is that the PRC is a nation-state, and the demands a nation-state places on its people are different than those of an empire. It is not enough that Tibetans merely pay taxes and not revolt, they must also identify with the nation-state first and foremost, with other cultural and religious aspects secondary to the demands of modern state building. Empires want to be respected, nation-states want to be loved. That’s a sticky wicket the Qing never had to face.

It’s not surprising that when we look at the world’s hot spots we see the legacies of colonialism and decolonization. As empires give way to new forms of political organization there is resistance and tension. Modern states attempt to preserve the territories bequeathed to them from empires of old, while subject peoples seek greater autonomy and even independence.

While it is always possible that both Mishra and I are wrong, and the CCP and its parrots supporters would certainly feel that way, it is validating to know that one of my favorite writers and thinkers on the subject of empire has views consistent with what I’ve been lecturing about for years.

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