China – a Nation-State?

The monasteries Drepung und Sera, a few kilometers from Lhasa, are sealed off by security forces, according to Die Zeit Online. Monks are neither allowed to enter nor to leave the sites. 109 monks of Lucang monastery have reportedly been abducted and to get legal and patriotic education, according to Die Zeit, quoting Jamba Monlam, the Tibetan Center vor Human Rights and Democracy’s director in Dharamsala. Tibet hasn’t been accessible for foreigners since last February, and roads to Tibetan areas in the provinces Qinghai, Gansu und Sichuan – accessible until recently – are now blocked by police.

Jeremiah Jenne wrote a post about how Han Chinese and national minorities were transformed from imperial subjects to national citizens. It was on his blog in March last year (re-posted this month). It’s an interesting thoughtful post, but it seems to equate the Chinese Communist Party’s claim (all nationalities as national citizens) with reality. But the reality, behind the legal backdrop, looks different. I guess I’ve never spent much thought on it before, but the reality seems to be that China is still an empire that claims otherwise. And that is what makes realities on the ground, in Tibet, so bizarre and, as the Economist has put it, cruel.

“The problem is that the PRC is a nation state”, writes Jenne,

“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.”

This demand on national minorities to “love China” is the indication of China’s profound anomaly as a nation state. As of today, this is what Wikepedia says about the definition of a nation-state:

The nation-state is a certain form of state that derives its legitimacy from serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit. The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural and/or ethnic entity. The term “nation-state” implies that the two geographically coincide, and this distinguishes the nation state from the other types of state, which historically preceded it. If successfully implemented, this implies that the citizens share a common language, culture, and values—which was not the case in many historical states. A world of nation-states also implements the claim to self-determination and autonomy for every nation, a central theme of the ideology of nationalism.
Due to ambiguities in the word state especially as in United States of America, the term nation-state is now frequently misused to mean any sovereign state, whether or not its political boundaries coincide with ethnic and cultural ones. The usage appears to arise from an attempt to distinguish a sovereign nation-state from a federal state—that is a subordinate member of a federal system—such as a state in the United States.

It may indeed be a matter of definition – although only very few states worldwide are really nation-state by this standard. China anyway, if measured by the above definition, is no nation-state at all – not even close. Beijing can’t be sure of the loyalty of its national minorities. This leads Beijing to distrust its minorities, which isn’t surprising either. After all, the leadership doesn’t really trust its own people either. The kinds of action the CCP takes to ensure loyalty among the national minorities works to the contrary effect. And the international reactions don’t only “hurt Chinese feelings” (Han-Chinese feelings for sure) because it is felt to be a loss of face, disheartening, or “malicious”. It’s because at broad daylight, the world watches a sad spectacle which is more telling than tons of white papers. A nation-state wouldn’t have to work on every individual’s sense of patriotism. A nation-state needs no patriotic education of the kind the monks of Lucang monastery (and many other Tibetans) reportedly have to go through once again. Actually, many on-nation-states don’t need that either.

My impression is that Han and Zang don’t constitute a nation state. Nor are they family (汉藏一家). Beijing’s attempted love control over every individual can’t work. Maybe silence can be enforced. Maybe. But that control is bloody and costly.

6 Responses to “China – a Nation-State?”

  1. Very nice post. I might just add a point to clarify: What I am talking about in the essay “Imperial Subjects to National Citizens” is more about intentions than reality. The goals of KMT and CCP statebuilders in the 20th century was to foster the conditions by which “citizens” (broadly defined) would have the nation-state as their ultimate source of identity and focus of their loyalty. Whether that becomes a reality or not in this scenario is moot because it is the process itself which becomes the problem. In essence, nation-states (or “wanna-be” nation states, if you like) ask too much of those for whom the state lacks legitimacy. Empires, on the other hand, often have this weakness ‘built in’ to the system, whereby the demands asked by imperial rule (don’t rebel, pay your taxes) are often purposely slack, lest those demands test the limits of the legitimizing authority.

    Anyway, nice post and thanks for the link.


  2. I guess the founders of the Republic of China copied the international concept of a national state, and at the same time were in denial of everything that might be in the way of it. One could always hope that a problem goes away when not making it a topic. Hard to tell if accepting the absence of a nation-state status would strenghten or weaken Beijing’s control over territories like Tibet and Xinjiang. A general state of denial doesn’t help anyway, as the trouble in Tibet is showing.
    Thanks for your article! I probably never thought about the conflict in these terms before.


  3. I live in China. Most Han Chinese didn’t have much of a concept at all for minorities. The educated Han think that the minorities get special treatment because they are the minorities. However, they are predominately focused on trying to increase their own lot in life rather than thinking about lost face or the minority situation.


  4. However, they are predominately focused on trying to increase their own lot in life rather than thinking about lost face or the minority situation.

    It depends on the time and the place, Jason. I was in Germany at the time I wrote this post, and Han-Chinese people here did take offense at the time. It’s not such a big deal at the moment, but would become one again as soon as Tibet or Xinjiang are in the German/European/global news again, and with what overseas Chinese living here describe as distortions, faked news, etc.

    Obviously, people can’t be up in arms everyday.



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