Tuesday, October 10, 2023

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 2: The Han Dynasty and Xinjiang

Click here to read the original Cautious Optimism Facebook post with comments 

7 MIN READ - For a diversion from the heinous terrorist attacks in Israel the Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff continues with his series on a brief political and economic history of China, this time with a few words on the Han dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) and Xinjiang. The Chinese stories have their share of violence too, but being centuries old they shouldn’t foment the same level of dread as today’s news.
The Han Dynasty including expansion into northwest territories
Last week we devoted a column to the fifteen year Qin dynasty (221 BC-206 BC) because, despite its short life, the Qin was extremely important in establishing the nation of China itself. After the first Qin emperor died his heirs and senior advisors fought for power leading to the dynasty’s collapse and overthrow by some of its own governors, officials, and everyday people who blamed the Qin for its excessive cruelty. The Han dynasty replaced the Qin and during its 400+ year reign would briefly enjoy one of China’s handful of “golden ages,” a period during which peace, prosperity, and cultural development thrived. For example, writing paper was invented during the Han in 105 AD. The Economics Correspondent will only write a little on the Han and other early dynasties as his focus admittedly is much heavier on the last dynasty (the Qing), Chiang Kai-Shek, and especially the communist era. Like other long-lived dynasties, the Han followed a familiar rise-and-fall pattern. It benefited from one or more highly competent emperors in its early days before succumbing to decline in its later century or centuries. Depending on the dynasty itself, any number of factors contributed to collapse including power struggles, court intrigue, corruption, domestic rebellions, plagues, natural disasters, outside invasions, or possibly some combination of these. Regarding corruption, that problem nearly always beckoned imperial eunuchs who constantly jockeyed for political favoritism, embezzled money, and over millennia became universal symbols of dynastic decay. Anyone who’s watched enough low budget Hong Kong and Chinese kung fu movies may have noticed arch villains and evil masterminds are usually white-haired palace eunuchs, often possessing supernatural martial arts powers and throwing lighting bolts at the story’s heroes. In the case of the Han dynasty, the standout emperor who engineered its early ascent was Wudi (reign: 141 BC to 87 BC, pronounced woo-dee) who established a strong administrative apparatus, greatly expanded China’s territory, and encouraged a flourishing of the arts, poetry, and religion. The emperor Wudi ruled for 54 years, a tenure that remained unsurpassed for eighteen centuries until the great Qing emperor Kangxi’s 61 years (r. 1661-1722). But because Kangxi descended from a royal lineage of invading Manchurian sovereigns, Han Wudi’s reign remains the longest ever by an ethnic Chinese emperor. For these reasons Wudi is counted in the exclusive list of China’s seven or eight greatest emperors. HELL HATH NO FURY If we go back a few decades there’s also a scandalous story involving the Han empress Lu (241 BC-180 BC), a consort of the first and founding Han emperor Gaozu. After the emperor died the now-empress dowager Lu’s son ascended to the throne. Lu then moved quickly to arrest another of her late husband’s consorts, the concubine Qi (pronounced “chee”), who she personally hated and whose son posed a competing threat for the throne. Empress Dowager Lu had Concubine Qi’s son poisoned and then inflicted her malevolence on Qi in unimaginably sadistic ways. A passage from Wikipedia best sums up Qi’s fate from the “Records of the Grand Historian” recording that (warning: graphic)… ”[Lu] had Qi's limbs chopped off, eyes gouged out, ears sliced off, nose sliced off, tongue cut out, forced her to drink a potion that made her mute, and had her thrown into a latrine. She called Qi a human swine’. Several days later, [Lu’s son] Emperor Hui was taken to view the ‘human swine’ and was shocked to learn that it was Concubine Qi. He cried loudly and became ill for a long time. He requested to see his mother and said, ‘This is something done not by a human. As the empress dowager's son, I'll never be able to rule the empire.’ From then on, Emperor Hui indulged himself in carnal pleasures and ignored state affairs, leaving all of them to his mother, and this caused power to fall completely into her hands.” Of course this drama took place in 195 BC. In 21st century America everyone knows no wife of a former head of state would ever have her rivals or perceived threats killed off, particularly in some bloodthirsty lust for political power. XINJIANG During its territorial expansion the Han dynasty entered the modern-day northwest province of Xinjiang around 130 BC (pronounced "sheen-jeeahng"). At that time the tribal people of the remote northern steppes, called the Xiongnu, were considered one of the many “northern barbarians” since they had invaded central China many times and briefly forced the Han to act as a subservient vassal state. After a series of conflicts the Han gained control of the region around 60 BC and in a role reversal the Xiongnu became vassals of the Chinese. Under Han control the first Silk Road trade routes were found connecting Europe and China. History records Roman merchants visiting China shortly after, and the two dominant world powers became aware of each other's existence. The Han controlled Xinjiang for many decades before being pushed out by an uprising, only to return in 127 AD. On again, off again Chinese governance of Xinjiang continued into the Tang dynasty (618-917). Tang protectorates extended as far as Kabul until the new religion of Islam and its warriors invaded the region. Coincident with the arrival of Islam, a major upheaval in China’s heartland—the Lushan rebellion—resulted in the Tang’s withdrawal from the northwest. Although we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here, the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) reintegrated Xinjiang into its domain which, though seated in Beijing, was the largest territorial empire in history, spreading throughout most of Asia into the Middle East and Eastern Europe. With the fall of the Yuan China once again withdrew, but in 1755 the great Qing dynasty (1644-1911) invaded Xinjiang, by now called Dzungaria by its Mongol inhabitants. Ironically the Qing emperor Qianlong was actually invited to invade Xinjiang by a Dzungar Mongol khan named Amursana who was locked in a regional power struggle and swore allegiance to China if they helped him defeat his rival. With Chinese help Amursana defeated his foe but afterwards decided he didn’t like the idea of sharing power after all and rebelled against the Qing, wiping out most of the Chinese garrison stationed in the capital city of Ghulja. An enraged Qianlong crushed the rebellion and ordered the “Dzungar genocide” which exterminated vast numbers of Dzungar Mongols, considerably more by smallpox than warfare. The emperor justified his decision proclaiming “to sweep away barbarians is the way to bring stability to the interior,” the key word being “stability” which has been covered in the previous column on the emperor Qin Shi Huang and the CCP. China has pretty much administered the region ever since. All in all going back to 130 BC China has governed Xinjiang a total of six centuries including virtually all of the period from 1759 to present day. In the 21st century communist China has dealt with Muslim separatist terrorist bombings and other attacks (including targeting civilians in heavily populated eastern Chinese cities), responding with heavy-handed crackdowns, widespread arrests and prison sentences without trial, seizing the children of ethnic Uighurs and interring them in CCP indoctrination schools (if they run out of space Harvard and UC Berkeley have offered their classrooms), and a network of labor camps. Human rights groups have used more strongly worded criticisms of alleged “ethnic cleansing” and even “genocide,” although the CCP’s campaign looks downright civilized when compared to Emperor Qianlong’s Dzungar genocide. The Economics Correspondent takes a balanced position on this problem. Separatist bombings of marketplaces are a genuine problem while, on the other hand, the PRC has dealt with it using overly-dictatorial methods involving the punishment of innocent victims and their children. But the larger point is that Chinese administration of Xinjiang is not some new phenomenon. Chinese governments, ethnic Chinese, and Turkic central Asian peoples have coexisted in the region over two-plus millennia. And unlike the case of Ukraine and Russia's long past, China hasn't signed a treaty recognizing the sovereignty of Xinjiang as an independent nation nor promised never to attack in exchange for Xinjiang handing over all Chinese nuclear weapons previously stationed in the area. Xinjiang has also been part of China longer than, say, the United States has existed, and even going back to the time of ancient Rome (not just the empire but even the Roman republic), something westerners should keep in mind when jumping to conclusions that China somehow just “invaded” Xinjiang in the 21st century. Once again the Economics Correspondent feels it necessary to repeat he's not condoning China’s heavy-handed tactics in Xinjiang. His point is to cast some light on how far Chinese administration of the region goes back in history: beginning with the Han dynasty. Next column we'll continue with the Tang and maybe the Song dynasty.

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