THE HISTORY of China has been a model history of imperialism in Asia. Over the last two millenia Chiese rulers have exercised hegemony over large areas of Central Asia, the far East and Southeast Asia. At one time or another, Chinese power and influence have touched virtually every area of the world's largest continent. China has been expansionist whenever its government has been strong. Its inroads into other countries have run the gamut from cultural influence to population movement to territorial conquest. And until the modern period at least, China had retained a vision of itself as the central kingdom of Asia, a vision that consistently nurtured a belief in the country's cultural superiority and its primacy in Asia. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, when China was not subjugating its neighbors, its open door allowed the United States and Western Europe to take their toll on Chinese civilization. When China was strong it was consistently imperialistic; when weak, the subject of ruthless imperialism from the West.
When Mao's government came to power in 1949, it declared its disgust with Western imperialism, the predatory phenomenon that had weakened China immeasurably, and then embarked on a campaign to rid the country of foreign encroachments that would stand in the way of building a strong modern world power. With the urge to oust the imperialists from all of Asia, Chinese military expenditures reached new peaks. In its attempt to achieve lost self-respect, international prestige and world power, the Chinese leadership appealed to the nationalist sentiment that pervaded the Han majority, successfully merging its theory of revolutionary communism with the seemingly contradictory impulse of national pride.
But in its effort to reincorporate the states it had lost in the turmoil of the Chinese revolution and preceding western imperialism, the regime was faced with the task of unifying divided minorities having divergent socio-cultural histories. In 1931, the communists had promised bordering states their rights to self-determination and complete separation from China, and pledged respect for existing customs and religions. But despite declarations condemning Han chauvinism, the regime embarked on a Hanization drive to return its dependent territories to their Chinese motherland.
In August 1950, Gen. Liu po-ch'eng moved the troops of his Southwest Military Commission into Tibet to liberate the territory which had evaded Chinese authority since the beginning of the Republic. The tenth Panchen Lama, bolstered by the Nationalists who too had always claimed the right to Chinese authority in the region, voiced his whole-hearted support for the move. Meanwhile, Tibet unsuccessfully appealed for intercession by the United Nations. In 1951, the regime paid lip service to its earlier pledges to Tibet's right to regional autonomy. But between 1952 and 1958, the Chinese fought a revolt in East Tibet, destroying over a thousand monasteries and killing or imprisoning countless monks and lamas; the Chinese undertook a full-scale campaign to eliminate once and for all the region's religion and customs. During the bloody upsurge the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual and temporal ruler, fled to asylum in India, charging that Peking had ignored its agreement with his country.
During the fifties the Chinese embarked on yet another campaign to spread their sphere of influence through Sinkiang, a province rich in petroleum and minerals important for industry. The regime slowly eased out Soviet influence in the region whose people--Moslem Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Mongols and Russians--were more closely tied ethnically with the Soviet Union than with China. In the years 1958-59 the Chinese met with severe unrest in Sinkiang, leading the regime to assert its need to "heighten Marxist-Leninist thinking and awareness and completely overcome local nationalistic ideas." During the sixties, the Chinese repeatedly encountered revolts by guerilla organizations in both Sinkiang and Tibet, and there have been numerous but univerified reports of concentration camps in Sinkiang accommodating captured revolutionaries.
The Chinese have also attempted repeatedly to make inroads in the Himalayan border states of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, whose people are of Tibetan extraction, claiming that these are Chinese-dependent states taken from their motherland by the imperialists who divided China early in this century. In addition, India's Northeast Frontier Agency is claimed by China as part of its former dependencies. In 1962, the Chinese moved 30,000 troops into the territory--where the inhabitants are predominantly Tibeto-Burmese of Mongolian origin--and laid claim to all of it.
Peking's local offers of autonomy to these states culminated in a policy to establish a Confederation of Himalayan Border States, which would include Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and the Northeast Frontier of India. The confederation has yet to become a reality.
But the country of greatest strategic importance to China has been Korea. And in October 1950, four months after the war in Korea began, the Chinese intervened on behalf of the North, restoring its military presence in that country. On the Chinese mainland, the regime embarked on the "Resist America, Aid Korea" campaign complete with government drives for the collection of "patriotic donations" for the cause. What emerged from the Chinese stint in Korea was new-found respect throughout Asia for China's military prowess as exhibited against the United States.
Since the end of the revolution in 1949, China has extended its authority to important segments of what it has called lost territory. It has also maintained North Korea as a security buffer. The lost territories, rich in resources for industrialization, are naturally of great importance to China's big modernization drive. But territory itself has always been important to Chinese self-respect and world prestige. From an economic or historical perspective, then, it is not surprising that the victors of the Chinese revolution have been so intent on returning lost territories to their homeland. And if nothing else, Sinkiang province has served China well as a suitably unpopulated area for nuclear-bomb testing.
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