Paper tigers ?

by John Quiggin on November 22, 2004

The other day, I went to see Cry of the Snow Lion, about the Tibetan independence struggle. The film was interesting and well worth seeing, and jogged me to start on a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time on the question: How long can the current Chinese government survive?

It struck me, after watching the film, that the closest parallel is with the last days of the Suharto period in Indonesia. Among the themes suggested to me were

  • the decay of Communist ideology, and its replacement by a vague (ethnic Han) nationalism, bolstered by, and dependent on, rapid economic growth
  • the rise of faceless nonentities like Hu Jintao to replace monstrous giants like Mao
  • the role of the People’s Liberation Army in a range of business ventures
  • transmigration programs of Han Chinese into Tibet and other minority areas

Just like Golkar in its latter days, the Communist Party has no real class base, no compelling ideological claim to power, and a rapidly depreciating “mandate of heaven” derived from the revolutionary period. Its 60 million members are now, for the most part, mere card-carriers. And although the party and army leaders have their fingers in plenty of business pies, they don’t constitute an effective management committee of the ruling class. Rather they are a backward and parasitic component of that class.

All of this, it seems to me, is symptomatic of a regime that appears immovable, but may collapse like a house of cards given the appropriate push, which may come either from an economic crisis or from a succession crisis, if Hu runs into some trouble or other. The results of this may not be pretty, and could be extremely dangerous for world peace, but I conjecture that they will eventually include Tibetan independence.

I’d be interested if anyone can point me to an analysis that would tend either to confirm or refute the one I’ve proposed above.

{ 32 comments }

1

cliu 11.22.04 at 8:25 am

I think it is wishful thinking that the Chinese CP will fall like a house of cards given the right push, but it is a very fragile situation. I don’t know if the Western Press has been reporting this, but martial law has been declared in a number of rural counties because of riots against local corrupt officials and their abuses of peasants.

Lest anyone think this will push things over the edge, let me remind you that it is a very big country.

What may have already happened is a degeneration of rural conditions and the lack of implementation of federal and CP policies in general, with rampant local corruption.

From Taiwan, where I’m teaching on a Fulbright this year, it looks as if the CP is hardening its position this year with regard to the rogue province.

You’ll find a frightening consensus among Mainlanders that if Taiwan declares independence, violent means are justified.

2

Harald Korneliussen 11.22.04 at 9:25 am

I’ve heard about the migration issues, and that alarms me. Trying to take permanent control over occupied territories by moving your own civilian poulation in is AFAIK defined as genocide in the Geneva conventions. What’s certain is that it’s a reliable way of generating conflicts spanning hundreds of years: just look at northern ireland. Big alarm bells should go off every time a nation tries to pull this one off, unfortunately, since Israel has been doing it for some time now, this would be Inconvenient.

3

Doug Muir 11.22.04 at 10:54 am

John — haven’t we had this discussion already? About Tibet, I mean?

In this post from April of this year.

— You made the same statement about the likelihood of eventual Tibetan independence. Four different commentors pointed out that this seemed extremely unlikely, because Tibetans are now a minority. Han Chinese in Tibet now comfortably outnumber native Tibetans, and their numbers are only growing. (Tibet is about 55% Han now. If current growth rates hold, that figure will pass the 60% mark early in the next decade.)

Note that this is just ethnicity. It doesn’t include assimilation effects — which are quite strong in Tibet, and are moving purely in one direction.

You replied:

“As regards Tibet, I’ll admit that this is a speculative judgement. But those who have pointed to Sinification as a reason Tibet won’t become independent should look at the example of the Baltic states, especially Latvia.”

I responded:

“Um. The Russian minority in Latvia is about 30%. Add in Ukrainians and Belorussians and it’s still only about 37%. Latvians are about 57%.

“The Chinese population of Tibet, on the other hand, is a clear majority — about 55%. And their numbers are growing rapidly.

“So I don’t think the Latvia analogy is a very strong one.”

And that was the end of it.

— You mentioned Indonesia. WRT to the CPC/Golkar analogy, you might well be right. But WRT ethnic dominance… well, you’re also right. Indonesia hasn’t retreated from Irian Jaya yet. (Nor will it, IMO.) And Indonesians are still a minority in Irian Jaya (albeit a large one — about 40%). So it’s a valid comparison, but one that works against your hoped-for conclusion.

N.B., I’d love to be wrong about this. But, really, it’s about as likely as the Iroquois taking back New York State.

It’s wishful thinking, John. Beautiful but futile.

Doug M.

4

raj 11.22.04 at 10:56 am

Just wondering….

>You’ll find a frightening consensus among Mainlanders that if Taiwan declares independence, violent means are justified

Why would Taiwan want to declare independence and risk violence from the mainland? It seems to me that Taiwan is de facto independent, even if not de jure.

5

Doug Muir 11.22.04 at 11:14 am

Trying to take permanent control over occupied territories by moving your own civilian poulation in is AFAIK defined as genocide in the Geneva conventions.

Nope. The Geneva Conventions define genocide as follows:

“Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

“(a) Killing members of the group;
“(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
“(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
“(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
“(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Population transfers, in or out, are not covered per se. (Though a transfer done with intent to destroy — like Stalin’s deportation of the Chechens or the Ukrainian Greeks, say — would be.)

What’s certain is that it’s a reliable way of generating conflicts spanning hundreds of years: just look at northern ireland.

On the other hand, look at the Sudetenland. Or most of North America, for that matter.

To be crude: ethnic cleansing works just fine, if you’re sufficiently thorough about it.

Big alarm bells should go off every time a nation tries to pull this one off, unfortunately, since Israel has been doing it for some time now, this would be Inconvenient.

[glyph of eyes rolling]

Doug M.

6

John Quiggin 11.22.04 at 11:51 am

Doug, as of 1989 (the relevant date), the Latvian proportion was 52 per cent, which is not a lot different from the Tibetan situation.

The Tibetan historical case is at least as strong as Latvia’s, and the Tibetan cause has more external sympathy. Finally, the Dalai Lama is a huge asset, even if he has no divisions at his command.

The Han population consists, as far as I can tell, mostly of first generation migrants including lots of army and government officials. This implies a rapid decline in the event of a crisis in China proper.

As regards Indonesia, I think East Timor is a closer parallel than Irian Jaya.

7

abb1 11.22.04 at 11:58 am

N.B., I’d love to be wrong about this. But, really, it’s about as likely as the Iroquois taking back New York State.

Consider Abkhazia.

The Abkhaz Autonomous Republic is named for the Abkhaz people, but the prewar population of Abkhazia was quite mixed. According to the 1989 Soviet census, ethnic Abkhaz were 17.8 per cent of the total population of 525,000 people, while Georgians were 45.7 per cent, Armenians 14.6 per cent, and Russians 14.3 per cent.

Yet they have managed to break away from Georgia and are pretty much independent now. Yes, with a little help from Russia, but nevertheless…

8

Duane 11.22.04 at 12:50 pm

Several things — firstly I suggest China’s New Rulers if you are interested in the current generation of party leadership. There are a number of bloggers in China, of course. The Asia by Blog digest is a good place to start.

On Tibet — the Chinese government’s actions have been and continue to be appalling. Tibetans are now a minority within their own “country”, and their culture has effectively been destroyed. However, it seems unlikely that things will get better for them in the future. After a thorough and deliberate programme of colonisation, even if the central government was to allow autonomy, the Chinese majority there would not accept it. I fully agree with Doug Muir — Tibetan independence is an impossible dream. The Tibetans by themselves are powerless, and no other government cares anywhere near enough to get involved. If you want geo-political analogies, consider the global response to Chechnya.

Next, on the question of the stability of China. I think you are seriously underestimating the strength of the Chinese leadership. In my experience there is nothing vague about Chinese nationalism, nor does ethnicity come into it, at least for the Han Chinese that I know. The CCP may not have much in the way of ideological purity these days, but I’m not sure that many people care. In my opinion, if the party can ensure that the large majority of people have food, shelter, security and the prospect of a better life, they’ll not need to worry about “regime change”. Oh, and the “Mandate of Heaven” has about as much contemporary relevence in China as the royal imperative does in Europe.

Having said that, there are a number of very serious challenges facing the CCP. Taiwan is an explosive situation, obviously. How they handle the many insolvent and inefficient state-owned enterprises is critical, as is the future role of the PLA. As well as disaffected religous or ethnic minorities, mass unrest could be sparked off by a serious health crisis such as the looming AIDS epidemic or, heaven forbid, a virulent human-adapted strain of bird flu. They still have serious problems with endemic corruption. There is also a burgeoning environmental disaster on a scale that is hard to comprehend.

IMO, China is moving more towards political liberalisation, albeit at a much, much slower pace than economic liberalisation. If they can avoid catastrophe then I think they’ll have a liberal, democratic government within a few generations. If you ask me, that is pretty damn good — the alternative is probably chaos on a massive scale, and who knows what afterwards.

9

Marcus Stanley 11.22.04 at 1:17 pm

I think you are overestimating the power of ideology and underestimating the power of nationalism. The Chinese Communist government, for all its flaws (to put it mildly), has definitively transformed China from victimized third world nation into emerging global superpower. The nationalist pride from that transformation must make up for a lot.

10

cliu 11.22.04 at 1:56 pm

In response to raj’s question regarding Taiwan – the ruling green party came to victory on a very independence friendly platform, and so they have to deal with internal pressures to declare Taiwan a special case of Han Chinese, Austro-nesian island culture with its own history and its own identity, a prosperous economy and a democracy. They chafe at the idea that they have no rep at the UN, no diplomatic relations with major countries.

And so one solution for Taiwanese nationalists is to renounce the Republic of China as an identifiying monikor and to go with Taiwan.

Although this seems as if it should not be an act of provocation to the CCP, it is because it suggests that Taiwan is a country on its own, rather than a province of China.

Chinese nationalism as others have suggested cannot be underestimated. It is the only sanctioned form of politican expression.

The economy is burning fast and bright, there was a great deal of overdevelopment in the major cities, but nothing seems to portend a national catastrophe.

In fact, if China and India become trading powers, a whole economic balance of power will shift. There is the problem of oil and water however — both countries are ecological disasters in the making — but ecological meltdowns have not yet occured on a nationally destabilizing scale.

As for dreaming of Tibetan independence, I recommend you read Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri La for a chastening lesson, by a prominent Tibetologist on Western fantasies of the mountain kingdom.

11

russkie 11.22.04 at 1:57 pm

Having spent some time in the PRC and gotten acquainted with some people there, I can’t see any kind of revolutionary ferment going on.

China is big and ancient and people don’t currently have the sense of democracy or Westernization being some sort of manifest destiny. Business people talk about having a “market-based economy with Chinese characteristics”, which seems to still include the involvement of the Party at all levels.

If this changes, it might be because more and more Chinese are travelling abroad to study and do business.

12

alex 11.22.04 at 3:11 pm

abb1 wrote:

Consider Abkhazia…

Except the only reason Abkhazia has its indepedendence is that it beat Georgia in a bloody war. Not quite encouraging for the Tibet/China analogy.

13

Bruce Baugh 11.22.04 at 3:45 pm

There was serious discussion in my history and political science classes about how unstable the People’s Republic was, how likely it was to collapse in messy factionalism and modern-day warlord clashes…and that was in the mid-1980s. I’m inclined to agree with the folks above who say that nationalism has become a glue strong enough to replace communism.

14

Jonathan Edelstein 11.22.04 at 3:51 pm

Population transfers, in or out, are not [genocide] per se.

Settlement of occupied territory is a war crime under Article 8 of the Rome Statute and forcible deportation of civilians “without grounds permitted under international law” is a crime against humanity under Article 7, although neither act constitutes genocide. Demographic engineering within national borders, on the other hand, doesn’t implicate international law at all. Since the prevailing international consensus is that Tibet is part of China, the settlement of Han Chinese is no more a matter of international concern than the settlement of ethnic Burmese or Vietnamese among the hill tribes in their respective countries. Personally, I consider this an unfortunate state of affairs, but I doubt that the international community will get up in arms over Tibetan demographic engineering any time soon.

15

Andris 11.22.04 at 4:40 pm

Two remarks from Latvia.

First, prior to independence, the percentage of ethnic Latvia was only 52%. The current 57% is the result of some Russians returning to Russia after the independence.

Second, Latvian independence movement reached out to those non-Latvians who did not like the Soviet regime. As a result, the independence movement got a number of votes from non-Latvians (in addition to virtually every Latvian vote). The independence referendum was 73% “yes” for independence.

I don’t know what are odds of Tibetans succeeding in similar alliance-building with a part of Han population, but it is not entirely impossible.

16

Brett Bellmore 11.22.04 at 4:42 pm

Standard clause in all international “laws”: “Of course, none of this applies if you have ICBMs, and we think you’re willing to use them.”

17

abb1 11.22.04 at 5:32 pm

Alex,
yes, you’re right – they’ve been fighting a war there. But the stipulation in this post is that the Chinese government is going to collapse. When it does, the elite there will be busy getting their share of the loot and this might give the Tibetans a fighing chance – and of course they’ll have to fight.

However, I think the rumors of China’s forthcoming demise are greatly exaggerated, I agree with Duane above. The Chinese I know think their system is the best system possible under the circumstances, they would hate to see it collapsing, they want to see slow gradual improvements. Bad for Tibetan nationalists, but not necessarily for everybody else.

18

linca 11.22.04 at 7:38 pm

A factor in former Soviet republics independance is that the local CP was led by members of the “titular” minority : Latvia leaders were Latvians, Abkhazia leaders were Abkhazs. Which cetrainly helps in getting independence. Is there any such thing in China?

19

junius ponds 11.22.04 at 7:50 pm

I’m sure much of the (perceived) legitimacy of the CCP is due to its emphasis on orderly development. It seems that the nouveau riche coastal areas will forgive the slow pace or even absence of political liberalization so long as the CCP is fulfilling its role as guarantor of order and manager of economic expansion. The interior cities and rural areas seem restive but can’t offer more than weak and sporadic protest.

Chinese nationals I’ve talked to are generally supportive of the CCP, and their support seems due to these two reasons. When the subject of Colombia came up, one Chinese physics professor remarked, with satisfaction, on how easily the Party would crush any nascent insurgency.

20

Doug Muir 11.22.04 at 8:08 pm

John, it’s still a very weak analogy.

as of 1989 (the relevant date), the Latvian proportion was 52 per cent, which is not a lot different from the Tibetan situation.

The Latvians were still by far the biggest group, since the other 48% was split between Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, and various minor groups. The Ukrainians, in particular, showed a high degree of willingness to either go home or “Latvianize” — that’s why there are so few of them there today.

Probably more important: the Baltic States were by far the most prosperous part of the old Soviet Union. The Latts, Estonians, etc., had been richer and far more free than their Soviet neighbors before 1940, and even in the 1980s they still were better off by almost any measures. So they considered themselves superior to the Russians and other Slavs. As a result, assimilation in the Baltic States was by no means a one-way street. “Creole” Russians born there tended to be bilingual, and to join the locals in looking down at the backwards folk to the east. Hence the supermajority vote for independence — a great many Russians had come to feel more in common with their new land than their old one. I submit that this is unlikely to be the case in Tibet.

(Compare and contrast to Moldova, where neither the Russians nor the native Romanians considered the native culture to be superior. Russians and Ukrainians viewed Moldova as a pleasant but rustic backwater. The Moldovans came to adopt this attitude, complete with accompanying cultural cringe. Which goes a long way to explain why Moldova’s post-1991 history has been much less happy than Latvia’s.)

And then of course, Latvia had been, for 20 years, a legally recognized sovereign nation. This is fairly major point. It means no Tibetan independence without a complete collapse of the country into utter chaos. Think Yugoslavia, or Ethiopia-Eritrea.

Furthermore, Tibet’s mineral wealth would make it a prize worth fighting for by any side. When one talks about the elites scrambling to loot… well, Tibet would be part of what they’d be looting.

Oh, and: Tibet is a big place, and Chinese immigration has not been distributed smoothly. In the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Han Chinese are still a minority. And if you omit Lhasa, the capital, they’re a fairly small minority — about 15-20%%.

Good, right? Except: the flip side of this is that in Tibet /outside/ the TAR, the Han Chinese are an even bigger majority — 60-80%.

So, if you’re talking about Tibetan independence, realistically the only part where it’s remotely plausible is the TAR. This notwithstanding the fact that the Dalai Lama claims all of “historic Tibet”, an area roughly three times bigger. And they’d have to deal with the fact that their capital city is 2 to 1 Chinese.

The Han population consists, as far as I can tell, mostly of first generation migrants including lots of army and government officials.

There was an “indigenous” Han population in Old Tibet, numbering between 5% and 10% of the population. They’re still there.

Modern Han migration, sure. Just a trickle under Mao, followed by a flood after 1980. But today about half the Han population is creole — Tibetan-born. Children, yah, but also a lot of young adults. They’re not going to leave unless someone makes them.

Do I have to point out that there’s abundant precedent for this? Outer Mongolia, for instance, was majority Mongolian as recenty as the 1920s. It’s 90+% Han Chinese now.

As regards Indonesia, I think East Timor is a closer parallel than Irian Jaya.

John. Do you know how many Indonesians were living in East Timor in 1998?

No comparison.

Finally, the Dalai Lama is a huge asset

The Dalai Lama is no spring chicken. His successor… will need some time to grow into the job. Literally.

It’s very sad to think that he probably won’t live to see a free Tibet. But it’s the smart way to bet.

Doug M.

21

Doug Muir 11.22.04 at 8:11 pm

I’ll make you a bet, John.

Every New Year’s Day that passes without an independent, sovereign Tibet, you pay me $50. On the day that Tibet becomes independent, I’ll pay you $1,000.

The bet goes on until one of us calls it off.

What think you?

Doug M.

22

John Emerson 11.22.04 at 8:15 pm

Suharto’s Indonesia was terribly corrupt, inefficient and economically unsuccessful. China seems to be very successful in its labor-contractor role. As a big American reditor, they also have tremendous leverage, and I have read that they are using their Ameican dollars to increase their presence in SE Asia, C. Asia, and Latin America.

I don’t think that there’s a ghost of a chance that China’s actionsin Tibet will ever meet significant international resistance. I’m not even confident about Taiwan, when the chips are down. One of the things I feared at the beginning of the Iraq war was that China would take advantage when America was tied down, and I think that they are setting the stage now.

I think that the Chinese leaders are watching the Singapore model with the aim of being a successful technocratic dictatorship. Modernization and economic liberalization without democracy. They seem to be doing a good job of it.

The increasing gap between rich and poor is an enormous problem. I could see the richer areas splitting off, or trying to. China frequently fragments in 2-20 smaller nations. I think that disunity was often a good thing, and that European disunity has been a European advantage, but very very few Chinese agree with me on that.

23

George 11.22.04 at 9:32 pm

Interesting thread, wish I had time to read it through, but quickly: John Holbo, you may be interested in a TNR article from sometime in the last 2-3 months that dealt with the severe environmental degradation wrought by China’s economic growth, and its potential political implications. (Short version: stronger regional authorities, weaker central power.)

24

George 11.22.04 at 10:29 pm

Interesting thread, wish I had time to read it through, but quickly: John Holbo, you may be interested in a TNR article from sometime in the last 2-3 months that dealt with the severe environmental degradation wrought by China’s economic growth, and its potential political implications. (Short version: stronger regional authorities, weaker central power.)

25

John Quiggin 11.22.04 at 10:47 pm

“Suharto’s Indonesia was terribly corrupt, inefficient and economically unsuccessful.”

Prior to the 1997 crisis, Indonesia managed 7 per cent annual growth for 25 years or so. Here’s one source

In other words, until the crisis, Suharto’s Indonesia was terribly corrupt, inefficient and economically successful, just like China.

26

John Quiggin 11.22.04 at 11:01 pm

Doug, I’ll decline the bet, since you’re clearly better-informed than I am, and in any case the payoff is in future US dollars, an asset I try to avoid.

But I will say, although I didn’t spell it out, that my conjecture is only with respect to the TAR. Any irredentist claims for historical Tibet will go nowhere.

But, if I’m reading you correctly, the TAR is very like Latvia, where ethnic Latvians formed only a third of the population of Riga at the time of independence, though they were a majority in the country as a whole. Or if you prefer Moldova as an analogy, that’s fine.

27

John Emerson 11.23.04 at 12:00 am

That’s news to me, but then I wasn’t paying attention. Except when invading Timor or massacreing Chinese, Indonesia seems to have flown under the radar. In the talk about development, I think I’ve heard something or another about 20 othe third world countries, but not Indonesia.

28

alf 11.23.04 at 5:48 am

China has had a fairly major revolution every 15 – 25 years for the past century and a half. The chinese people aren’t afraid to cause trouble if they feel they aren’t getting what they deserve.

I see no reason to be confident in the current leadership. They havn’t faced any major difficulties and there is no one with the authority of a Deng Xiaoping to deal with a tian’anmen like situation. If the american economy takes a dive, China dosn’t have the internal demand to support itself and the future would not look very bright. The CCP would probably resort to uber nationalism, invade Taiwan further devestating the economy. After that who knows what would happen.

29

BigMatt 11.23.04 at 6:28 am

As a resident of the PRC, I find the prospect for another democratic uprising here highly doubtful. Han nationalism has grown by leaps and bounds.

However, economic liberalization seems to be having an effect: many Chinese living in Guangdong were furious at an attempt of a CCP officer to promote his daughter’s film by asking his constituents to see it. Not a major story of course, but a sign that more Chinese are beginning to take their role as consumers seriously, especially in the wealthier coastal regions.

30

Doug Muir 11.23.04 at 8:03 am

John,

I don’t know if I know more or not… and, as I’ve said, I would love to be wrong about this.

(Just like I’d love to be wrong about what I think is going to happen in Ukraine. Velvet Revolution II: not.)

The Tibetan claim on all of historic Tibet is a big, big problem. Imagine if Latvia had claimed a big chunk of adjacent Belarussian and Russian territory. To have any hope at all, the Tibetans would have to give it up. But for internal reasons, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

Doug M.

31

Jeff 11.23.04 at 11:15 am

I agree with the skeptics who’ve posted so far. The Chinese Communist Party isn’t going anywhere — which is not to say that it won’t give up its monopoly on power eventually. It will, but on a schedule chosen by the Party itself, not forced on it by an external crisis. (Shameless plug for my blog: I posted a long entry on this topic a few days ago.)

A couple of minor or not-so-minor points:

a) The reference to military involvement in business is out of date. Jiang Zemin ordered the People’s Liberation Army (and the police, and the secret service) to give up all their commercial activities back in 1998. And to forestall the inevitable question: yes, they actually obeyed the order.

b) I think one important area where the Soviet/Chinese analogy breaks down is in the area of regional personnel policy.

In the USSR, the Party secretaries of individual republics were often allowed to remain in the same position for decades. During the Brezhnev era this turned into a corrupt and semi-federalized system in which regional Party bosses were allowed to run their own rackets undisturbed (like the cotton mafia in Uzbekistan) so long as they met Moscow’s production targets.

This is one reason that even in Central Asia, where there was almost no popular support for independence among the local Muslims, the individual republics nevertheless became independent in 1991. What’s more, they’ve stayed independent, even though the tangled boundaries Stalin drew in this region make it a ridiculously awkward arrangement. Who benefits from having five separate Muslim states? Obvious answer: the existing Communist Party bureaucracy in each republic, which more or less remained intact and was handed even greater opportunities for rent-seeking.

China is different. In the old days the emperors had something called the “rule of avoidance,” which stipulated that no governor could serve in his native province. This was meant as a simple policy to guard against corruption. The Chinese web of social obligations is so strong that no one holding political power in his home region could be expected to avoid doing favors for his extended family and friends.

But the rule of avoidance also eliminates any incentive for regional leaders to support greater devolution, much less independence. The Communists were smart enough to keep the system, so regional governors and Party secretaries (if they’re good) typically get rotated from province to province before getting some sort of plum job in Beijing.

Hu Jintao, for example, used to be Party secretary in the TAR: a tough and politically sensitive job, almost certainly assigned as a test to see if he had the chops to run the whole country. Do you think Hu would have supported Tibetan independence if it had suddenly become an option while he was in charge? Not likely.

More random thoughts from Shanghai…

32

Boffo 11.23.04 at 2:21 pm

I know but a little about Chinese politics, so my comments are based only on what I know of Indonesian. My impression, however, is that there are important differences.

The problems for Golkar ran deeper than East Timor and Irian. Let’s not forget, for example, that Ambon — the site of some of the worst violence over the last decade — was also the center of an independence movement in the 1950s which Sukarno crushed (with a little help from the U.S.). And of course there is Aceh, which has been a troublemaker since the early days of the Dutch colony.

Ethnic and religious tensions have always burbled just below the surface throughout the country, and those tensions more than the corruption helped drive Suharto from power. It is in this respect that Indonesia is at best a loose metaphor for China. (And, I think, Indonesia’s situation has parallels with the Soviet Union’s in the 1980s.)

Indonesia benefited from adopting a politically neutral national language, but the national ideology (Pancasila) was really just a useful tool to suppress dissent against the Javanese majority. The government coupled that with the policy of Transmigrasi, which relocated poor Javanese to the outlying islands (not just the obvious troublemakers like Timor and Irian), a source of much tension and violence late in the Suharto regime.

Then, of course, there was the role of religion. The government had always had a difficult relationship with Islam, usure how to manage growing pockets of fundamentalism.

You are correct that the ideology was moribund by the end of the regime. For years it had been propped up by vague anti-Communism, which on the ground was really just a proxy for anti-Chinese sentiment.

So, when it all collapsed it was expressed in violence targeted at the ethnic Chinese, the Christians (often they were also Chinese), and in some places against the Javanese migrants.

I’m not sure how this parallels China, but my sense is that with the exception of the Tibetans and, say, the Uighur, ethnic and religious tensions play a much smaller role there than they did/do in Indonesia.

Finally, to follow on what Jeff just posted, the Indonesian military also followed the “rule of avoidance” and Suharto was also careful to rotate regional military leaders so that none became too comfortable. On the other hand, as I understand it local government was managed locally, so civil institutional structures did not follow this pattern. More importantly, Golkar was seen as a mainly Javanese and secular institution, with only limited power distributed to other ethnicities.

I’m happy to be shown wrong on any of the above; I’m not a specialist on Indonesian politics. My knowledge comes mainly from having lived there for a time (late in the Suharto regime).

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