Sometime in the late-nineteenth century political and intellectual leaders in China began to flirt with a genuinely radical idea that stood against two millennia of Chinese history that the country could get along without an emperor and, even more, that the country would probably not survive if it kept its venerable imperial system. In this, China would precede Europe’s great empires into a new era of republicanism. Over the decades, other great multi-ethnic empires the Hapsburg, the Ottoman, Britain’s South Asia Raj and, most recently, the Soviet Uniondevolved into independent nations. But, after a century, the geopolitical territory of the Manchu empirethat is, the Qing dynasty, China’s last, which began in 1644 and ended in 1912is still largely intact.
It may yet dissolve into independent nations but, so far, Outer Mongolia is the only major part of the Qing patrimony that has formally done so. Taiwan, a one-time Qing colony, has emerged as an independent, democratic, self-governing polity, although its independence and sovereignty are not widely recognized. The rest of the Qing realm has, since the early 1950s, been ruled from Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Indeed, the PRC is the last consequential regime in the world which has not given up the vision of a polity that is a vast multi-ethnic empire in content, albeit one that is a constitutional republic in form. This relationship between content and form isto employ some Maoist-era terminology the primary contradiction of the PRC. Indeed, given what has happened, and what continues to happen, in other parts of the world, even the mere claim that any one non-democratic state should govern the once-vast domains of the former Qing Empire is striking in and of itself. But the People’s Republic does more than assert that claim; since l949, it has gone to extraordinary lengths to make the claim stick.
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