Joshua Bird reviews China at Its Limits, by Matthias Messmer and Hsin-Mei Chuang
China shares its borders with 14 other countries, more than almost any other nation. Its near neighbors represent a diverse collection, from dominant powers such as Russia and India, to the smaller emerging nations of Laos and Bhutan. Throughout China’s history, it is through these borders that the influencing forces of trade, ideology and imperialism have traveled. China’s border regions have resumed their importance in recent years, with political protest among the country’s ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet, and the development of the Belt and Road Initiative – which seeks to further bind China’s neighbors to its economic agenda through the creation of a “New Silk Road.” China’s borders represent an opportunity for trade and cultural exchange, but also a risk for political agitation, terrorism and even military conflict.
Attempting as it does to cover these many civilizations and peoples that line China’s borders, China at its Limits, by Matthias Messmer and Hsin-Mei Chuang, is an ambitious book both in its scope and depth. Drawing on historical sources, news headlines and the authors’ own personal reflections, the book seeks to introduce the reader to the diverse cultures and histories present on both sides of China’s vast borderlands.
The thread that flows throughout the book is the role of history – both personal and political – in the broader political contests of nationhood and international relations. While China’s ethnic minority border regions have long been formally incorporated into the People’s Republic of China, many of its people have resisted full integration. Some of China’s Tibetan, Mongolian and Uyghur peoples promote alternate national identities, in direct conflict with the idea of a unified Chinese nation. Similarly, in China’s relations with its neighbors, unresolved disputes regarding territory, past grievances and culture continue to fester. Examples include the ongoing dispute between China and the Republic of Korea over whether the ancient proto-Korean kingdom of Goguryeo should properly be considered a Chinese vassal state. It is in such an environment that history is deployed as a weapon by both sides.
Mao Zedong once proclaimed, “It is necessary that the past serve the present.” In China, history is employed by the state in the cause of nation-building. The concept of the Zhonghua minzu – the Chinese nation – has been used to absorb a diverse range of peoples and their histories into the greater Chinese national narrative. Through this method, China’s foreign invaders – from Mongol Genghis Khan to the Manchu Qing Dynasty – have been transformed into protagonists of Chinese history. As the authors note, “With progress comes inevitable loss” – and that loss has been disproportionately felt by the country’s ethnic minorities. In a similar vein, official narratives of international borders with countries such as India and Vietnam are given very different treatment by each side – to align with their own political purposes. While the conflicts have been largely erased from China’s official history, the conflicts remain alive not only in the memories of those who lost loved ones to the conflicts but also to those in Vietnam and India who use them as evidence of the aggressive nature of the Chinese state, and the need to maintain caution when dealing with this rising power.
“The concept of the Zhonghua minzu – the Chinese nation – has been used to absorb a diverse range of peoples and their histories into the greater Chinese national narrative”
China at its Limits is an ambitious book, both in scope and depth. The authors work to address the historical amnesia practiced by large states, and the attempts to erase memories of ethnic identity and conflict. They rediscover the forgotten stories of China’s borderlands and attempt to give them their due place in national and international histories, shifting the readers’ gaze from the political to the personal. Each chapter begins with a vignette from the authors’ travels, expands to provide a synopsis of historical and political events, and concludes with some ruminations on the future. For example, the first chapter follows the authors’ travels dodging government surveillance along the China-North Korea border, segues to a retelling of China’s role in the Korean War, and ends with thoughts on contemporary relations between the two countries in light of the heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
As a result, occasionally the book repeats itself, as similar stories of imperial overreach and authoritarian repression are retold with different players. However, while there is a tendency to go over well-trodden ground, the authors unearth some hidden gems. For example, there is the story of the Indian city of Kolkata’s once bustling Chinatown, now much diminished; or the oft-forgotten China Eastern Railway, built by Czarist Russia to link Manchuria in China’s northeast to the Trans-Siberian Railway.
The book is more than just a dry collection of biographies and historical summaries. Several artistic devices are used to add color. The authors make use of their own contemporary photography, often superimposed with figures taken from historical photographs – the ghosts of the past haunting the present. Numerous footnotes also include interesting asides, from accounts of the authors’ random encounters with individuals to explanations of the various curios and documents peppered throughout. Ancient poetry and idioms are also weaved throughout the book, giving it a wistful air.
“History is deployed as a weapon by both sides”
There are legitimate fears about the implications of China’s peaceful rise for its near neighbors, and those peoples that reside along its border. The authors detail the main strains of Sinophobia that endure among those countries that share borders with China, some born out of memories of invasion and conquest, others out of fear of future invasions – be they economic, political or migratory. Similarly, they give a voice to China’s vulnerable and marginalized, for whom the impacts of national policies continue to have very mixed benefits.
Taken as a whole, the authors’ prognosis for the future is overwhelmingly gloomy. Much has been lost, and things look to be getting worse. While the book concludes suddenly without an explicit judgement or prediction, the reader is left wondering what lies ahead for China’s borderlands and the people who inhabit it. ∎