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115 | 2016
Annuaire du Collège de France 2014-2015
Résumé des cours et travaux 115e année
VI. Conférenciers invités

Borders and Peoples: the Qing Legacy

Perry Anderson
p. 869-870

Notes de la rédaction

Conférence prononcée le 15 décembre 2014 (invitation sur proposition du Pr Alain Supiot).

Texte intégral

1To understand the Qing realm, it needs to be viewed in a comparative historical perspective, within the set of early modern, multi-ethnic agrarian empires – Mughal, Ottoman, Romanov, Habsburg – that expanded outwards across contiguous territory from original core zones of power, as distinct from overseas maritime empires of the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch British, French or Dutch type. Looked at in this way, what were its most distinctive features? The Manchu rulers of China formed a much smaller minority – less than one per cent – of the population than their counterparts in the other great land-based empires of early modern times. Lacking the ethnic and cultural confidence of the Mongols in the mediaeval period, they maintained a more anxious separatism of law, language, military organization from the subject Han. To govern their empire, they developed a distinctive ideological syncretism, employing Confucian rites in their Han possessions, and Buddhist practices in their Mongolian and Tibetan possessions. Islam, by contrast, never formed part of this legitimating system.

2The Qing were overthrown in 1911 as foreign rulers – Manchus who had tyrannized the Han for far too long. By then Western and Japanese imperial penetration of China – dramatized by successive military expeditions to Beijing – was well advanced, bringing the new Republic under immediate economic and diplomatic pressure. At the same time, though it rejected the dynasty as an alien excrescence on China, the Republic retained its claims to Mongolia, Tibet and what is today Xinjiang, acquired by the Qing in the 17th and 18th centuries. Republican China thus became simultaneously an object and subject of empire. The tensions inherent in this double condition quickly became apparent, as national or proto-national movements developed in the non-Han zones of the former Qing domain. In Outer Mongolia, an independent Khanate was declared over intense popular and official opposition in the major Chinese cities even before the Republic of China was established, and could never be repossessed. In Tibet, Chinese officials were expelled a year later. In Xinjiang, various Uighur and Hui warlords took power. In China, the Nanjing regime of the GMD insisted it was the legitimate government throughout the former Qing realm, but – unable to control even all the Han provinces of China – was in no position to try enforce its authority in these outlying areas.

3When it won the civil war and drove the GMD from the mainland, the CCP confronted the same duality as its predecessor. Pressure from the West on China remained intense: no diplomatic recognition for the People’s Republic, economic blockade, conversion of Taiwan into a protectorate, war in Korea. What would the policy of the new authorities be to the Qing acquisitions in Central Asia? In the inter-war period, the CCP had defended the right to self-determination of the non-Han peoples of the Empire, though it had never – Lenin’s classic distinction – advocated the exercise of this right. After Liberation, however, it reverted to the position of its predecessor: all the lands of the Qing formed part of the PRC, save Outer Mongolia. Unlike its predecessor, the CCP was in a position to make good this claim, the PLA reintegrating Tibet and Xinjiang into China in 1950. Administration of these areas has since been punctuated by local uprisings, causing repeated difficulties for Beijing, despite its heavy investment in them, and concomitant fast economic growth.

4Questions of international law are often raised in connexion with the allogenous provinces of China today. Viewed historically, however, it was not legal niceties but the balance of diplomatic and political forces that determined the contrasting destinies of the non-Han areas of the Qing Empire. If Mongolia is an independent state today, that is essentially because it received sufficient Russian – first Tsarist, then Bolshevik – support to deter any attempt to reintegrate it into China after 1911. If Tibet is a province of China, that is because in the same period Britain decided – after considerable debate – neither to annex nor to sustain it as an independent polity, but maintain it as an indeterminate buffer zone. If Xinjiang is likewise a province of China, that is because the USSR, the dominant power in the region, not wishing to inflame relations with Nanjing, decided against supporting the creation of another Central Asia Republic, along the lines of Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan, as it could have done after 1945. The calculations of Sazonov, McMahon and Stalin mattered more than the wishes of local peoples or notables.

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Référence papier

Annuaire du Collège de France 2014-2015. Résumé des cours et travaux 115e année, Paris, Collège de France, novembre 2016, p. 869-870. ISBN 978-2-7226-0453-7

Référence électronique

Perry Anderson, « Borders and Peoples: the Qing Legacy », L’annuaire du Collège de France [En ligne], 115 | 2016, mis en ligne le 22 juin 2018, consulté le 21 juillet 2018. URL :

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Perry Anderson

Professeur à l’université de Californie, Los Angeles (États-Unis)

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Collège de France

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