China (Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls)

Sud Alogu
4 min readNov 17, 2023

The following is a summary of the Chine in the book, Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls by Tim Marshall.

Chinese emperors, including Xi Jinping, have aimed to unite China’s diverse regions into a cohesive whole. Xi, with multiple titles, oversees a vast and ethnically varied population across a large area. Despite modern capabilities like aerial surveillance, he faces challenges in maintaining unity, notably between urban and rural areas and the rich and poor.

The Great Wall, historically a unifier and symbol of ‘us versus them’, remains significant in China’s national consciousness. Mao Zedong’s conflicting views on the Wall reflected its complex legacy. Deng Xiaoping later emphasized its restoration and tourism potential.

China’s unity faces challenges due to ethnic, cultural, and regional differences, especially in non-Han areas like Xinjiang and Tibet. These regions, crucial for security and resources, resist Beijing’s control. The divide between the Han heartland and these regions remains a significant issue for China’s future stability and unity.

The Han Chinese population in Xinjiang is increasing, leading to ethnic tensions with the Uighurs, who face job discrimination and occasional violence. Small-scale terrorism, influenced by external jihadist groups, exacerbates the situation. Despite this, Beijing maintains strict control over Xinjiang for its strategic and resource value.

In Tibet, similar dynamics are at play. The region, significant for its strategic location and water resources, has seen an increase in Han population, diluting Tibetan self-rule aspirations. Both regions face challenges to their distinct identities under Chinese rule.

China’s internal divisions, both ethnic and economic, pose a threat to its long-term unity and prosperity. The shift from land to sea trade routes historically weakened interior regions, exacerbating regional inequalities. Communist policies under Mao aimed at unification but hindered economic development. Deng Xiaoping’s opening up of the economy boosted coastal regions, widening the rural-urban divide. This economic disparity remains a challenge, with coastal areas and cities prospering more than rural interiors.

The current economic model, driven by continuous production and consumption, has lifted millions out of poverty but at an environmental cost and with increasing income inequality. China faces the challenge of balancing economic growth with social and regional equity to maintain national cohesion.

China faces severe wealth inequality, with a small percentage of households owning a significant portion of the nation’s wealth. This inequality worsened after the economic reforms of 1979. The government recognizes the potential threat this poses to social stability and is working to address it, but solutions are complex.

Urbanization is a key strategy, moving millions from rural to urban areas to create a larger consumer base. This mass migration, however, highlights the urban-rural divide, exacerbated by the hukou system which restricts access to social services based on registration location. Urban migrant workers, often from rural areas, face significant disadvantages.

Addressing these issues involves balancing urban and rural development, a challenging and expensive task. The government must improve rural infrastructure and services while encouraging urban migration to sustain economic growth. This approach must be carefully managed to avoid exacerbating regional disparities.

China’s aging population, accelerated by the one-child policy, adds to the challenge, straining the labor force and social services. Solutions like raising the retirement age or adjusting social services funding are being considered.

Internally, the Chinese government uses strict control over information to manage dissent and maintain stability. The Great Firewall of China blocks many foreign websites, while internal censorship prevents the spread of dissenting ideas. This approach faces challenges as internet access grows, making control more difficult.

These issues illustrate the complex balance China must maintain between economic growth, social stability, and regional equity.

Chinese authorities, alarmed by the rapid spread of information through smartphones and the internet, have implemented strict cyber-security laws and regulations to control digital communication. These measures include promoting private social media platforms like WeChat over public ones like Weibo, and enacting legislation that requires foreign companies to store data within China, potentially accessible by the government.

President Xi Jinping, fully aware of the internet’s potential, has personally overseen China’s cyber strategy, centralizing control and using it to build his own ‘cult of personality’. The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party further consolidated his power, promoting ‘Xi Jinping Thought’.

China’s internet censorship creates a digital divide, limiting access to certain information, particularly in Chinese. Search results for sensitive topics like the Tiananmen Square protests are heavily censored. The concept of ‘positive energy’ has been introduced to denote content acceptable to the authorities, potentially leading to a crackdown on dissent.

This censorship affects China’s economic potential, particularly in innovation, as the free flow of information is restricted. However, the government sees this as a necessary trade-off to maintain control and prevent organized opposition, prioritizing national unity and stability over unrestricted digital access.

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