Tea Leaf Nation

My Missing Mongolia

Some Chinese see uncomfortable parallels between the Crimean referendum and their own history.

Beijing has very cautiously supported Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. Some have compared Russia's move to Adolf Hitler's 1938 annexation of Sudetenland -- a part of pre-war Czechoslovakia -- via plebiscite, as well as to Hitler's annexation of Austria that same year via "Anschluss," or a "union," one also consecrated by (biased) ballot. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has reportedly likened the Crimean referendum to Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008.

Yet some Chinese are keeping the discussion to their own history -- specifically, to that time a Soviet-backed referendum cost China more than 600,000 square miles of what it considered its own territory. A map of China, with the independent country of Mongolia on China's northern border highlighted in red, has been retweeted more than 15,000 times since it was first posted on China's massive, Twitter-like Weibo platform on March 16. A satirist who goes by the online moniker Cui Chenghao posted the map to his 2 million-plus followers, captioned with the charge: "Crimea has broken away from Ukraine through a referendum, and there are still some among you who applaud this? Or don't you know? In October 1945, the Soviet Union also encouraged northern Mongolia to hold a referendum, and with less than 500,000* voting participants, ripped away 15 percent of China's sovereign territory." (China exercised de facto control over Mongolia until the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911; it soon after fell under Russia's sway, and became independent only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

Cui's charge resonated widely, garnering more than 9,000 comments. Some questioned China's current partnership with Russia, which is how the two sides currently characterize their relationship, one that has included joint naval exercises and frequent meetings between top leaders. One commenter wrote, "Russia is the country who stands to gain the most from an invasion of China, yet Chinese people call this thief ‘father.'" Another user wrote, "Return Mongolia to us, and then we'll support the Crimean referendum." And, referring to China's volatile western region of Xinjiang that has a very small number of ethnic Russians, one user added, "The Soviet Union once supported independence for Xinjiang, so go ahead, applaud."  

But beneath the anger toward Russia runs a deeper acknowledgement of realpolitik. One commenter replied, "Outer Mongolia in 1945, Kosovo after 1950, Crimea in 2014. The relationship between these three is their economies and militaries were backward, so they got trampled on. There is no such thing as justice or democracy," the user concluded, "only naked interest." Eschewing any discussion of legal processes, another user angrily demanded, "When will the Chinese government be able to get Mongolia back?" While governments may continue to debate the Crimean referendum for months or even years to come, the takeaway for China's populace may be much simpler: Grow stronger.

*Correction, April 11, 2014: The pseudonymous Cui discussed 500,000 voting participants in the referendum, not 50,000 as originally stated. (Return to reading.) 

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Tea Leaf Nation

China's Capital Idea

Is it time to move the seat of government away from Beijing?

After heading southwest from Beijing for two and half hours on a highway, a traveler might decide to stretch her legs at Baoding, a medium-sized city of under two million people. She would almost certainly not think the dusty town in northern Hebei province, one best known for its donkey meat burgers, looked like a candidate for China's next capital. But that very notion gripped the Chinese Internet on March 19 after Caijing, a reputable state-owned financial magazine, reported that Baoding would become a "secondary political center," writing that certain government offices and education institutions would start moving there from Beijing at an unspecified future date.

The news soon became one of the hottest topics on Chinese social media. The Baoding local government, not to mention China's powerful National Development and Reform Commission, the state organ responsible for macro-level economic planning in China, both quickly denied the report. But the genie was out of the bottle, and Internet users have continued discussing the possibility of relieving Beijing of its duty as China's capital. 

It's not the first time -- nor, in all likelihood, will it be the last time -- that talk of a capital move has fired the public imagination. In February 2012, an unfounded Internet rumor claimed that a town in central Henan province was one of the top choices for a new seat of government. Compared to that, Baoding seems like a credible choice. It lies about equidistant from Beijing and Tianjin, another large municipality, and since 2004, the central government has sent signals about strategic urban planning that would "integrate" Beijing, Tianjin, and the surrounding areas in Hebei.

Beijing has been China's capital for most of the past 700 years, but a city originally built to house palaces and to fend off Mongols now groans under the weight of its 21 million inhabitants and 5 million cars. Multiple subway lines have opened since 2008, but the subway only seems to get even more crowded, with single-day ridership reaching 10 million in March 2013. An April 2012 report by the International Monetary Fund showed a 750-square-foot apartment in Beijing costing over 22 times average annual pretax income there in 2011. That makes even apartments around Beijing's peripheral Fifth Ring Road, which lies over 10 miles from the city center, a "pipe dream" for the average white-collar worker.

On Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, Beijing natives who arguably reaped the most benefits from the boom also voiced the loudest complaints about outsiders changing their beloved city. Others wondered aloud what would happen to Beijing's sky-high real estate prices should the capital move. One user wrote that uprooting China's government was a "great" idea -- as long as the leadership doesn't move to the rival city of Shanghai.  

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