As we look at China, we see certain patterns emerge through history: Dynasties expand, central control erodes, the dynasty fractures, a period of instability ensues and a new central power reasserts itself. This power, too, expands and the cycle begins again.
When a historic cycle is seen, it is necessary to understand how and why it occurs to better identify the underlying structures that may still be in place and may still bring challenges to the current government.
The Tang dynasty emerges as a reconsolidation of centralized Chinese power after the fracturing of the Sui dynasty. The Tang expands its territory and influence east to the Koreas, west along the Silk Road, and south into Indochina. Tang China emerges as a major trading power, linking Eurasia and South Asia. But to maintain that empire requires an expansive bureaucracy, and over time the regions themselves become more powerful and the center weakens. Eventually the Tang Empire fractures into warlord states.
This pattern is repeated by the Song Dynasty, which reconsolidates the Chinese core, but is itself ultimately chipped away by the Yuan Dynasty pushing in from the Mongolian plains. The Yuan push the expansion to its extremes, going so far as to attempt the invasion of Japan and Indonesia. As the Yuan also fall victim to the Chinese expansion cycle they are replaced with the Ming and a return to local Han rule. The Ming also follow the similar dynastic pattern and are overthrown by the Manchu, who establish the Qing dynasty. This, too, suffers a similar fate, paving the way for modern China and the consolidation of power under the Communist Party.
This is a very simplified view of Chinese history, but if we look at China today, we see similar signs of the threats of dynastic cycle. The Chinese government is struggling to manage the widening gaps in the social and economic structures brought about by China’s rapid economic growth. Rifts exist between the rural and urban populations, between the coast and the interior, between the north and the south — in short, the old stresses of China are once again exerting themselves. China’s size and ethnic complexity, as well as the strong regionalism, make central control difficult in the best of times. With the economic stresses brought forward in the past few years, this is presenting a significant challenge to Beijing. Steps the government takes to appease the rural and newly urban interior draw resources and attention away from the wealthy coasts. Attempts to consolidate industry for the sake of national macroeconomic stability threaten local interests. Despite tight social controls, central authority is beginning to weaken in the face of local power and social unease.
What we are seeing in China today is not unique to the Communist leadership. Certainly the specifics are different, but the geography of China and the evolution of its populations bring similar challenges today that were faced by earlier dynasties. History doesn’t have to repeat itself, and the Communist Party won't necessarily lose control to localized economic interests, but by looking at these patterns it helps to shine a spotlight on the deeper roots of the problem Beijing is now struggling to address.