What if China falls apart?

27 February 2018

What if China falls apart?

I am not an expert on China or its government. I am just a casual observer with some knowledge of what happened in the USSR, and I saw some parallels that I wanted to explore, just as a thought experiment. Design shamelessly based on a great Nat Geo map hanging in my room.

China is an absolute behemoth—it’s the last traditional empire that is still more or less intact (Mongolia and Taiwan have slipped away, though). But will it be like this in perpetuity?

I think there’s a good chance that the People’s Republic won’t survive the 21st century in its current form. Supporters of China’s current system of government claim that China doesn’t need Western democracy and that it should pursue its own path. I agree, but that does not imply that the current system is good. I am no expert on the government of China so I can’t say much, but I feel like if the government has to resort to censorship, something is not right.

The population is okay with the current regime because the country is modernizing at a blistering pace, and life is generally getting better for most people. But in about 10-15 years, once growth reaches a plateau and bureaucrats become complacent, people will realize that they live in a society that is just as unfair as its Western counterpart, and nowhere near as free. We will have perestroika 2.0 and there’s a chance the People’s Republic might break up, Soviet-style. Of course, there are many differences between China and the USSR.


90% of China is Han.

The biggest difference is that China is 90% Han, while the USSR was 70% East Slavic. Of course, the East Slavs can be divided into Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, who in turn can be divided further. The Han “ethnicity”—I’ve been told—is an amalgamation of various groups, many of whom speak unintelligible languages. So I think it would not be too far fetched to imagine a future where China sees a rebirth of regional identities. In a China where people are dissatisfied with the central government, identifying as Wu or Yue rather than “Han” could become a tacit symbol of resistance. This is similar to how many “Han” Taiwanese would object to being called Han.

China does not have ethnic SSRs.

Another difference is the structure of Chinese administrative units. The USSR was conceived as a voluntary union of sovereign socialist republics (hence the name). In practice, Moscow was the center of power and Russian culture dominated. But in 1991, the ethnically based Republic framework proved extremely convenient. The newly independent Soviet republics could easily rally around a national ethnic identity, for whom the territory was tailor-made decades ago.

China’s closest equivalent to the SSR is their “Autonomous Region”. However, there is no clear ethnic majority in these regions. Beijing has implemented policies to incentivize Han from the central lowlands to move to these regions, probably to prevent what this map envisions. Inner Mongolia, Guangxi and Ningxia are already majority Han; Xinjiang is about 30% Han, and in another decade will probably have more Han than Uyghurs. Only Tibet remains relatively untouched, due to the high altitude making it difficult for lowland Han mothers to safely bear children.

That said, it is still possible for regional identities to re-emerge in areas where the population, though nominally Han, has a culture distinct from the “mainstream” Beijing/ North China Plain culture.

New technologies promote cultural uniformity.

The USSR collapsed on the eve of the internet revolution. Russian language and culture quickly lost ground in former Soviet republics, but perhaps the strongest force in favor of Russian throughout the post-Soviet space has been the internet. In Ukraine and Kazakhstan, Russian-language Wikipedia is more popular than either of the localized versions. An online argument between a Ukrainian and a Kazakh would likely happen in Russian. Posting and tweeting in Russian guarantees more outreach. Et cetera, et cetera. And this is all true without a Soviet authority to enforce language policy.

In China, the online presence of minority languages is negligible. Standard Mandarin is king, emboldened by the ubiquitous presence of internet giants like Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba. These companies are closely connected to the Chinese government. China’s language policy is ostensibly friendly toward minority languages, but since “Han” are considered a single ethnic group, all Han are encouraged to speak Standard Mandarin—regardless of whether they grew up with Cantonese, Shanghainese or other regional dialects that could be considered languages in their own right.

More and more of our communication is happening on electronic devices, which discourage the use of these minority languages due to a lack of support. The Chinese government has more leverage than ever before to homogenize its population and eliminate regionalism, which it is actively doing for fear of what this map imagines.

So what the heck is going on with the map?

I reiterate that I am not Chinese, nor am I a China scholar, nor do I have any firsthand knowledge of China. There will surely be a lot of objections to the divisions shown on the map, and I do kindly ask for suggestions and improvements, by comment or email (sashat@ispol.com). Nonetheless I will try to explain my rationale behind each of the newly independent states.

Chinese Federation

This is pretty obviously based on the concept of the Russian Federation. A federal form of government would be pretty well suited for the remaining Chinese state, especially since it includes regions with ethnic minorities.

Most notably, why isn’t Inner Mongolia independent? At only 17%, I figured that the Mongol presence would simply be too small to foment a sufficient movement so close to Beijing. The Han that do live in Inner Mongolia originated in the plains, and do not have any special regional identity. They would likely be the last people to go against Beijing. I originally included Shanghai in the Chinese Federation as well, even though it has somewhat of a distinct Shanghainese identity, because of how tightly integrated the city is with Beijing. However, at the urging of a Shanghainese Reddit user, I decided to include it in Tsehkaan in V0.2:

As a native of Shanghai whose father is from Zhejiang, I strongly disagree with Zhejiang being a separate Wu-speaking nation-state without Shanghai or southern Jiangsu. This region is pretty closely connected culturally and economically.

The Chinese Federation would continue to have Standard Chinese as its language, with Beijing as the capital. The population would end up being around 775 million, losing China’s number one population spot to India (which will soon surpass the PRC anyway). Incidentally, this is 55% of the PRC’s population, roughly similar to Russia’s 51% of the Soviet population in 1991.

East Turkestan

The Uyghurs have not been treated particularly well by the People’s Republic. There has been some sort of Uyghur/East Turkestan independence movement for a while. This is actually one the most likely areas to become independent if China should ever have a territorial crisis. Xinjiang, as it is known in Mandarin, does not have a Han majority, and the local culture is much more Central Asian than Chinese. Islam gives the Uyghurs a stronger sense of identity compared to other minorities in the People’s Republic.

Kazakhs also live in Xinjiang, and have their own little region. This could also become a separate country, or join Kazakhstan. For simplicity I simply took all of Xinjiang, with Urumqi as the capital. The population would be about 23 million today, growing at about 1 million every 5 years.


Like Xinjiang, Tibet has a well-known and longstanding independence movement from China. The Dalai Lama has popularized it and I see “FREE TIBET” on stickers and license plates. Again, this is a straightforward choice. The Han presence in Tibet is very small and there is a strong ethnic identity.

I automatically made Lhasa the capital, since it’s the largest city. Tibet’s population is currently about 3 million, growing slowly.


This one is probably the least likely. I grouped the provinces where Southwest Mandarin is the dominant dialect, calling it Nanzhao after the ancient kingdom that flourished there 1200 years ago. I thought the name fitting because it is very literal—nan zhao roughly means “southern kingdom”. I based the concept of Nanzhao on something like the American South or southern Russia. These are areas that are culturally similar to the national core, but have distinct elements and maybe separate geography.

Since Mandarin is dominant in Nanzhao, I find it less likely to secede, especially compared to something like Tibet. Also highly debatable is the inclusion of Chengdu and Chongqing—large metropolises that are tightly integrated into mainstream, modern Chinese culture. A more likely scenario would be an independent Yunnan, with Chengdu and Chongqing remaining in the People’s Republic.

I originally put the capital in Kunming (renamed Yunnanfu), but after some consideration it made more sense to put it in a Sichuanese city, since Kunming is just too isolated. Nanzhao would have a fairly stable population of about 195 million.


The spelling looks really weird to me, but Wikipedia assures me that this is the standard Zhuang rendition of “Guangxi”. After all, why would the newly independent republic use Mandarin pinyin? This is another one of China’s Autonomous Regions, created for the Zhuang people. The Zhuang langauge is unrelated to Chinese, it is in the same family as Thai. Thus they are a fairly distinct ethnic group who could organize a national identity.

One complication is that eastern Guangxi is populated by Cantonese-speaking Han. There are about as many Cantonese speakers in Guangxi as there are Zhuang speakers, so any Zhuang ethnic state would be met with resistance. It’s possible that Cantonese could emigrate, as was the case with Russians in Kazakhstan—when Kazakhstan gained independence, the republic had roughly equal numbers of Russians and Kazakhs. Nowadays Kazakhstan is about 20% Russian, due mostly to the Russians leaving.

Being the largest city and historical center, I made Nanning the capital of Gvangjsih. Today’s population is 48 million and rising.

Hai Nam

In Mandarin the island is called Hainan. The local population is Han, but they speak the Hainanese version of Min, rather than Mandarin. It’s quite possible that a distinct Hainanese identity could originate based on the language, and the island’s relative isolation. The capital would be Haikou, rendered “Haikhau” in the local language. The island country’s population would be 9 million and growing fast, although migration to an independent Hai Nam would probably be less than it is today.


This is the Yale romanization of the Cantonese rendering of Guangdong. Gwongdung would be a sort of Yue/Cantonese state, which I think could reasonably exist as a response by pressure from Beijing to switch to northern ways of speaking. Most of the population would be Cantonese, but there would be a large Hakka minority. An interesting situation would be Shenzhen, where the population is from out-of-province, and speaks Mandarin. This could lead to anything from ethnic tensions to an outright independent Shenzhen, or a Chinese Federation enclave.

Guangzhou (rendered Gwongzau) would naturally be the capital. Today’s population is 110 million. The population is rapidly increasing, but a breakup of China would end migration from outside Guangdong. However, as discussed previously, Cantonese speakers may choose to leave an independent Gvangjsih, likely ending up in Gwongdung.


Xiang is the standard Chinese abbreviation for Hunan province, as well as the name of the non-Mandarin language spoken there. I do not know the degree to which Xiang (aka Hunanese) has been supplanted by Mandarin, but on Wikipedia the number of speakers numbers about half of the population of Hunan. It would probably take a pretty drastic reversal of migratory and linguistic trends to see a resurgent Hunanese identity. But this map presumes that the necessary fragmentation and regionalization of China has already taken place, so we may as well assume that Xiang has reemerged.

The capital would be Changsha, and the population would be at 65 million, currently growing rapidly.

###Kongsi Again this is the local (Gan) rendering of Jiangxi. This is basically the same thing as Xiang except with the Gan language group. The capital would presumably be at Nanchang, governing a population of 45 million (currently rapidly growing).


Another southern Chinese language-based nation-state, Hokgiong is named after the Min Dong ( Eastern Min) pronunciation of Fujian Province. Fujian today is home to speakers of Min languages, which are grouped together despite being very different from one another. The major language groups would be Southern and Eastern Min. Hokkien is a version of Southern Min that is fairly well known. It’s not clear if Hokkien or the Fuzhou dialect would win over as the language of Hokgiong. Indeed the word “Hokkien” itself is simply the southern pronunciation of “Hokgiong”. Fuzhou dialect is described as a prestige variety, which is why I tentatively chose it over Southern Min varieties. Today’s Fuzhou, likewise, would be the capital—except it would be called Hokchiu in the local language. Hokgiong would have a population of about 37 million.


This is another spelling that I find weird, but it seems to be the romanized Wu version of Zhejiang. This would be a Wu nation-state, although without the historical center of Suzhou. Shanghai would be the capital. I had originally excluded Shanghai in v0.1, because I thought its high integration with Beijing would prevent independence. However after some suggestions I decided to include it, due to its status as the center of Wu society. I left Suzhou out because in this scenario I am not going to break up provinces—my premise is that provinces secede as whole units. Currently Zhejiang Province and Shanghai are rapidly growing, with 80 million inhabitants. This growth would slow after a Chinese breakup.

Hong Kong

The city already enjoys some autonomy, and there is a non-negligible independence movement. Currently most Hongkongers don’t take the possibility seriously, but in our scenario the central government has lost power and enabled pre-democracy, pro-independence forces to have their way in Hong Kong. The population of Hong Kong is at 7.5 million and growing slowly.


Macau’s situation is similar to that of Hong Kong. Similarly, our scenario imagines an independent city state, not unlike Hong Kong and Singapore. With a stable population of 650,000 Macau is the smallest new country in every respect.


I greyed out Taiwan mostly out of laziness. Yes, in some sense it is a breakaway country, part of Greater Cultural China. But including it in the colored section of the map would take me some extra time so I went the lazy route and only highlighted the former People’s Republic.