Watching the U.S. election and the Chinese transition of power, my friend John has come up with the second guest post to share with us on this blog.
Democracy, Meritocracy and corruption.
Watching the elections in the U.S. and the transition of power in China, it crystallized the thought I had for a while about the current government structure in China and how they compared to the Western democracies.
My understanding of the U.S. government is rudimentary. My understanding of the Chinese government even less. So my observations and analysis are based on information that could be readily obtained from the West. Nevertheless, many experts have done a lot worse over the years. One in particular, Gordon Chang, have been predicting the coming collapse of China since 2001! In fact, he thought China would go down by 2011! Yet, in spite of his records, he still is publishing in Major publications.
I believe that the China model of selecting leaders could have the potential to be far superior to the way the West selects them.
Let me first lay out my understanding of how the Chinese government works. The Chinese government is based on patronage. Officials enter the system of government either recruited from top colleges due to their outstanding performances, or, equally likely, they enter government services by their heritage. Their parents were also communist officials. Once they are in the system, their boss decide where they will go. If they perform well(or if they also have connections from higher up), they rapidly move up. While there are many considerations for a candidate to move up, competency is a major component for moving up. It is based on performance like in a corporation.
So one can think of this as performance based with heavy legacy considerations. Even for those with legacy, rising to the top requires competence. There are many people with fairly ordinary background which were elevated to the top due to their performance. For example, Shen Yueyue, one of the handful of the “sixth generation” leaders, has the following bio from one of the U.S. government reports
“Although she began her career as a shop assistant, she later earned a degree in mathematics and rose to prominence as Vice-Secretary of the Communist Youth League in her native Ningbo. She served as Deputy Secretary and Secretary of the Zhejiang Youth League from 1986 to 1993 and attended the Central Party School in 1996. When she was appointed Vice-Secretary of the Anhui Party Committee in 2001, she was 44 years of age. Long affiliated with the CCYL, she is thought to be aligned with Hu Jintao’s Tuanpai faction.”
She was a shop keeper when she started out! and she may rise to the very top of the Chinese power structure. But she was not someone who was just a community organizer or a junior senator with little achievement to show for. She took various posts in the government and gave an outstanding performance. That is how she moved up. That is how all others moved up.
So, we have a system where some of the people are recruited and promoted based strictly on merit, others are brought in through family background, but at the end, still promoted based on merit as they compete with other princelings for a spot towards the top. The higher they climb, the more competitive it gets, even if it were just all the princelings competing with each other. In fact, the princelings are not the only ones made it to the top. If you read the bios, there are many who rise to the top without a pedigree. The current leader, Hu Jintao is one of those. Most likely, he got to the top based on his performance. Near the top, the people are not only capable, they are also seasoned at what they do as they gained various experience.
In the West, we have a case where a man is elected and re-elected to be the president of the United States, yet, by the account of Bill Clinton, someone who had served as a president himself, this person is an “amateur”. Further, he was picked not because of the achievements that he has made, but because he can talk, and a large swath of the population identifies with him.
There are many arguments against the China meritocracy model. Some say that the endemic corruption represents a failure in their system. Some pointed to the incident with Bo Xilai and the discovery of billions belonging to the current leader Wen Jiaboa as proof that the very top is rotten. Others are says that the Chinese system is not inclusive, that they should promote more women and minorities( yes, there are minorities in China just as there are in the U.,S.). Still others say that the past represented the low hanging fruit and the performance of the past will never be repeated again.
To me, the saga of Bo Xilai shows that the system works. You see, after decades of explosive growth, there are huge dislocation amongst the Chinese today. Many are dissatisfied with their lives and long for a simpler life of the Mao era, especially for many who either have forgotten how bad those years were, or were too young to know first hand. So in a democracy, Bo would still be in power representing these people. It is his base of power. The corruption of the party members also create more people who are not happy. The fact that the system can purge him represent a triumph of the reform ideas over the group that wanted to go back to the past.
While it is true that it is easier to start off growth from a low base, it is never the less very tough to change a large system going in a different direction. The Chinese joined the WTO in 2001. While there are many ways to shield competition and favor the state sector, it still represented a major jolt to the system. Many of the decrepit state firms were going to be put out of business. Millions would lose their jobs. Imagine Detroit, in the seventies and eighties, with the Japanese invasion in full swing, sign a treaty to open the city to more competition from Japan instead of smashing Hondas in front of reporters. China joining WTO was a far-sighted decision that entails a great deal of pain. Something that the West would have a hard time executing. Many China hands pointed out the big problems that China is facing today. I would argue that the problems that China faced twenty years ago were much more severe compared to the ones they face today. The fact that they managed to navigate through so many crisis which might sink a lesser government says something about the quality of the people running the show there.
Finally, we come to the issue of corruption. There is no doubt in my mind that every single one of the leadership is on the take. However, there is corruption, then there is corruption. In China, things get done even in face of corruption. The right decisions are made by the leadership to move the country forward. Contrast this with the corruption in India, where the Common Wealth Games, an event that is a small fraction of the Olympics, was badly mishandled. In fact, many of the foreign contractors, who were brought in to help save the day, were not paid when they sent the bill. That is right, the government stiffed these guys. Something unimaginable either in the U.S. or in China. You can think of corruption as integral to the functioning of the Chinese system. In the private sector, the motivating force for someone to climb the corporate ladder is to be rewarded financially. If you are a stock boy at Waltmart, you are making $10 an hour. If you become a CEO of WaltMart, you make tens of millions a year. If you are highly capable and have a good shot at becoming the CEO of a company, making millions, why would you want to join the government? In China, apparently, you join the government because you can make a lot of money through corruption. This brings in more capable people who would otherwise stay in the private sector. As long as there is work to keep the corruption in check and a system to promote based on one’s performance, corruption should not impact progress. Each of the top leaders making a couple of billion here and there over a decade does not damage an economy which produced 11 Trillion a year.
In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew instituted a system of salaries to the people running for public office based on their private sector pay. If you are a surgeon and wanted to run for an office, the office will pay you what an average surgeon would make. This way, you are not losing out financially if you wanted to serve the country. I think that corruption in China serves a similar goal.
In summary, I think that the Chinese way of selecting their leaders potentially are far superior to the way the U.S. select ours. They promote more competent people and give them the operational experience to succeed as they arrive at the top. Much like a corporation. Where as in a democracy, the leaders are as good as the constituents.
After almost 10 years of flowing around the world like a tiny seed of dandelion, I have recently come back to the places where I was born: China.
China, as we all know, is an odd place. It’s a country that could easily polarize the crowd: either you like it or hate it. Talking about modern China of course. The first impression that came into my mind was how the hell a country with such magnitude could transform itself so much in so little time. It is simply insane. The city I am staying now, Changsha, used to have a cozy little population of 1 million people (including all the peasants around the actual city), where you could still find lots of wooden houses connected by the narrow streets of granite, where people would go to work on their bicycles, and the tallest building was the railway station. But now, it is a massive jungle of 6 million souls with big-ass roads radiating into every corner of the city with heavy congestion, and high-rise buildings spawning everywhere. What else but a sheer torrential creation of wealth! Such epic speed would simply make the the German efforts in the 19th century look laughable. Needless to mention the marcoeconomic data, everything emerged out of nothing in just one single generation. I used to sneer at average Chinese’s petty obsession with money, accusing them of short-sighted and impetuous. But now it all makes sense. Situating onto such a flooding tide in an unprecedented velocity and scale, it is too hard not to focus on the money, on the grabbing, on the stuff you could touch right in front of you. That is the zeitgeist of China.
It seems Deng got it alright after all. He well knew that by teasing the basic instinct of mankind with a relatively free market the progress would be must faster than one could imagine. With couple thousand years of agrarian-oriented drilling, few Chinese got what it takes to out-stand the mass for his own comprehension of what’s on earth under the heaven. 99% of the people are bothered by their petty little business of how to get gold and lead the glamorous materialistic life like my neighbor, leaving the rest 1% caring about how to fool the 99% gullible for more gold. In other words, modern Chinese are die-hard collectivists who are credulous and timid yet care a lot about signalling within the crowd. Everybody here would only think of what’s right visible in front of their eyes, while lacking the interest to seek the ideas and concepts behind the pragmatic actions. So once we got a kick-ass leader who happened also to be a not-so-shallow thinker, introducing some heretic idea like communism, capitalism, commercialism, everyone else would just wholeheartedly flock to follow without really understanding what that means and the consequences would be. All they could see is communism suck because we are poor and hungry, free market rocks because I see my neighbor got rich and so can I. Essentially, I have to admit we are a people with very high IQ but sucks at philosophizing and conceptualizing reality. The Confucian drilling must have contributed to this particular ethnic trait of the Chinese. But this is also the biggest advantage we got in keeping everything in one piece still after such drastic societal changes. Sometimes I wonder if Whites could get some sense of pragmatism from the Chinese and the Chinese get some sense of speculative thinking from the White people, things could have been much smoother for both sides. But I am no Romanticist, and I read Brave New World. Shit’s gonna hit the fan anyway.
The good thing about this country is that there is full of opportunity for the gold-rush, provided that you got the guts and the wits. Life could be super sweet like the 19th American west combined with smartphones and automatic-geared automobiles. But it’s never going to be a place for novel epiphany and philosophy. If you don’t have it yet, you are never going to get it in China. And that also means the chances that you would find someone who would not despise you because you do not care about signaling, signaling, and signaling with money and networking are quite hopelessly slim. This reminds me of my jungle days in Laos. Just get the damn data, then I’d tap some sleazy backpacking girls at the Mekong river border. For those who want to make a fortunate, either just for the sake of being rich or other higher objectives, China is your place.
The Slitty Eye is back. At least I would begin to log in my account and start to write something. This time, about Chinese Politics.
Chinese Politics has never been a glowing treasure chest that fascinates the west, for the people outside of that mysterious place know so little about what really is going on there. No one could figure out what is really going on beyond those emotionless high profile figures that occasionally visit some random countries or make some monotonic speeches. There are only loads of gossips, rumors, speculations, conspiracy theories that revolve around Zhongnanhai, . The Shanghai clique, the League clique, the Princelings… Those terms are possibly the way most exciting terms that are created for Chinese politics. Who cares about the forgetful names and faces in the central politburo anyway?
Long eroded by the show business mentality and leftist dogmas, the western media has never been an avid follower of Chinese politics except for its evil suppression on people’s freedom and equality, and of course, the catnip for western liberals: Tibet. Few really gives a damn on what it is going on with the real decision-makers and how they are trying so hard to put pieces together in this awfully big and messy country. The current government is probably the smartest of all time in managing China as far as I concern.
I often secretly relish the fact that we don’t have the western-style specious jokers in the politics, for I always think politics would be the most serious things on earth as it deals with literally everything. Clowns on the television blurring populist slogans and slurring on each other are not even those leftist ideological founders wished for in the first place.
Anyway, back to Chinese politics. A few days ago, a name that non-Chinese could barely pronounce, “Bo Xilai“, became a viral sensation that simply sweeps over major western media all of sudden. Described as “a charming, charismatic, and outspoken western-alike political figure” and labelled as a Chinese political supernova with his whooping socialist class-conflict campaign in the city of Chongqing, he was “unexpectedly” slashed and expelled from the politburo, stripped out of his official title, and put into a house arrest under a series of political and criminal investigation. Now that is a piece of classic politic news that the western media likes. The best part isn’t over yet. The linkage between Bo’s lawyer wife Gui Kailai and the mythic death of a Brit associated with M16 escalated public interest in Bo’s political death into an even higher level. Most of the articles I read in English about Bo share a sense of sympathy, with more focusing on his flamboyant personality and little on what his lousy politics. The subliminal message is loud and clear: Bo sounds just like our political entertainers, he was a great public entertainer, an outspoken dude with humanity, and most of all, he was trying to fight for the root class of Chongqing! It was a tragedy that he was doomed in the evil and authoritarian Chinese politics. For all they care, Bo could be the crack they always dream for, the Chinese “JFK”. And his wife is called as the Jackie Kennedy of China (though she was virtually unheard of among western media until the shit hits the fan, honestly I think she is more like a cold-blooded money sucking bitch). Bo could be China’s Yeltsin to take down the last major counter force of western liberalism.
Of course nobody gives a rat about his hedonistic son‘s hardcore clubbing in London and Beijing with Ferrari and women. Likewise, no one would make the effort to take a second look at how superficial and stupid his political campaigns are made. The dude was probably trying to create a noisy fuzz in Chongqing just to get himself back to Beijing (I bet he watched too much western TV soaps on politics). Thanks to his wife who probably murdered that English dude, he was finally ousted from Chinese politics. No more puppet charlatan in the politburo. This dude should have been born in Czech Republic, or Romania. He might make a big time there with his demagogic gimmicks.
No, I am really the man.
Once again I am glad that China holds probably one of the last bastions of the good old fashion politics. Politics should be about how the jobs are done, not some claptrap clamorous rendezvous with panache. You know who is cool? Hu Jintaois cool, for he has a sense of coolness in playing the political game instead of a drama show. Meritocracy in my view is far more superior than the idea of democracy. I am happy that no one calls his wife the Jackie Kennedy of China, no cone calls him charming and charismatic. The statesmen gotta be cool and smart, not emotional and entertaining. My last consolation about China.
Today something really interesting came out of my random internet browsing. I have found a story written in classic Chinese extremely amusing, not because of its content but the way it was delivered. As we know, the Chinese language is based on written characters. The same character might have different pronunciations in different dialects and likewise different characters with different meanings might sound the same, even with the same tone. This makes it impossible to recognize an isolated Chinese character in a conversation without an actual context to indicate which meaning the speaker refers to. This story consists of characters all in one pronunciation (some tones vary) and makes good sense on the paper but sounds absolutely insane if you try to read it…. Here goes the interesting story:
It’s not that difficult to understand this story, even though it’s written in classic Chinese. The story goes like this:
<The story of Mr.Shi eating lions>
“There was a poet named Mr.Shi who lives in a stone den. He liked to eat lions, and vowed to eat ten lions. Therefore Mr. Shi would usually visit the market to look for lions. At 10 o’clock exactly ten lions just arrived at the market. At that very moment, Mr.Shi shot a few arrows from his bow and killed those ten lions. Mr. Shi then brought the ten dead lions back to his stone den. Because the den might be too wet to store the lions. So he ordered his servant to clean and dry the den. After the den was cleaned, Mr.Shi started to try to eat those ten lions. However, only until he was eating the lions he found out that those ten dead lions were actually ten stone lions. Would you try to explain what was happening?”
The story line might sound a bit absurd but it’s clear and most of all, comprehensible. But if you try to read it out loud in Mandarin, well, I suggest you not to, because it would just sound like a lunatic murmuring nonsense. Here is what it would sound like if you read the story out loud (indicated in Pinyin romanization for reading):
<Shī Shì Shí Shī Shǐ>
“Shí Shì Shī Shì Shī Shì, Shì Shī, Shì Shí Shí Shī.Shì Shí Shí Shì Shì Shì Shī. Shí Shí, Shì Shí Shī Shì Shì. Shì Shí, Shì Shī Shì Shì Shì. Shì Shì Shì Shí Shī, Shì Shǐ Shì, Shǐ Shì Shí Shī Shì Shì. Shì Shí Shì Shí Shī Shī, Shì Shí Shì. Shí Shì Shī, Shì Shǐ Shì Shì Shí Shì. Shí Shì Shì, Shì Shǐ Shì Shí Shì Shí Shī. Shí Shí, Shǐ Shí Shì Shí Shī, Shí Shí Shí Shī Shī. Shì Shì Shì Shì.”
Seriously, this is NOT the story you should read out loud to other people. It’s better to read them on the paper.
This story was written by the Chinese linguist Zhao Yuanren (趙元任) in early 20th century to demonstrate that Chinese characters are especially designated for the Chinese language, whose status is irreplaceable. This was an attempt to rebut the ridiculous call for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese in order to abandon the use of Chinese characters at that time. The story serves the purpose well. If someone is seriously considering about learning the language still (assume you don’t get intimidated by this post), please start with the written Chinese first.
In one of my previous articles I briefly mentioned about the global distribution of IQ level by country. Aside from European-whites, Eastern Asians also have exceptionally high IQ level on average.
The Chinese, with a population of 1.3 billion (91% Han Chinese), have a very high IQ average of 105. But little is known for the IQ level in different regions of China, whereas geographically and demographically it is simply too vast to ignore the regional discrepancy within the country itself. After an amateur scavenger hunt on the internet I actually did find some Chinese source about the IQ geography in China.
The data I found came from a website that offers self IQ tests for the Chinese netizens. Information such as age, geographical location were collected for the correlation purpose for the test result. The original statistics could be found here (in Chinese). I have constructed a series of simple diagrams for the IQ level by province in China (with the amount of participants in each province), as follows:
There are 63,636 participants who took the IQ test on this website from all 31 provinces in mainland China. The mean IQ level of all participants is 106. This is more or less close to the figure given in Lynn’s IQ and Wealth of Nations. Considering the skewed effect of having more participants from regions with apparently higher IQ (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai, etc.), the average IQ level from the test might be slightly deviated from the actual average IQ level of China. Nevertheless, it could still give us a general idea of the IQ geography in China.
There’s a lot to be drawn from the IQ level by province data in China. From a simple glimpse of this IQ map of China, it is evident that the highest IQ level concentrates in the Central Eastern coast of China (around Shanghai, traditionally called Jiangnan). This region in China is famous for its beautiful nature, nature resources, and most importantly, talented intellectuals and traders. This region also happens to be the locomotive of China’s soaring economy. Interestingly, 5 out of 8 Chinese Nobel prize winners (except for the lame peace award which literally means nothing but a leftist scam) come from this particular region of China.
Besides Jiangnan region, high IQ level was also observed in economic strongholds such as Beijing and Guangdong. Those regions surely attracts more smart people than elsewhere in China.
The exceptionally high IQ level of Gansu, a northwestern underdeveloped province in China, could result from the skewed sampling in the study (merely 612 participants claimed to be from Gansu). It is possible that those participants might misrepresent the actual IQ level in Gansu (given that most of Gansu still struggles from poverty and environmental hardship).
Central-south China has a relatively high IQ level (including Hunan, the province I am from). This region is known for its fertile land and mild climate. This region is considered the core of China proper with extensive historical sedimentation that nurtures the rise of Chinese civilization. (off the topic: Hunan is know for its ferocious political and military figures in modern China!).
The relatively low IQ level regions in China largely overlap with the geographical region that has high minority populations with harsh geographical and climatic environment. It is unclear, however, about the role of ethnicity profiles in this observation. This study contains no data about the ethnicity of the participants. Hence, it is inconclusive to say that minorities have a lower IQ tendency compared to Han Chinese in this study, though it is probably the case in reality (from other parameters to judge high IQ level such as level of agricultural productivity, civilization etc).
Overall, this data at least shows us a general impression on the IQ level in different provinces of China. Hopefully there are more studies available for such topic in the future.
In the previous two episodes (episode one and episode two) I have mainly covered Tang’s military and political advancement in the central Asia and the consequential Tang’s governance in the region. In this episode I will specifically focus on Tang’s foreign relations with the strong power that Tang had to deal with in Central Asia.
Central Asia was never an easy place to maintain stable power until the Tsar Russia came in kick all the nomadic tribes’ off their horses with rifles. The place is literally accessible from every corner of the old continent (comparably Chinese access to central Asia being the narrowest through only Hexi corridor and Gobi desert). During Tang’s control over central Asia in the 7th and mid-8th century, China had direct access to almost every great civilization in the world. At that time major foreign power that came into direct contact with Tang in the central Asia were Tufan from the Tibetan Plateau southeast of central Asia; Indian kingdoms southeast of central Asia, Sassanid Empire of Persia southwest of central Asia (later the Arab Caliphate), and even Byzantine Empire from the far west of central Asia.
In Episode 2, I have already mentioned that Tang adopted a semi-military administrative system in central Asia, while at the same time maintaining a number of tributary nomadic tribes and oasis city states to be in charge of themselves. Tang garrisoned its central Asian troops in only several main cities, and made those cities the administrative locations for solving tribal disputes and taxing merchants on the silk road. Tang’s direct military force was always kept in the Transoxiana region (河中 the fertile valley in between Amu Darya River and Syr Darya River) in central Asia. Most of the Turkic tribes in vast central Asia were under their own autonomy and all submit to Tang as the leader of all tribes. All Turkics in central Asia were fighting under the name of Tang Empire at the time; and Tang’s picked veteran Anxi army always made sure that those who disobey Tang’s order would be ruthless punished and other power influence would not be able to challenge Tang’s hegemony in the region. In this article I will emphasize on Tang’s relations with the two main power during its hegemony period in Central Asia (630AD – 755AD), namely Persians and the Arabs, with a brief scanning on Tibetans.
Sino-Persian alliance (Sassanid Perisa)
Even before Tang got in touch with Sassanid Persia (波斯 in Chinese), the last pre-Islamic Persian dynasty, the old Zoroastrian empire, has already been on the downhill track out of tiresome wars with the Turks and Byzantine and endless domestic political chaos (they even had a proto-commie named Mazdak trying to start off a revolution within the empire). When Tang first had direct contact with its Persian counterpart, presumably no later than 630AD when Western Gokturks submitted and recognized Tang Emperor Taizong as the Celestial Khagan, both courts were aware of the need for mutual assistance in maintaining the order in Central Asia and formed extensive military alliance against the common foes in the region, the Turkics and possibly the Hephthalites. The tight connection between the two courts were also strengthened by the rapid expansion of economic ties between the two countries along the newly re-opened silk road. Chinese silk, tea, and porcelain were highly valued by the nobles in Ctesiphon and Chang’an started to hold a considerable size of Persian community composed of Persian traders and travelers. Nestorian churches and Zoroastrian temples were allowed to be built in Chang’an. In fact people were so amazed at the exotic travelers at the time that the whole Chang’an started a Persian fashion fad. Women scrambled to dress like Persians and men flocked to brothels for the Persian dancer. Lots of folklore of the Persians at that time even survived up to nowadays in China.
There was not even a single military conflicts recorded between the two empires in Central Asia. Both courts had always considered each other dependable military ally and close economic partner. Of course this alliance was not simply because of the economic trade and the friendliness of both courts. At that time, Persia was swamped withstanding the ferocious Arab invasion from the West and hoped to secure its eastern borders, which was often harassed by the Turkics from the Northeast. The alliance with Tang, an emerging power which could have the potential to tame the Turkics in its eastern border, was deemed important for the Persians. The Chinese, on the other side of the silk road, was also not quite relaxed in maintaining its dominion in the central Asia due to frequent Turkic rebellions. Realizing the long geographical distance between Persia and China, Tang court would also be in favor of an alliance with the remote occidental empire so that the Anxi troops could concentrate on crushing Turkic rebels only. Coincidentally, when the cruel Arab horsemen galloped across the whole Iranian lowland and highland in 651AD, the Chinese managed to smash the last resisting force of the Western Turkic Khanate only 8 years later (see episode 1). Would there be an outbreak of the Sino-Persian conflict after Tang’s hegemony being established, if Persia had also manged to deter the Arab nomads like the Byzantine or the Carolingian Francia? Probably, but we would never know anyway. Nobody expected that the Arabs would sweep off the Persians in a blizzard manner. The Sassanid court must be extremely frightened at the time. The last emperor, Yazdgerd III, sent his son, Peroz III to the Tang-controlled Central Asia (possibly arrived in Suyab), in the hope of getting military assistance from the Chinese against Arab invasion at the last moment (He arrived in Chang’an in 661AD). Tang court deemed the call for assistance as a perfect chance to expand its Anxi Protectorate to the land of Persia, therefore gladly accepted the request and sent a general to escort the last Persian prince to restore the Sassinid order. For some unknown reasons the troops didn’t advance further westward from Suyab and the Persian prince stayed there for over 20 years. I reckon the Chinese generals in Suyab must hesitate with direct large scale confrontation with the Arabs at the time and be busy with the increasing Tibetan harassment from the Southeast. Either way, Tang army never escorted Persian prince to Persia and Arabs did not continue their further expansion eastward either. The Persian royal blood from Peroz III survived in Tang China and was granted as nobility in southern city Guangzhou and gradually assimilated into the local population.
When Persians surrendered to the Arabs (大食 in Classic Chinese) in 651AD, they also told them about the legends of another group of fierce horse fighters (the Turkics) from the northeast. Al-Ahnaf Ibn Qays, the conqueror of Persia for the Umayyad Caliphate, decided to cease the campaign further eastward and maintained a status-quo with the Turkic nomads in Central Asia (their attempt to expand eastwards was met with fierce resistance of the Turgesh tribes 突厥施). Likewise, the head of all Turkic nomads at the time, the Tang emperor did not plan to expand further westward either, probably shocked by the speedy conquest of Persia at the time.
Interestingly, way before Arab horsemen knocked at the doorsteps of Tang’s Central Asian protectorate, we are talking about the time when Mohammed started to preach Islam in late 6th century AD, the Islamic prophet sent various envoys to different leaders in the world in the hope of converting them to Islam. China was one of those destinations. The envoy of Mohammed, Saad ibn Abī Waqqās, arrived in China twice in 616AD and 651AD. Of course Tang royal family did not convert to Islam in the end, nor did the Chinese. But the practice of Islam among Arab merchants in southern seaport like Guangzhou was largely tolerant by the imperial court. The Arabs were at that time at the dawn of a massive wave of expansion in all dimensions. It didn’t take long for the them to finally meet the Chinese in Central Asia. Simultaneously, by the time Arabs engulfed Persia, Tang was also on the rise of military supremacy in the adjacent region. With the subordination of local fierce Turkic fighters and the presence of powerful Anxi troops, Arabs chose not to advance eastwards immediately after taking over Persia. Instead, Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate, sent an embassy to Chang’an right after the capture of Persia around 650sAD. The friendly gesture of the new Arab lords in Persia probably was another reason why the imperial court in Chang’an did not really enforce the restoration of the Persian court at the same time. This de facto peace between the two emerging power in the mid 7th century in Central Asia enabled both parties to have enough energy to deal with other hassles (Arabs were stuck in Anatolia and later started internal political conflicts; Chinese were busy with the Tibetans after 670AD and stabilized the dominion in Central Asia by 692AD).
After decades of peace, the friction between the two mighty power finally broke out in 715AD. In that year, Arabs collaborated with the Tibetans to support a Sogdian named Aliaoda (阿了達) as the new king of Ferghana (拔汗那, around nowadays Fergana, Uzbekistan) to revolt against Tang’s suzerainty. The old king rushed to Anxi garrisons for Tang’s help. Immediately Tang mobilized a rapid campaign with various Turkic tributaries and defeated the Arab-Tibetan alliance and restored the old king in Ferghana. This was the first attempt for the Arabs to challenge Tang’s hegemony in Central Asia. The Arabs would now seek any opportunities to advance to China, a fertile rich land that has been longed by Arab generals for decades. Soon after the defeat, in 717AD Arabs organized another wave of attack. This time they even lured the Turgesh tribes, who once fiercely resisted Arab influence and allied with Tang, to fight against the Tang army together with Arabs and Tibetans. Their aim was to take over the four important Tang’s Anixi garrisons in Central Asia and eliminate Tang’s military projection in the region. However, they underestimated the prowess of Tang’s fearsome Anxi troops and were once again defeated very quickly. Turgesh tribes after the war immediately submitted with Tang and besieged the Arabs in Northern Transoxiana region in 718AD, who already cleared Tang’s army there and prepared for a long match directly into China proper (Tang rewarded Turgesh with the city of Suyab in 719AD for their loyalty). Tang soon recovered the Northern Transoxiana and Arabs had to pay a large amount of gold as ransom for the return of their defeating army. Arabs were clearly frustrated with the warfare with Tang in Central Asia after series of defeat. By the time of 723AD, they changed the general for the Chinese campaign and started another wave of aggression against Ferghana (this time alone). Tang court did not use a single rider in the Anxi garrisons to counterattack Arab’s invasion. Instead, the Emperor Xuanzong issued an imperial edict to order the Turgesh riders, who were once again subordinated to Tang, to smash Arab’s attack in Ferghana. Being the nemesis of the Arabs, Turgesh easily crush Arab troops and freed Ferghana once again from Arab invasion. One year later, Arabs reorganized another large scale campaign on Ferghana, with the help of their new tributary Turkic and Sogdian tribes. They managed to besieged the Capitol city of Ferghana for days. In the end, Turgesh fighters, delegated by their Tang lord, arrived in time and nearly wiped out the whole Arab army. After this battle, those Turkic and Sogdian tribes, including the Sogdian tribes Shiguo (石國) and Kangguo (康國) who played important roles in the demise of Tang’s glory decades later, immediately back-stabbed the Arabs and re-embraced Tang’s suzerainty. By 724AD, Arabs suffered severe casualty and lost the control over the few remaining central Asian tribes in a series of defeat. On the other side, Turgesh were dispatched as Tang’s proxy in the defense of areas west of Pamirs against possible Arab aggression in the future (Anxi army withdrew back to the Pamirs). This status-quo maintained for nearly 20 years, until the famous Battle of Talas broke out in 751AD.
In 751AD, According to Chinese record, Sogdian tribe Shiguo failed to pay tribute to the Tang court in proper etiquette (Sogdians probably were plotting another revolt against Tang at the time). The court ordered the then Anxi Protectorate General, Gao Xianzhi (高仙芝), to match towards Shiguo (around today’s Tashkent, Uzbekistan) with Anxi troops to “exert” the imperial might to the ill-mannered barbarians. This was when the drama started. The king of Shiguo immediately pleaded to surrender when Gao Xianzhi showed up in front of the capital with numerous iron riders. Gao Xianzhi first appeared to accept the surrender. But as soon as Sogdians dropped the weapons he immediately ordered the riders to start a horrible pillage and massacre in the capital. Somehow the prince of Shiguo was lucky enough to escape the town just in time and rushed to the Arabs for assistance. When Tang heard the news that Shiguo is going to get Arabs on the back again soon, Gao Xianzhi decided to lead his 10,000 Tang’s Anxi army, along with 20,000 Karluk (葛邏祿, a Turkic tribe around Ferghana) mercenaries to go deep into Arab’s dominion and attack the Arabs by surprise. It was indeed a big surprise, but to the surprise of Gao Xianzhi, the Karluk had already made a deal with the Arabs to back-stab Tang right on the battlefield. It was a set-up all along. Karluk wanted to use the Arabs to get rid of the Chinese, and the Arabs would love to ally with anyone who would go against Tang at the time in order to fully conquer central Asia. The Anxi army was all of sudden under tremendous pressure from both the outnumbering Arab troops in the front (aprox 200,000) and the back-stabbing Turkics in the back (20,000). However, Anxi army still managed to magically retreat with a small remaining troop back to garrisons, and Arabs still suffered a heavy loss despite a decisive victory. This battle was very significant in history. The Arabs gave up their Chinese campaign as they realized Anxi troops were too tough to swallow despite their victory. Some of Chinese solider were captured and helped the Arabs set up the first paper mill in Samarkand right after this battle. Papermaking was then gradually spread all over the Arab world and finally to Europe. The Chinese, despite the defeat, didn’t lose their military supremacy in Central Asia after this battle. Anxi army still managed to repress the rebellions from various tributaries west of Pamirs right after the battle. Tang’s hegemony continued until 755AD when the rebellion took place within the China proper (Anxi army were order to return to China proper to repress the rebellion). Karluk was the ultimate winner. They gained independence from Tang, and gained permission from the Arabs to establish their polity in the region. As an exchange, the Turkics agreed to convert to Islam. For the first time Islam infiltrated among the Turkics in the Central Asia, once a land of Buddhism, with the help of this Arab-Turkic alliance.
Even though Tang experienced a drastic downfall after 755AD’s internal rebellion, the Arabs had never advanced further to Tang’s central Asian garrisons. The Chinese fortifications withstood numerous waves of aggression from the Tibetans and the New Turkic power, the Uighur, even 50 years later after the withdrawal of major force back into China proper. Tibetans and Uighur became the new lords of central Asians instead of the Arabs. Meanwhile, Islam was gradually spreading with the resurgence of the Turkic nomads in the region.
Tibetans in the first era of Tang’s hegemony (up to 670AD) did not cause a single problem to the Chinese because of the successful political marriage arranged by Taizong in 641AD. However, the friendly attitude changed completely after the death of Songtsän Gampo. The new Tufan king had longed for the rich trade route of the silk road and started the first attack in 670AD. They had made some temporary progress in capturing some of the Chinese garrisons in the region, but were soon expelled away. The Anxi troops finally thwarted Tufan’s Central Asian campaign in 692AD when General Wang Xiaojie (王孝傑) fatally crushed Tibetan troops around the four Anxi Garrisons. Since then Tibetans were no longer able to pose any significant threat against Tang’s reign over central Asia, even if they allied with the Arabs. The opportunity for Tufan came finally when the main Anxi army returned to China to clear the An Lushan Rebellion in 755AD. Tibetans from the south along with the emerging Uighur from the north gradually nibbled Tang’s western protectorate in the following 50 years.
History is a stage full of drama. After Tang’s iron Anxi army was sweeping across the steppe and deterring the Arabs for decades, a domestic revolt led by a Sogdian general drastically dragged Tang down from the top of power in central Asia to completely being defenseless in only 50 years. Ironically, Tibetans soon followed Tang’s path and never recovered even since its internal conflict in the 800s AD. The land of steppe once again fell into the hands of Turkic nomads. The downfall of the once-invincible Tang Empire in the central Asia will be further discussed in the next episode (also the last one): The Demise of the Empire.