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Ruling China is a thankless task.

The North China Plain is wide open and remarkably flat. Combined with a somewhat erratic climate, the region is subject to irregular bouts of drought and flood. Feeding a civilization from such an unstable base forced Chinese governments to keep a very tight grip on their people all the way back to the dawn of Chinese civilization. The population must be managed so that great works in river control and irrigation could stave off weather-driven disasters.

Such oppressive societal control also allowed Beijing to mobilize labor for other “great” and “grand” projects in the national interest, of which the Grand Canal and the Great Wall are the two most recognized. In contemporary times, that same control has in part enabled China’s rapid industrialization and urbanization.

But despite progress on all fronts, China remains an incredibly vulnerable power. The country’s North is too dry, its South too rugged, its periphery so lightly populated that Uighurs and Tibetans can exist in a state of low-level rebellion. The Yellow River has been so over-engineered that it poses a constant flood threat to the plains it now flows above. And just to add insult to injury, should global warming result in substantial sea level rises, much of the most productive and populated portions of the North China Plain will disappear beneath the waves.

For more on China’s challenges, see Chapter 14 of The Accidental Superpower.