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China is situated on the eastern third of the Eurasian landmass, between Russia, mainland Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia. Its more than 9,000 mile-long coastline abuts the Yellow, East and South China Seas. China is a country of deep geographic divisions. Most fundamental is the split between its fertile eastern lowlands and the arid, sparsely populated highlands that enclose the lowlands like a shell. More than a billion people live in the ethnic Han Chinese core, making it one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Traditionally, threats to China's Han core originated in the borderlands. To guard against overland invasion, successive Chinese rulers have sought to push the Core's borders outward —integrating these highlands as strategic "buffer" zones. These zones form a shield, protecting and containing the core. To be secure, China must control the buffer regions. But maintaining control of the regions, in turn, requires a strong and united core. And that means overcoming immense internal divisions — not only between northern and southern regions orbiting the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, but also between smaller regional units, each with their own geography, history, dialect and interests. Chinese history is defined by cycles of unity and fragmentation, from periods when a strong Han core captures and holds the surrounding buffers to those when a weak core breaks into its constituent parts, loses internal coherence and cedes control of the borderlands. This pattern, rooted in China's geography, has played out with remarkable consistency. By comparison, China's maritime interests have remained mostly limited to coastal waters. Today, however, growing international trade and rising Chinese reliance on overseas resources threaten to alter the pattern, adding a new maritime dimension to the struggle for buffer space — and potentially upending the long-standing dynamics of China's geographic challenge.
Located at China's doorstep along the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong has long served as a bridge between mainland China and the West. More than 150 years of British colonial rule (beginning in the 1840s) endowed the city with a uniquely liberal economy, a Western regulatory system, and strong rule of law that differentiate it from many other parts of the Asia-Pacific region. These characteristics helped to transform the city into a leading reexport and financial center in the past five decades, building on connections into the mainland's lucrative market and industry. Nearly 8 million people reside in the special region's 687 square kilometer (427 square mile) territory, making it the world's most densely populated city with a high level of ethnic diversity.
Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong was guaranteed economic and political autonomy under the "One Country, Two Systems" principle for 50 years after the handover to China in 1997. But years of attempts by Beijing to increase its political control over the city and the consequences of deeper economic integration have eroded that status. This, coupled with the city's deep-rooted socio-economic issues, contribute to a rising tide of Hong Kong nativism manifesting as pro-independence advocacy, particularly among the younger generation. As the city struggles to diversify its economy beyond the financial and retail industry, its growing political polarization and radicalization combined with concerns about Beijing's encroachment could threaten Hong Kong's economic prospects at a time when mainland cities and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region are preparing to seize new opportunities.