Independence referendums troubling for China

Want China Times
September 18, 2014

Li Keqiang with British prime minister David Cameron in London on June 17, 2014. (Photo/Xinhua)

The independence referendum in Scotland on Thursday and the prospect of a self-determination vote for Catalonia have China nervous concerning independence movements at home, according to a commentary in Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao.

On Thursday, voters in Scotland go to the polls to decide whether to withdraw from the United Kingdom, while Catalans plan a referendum in November which is opposed by the Spanish government.

In both cases, as with the Crimea’s controversial referendum to leave Ukraine to join Russia back in March, China’s official line has been to maintain its policy of “non-interference” regarding the internal matters of other countries. However, Beijing’s real position on these issues is far more complex as one of its worst fears continues to be separatist movements in territories under its control such as Tibet and Xinjiang, the Ta Kung Pao commentary said.

This is the reason China’s premier, Li Keqiang, when asked about the Scottish referendum during his visit to London in June, said that he wanted a “strong, prosperous and united United Kingdom” though he remained diplomatic in saying that China will “certainly respect the choice you make.”

China’s state media has also been vocal against Scottish independence, publishing a series of scathing editorials in the lead-up to the referendum.

When the Ukraine crisis broke out in February after Russia invaded the Crimea peninsula following the ousting of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych, China refused to join the international community in condemning Russia on the basis of its non-interference principle, despite saying that it respected the “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Later, when 97% of Crimea residents voted in favor of leaving Ukraine for Russia in a March referendum, China was one of the countries that abstained from voting on a UN Security Council draft resolution that would have condemned the act as illegal.

China is only too aware of the dangers of an independence referendum, the commentary said, adding that a Soviet-backed referendum for Mongolian independence in October 1945 cut away about 15% of China’s territory at the time.

Under Chinese law, self-determination referendums are only applicable to colonies and trust territories, not autonomous regions or areas that have already become part of a nation state, the commentary said, adding that is the reason why the Crimea referendum set such a bad precedent for China.

Whilst unlikely, it is technically possible that territories claimed by China, such as the disputed border region of Arunachal Pradesh controlled by India, or islands in the South China Sea inhabited or controlled by the Philippines or Vietnam, could also call for referendums to “officially separate” themselves from China, making it much more difficult for Beijing to continue to claim those areas as Chinese territory, the commentary said.

China’s rubber stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, effectively declared all independence referendums prohibited when it passed the Anti-Secession Law in March 2005. While that law was aimed specifically at stopping Taiwan from declaring formal independence, “Taiwan” could easily be substituted with “Xinjiang” or “Tibet,” the commentary said, adding that the controversial article 8 of the law–which refers to “non-peaceful and other necessary means” aimed at denying independence–applies equally to those regions as well.

The commentary concludes that behind China’s official stance on foreign referendums lies a staunch line against any attempts to separate from the mainland, adding that with China’s growing power and influence in the world, any notion of Taiwanese, Xinjiang or Tibetan independence will ultimately be nothing more than a pipe dream.