Chinese readers of this week’s proposed referendum on Scottish secession are highly mystified by the whole issue. Here, they muse, is one of the world’s most powerful nations allowing itself to be torn apart by a small group of nationalists, and for no obvious benefit. Why, as one Hong Konger put it, would Scotland want to become even smaller?
Independence movements though are not unknown in China. Tibet and Xinjiang are both autonomous regions struggling with ethnic unrest that causes a great deal of damage to the country’s international reputation: Free Tibet t-shirt slogans are hardly conducive to friendly thoughts of the Middle Kingdom. The nation’s image in the eyes of the Western media sometimes seems forever entwined with the Dalai Lama.
Yet despite the headlines, breaking away from China is unthinkable to the vast majority of the population. Protecting the country’s integrity cannot and will not be compromised.
There are several reasons for this. Of these, security of the people and the economy, and the concept of a single, united people, are the most important.
Security is critical to the Chinese Communist Party, which came to power partly to fill the vacuum left by decades of brutal warlord rule in a divided, post-Imperial country. Much like the Soviets did with Eastern Europe, China has created a buffer zone between the outside world and its central and eastern heartlands, a modern version of the Great Wall. It has learnt to its cost the damage that foreign incursions can make – the 1860 destruction of the Emperor’s Summer Palace being but one example – and has no intention of allowing Xinjiang and Tibet to gain independence, let alone Manchuria or Inner Mongolia.
Linked to security is the performance of the economy. Again like Russia, China recognizes the huge resource potential of its outer lying provinces. Development of these resources is central to the economic rise of the nation as a whole, which in turn is strongly linked to maintaining public order, and in allowing the country to grow in peace.
This physical and economic security is intimately linked to social harmony. Although China has had millennia of internal conflict, the fact is that it has (intermittently) lasted as one country. This enduring integrity rests on the deeply held belief in a strong, indivisible people and culture, namely the Han, who make up 92% of the population.
What is noticeable to an outsider in China is the sheer variation of faces and features that are seen on the street: skins of every hue, eye shapes from thin to round, noses of different dimensions. Yet if you ask a local about this diversity, she will look at you blankly: “But we are all the same, we are all Han”.
The American political scientist Rupert Emerson wrote that a nation is the “… largest community that, when the chips are down, effectively commands men’s loyalty, overriding the claims both of the lesser communities within it and those that cut across it or potentially enfold it within a still greater society….” The attachment to the idea of being Han is a good example of this in action.
It is also why China has been so successful in expanding over the millennia: once Han colonists settled a region, they were expected to continue to show allegiance to the mother country. In turn their neighbours became Han too, absorbed into the general Han mass. Their previous independence is now revealed by their name and their dialects, but emotionally these distinctions are often subservient to their overall inclusion in the greater Han.
The Chinese have therefore recognized that territorial integrity goes hand in hand with the physical, economic and social wellbeing of the population as a whole. This is an important lesson for observers of the Scotland-England rift to understand. Because although the situation in China is rather different to that in the UK – there are no armed Scottish insurrection movements for a start, nor monks self-immolating (not yet at least) – there are still similarities. After all, maximising wealth, safety and happiness for as many people in the country as possible is hardly unique to Asia.