When Li Keqiang visited Britain in June he made a point of expressing his support for a “united United Kingdom”.
The message was clear enough: Beijing isn’t keen on sovereign break-ups.
But that didn’t prevent some points-scoring in the Chinese media last week as David Cameron, the British prime minister, scrambled desperately to keep the United Kingdom together.
Cameron would go down as “a sinner of history” if Scotland voted to break away from Britain on his watch, the Global Times suggested ahead of the referendum on Scottish independence.
Netizens even took to Cameron’s personal weibo account to gloat at his discomfort over the vote. “What poor management!” one scoffed. “Of the three parts of your territory, two are fighting for independence!”
Elsewhere, there was satisfaction that Hong Kong’s former master was getting some comeuppance. “Back when they were obstructing Hong Kong’s return, I bet they didn’t think it would come to this”, one contributor crowed.“Now you know the pain of secession, please stop making problems for Hong Kong,” instructed another, in reference to the UK politicians who recently took sides over the thorny question of the territory’s electoral system.
China’s media came out forcefully against Scotland’s independence, warning that the Yes camp was on the verge of transforming Britain “from a first-class country to a second-rate one” and that the UK was “standing on a precipice”.
Unmentioned by the majority of Chinese newspapers was the possibility that referendums might be welcomed closer to home.
China Review News Agency, a pro-Beijing newswire based in Hong Kong, was one of very few outlets to grasp the nettle. It took a hard line: “Those who have been encouraged by the referendum in Scotland and are calling for independence should return to reality… and give up the fantasy for seeking a referendum for Taiwan’s independence.”
The benefits of such democratic processes also came under scrutiny.
The Global Times commented that Scotland’s “white knuckle ride” debunked the notion that “democracy can resolve everything”.
The context here: turbulence in Hong Kong over demands for greater democracy (see WiC244).
Then again, perhaps the biggest elephant-in-the-room was how China’s own Uighur minority might view Scotland’s vote.
Local media was silent on this topic even though the referendum to break away from the UK came just ahead of the trial of a former economics professor from Xinjiang, who this week received a life sentence for ‘splittism’ from a court in Urumqi.
Ilham Tothi, a Uighur Muslim, was found guilty of colluding with foreign groups “in hyping incidents related to Xinjiang with the aim of making domestic issues international,” said Xinhua.
“He bewitched and coerced young ethnic students and built a criminal syndicate. Tohti organised this group to write, edit, translate and reprint articles seeking Xinjiang’s separation from China. Through online instigation, Tohti encouraged his fellow Uighurs to use violence,” it added.
Tohti’s supporters say that he is a much more moderate critic of Beijing’s policies in the restive region. “The idea of separating the country has never occurred to me, and I have never been involved in any separatist activities,” he also pleaded in court.
But perhaps his sentence will be food for thought for another former economist, who has been licking his political wounds this week.
Alex Salmond, boss of the Scottish National Party and currently Scotland’s First Minister, announced he will step down after the disappointment of losing the referendum battle. But he may reflect on the relative status of splittists in China and the UK. Campaigning against the status quo in Urquhart, Unst and Upper Ingleston seems like a safer option than speaking out in Urumqi, for a start.
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