In a speech on the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sun Yat-sen – seen by many as modern China’s founding father – President Xi Jinping pledged to “resolutely oppose” any attempt to divide the country.
“We will never allow anyone, any organization or political party to rip out any part of our territory at any time or in any form,” he said, standing under a giant portrait of Sun.
A key tenet of Xi’s rule has been his pledge to restore the country to greatness, undoing the “century of humiliation” during which the Qing Empire and later the Republic of China were laid low by foreign powers, with territories including Hong Kong, Manchuria and much of Shanghai shaved off into colonies and concessions.
It is “our solemn commitment to history and the people,” Xi said in the 2016 speech, that China will never be torn apart again.
Concerns over separatism can be seen in the hardline policies adopted by Beijing in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, as well as an increasingly aggressive stance towards the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Xi has vowed to unify with the mainland – by force, if necessary.
Yet such policies can often backfire. In Hong Kong, in particular, resentment towards Beijing has grown in recent years. In the past 12 months, as anti-government unrest was met with heavy policing, chants such as “Hong Kong independence, the only hope” were more commonly heard among parts of the protest movement.
Such talk is antithetical to China’s leaders and the need to stamp out separatism has been given as a key justification for a new national security law. Advocating independence – perhaps even discussion of the topic – could soon become illegal.
Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, has said the law will ensure “the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.”
States and separatists
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, once argued that “no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination,” and even the separatist Confederate States of America did not include a provision in its constitution allowing any member to secede.
Anti-separatism is the norm worldwide, no matter the desires of many peoples around the world for a country of their own, or the oft-stated importance of “self-determination” as a principle of international law.
Indeed, the United Nations resolution establishing that principle, passed in 1960 amid a wave of decolonization, also states that “any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
While Beijing and Moscow often blame Washington for supporting separatists in their own spheres of influence, US policy has often been equally pro-status quo. As Croatia held an independence referendum in 1991, the US State Department declared its commitment to the “territorial integrity of Yugoslavia within its present borders.” That year, President George H.W. Bush warned Ukrainians seeking to separate from the creaking Soviet Union to avoid “suicidal nationalism,” adding that “freedom is not the same as independence.”
In 1996, Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, said Russia’s brutal war in Chechnya was based on “the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for, that no State had a right to withdraw from our Union.” And in 2014, Barack Obama personally lobbied in favor of Scotland voting to remain part of the United Kingdom.
This attitude, shared by almost every country in the world – see Spain’s heavy suppression of Catalan nationalism – is part of why, “for all the political tumult of the last quarter century, the number, shape, and arrangement of countries on the world map has remained remarkably unchanged,” writes Joshua Keating in “Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood.”
“Since the end of the Cold War, a global norm has prevailed enforcing cartographical stasis, a freezing in place of the map as it existed at the end of the 20th century,” Keating said. “This norm prevails even as ethnic and religious conflicts rage within the countries on the map.”