From the Qing Empire to the People's Republic, China's concerns about separatism are deep

From the Qing Empire to the People’s Republic, China’s concerns about separatism are deep

“We will never allow anyone, any organization or political party to tear off any part of our territory at any time or in any form,” he said, standing under a giant portrait of the Sun.

“Our solemn commitment to history and the people,” Xi said in a 2016 speech, said China would never be torn apart again.

Concerns about separatism can be seen in the tough policies adopted by Beijing in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, as well as the increasingly aggressive stance on the self-governing island of Taiwan, which has vowed to reunite with the mainland – by force if necessary.

Yet such policies can often provoke a backlash. In Hong Kong in particular, insults to Beijing have been growing in recent years. In the last 12 months, as anti-government unrest has been met with heavy policing, chanting “Hong Kong independence, the only hope“were more often heard among parts of the protest movement.
Such talk is antithetical to Chinese leaders, and the need to eliminate separatism has been given as a key justification for new national security lawAdvocacy for independence – perhaps even a discussion of the topic – may soon become illegal.

Kari Lam, the city’s chief executive, said the law would guarantee “Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability”.

States and separatists

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, once arguing that “no government has ever had a provision in its organic law to end it” and even the separatist US confederations I was not include in your constitution a provision that allows each member to secede.

Anti-separatism is a global norm, regardless of the desire of many nations around the world for their own state or the often stated importance of “self-determination” as a principle of international law.

In fact, UN resolution establishing this principle, adopted in 1960 against a wave of decolonization, also states that “any attempt to partially or completely destroy the national unity and territorial integrity of a State is incompatible with the aims and principles of the Charter. of the United Kingdom. “
While Beijing and Moscow often accuse Washington of supporting separatists in their own spheres of influence, US policy is often equally pro-status. While Croatia held a referendum on independence in 1991, the US State Department declares its commitment to “the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia within its present borders”. That same year, President George H.W. bush warned the Ukrainians seeking to secede from the creaking Soviet Union in order 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 claim that Abraham Lincoln gave his life that no country has the right to withdraw from our Union.” And in 2014, Barack Obama personally lobbies in for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
This attitude, shared by almost every country in the world, sees a strong Spanishness in Spain Catalan nationalism – is part of the reason, “for the whole political boom of the last quarter of a century, the number, shape and location of the countries on the world map have remained remarkably unchanged,” writes Joshua Keating in “Invisible States: Journeys to the Edge of the Nation. ”

“After the end of the Cold War, the global norm prevailed over the imposition of cartographic stagnation, the freezing of the place of the map, as it existed in the late 20th century,” Keating said. “This norm prevails even when ethnic and religious conflicts rage within the countries of the map.”

The performer played the role of Emperor Qing during the restoration of an ancient spring ceremony in Beijing. Much of China's modern borders are based on Qing's historic conquest.

Neighboring China

Probably nowhere is this norm stronger or more strongly avoided than in China.

State writing China Daily this month, Liu Xiaoming, Beijing’s ambassador to Britain, responded to London’s concerns about China’s growing aggression against Taiwan, saying the island has been an integral part of China’s territory since ancient times.
While the People’s Republic of China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since its founding in 1949, the historical basis for Liu’s claim can be challenged. Leaving aside the fact that an island is a separate part of each country, what we now call Taiwan has experienced long periods out of Chinese control, during the rule of local leaders and foreign colonizers, including Dutch and Japanese.

The same is true of other parts of China, often called inseparable by the government, including Tibet and Xinjiang. While these territories were also often under Chinese control or influence, it was part of a broader imperial system completely removed from modern notions of nationality.

The border that China considers inviolable today – in the Himalayas, the South China Sea and around the various “indivisible” territories on its periphery – has not been defined. until the end of the 18th century,,
This is not due to some unique characteristic of the Chinese state, but to the same aggressive expansion that drove the growth of the British, Russian and Ottoman empires. And yet, unlike these systems, writes the historian Joseph Escherich“Only China kept its territory largely intact, as the Qing Empire was transformed in 1911 into the Republic of China and in 1949 into the People’s Republic.”

“The borders of modern China do not correspond to the historical borders of the shared culture of the ethnic Chinese (or Han) people, nor to the borders of the premodern Chinese state,” Esherik wrote in “How the Qin Became China.”

“Fully half of the territory of present-day China was acquired by conquest during the Qing Dynasty, a dynasty in which the ruling house was not a Chinese khan, but Manchurian invaders beyond the Great Wall. Most of this expansion did not occur until the 18th. century. “

Sam Crane, chairman of Asian Studies at Williams College, said many states and territories that pay homage to the Qing Empire and were within its sphere of influence would not be considered part of China or Chinese civilization from Beijing.

“Imperial political control has not taken on a unified, common, modern national identity,” he said. Once we get to 1949, the claim that Tibetans and Uighurs are part of the “Chinese nation” is established to a much greater extent than under Qing, and the political bets present to demand greater autonomy are, therefore, much bigger. ”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, observed during a meeting in December 2019, has developed an increasingly nationalistic policy as China's leader.


The modern idea of ​​a nation-state – a people united by a common culture, language or ethnicity – has traditionally been tied to a series of treaties in the mid-17th century, when the Holy Roman Empire recognized the independence of two non-monarchical states, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

This marked, according to Keating, the point at which nation-states became increasingly “the most important units in international politics,” gaining more importance than rulers or empires amid rising nationalism across the continent.

This cannot be controlled immediately, and the disintegration of the great European empires will not take place until the 20th century. And in Asia, only when Qin was challenged by the new insistent nation-states, especially Britain, France, and Japan, did the concept of empire begin to change in that direction.

Despite the acceptance of imperial borders, since the fall of Qing, China has rediscovered itself as a modern nation-state, advancing the all-encompassing idea of ​​China, a language and education system that encourages everyone within its borders to identify as part of China.

Since the transition from socialism to a market economy in the 1980s, nationalism has emerged as a more important source of legitimacy for Chinese leaders and many traditional symbols of the imperial past have been rehabilitated as part of this. Beijing’s claims to talk about China and the Chinese often extend far beyond the country’s borders, linking ethnicity to the citizenship of the People’s Republic.

The concept of the nation-state has also expanded over time, so that former imperial territories such as Tibet and Xinjiang, whose traditional peoples have little ethnic, linguistic or cultural ties to those in eastern China, have become “part of the country since ancient times.” . as Liu and other Chinese officials argued.

However, the borders of the Qing dynasty did not prove completely inviolable under republican rule. After the collapse of the empire, Mongolia seceded, achieving formal independence from China in 1921 with the support of the Soviet Union. While some Republican nationalist Chinese figures occasionally talk about rebuilding “outer Mongolia,” Beijing has long Ulanbaater admitted and maintained strong trade and diplomatic ties with its northern neighbor.

Writing about the world norm in favor of the status quo, Keating said that “the assumption is that if separation movements are allowed, this will open Pandora’s box with dangerous separatism.”

This is perhaps especially true in China, where a single domino for independence could provoke a cascade of territorial unrest.

Beijing has tackled the desire for independence in Xinjiang and Tibet, in part by encouraging the mass migration of Han Chinese to the two territories, as well as promoting policies of unification in education, language and religion. The changing ethnic composition of the two areas makes it difficult to argue for self-determination based on the idea of ​​racial or cultural difference from China itself, with millions of Han Chinese living in the two regions.

Hong Kong and Taiwan threaten the status quo in different ways. Both are majority Khan Chinese, and antipathy to Beijing in these areas is based not so much on nationalism as on the rejection of the continent’s political system. If a territory has become completely independent, it could undermine China’s claims to legitimacy, as it is based on the idea that a historical China has always existed and should.

Challenging this idea is controversial everywhere – as much in China as in Britain over Scotland, Spain over Catalonia or Russia and Ukraine over Crimea. But as Keating writes, “Existing countries in the world are not good at themselves; they are useful insofar as they help to ensure security and general well-being for the people who live in them, as well as for the world at large.

“When they fail to do that, their first impulse should be to ask how they can be improved, not just say they need to be maintained.”

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