Attitudes Toward Separatism in China and Canada

The sample issue of Singapore University Press’s new China: An International Journal, now in Project Muse, has an interesting article by Wayne Bert about different attitudes toward separatism in China and Canada. Here’s the conclusion (minus footnotes).

The level of modernisation, commitment to democracy and particular historical and cultural experiences can explain the divergent Chinese and Canadian attitudes on separatist territories. Whereas Canada has acclimatised to living next to its superpower neighbour, absorbed the values of a virtual state and discarded the traditional expectations of the importance of territory, China is a rising power with an acute sense of grievance from the way it has been treated historically, or at least the way it perceives it has been treated. This strong inferiority complex has stimulated an intense desire to do something about what many Chinese believe is their misfortune, to occupy an international position that conforms to traditional power politics and emphasises the value of territory. Canada’s attitude is reinforced by its commitment to democracy and interdependence, and to the granting of the wishes of the people of Quebec, whatever they may be. The Chinese, on the contrary, lacking both a commitment to democracy and self-determination or the status of a developed state, view Taiwan not as an area containing a population that should have some say in how they are governed, but as a geopolitical object to be manipulated to maximise the glories of a greater China. The gulf between the norms and conventions regarding democracy and self-determination held respectively by the West and China show few signs of disappearing. The figurative combat over Taiwan will continue, since each side in the dispute “has reached its bottom line” and is not interested in serious negotiation. If the conflict can be kept rhetorical rather than military, it will be a major accomplishment. Meanwhile, the Canadians will eventually reconcile their differences, either in the short- or long-run, either raucously, or quietly, but almost certainly, peacefully.

The slavish Chinese commitment to the very Western concept of sovereignty fits well with a realist’s definition of the international system, albeit a system more closely aligned with the 19th century than with the 20th. The Chinese view of the world, however, is one that very slowly, but surely, is being replaced by a view more akin to the world of interdependence and industrialised democracies. While Canada may represent an extreme view on the question of secession, even in the West, it is one that is gaining ground as the culture and objectives of the virtual state become increasingly dominant. Other Western countries still have their minorities and groups demanding independence, but increasingly it is being realised in the developed world, that some kind of concessions must be made for either autonomy or secession in democracies. It is the developed world that is transforming the international system, which in turn puts pressure on other states and institutions to adopt more modern attitudes and structures. Even Indonesia, a relatively poor and fledgling democracy, has taken big strides in that direction since 1998 even in the face of nationalist counter-pressures. It has wisely granted independence to East Timor and offered greater autonomy to regions. In its pre-democratic period, it had long resisted compromise on East Timor.

So far there is little evidence, however, that the Chinese intend to follow suit. Their stance on Taiwan continues to be intractable, in the face of plenty of evidence that the majority of the Taiwanese have little interest in de facto, or even de jure, joining the Mainland. The main hope for resolution of the Taiwan problem is the fashioning of some kind of face-saving deal that will allow China to claim Taiwan while guaranteeing the people there that this will have no effect on their lives. The prospects of effecting such a feat will grow increasingly remote unless major changes take place in the PRC. Lacking such developments, the Strait of Taiwan will be volatile for years to come.

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