Separatism: An Internal Chinese Problem

Nationsmith Writer K. David Du wrote an article about an important aspect of China: separatist movements within China. This article was written in 2008 at the height of the Tibetian Uprising in China.

China, arguably, is the world’s oldest continual civilization, a civilization that has continued to thrive for over three thousand years since its inception by its first dynasty, the Shang. However, it is not to the Shang that the Chinese should thank for its relative stability, but rather, the Qin. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi-Huang Di, was not the first leader of China to face the dangers of chaos, disharmony, and separatist attitudes in China, but he was the first to finds ways to create unity and harmony amongst the disparate wayward tribes, clans, and kingdoms of China. In 221 B.C.E., Qin had united China under his empire looked for ways to strengthen the power of his state. He decided the best way of implementing this measure was to apply both a harsh, Legalist governmental policy on one hand and a policy of standardization in the other.

In creating a Legalist state, the emperor insured the supremacy of his Empire and by standardizing language, currency, culture and legal codes. Because of these policies, Qin Shi Huang unified an empire from people who were separated by language and culture, poor and rich, urban and rural.

The “Mandate of Heaven” is a very real concern for the Chinese. If a ruling government is in decline, under the “Mandate of Heaven”, the successors of the failed state will have the blessings of heaven until it too fails.

It is not a surprise that in the twenty first century, the greatest danger to the government of mainland China is both disharmony and separatism, as it has always been in the span of China’s two thousand year history. Separatism is the greatest threat to not just the Communist Chinese Government in Beijing but is a threat that may escalate into the destruction of the idea of a unified China.

In this paper, separatism is defined as either a nationalistic, religious, or political opposition brought by a group that seeks to separate itself from a country. In China’s case, throughout its long history as an ancient civilization, imperialism, and later, republic, the core defining internal problem its leaders often faced against nationalist urges for separation, political factionalism from different power groups, and challenges created by ethnic minority groups who wish to challenge the hegemony of the Han Chinese.

Since 1912, in which Dr. Sun Yat-sen and his nationalist revolutionaries created the first Chinese Republic and the abolishment of the old imperial order, the contemporary rulers of China have dealt with many challenges towards the unified Chinese state. For example, Chiang Kai-Shek, the generalissimo of the Kuomintang – the Nationalist Party of China, had to unite both communist and nationalist Chinese factions in the warlord era when he chose to undergo his Northern Expedition. His goal during the Northern Expedition was to either expel or consolidate his power over rivaling warlords that held political sway over vast areas of China and bring unity to a fragmented China.

Again, during the Chinese Civil War, an internal Chinese problem between the Nationalist and Communist political factions, China had to face the choice that would involve who held the mandate of heaven. Between Chiang’s failing Nationalist Republic of China or Mao’s communist guerrilla forces, China had to look for a governmental force that was willing to bring harmony from chaos, stability from ruin. As a result of the Communist victory in 1949, the CCP had asserted its legitimacy over the failures of the nationalist government and proved to the masses that the communist ideal had liberated the disenfranchised peasants, soldiers, and urban workers from their oppressors. Under the CCP’s People’s Republic, China would be unified under the banner of the hammer and sickle.

From these examples, the threat of separatism is clear: China cannot stand another period of war caused by factionalism within its borders. The stakes are too high; China has made very important strides during its economic bloom and any hint of war or destabilization will retard this upward growth. China does not need another blood-bath.

But in the twenty first century, what are these separatist threats that desire to tear the China apart? Who are these challengers that seek to establish homelands — nation-states — of their own?

There are some political factions that deserve some investigation, because they choose to separate from the Chinese for various different reasons that are political, nationalistic, and religious or a combination of these three separatist factors. When thinking of separatism in China people will often think of Tibet in the modern era, but during the Cold War, there was much more focus on Taiwan. The last threat is less documented in the west but is considered China’s own version on the war on Terrorism, the Uighur separatists in Xinjiang who are inspired by the nation states created from collapse of the Soviet Union. These are three important flash-points in China today, some which are resolving peacefully such as the question looming over Taiwanese Independence (which remains a relic of the cold war); another is a post-cold war issue (Xinjiang), and the last remains to be an ongoing, 21st century push for autonomy and democracy.

Each case is different and each has its own origins. These origins will be briefly touched upon generally.

The separatism in Taiwan is a crisis that has been undergoing constant shifts since its beginning as a result of the Nationalist defeat in the Chinese Civil War. Until the death of Chiang Ching-Kuo, Chiang Kai Shek’s son and successor, the goal of the Taiwanese was to retake the mainland and reestablish the Republic of China. However, things did not pan well for the Taiwanese, and therefore they gave up their cold war dream. With the democratization of Taiwan, there was a positive shift in KMT policy towards China, as the opposition Pan-Green coalition called for a separation of Taiwan’s national identity from China. The KMT, which is a Chinese nationalist party, then undertook a turn towards reconciliation with the mainland due to economic incentives and the sense of “nationalism” over China’s economic boom. In the book, Beyond Tiananmen, which involves the deterioration of US-Chinese relations following the Tiananmen Square incident, there is much documentation of the actual Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1996.  Relations between China and Taiwan (which China considers a rogue province) generally were considered “heighten” but in 1988, when Chiang dies there is a shift in the leadership of Taiwan. Lee Teng-Hui is appointed the office of the President of the Republic of China, who is the political leader of Taiwan and is elected democratically in 1991.  During this point, Taiwan and China enjoy a great trade relation, as Taiwanese businessmen invest heavily into Chinese textile and automotive industries. Tensions between Taiwan and China escalate when Lee, in 1995, visits his former university, Cornell in which Lee is treated by the US Congress as a visiting dignitary, though the visit is not political. According to Beyond Tiananmen the Chinese fear that Lee’s visit is an indicator of Taiwanese Independence, in which Lee is a hard proponent. As the tensions rose from Lee’s visit, China launches six ballistic missiles at the Taiwan Strait as a show of force.  This event was called the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, but it stands as a testament towards the volatility of the Taiwan Strait, though Taiwan is military weaker than China, it is allied to the U.S. by the Taiwan Relations Act. The threat stands that if Taiwan declares independence the Chinese will attack Taiwan to reclaim it, which will pull the U.S. into the equation.

However, recently, Taiwan has elected a Pan-Blue, Pro-China President into office. After years of having separatist presidents in both Chen Shui-Bian and Lee Teng-Hui, with the election of Ma Ying-Jeou there seems to be a much more positive spin on how the Taiwanese Government will act towards its ‘warmer’ relationship with the Mainland.  As a destabilizing force, there is much more tension and risk of becoming an international incident, but because of the relative changes in ROC-PRC relations, there is much to hope about.

The second separatist flashpoint is the current tension arising from Pro-Dalai Lama and Tibetan nationalist factions. It is significant to note that the Dalai Lama has advocated for more autonomy for the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) within China. To make an editorial, I was visiting China during the Tibetan Riots in March 2008; therefore I’d like to at least write some of my own views about the tension arising from Tibet, however first I’d like to write about its emergence. Tibetan Independence generally arises from the belief Tibet was a distinct nation and state independent after the fall of the Qing and at the end of the Chinese Civil War, the PRC was in Tibet as both an Imperialist and Colonial power. Much of the controversy is also directed on the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, which was nominally the Theocratic leader of Tibet had it not become part of the PRC.

In March 2008, there was a great uprising against China in TAR by pro-Dalai Lama and Tibetan nationalist factions. I was able to pick up China Daily English edition the very week the riots had happened, though I was in the much safer Eastern Coast of China. According to the China Daily, which is the national paper of the CCP, “Thirteen innocent civilians were burned or stabbed to death…On Friday, [the rioters] violence involving physical assault, destruction, of property, looting and arson… in 300 locations including 214 homes.” The Chinese China Daily continues as what can be understood as the government’s position on the riots “those acts, from setting fire to buildings; torching police cars as well as private vehicles; looting bank, schools and shops to stabbing civilians, are ones that most governments around the world would take drastic actions to stop and condemn if they happened in their own countries. It is ironic … to raise the issue of “human rights” when the rioters have infringed upon the rights of the majority of Lhasan people – to live and work in the holy land to improve their lives and work in peace and prosperity.”

From the descriptions of the 2008 riots by the China Daily, there is a glimpse into the lives of the Han Chinese in Tibet and the native Tibetans. Many of the targets of the rioters were Han Chinese who have settled in TAR, therefore it is believed that many of the native Tibetans are treated much differently by the government than the Han. Tibetan separatism is definitely a touchy subject for many Chinese and was broadcasted internationally throughout the world. As an Internal Threat, the pressure from Tibetan separatist can be considered nil, if not significant enough to challenge the government, however externally the Riots in Tibet have caused a global movement from leaders of nation states, celebrities, and NGOs to criticize China for the alleged use of force against Tibetans.

It can potentially become a truly destabilizing force for China; however it is the most capable of creating political change due international pressures put upon China by foreign countries and international organizations. For instance, the 2008 Beijing Olympics relies on the international attendance of millions of people in order to give China both prestige and an economic and political push as being “part of the world” and not a “rogue” state. If anything, the Chinese response to the rioters has caused a global uproar, which may have tarnished a bit of those political and economic objectives for the Beijing Summer Olympics.

In light of how the Chinese responded towards the rioters, the CCP/Government was well cautioned having learned from their lessons from the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident. According to the China Daily, “Police showed great restraint and used no lethal force in dealing with the riots in Lhasa”. This is a significant improvement, as in Tiananmen, the Chinese used federal military troops to deescalate the Tiananmen democratic demonstration and during that incident the military did not use “proportionate force”, rather it was set on overkill. In the Tibet Riots, if the China Daily is proven to be accurate, the Chinese sent in paramilitary People’s Armed Police, which is roughly the equivalent to SWAT team police officers, instead of regular military.

As of March 31st, the Chinese Governments and Envoys from the Dalai Lama have communicated with each other, with the first meeting being in the commercial city of Shenzhen.

The last case is the separatist movement in Xingjian, a province to the Northwest of China. The Uighur people are a Turkic people who live in this region of China. According to a foreign affairs article about this insurrection, the Chinese government “labels as terrorists those who are fighting for an independent state in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, which the separatists call “Eastern Turkestan.” The government considers these activists part of a network of international Islamic terror, with funding from the Middle East, training in Pakistan, and combat experience in Chechnya and Afghanistan,” As a result the events happening in this part of China is very, very familiar to Americans, it’s the Chinese version of the War on Terror. Foreign Affairs continues, “According to a recent government report, Uighur separatists were responsible for 200 attacks between 1990 and 2001, causing 162 deaths and injuring more than 440 people.”

These Muslim militants attack very similarly to both Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists, as they favor asymmetric, guerrilla warfare, and terrorist style attacks. They largely emerged as a separatist force due to both nationalistic and religious objectives. Largely a Sufi-Muslim population, the Uighur separatist seeks to follow a post-cold war independence model found in similar states that separated with the Soviet Union.

I believe that this may likely become a very destabilizing force for that region, as “Islamic nations” that feel like they are being occupied such as in the War in Iraq or The War on Terrorism in Afghanistan often resort to violence that does not care about the value of life or the collateral damage.

I believe what the Chinese must do in that region is to be as forceful as they should be, they need to reassert the “rule of law” in areas that may be affected this Turkish separatistism. To cope with a threat that is part of a major region of China, the CCP government must in fact send in units of the PLA instead of relying on police as they have done in Tibet or the Cold War tensions they have used in Tibet.

In conclusion, there are many internal problems within China that may spark into larger nationalist uprisings that are exemplified by both the Tibetan and Uighur separatist movements. China has over 55 minority races and the risk of any of those minority races deciding they should have its own homeland or nation-state is a great obstacle for the Chinese to control. Which means that even today, China is still a very fragmented country with people who may or may not have further ambitions to have their own “homeland”. In the case of Taiwan, there is much improvement. Because of the economic and political ties Taiwan has with the Mainland, Hong Kong SAR and Macau SAR, there seems to be a push for Taiwan to reintegrate itself within China, though the reality of that may be when China itself becomes more modern and democratic. In this paper, there was coverage on what separatism is in China and three different factions that have an interest in becoming their own countries and how they became a threat, how volatile they are against the Chinese government, and what currently the Chinese government has done and what they ought to do in the future.

As a matter of thought, China is similar to a house. If the foundation of the house breaks, so does the whole house. In the 21st Century, if China is to advance towards democratic model, there is much hope it can keep the “Mandate of Heaven” — legitimacy in the eyes of its people.


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