Unpacking China's Opposition Towards "separatism"

February 20th, 2021

By: Mohammad Amaan Siddiqui

“To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…” (U.N. Charter art. 1 para. 2)


It was from former United States president Woodrow Wilson that the first use of the concept ‘self-determination’ stemmed in 1918. The fundamental idea behind the concept was that people were not subjects of the state and should be able to make their own choices. In the modern era, the right to self-determination is one of the core principles of international law. However, the method of exercising self-determination differs. It is a concept different from secession and independence. Some communities’ only possible outcome is full independence. Some only aspire for a degree of political, cultural, and economic autonomy while for others it may just mean to live and manage their communities without external interference.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has issues affiliated with self-determination and autonomy in many of its regions. Along with those systematic conflicts, the country also violates various human rights. Despite this, most nations explicitly agree with PRC’s claim over certain territories- including even the most autonomous of all, Taiwan (Republic of China). It is difficult to ascertain whether the PRC holds rights over those territories. Unsurprisingly, PRC is also seen to oppose self-determination movements internationally. The million-dollar question is: does PRC think the demands of those movements are illogical or are there missing pieces in this puzzle?

Cultural Autonomous Zones and Their Suppression

In the second Human Rights Review of 22nd October 2013, PRC was called out for human rights violations against Tibetans and Uyghurs. Pakistan along with Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, and Russia supported PRC whereas over a dozen other delegates including Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Poland, UK, France, Canada, and Switzerland among others cited human rights violations in PRC. One of the long-standing autonomous zone issues is that of Tibet which goes back to over seven centuries across multiple dynasty rules. In 1913, the same year that the Dalai Lama declared tibetan independence, they also made a statement that the relationship between the Chinese emperor and Tibet had been of a patron and priest, and was nothing close to political subordination. Yet, in 1951, Tibet was surrounded by the military, and the teenage Dalai Lama was forced to sign accession into PRC.

Ever since, Tibetans have been subject to various violations of human rights such as being arrested in case of any opinion contrary to Beijing as well as the suppression of religious and cultural rights. They are subjected to arbitrary arrests, detention, and other discriminatory practices. Over 70% of Tibetans in Tibet live below the poverty line and thousands continue to flee to protect themselves from such persecution.

Artificial Demographic Shift to Dilute Cultural Majorities

According to Tibet expert Melvyn C. Goldstein of Foreign Affairs in 1998, a program of rapid economic development was adopted in Tibet which included incentives encouraging an influx of non-Tibetans, mostly Han Chinese, into Tibet. This was to result in a new generation of Tibetans who will be less influenced by religion and consider being part of China. He added, “Even if such an orientation does not develop, the new policy will so radically change the demographic composition of Tibet and the nature of the economy that Beijing’s control over Tibet will not be weakened.”

This was applied in Xinjiang as well. In the 1990s, Beijing created special economic zones in Xinjiang to develop its economy. Local cotton farmers were subsidized, and the tax system was overhauled. Migration was also encouraged by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) for so-called economic reasons due to which the Han Population rose from 6.7% in 1949 to 40% in 2008 in the XUAR region. PRC claims all its policies are to promote economic development. However, records and trends show hidden agendas. This is just one among many other measures such as but not limited to; reserved jobs for Han Chinese, discriminatory recruiting practices, cultural violence such as the prohibition of traveling to Masjids, constricting use of local languages, violence against open displays of varying cultural or religious beliefs (such as head scarfs or beards) that aimed at suppressing culture in just Xinjiang. Similar systems apply in Tibet, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Inner Mongolia, Macau, etc. Despite the PRC's tight control on citizens and information, ongoing civil and human rights issues in these areas are well known. The evidence and demands of the people are accessible, yet the international community at large either turns a blind eye to these atrocities, openly supports the PRC or is unable to do anything.

Associated Principles of International Relations

Much of the global political climate is defined by the foundations created during the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) of political sovereignty whereby no external entity except for the ruler has the right to decide on topics of their own country. This also shaped much of the future security definitions and created a barrier in the face of humanity. While nations defended their citizens from threats of outside forces, owing to the principle of political sovereignty they also had to turn a blind eye to foreign nations persecuting its own citizens. An intervention would risk the security and global standing of the intervening nation.

The consequences of the two world wars led to the creation of international relations theories—realism, liberalism, and constructivism, among others. However, all these theories apply between nation-states and not between a nation-state and a non-governmental entity thus proving redundant in a conflict between a country and its citizens. The UN has its defined procedures and systems to resolve conflicts between countries yet there is no defined theory or platform in the global system that can effectively solve issues between a country and its citizens such as self-determination or secession. This takes us back to the principle of non-intervention.

Chinese Standpoints on Secessionist Movements

The PRC is seen to establish the roots of anti-secession primarily since the 1955 Bandung (Indonesia) conference which reaffirmed the ‘Five Peaceful Principles of Coexistence’ (1954) between India and China to its 29 participants. The primary principles relevant to our discussion are ‘Mutual respect’s territorial integrity and sovereignty’, and ‘mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs’. This can be associated with much of the reluctance of PRC and other nations to support secessionist movements abroad and shifting opinions such as the Indian withdrawal of support of Tibetan self-determination after the Bandung conference.

In most cases, PRC has held the same position stating that “secession is not recognized by international law and has always been opposed by the international community of states.” Nevertheless, a more complicated effect also comes into play. In 2010, an uprising in Tunisia caused a successful revolution in the country. Following suit, revolutions also took place soon after in 13 other nations. This came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’. One revolution triggered a domino effect in surrounding nations. It is safe to assume that for PRC to protect itself from breaking apart into several nations, it must prevent a domino trail from collapsing by preventing all secessionist movements, especially within its boundaries.

Points of interest arise further when the example of East Timor is brought up. East Timor’s declaration of independence in 1975 was supported by the PRC. The subsequent takeover by Indonesia was classified as “a naked act of aggression”. Tibetans believe that their experiences were like that of East Timor and they also deserved independence, perhaps even more than East Timor because Tibetans had their own currency and passports. The time frames in which the Indonesian take over of East Timor took place (the 1970s) and when it separated from Indonesia (1999-2002) raises questions about the role the bloc formations created during the cold war played. Another question was posed; were sides taken out of political alignment or actual assessment of the situation? It is safe to assume that China would have taken their position due to their alignment as the other nations who supported East Timor’s independence in 1975—Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Sao-Tome and Principe, Cape Verde, Guinea, Albania, Vietnam, and Angola—were aligned with the same ideologies as that of PRC.

East Timor had gained independence two decades ago due to suppression at the hands of the Indonesian paramilitary. In situations where there is such suppression, most global powers and the United Nations have supported independence. Yet, with Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the future is different despite the conditions being similar. The closest association of this can be made with strategic diplomacy, economic pressures, and the power PRC holds in the global political climate.

Economic and Diplomatic Pressures

The Human Rights Council sees the formation of a bloc consisting of PRC and its supporters which always supports PRC’s amendments and resolutions while going against all amendments and resolutions that go against PRC. Another common thing to note about these countries is that all of them have deals with PRC over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The PRC has extended this strategy to the EU as well. Greece is one of the countries that receives Chinese investments at large. In 2017, it blocked the signing of an EU joint statement in the UNHRC on Human Rights abuses in the PRC. Hungary did the same in a statement on torture of Chinese Human Rights lawyers. In 2018, PRC was seen exerting increasing pressure on companies forcing them to list Taiwan as a part of China or else be barred from doing business in China. There is a visible policy of economic threats used by the PRC to protect itself in the international community. Debt trap diplomacy is also nothing out of the ordinary for the PRC. Through this, attractive loans are given to nations for various projects. In most cases, such projects cause heavy losses to the receiving nation which allows the PRC to take over rights over the assets partially or completely.

The Underlying Problem in the Bigger Picture

Historical experiences, Westphalian concepts of political sovereignty and territorial integrity, and a complicated web of interconnected problems, as well as potential problems, define every nation’s actions. To discuss the PRC’s standing on various secession issues within and beyond its borders in a void is not possible as everything is interconnected. The creation of an effective system or the allowance of honest foreign opinions and advice would require nations to give up part of their sovereignty. Whether or not countries will be willing to do that in a world of power-hungry dominating and competing global powers remains a dilemma.


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