In the wake of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Chinese state media outlets sent out a string of messages highlighting other areas of the world with sovereignty questions hanging over them. Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Scotland were all brought up as part of an effort to justify China’s outrage over what it sees as U.S. meddling in Taiwan.
Many saw this for what it was: a cynical chunk of propaganda designed to disrupt and distract, rather than an outlining of any kind of principle. But there was also a danger in this reaction. In an effort to dismiss the propaganda effort, independence movements across the world, founded on ideas of self-determination, ended up dismissed merely as a rhetorical distraction from the Taiwan Issue. This is a logic that implies one can’t believe more than one group is wrong at the same time, and requires ignoring quite a large slice of what is going on in the world.
Put simply: Just because it is temporarily convenient for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to point out that independence movements are not cheered on within (and without) many other states, does not mean that idea can be written off as a CCP talking point. Mainly, because there is significant factual weight behind it.
In his 2004 essay on Taiwan, historian Perry Anderson pointed out the stark historical trend that “No standard nation-state has so far ever allowed the detachment from its territory of [what it sees as] a breakaway community.” The caveats to this are that explicitly multinational federations or binational states have allowed groups to leave, while he adds: “Post-partition Pakistan, circumscribed purely by religion, was never a conventional nation-state. The independence of Bangladesh was assured by overwhelming foreign intervention from India, as once — without the same popular basis — Panama was wrested from Colombia by U.S. intervention.”
But there is no getting away from how the world works on this. Even in the multinational U.K., the supposedly shining democratic example of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum is now cast as an extraordinary, once in a generation exercise, when surely one fundamental tenet of democracy is the ability to change one’s mind. And surely there should be nothing extraordinary about it.
According to Anderson, the primary motivation behind such a clear trend is a fear of Balkanization. The idea is that if one self-determination claim is recognized, the fragile fiction of the nation is splintered, and — as with Yugoslavia in 1991-92 — soon after, the state itself follows.
China has reasons to fear this “dynamic of disintegration” across a huge range of its territory, and so did the U.S. when it fought its Civil War, and so does the U.K. in battling Scottish independence right now (Even as the U.K. constitutionally self-identifies as a multinational union, British nationalism is a powerful force.) The list is long. “Since the Second World War, the same bloody campaigns against break-outs from the nation-state have been fought again and again, with comparable results,” Anderson writes. “Such has been, in Nigeria, the fate of Biafra; in Russia, of Chechnya; in Turkey, of Kurdistan; in India, of Nagaland; in Sri Lanka, of Tamil Eelam; in Spain, of the Basque country.”
Of course, Taiwan has never been ruled by the People’s Republic of China, and thus is a distinct legal case from any of the examples its own outlets chose to name. It sees itself as already separate and has good grounds for that. But what links all of these places is the dismissal of the principle of self-determination for the smaller parties involved, in the name of reinforcing the larger ones.
Pointing this out is both simply true and also need not serve the CCP tactically. Take a dynamic, current example: The next most likely prime minister of the U.K., Liz Truss, has spent part of her campaign for that job talking tough about defending Taiwan, while regularly coming out with quotes on the prospect of Scottish independence like this one: “To me we are not just neighbours, we are family. And I will never ever let our family be split up.” Noting this as a contradiction — implicitly supporting self-determination in one place where polling shows the majority would prefer not to be ruled by China but not in another place where national elections have given a majority in the national parliament to a party in favour of a referendum on independence — isn’t any barrier to supporting Taiwan. One could simply, coherently, support self-determination in both places.