Behind China’s perception on Catalonia’s move: it’s the concern

On October 27, the Catalonian autonomous region’s parliament voted to pass the motion for “independence” and then declared the “establishment of an independent state”. Beijing quickly stated that China’s stance on this issue has been consistent and unequivocal.

Since it falls within Spain’s internal affairs, China understands and supports the Spanish government’s effort to uphold national unity, ethnic solidarity and territorial integrity, oppose the act of splitting the country and undermining the rule of law. As China and Spain have been friendly countries from the 1970s, both sides will continue to develop cooperation in terms of mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference into each other’s internal business.

Similarly, the United States announced that “Catalonia is an integral part of Spain—a NATO Ally, and it supports the Spanish government’s constitutional measures to keep Spain strong and united.” It was swiftly followed by all major countries of NATO, and EU also extended their supports to the government in Madrid. What a concerted move against the separatism in a sovereign state!

However, to the people in their later 20s-30s across China, it is unforgettable that NATO powers had once used force to bomb former Yugoslavia to give in on the issue of Kosovo and also to topple the regimes in Libya and Iraq by force. Their armed actions were in general unauthorized by the United Nation. As a result, more and more people come to accept what President Putin had argued “it was regrettably a geopolitical disaster for the Soviet Union to be disintegrated.” True, the United States as the lonely superpower has since pursued hegemonic order by unilateralism and the coercive diplomacy. The query arises what Washington and its allies would do if separatism or radical ethnic groups move towards independence within a fully sovereign country which is a non-NATO ally or “democratic” state? Due to this, when China expressed its stance on Catalonia’s claim for independence, it is equally necessary to discern the concerns of the political elites in Beijing who might one day face the similar dilemma occurred to them?

During the modern history, the Chinese Empire was humiliated to the end: it not only lost the millennium-ruled “tribute system”, but also resulted in the several ethnics’ claim for “independence” in the border regions within. Nowadays, China is the only great power that has been challenged in terms of national unity and territorial integrity. The issues cover local terrorism, political separatism and fundamental extremism from various radical ethnic groups. Although the population of the “radical groups” is insignificant in view of China’s total population, but the territorial space of the ethnic minorities across the country is extensively huge and rich in natural resources. Moreover, the regions are strategically important. In foreign affairs—the reality of states interacting closely, Western states and the U.S. in particular have always used the issues of the ethnics in China as the leverage to criticize and even sanction against China in the name of human rights, ethnic discrimination, social injustice and natural resources exploitation. Consequently, local radical ethnics have from time to time resisted the Beijing’s authorities over them in violent or nonviolent way. Their resistance threatened national security on strategic borders of China, at many times becoming an international issue. In brief, they would be the roots of the clashes between China and the United States and its allies if the Beijing’s authorities were weakened due to any uncertain reasons.

Modern society requires sharper definitions of identity. Considering several of ethnic minorities in China, such as the Tibetans, the Mongolians and Muslim-related Uighur, Kazak and Kyrgyz, who are sizable groups with the developed cultures, occupying strategically important regions and even maintaining connections with the same ethnic groups in anywhere of the world, Chinese government should work hard to improve the ability to impose tight control over these regions, at the same time intensifying the Han majority influx that would balance the growth of the native population. Yet, it is not enough evidently to curb the ethnics’ issues. The Chinese authorities in effect need to build up a sound legal framework to provide all ethnics’ rights and a consensus among them to accommodate their differences and find common goals. It is imperative for China first to apply the constitutional measures to keep China united. In so doing, while the ruling elite in Beijing takes the necessary measures to build up its capacity in dealing with the “threat”, they have also taken effective steps to assure the legality in all domestic affairs.

Second, today, as a rising power in the global affairs, China has paid increasing attention to public diplomacy, which has been defined as one of the most salient political communication issues in the 21st century. In reality, public diplomacy is inevitably linked to power, or exactly soft power, therefore it is more based on intangible or indirect influence such as culture, values and ideology. In light of the successful stories and the lessons of the United States over the past decades, China must invest in measures that lead to better ties that bound: much more fundamental is the efforts to promote Beijing’s public image, cultivated in part by its soft power, because the final attraction is to make others want to accept rather than reject China’s domestic governance and international influence.

In summary, China needs to reflect on its own condition in the wake of watching the Catalonia issue. As the division of powers between the central government and local ruling body is politically inevitable in any country, China is no exception. But, given that it is marching towards Chinese perception of global leader, the rising China with the second largest economy in the world could afford both better domestic control and the global governance that comes from an effective aid and information program abroad. Just few days ago, the new core leaders of China headed by President Xi admitted frankly that they are facing complex challenges, but also have much to be proud of. Unprecedentedly, the CPC has demonstrated strength and confidence, and China has the leadership who are determined to take the ancient Chinese nation forward to face the challenges of the future—even if its approach does not always comport with a Western worldview. Sure, the real message was clearly conveyed by Xi Jinping at the recent congress that China stands firm in safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Chinese, both the ruling elites and social mass of the country, will never allow any one, no matter what ethnics they are, at any time or in any form and reason, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.

Paul Wang
Paul Wang
Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.