Scottish exercise of democracy becomes anti-democracy fodder in Chinese press

Chang Ping looks at how referendum on independence is being used to belittle Western governance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 September, 2014, 2:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2014, 2:48am

As part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has been administered in a way no worse than Hong Kong has under Chinese rule. Certainly, it has had more autonomy than the so-called autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. Still, in Scotland, the calls for secession have never ceased, and now its people are poised to vote in a referendum for independence.

This is how democratic societies handle conflict. Many expect this example of democracy in action to put Beijing to shame, and they have waited in gleeful anticipation to see how the government media mouthpieces would make a fool of themselves trying to rationalise it.

As it turns out, these media outlets have had no problem justifying the unjustifiable. Unembarrassed, they have risen to the challenge. The Global Times is typical. In one editorial, it said the Scottish independence referendum had pushed the union to the cliff's edge: if Scotland became independent, David Cameron would go down in history as a "criminal" who presided over a break-up; if the bid was rejected, Cameron's government must be able to stop the independence movement and prevent its serious consequences. It warned that if "a child knew it could get milk by crying", and this became normal behaviour in British politics, the country would "never have peace".

The idea of Scottish independence may not be as galling to the Chinese government as independence for Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan or Hong Kong, but it is still seen as a disruptive force that threatens unity and stability, to be condemned. Knowingly or unknowingly, Chinese media reports reflect this bias.

A Southern Weekend report was scathing in its analysis: "If and when this battle for independence - which, at heart, seemed to be only a tussle over money - succeeds, Britain will definitely become a second-class nation, and this will create a problem for the EU."

Premier Li Keqiang was asked about the referendum when he visited Britain in June. He said he wanted to see a "strong, prosperous and united United Kingdom". Li was setting the tone for his country's media.

There is no doubt Scottish independence would bring many challenges, both for the new country and the union. And this has provided the Chinese media with ammunition for an attack. The confusion now, the uncertainty in the future, and the impact the referendum will have on the other secessionist movements in Europe - all these have become problems created by Scotland's independence advocates.

A Shanghai-based online news portal, The Paper, published an article that was widely distributed on the major Chinese media sites. Titled, "A countdown to the referendum: the British government in a panic", it said an opinion poll on the referendum had sent the whole of England into a panic. "September 18 has become a ticking bomb, and the countdown has started," it said.

The site has also published other interviews and analysis of the referendum that reflected other viewpoints, but these were not widely shared.

The Global Times went further than stating its support for British union. In fact, the main point of its editorial was not its rejection of Scottish independence, but its rejection of referendums per se.

Deploying the same terms and expressions that the Chinese communist government often trots out in its propaganda on national unity, the editorial warned of the referendum's potential impact on developments in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. It said: "With its complex history and ethnic diversity, China cannot afford to play this British game [of independence]".

On August 31, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress announced its decision on Hong Kong's electoral reform, setting severe limits that sparked a public uproar. One contentious point was a requirement that the chief executive must "love Hong Kong and love China".

Notably, the Global Times editorial said: "The dramatic change in Scottish public opinion in a short span of two years showed the impact a splittist governing party can have, and how effective it can be in pushing the independence agenda and mobilising community support for it."

That's not all. Since pro-democrats often highlight the stability of democracies, the editorial noted: "The Scottish independence movement clearly tells us that even an advanced, established country like Britain isn't as stable as we thought."

In another report on the topic, the paper also criticised the hypocrisy of the West on the issue of human rights. It said that when Cameron was a researcher for the Tories, he had argued that Hong Kong should not be returned to China because human rights were higher than sovereign rights, yet, now faced with the prospect of Scottish independence, he is singing a different tune. "This shows up the hypocrisy of Europe's champion for human rights," the report said.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator. This commentary is translated from Chinese