23 September 2014

Where separatism is illegal

Xinjiang has been part of China far longer than Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom, but the example of Israel suggests, sometimes to Israel's own chagrin, that there's no statute of limitation on national aspirations. That doesn't mean a country can't pass a law against them. The U.K. was a model recently of how to address such aspirations when the central government allowed a referendum on Scottish secession and agreed to abide by the result. In central Europe the peaceful separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the former components of Czechoslovakia, also seems like a high point of civility. In other countries, like the United States, it's okay to advocate secession, but our Civil War sets an ominous precedent should any state actually attempt to secede. By comparison, China may look less hypocritical in some eyes for simply forbidding separatist activism. The Chinese government has just sentenced an ethnic Uyghur scholar from Xinjiang to life in prison for the crime of "separatism." From China's own English-language account of the sentencing it's unclear whether they equate "separatism" with incitement to violence or whether merely advocating Uyghur independence, or even greater Uyghur autonomy within China, is a crime in Chinese eyes.

Xinjiang's situation differs from Scotland in that Uyghurs have been blamed for terrorist attacks inside China in recent years, while we're some centuries removed from the last violent uprising in Scotland. Why is Uyghur nationalism violent while Scots nationalism isn't? The tempting answer is that the Chinese government is "violent" toward Uyghur aspirations in a way the United Kingdom hasn't been for some time. But there can be resentment of central rule by an ethnic other without violence being part of it, or else there wouldn't be a Scots separatist movement at all. It may be easy to dismiss Uyghur separatism or nationalism because it's sometimes violent -- not to mention because Uyghurs are Muslims -- compared to Scots nationalism or even Tibetan nationalism within China. But to China separatism (or "splittism") is the original offense, before violence enters the equation. The Chinese government shares with many Americans the belief that political union is inseparable, and that separatism is always a step backward. That's the American belief about their own country, at least, even though we let our fellow citizens argue to the contrary. Even here, however, a growing distrust of all large institutions, including the state, has been noted, and looking outward Americans often cheer for the world's separatists, accepting their narratives of oppression by tyrannical majorities or repressive central bureaucracies. It may be an objective fact that the Chinese are oppressing the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, but does it follow that the remedy for such oppression is the hyper-balkanization of the planet. Ideally an Uyghur is equal to a Han Chinese, a Scot to a Briton -- but does that require the existence of four countries rather than two?

In every country, no person should feel like less of a citizen, or less of a human being, because of their ethnicity -- but on some level --politically, at a bare minimum -- shouldn't every person feel more like a human being and less essentially ethnic? Unfortunately, the 20th century's major attempt to cultivate a predominant "human" identity seemed oppressive to nearly every ethnicity, while China's superficial continuation of that effort may simply mask Han chauvinism at the expense of the Uyghurs, the Tibetans and other minorities. It might still be argued that the adoption of a "human" identity by everyone is essential for humanity's long-term survival, but it must also be acknowledged that resistance is inevitable. It should be possible to deplore abuses of majority rule or large-scale centralized government, or at least to sympathize with the victims of such abuse, without abandoning a belief that the necessary trend is away from separatism, nationalism, sectarianism and tribalism. That may mean sometimes deciding that separatism is unjustified -- possibly more often than not -- but it also means holding every nation to the same standard of equal treatment of all its people, whether our own lives up to that standard or not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Too often when those minorities successfully secede, they find their own minority to oppress. When I hear some right-wing yokel in the USA whining about how he is "oppressed" by the gubbermint, I think to myself "far less so than the humans with dark skin you would oppress."