From Kosovo to Tibet and Taiwan
LONDON -- Why is China behaving as it is in Tibet? What makes Tibet so important to the government in Beijing? At the heart of the matter is the fact that nothing worries China's rulers more than when the country's unity is called into question. And nothing makes them more anxious than their fear that a regional dispute might, if not brought to an end quickly, steamroll into national disintegration.
Kosovo's recent unilateral declaration of independence sharpened the Chinese government's anxieties over the protests in Tibet. Although supporters of Kosovo's independence argue that it sets no international precedent, China's rulers fear otherwise. Moreover, Taiwan's presidential election yesterday has further ratcheted up the tension for China's government.
Opinion polls in Taiwan suggest that former Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) will defeat Frank Hsieh of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). But some in China fear that the incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, is seeking a pretext to prevent a defeat for the pro-sovereignty camp. He has advocated a referendum on whether Taiwan should join the United Nations, which China views as provocative and a threat to China's unity.
It may sound strange to the outside world that China, which has known nothing but economic success for three decades, should feel its unity to be so fragile. But China's history, both ancient and modern, suggests that there is nothing permanent or stable about the country's current unity.
Indeed, today's unity was secured only with Mao's victory in 1949.
From the Warring States period (403-221 BC) to the warlord period of the twentieth century (1916-28) — and many times in between — China's territory has splintered into separate, rival regions. So, while loudly proclaiming the unity of the Chinese state, China's leadership is obsessed with the country's fragility, and works constantly to reduce tensions between its provinces.
The government's failure to eradicate chronic regional tension underscores the limits of central authority in China, which was partly intentional. An integral feature of the reforms that Deng Xiaoping launched 30 years ago was greater autonomy for local authorities — a move aimed at fostering accountability and creating incentives for growth. But some provinces have gone further. The central government's loss of authority is reflected in the number of its appeals — usually unsuccessful — that it makes to local government for compliance with limits on investment or controls on pollution.
In any country as vast as China, far-flung regions are bound to have different interests and identities. Though few in China speculate aloud about it, there are some who believe that such differences may continue to tug the regions away from the centre, and that some might one day break away.
This is the fear gnawing at China's rulers as they confront the unrest in Tibet.
Of course, to judge from official rhetoric, there is no threat to unity. All of China's peoples, including non-Chinese in annexed territories such as Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang, are firm and loyal supporters of the current system. But the government's frequent rotation of local officials tells a different story. Keen to prevent any coalescence of regional identity and local authority, senior officers in China's seven military districts also are rotated regularly.
Another precaution taken by the central government is to shape the military districts so that they do not overlap with natural regional or economic divisions. This arrangement is designed to ensure that military and economic regionalism will cancel each other out. But it also reflects the Chinese government's constant fear that regional tensions may lead to national fragmentation.
Nevertheless, none of these precautions can assuage the anxiety of China's leaders about the struggle underway in Tibet, particularly in view of events in Kosovo and Taiwan.
In principle, of course, conflict between Taiwan and the Mainland is not inevitable. With increasing change in China and growing economic and social contacts across the Strait, it should be possible to find a formula that allows the Taiwanese to maintain their market economy and democratic system without a placard at the UN.
The West has historically stressed two bright lines with respect to Taiwan: no independence and no use of force by China. But, in view of Kosovo's independence against the will of Serbia and without UN sanction, these bright lines have become blurred in China's eyes.
The world is risking much by injecting ambiguity into an issue that once seemed clear-cut. Thirty-five years ago, in a supreme act of modern statecraft, Zhou En-lai and Richard Nixon signed the Shanghai Communiqué, which set the following unambiguous standard: there is only one China, and Taiwan is part of it. An unequivocal reaffirmation of that understanding, particularly by the United States in the light of its role as primary backer of Kosovo's independence, is now needed if China is to be reassured that its unity will not be called into question.
The West does not have an interest in helping either Tibet or Taiwan become sovereign countries, and efforts by some Tibetans and Taiwanese in this direction present the danger of a miscalculation that could create lasting enmity. Already, some Chinese suspect the US of seeking an independent Taiwan as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" for use against a future Chinese enemy. Such suspicions can feed a climate of excessive nationalism in China.
Both China and the West must now avoid letting exaggerated fears create self-inflicted prophecies. Events in Tibet can only be properly viewed with the shadows cast by Kosovo and Taiwan in mind.
* Wen Liao is a Chinese lawyer practicing with a US firm in London.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008. Exclusive to The Sunday Times