‘What’s So Wrong with Splitting up?’

Netizens Use the Scottish Referendum to Discuss Democracy in China

It reads like an Orwellian threat to all Scots: "The English government needs to immediately commence political thought education, and Scotland needs to be ruled by someone patriotic. Strike hard against separatist forces! Let every department at every level require assiduous study of David Cameron's speeches and thought, and properly educate the masses." In fact, it's nothing more than satire on Weibo, China's Twitter, poking direct fun at Chinese agitprop and a Beijing declaration in late August that all candidates for Hong Kong's Chief Executive, the city's top official, must first be vetted for their patriotic bona fides. Hong Kong is supposed to be an autonomous region of China until 2047, but Beijing's recent dictate has been widely interpreted as undermining the mainland's promise of universal suffrage there, casting a dark shadow over reformist hopes in the mainland as well.

If it had a vote in Scotland's upcoming September 18 referendum on whether or not to declare independence from the United Kingdom, China's ruling Communist Party would almost certainly cast a "no" ballot. In June, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang surely spoke for his colleagues when he said he wanted a "strong, prosperous, and united United Kingdom." But that sentiment is far from universal among Chinese netizens, who see their own recent grappling with questions of sovereignty, colonialism, and democracy refracted in the issues the Scottish plebiscite raises. In particular, Chinese netizens have already shown themselves split on their views toward Hong Kong's own referendum on the question of universal suffrage, organized by a protest group in June and quickly denounced in Beijing.

Some on Weibo appeard to disagree with Beijing's latest move. Seemingly addressing the referendum—and perhaps Beijing's propensity to quiet alleged separatists in western regions Tibet and Xinjiang with force—one wrote pointedly, "there's nothing wrong with undertaking a referendum, without outside interference, to determine the future of a people." He applauded U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's reliance on "persuasion, not mobilizing troops" as the only "civilized and respectable way" to maintain unity. Another user wondered aloud "why every time I hear about dissolution, it's outrageous, heinous, the end of the world. What's so wrong with splitting up?" One was indifferent to the vote's outcome, writing, "The fact that a people comprising one-third of the land mass of the existing country can vote on their own independence is already amazing."

Others resisted any comparison to Chinese affairs. One popular comment insisted that Hong Kong "can't do without China" and is merely a frontispiece "to show off Chinese strength." Another challenged those "sons of bitches" invoking Hong Kong to "guarantee an election here wouldn't elect those already in office." That user concluded that "China's problems right now aren't with its system; Chinese people's quality" isn't up to snuff.

That view, regardless of its merits, is surprisingly prevalent within China, especially but by no means exclusively among those guiding public opinion with Party support. Most online discussions of Chinese democracy—and they do occasionally occur, even on China's censored web—include the argument that Chinese just aren't ready. One popular comment on the Scottish vote chastised readers: "You still haven't realized that the reason you can't enjoy democratic rights is not because your representation and rights have been taken from you," but because "you don't have the qualifications to become a citizen. You're not a good match for democracy." Meanwhile, several popular posts complained that British politicians' recent offer of additional powers to Scotland to induce voters to stay in the U.K. showed that democracy was inherently a slippery slope. One wrote, "This is exactly the unfortunate outcome of the flaws of the democratic system. There are endless promises to win votes; ultimately the bottom line" undergirding stability "is breached." Another asked, "As soon as these promises are kept, doesn't it tell the world that the baby who cries gets the milk?"

Some commenters wrote that Scotland's potential secession from the British Empire—which sold opium in China in the 18th century, waged war over the drug's trade in the 19th century, and was granted control of Hong Kong in 1842—meant the empire was getting its just desserts. The unstated presumption behind these comments is that a peaceful dissolution would signal weakness or a comeuppance for the U.K., although it's also possible to view the peaceful vote as a sign of strength. "History," one user wrote, "is a cruel thing." "Back when they were obstructing Hong Kong's return, I bet they didn't think it would come to this," one user laughed, apparently referring to late former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's negotiations with the Chinese over British divestiture of the colony. Another wrote that the U.K. "has followed behind America's ass advocating democracy, ultimately trying in vain to split other nations." Now, the user concluded, "It's coming back in your face."

Of course, China has no direct geopolitical interest in the outcome of the Scottish independence vote; Li's singular comment aside, both the ruling Communist Party and the Chinese media it controls have taken a relatively agnostic approach to discussing and reporting the affair. But it's the very absence of political baggage that's given Chinese netizens freer reign to discuss the issue—including sentiments that authorities might view as reactionary in a different context. One user even cautioned, "Let's just watch; we'll get investigated for saying what we think." But many did not heed the warning. Even as censorship on the Chinese social web grows ever more severe, politically-minded Chinese continue to find creative openings to be heard.