Two years ago, David Cameron’s tête-a- tête with the Dalai Lama at St Paul’s Cathedral provoked China’s foreign ministry to accuse him of having “seriously interfered with China’s internal affairs” and “hurt Chinese feelings”. Oddly enough, the UK’s media uniformly refused to spot the irony in the reversed situation this week, when Chinese premier Li Keqiang responded to a question on Scottish independence by saying that China wished to see a “strong, prosperous and united United Kingdom”. How things change.
Li is premier of a country known for keeping its pesky outlying regions in line through a combination of cultural dilution, media control and violent suppression when the first two fail. As such, he is more than a little problematic as a spokesperson for Better Together. This is not the first counter-intuitive situation to emerge during the Scottish referendum debate. We’re told that Alex Salmond is a nationalistic dictator in the making, supported by hordes of backwards-looking xenophobes. Then Salmond stands up in a UK swinging to the right and calls for increased immigration, and yes-voting Scots poll as more pro-EU than either no voters or the English. Confusing, isn’t it.
Despite the best efforts of the British media to paint it as such, the Scottish independence movement simply refuses to fit the paradigm of narrow-minded nationalism. The most prominent grassroots voices calling for independence remain stubbornly forward-looking, aspirational and inclusive in their vision. These voices include assorted social justice activists, artists, writers and musicians, and opinionated bloggers, from all walks of life and many different ethnic and national origins. They are united, above all, by a deep sense of dissatisfaction at the current state of British democracy and, in particular, the narrowly neoliberal scope of economic policy choices on offer. For many, the Scottish independence movement is about the possibility of democratic renewal and the opportunity to build a fairer, more inclusively prosperous society—a society, if you like, diametrically opposed to that of China, which is determined by the interests of powerful individuals and characterised by a trust deficit, rising inequality and other deep social problems.
So if Cameron wants to bring China into the debate, let’s do so. The political establishments of the UK and China have grown more similar in the twenty-first century than most British people would like to acknowledge. Where China has morphed from a communist dictatorship into a “responsive authoritarian regime”, with minimal distinctions between the interests of senior Communist Party officials and big business, the UK has been sliding towards a state of managed democracy, in which distinctions between the interests of senior politicians and big business have been eroding for decades. Ours is a structurally democratic country which is losing its democratic soul. As in China, British policy decisions tend to be executive-led and informed by think-tanks which often have close ties to parties or interest groups. Public consultation is employed as a PR tool to convince the public to accept the decision, not to genuinely harness the ideas and aspirations of the population. As a result, people frustrated with the direction in which British politics and economic policy are travelling can only “fume impotently”. Unless, of course, they reside in Scotland and have access to the panic button on September 18th.
Parallels can be found in China’s own back yard. Hong Kong is currently in a protracted struggle, not for independence but to retain certain civic freedoms as well as a distinct local identity which emerged in the late twentieth century. Hong Kong’s latest generation of youth activists largely became politicised through movements against “developmentalism”. This involves, for example, destroying historic landmarks or perhaps an entire village, without consideration of the views or needs of local residents, to allow government coffers and billionaire developers to profit from the construction of designer shopping malls, A-grade office space or unnecessary high-speed rail links which the vast majority of people will never use. Such an approach would have no place in a democracy, right? Not according to the current UK government, which is currently attempting to pass a bill which would move us in exactly the same direction.
A generation of political activists in Scotland are currently cutting their teeth on the independence debate, becoming more aware of how media bias works in the UK, and how public relations consultancies are used to manipulate the democratic process. Yet even before political tensions began to run high, many people had been alienated from British politics and primed for a social justice movement by the punitive austerity measures pursued by all three mainstream parties at Westminster, especially policies such as the Bedroom Tax which disproportionately affect poorer Scottish households. The anger is not just at the nature of such policies, but at the lack of consultation in their development and implementation. In one interpretation, the yes campaign has simply offered an opportunity to channel such frustrations into a constructive movement, one with real prospects for change.
Scotland’s yes voters and Hong Kong’s social activists both feature the odd extremist. Attracting negative attention in Scotland is a minority of bigoted and vitriolic nationalists to be found online, while many Chinese are offended by the small number of backward-looking Hong Kong protesters who raise the British colonial flag on the anniversary of the hand-over each year. Yet the mainstream of both movements are admirably civic-minded people who are reacting, in their own ways, against a high-handed approach to policy-making which favours elite interests over the well-being of the middle and lower income groups (or the environment). Both movements contain a strong vein of social justice, seeking to represent the voices of the disempowered.
Just before Li Keqiang’s brief foray into domestic British politics, his government issued a white paper designed to remind Hong Kong of its subordination to Beijing, and plainly ruling out a democratic future for the city. Mr Li’s voice holds no weight in a democratic debate, and David Cameron’s time with him might have been better spent in strongly urging him to respect the terms of the 1984 Sino-British declaration on Hong Kong’s hand-over to China, which are now being disregarded. Perhaps then, he might have earned a degree of respect among Scottish yes voters.
Susan Evans is an independent analyst with a long-term interest in Chinese politics, based until recently in Hong Kong where she worked first for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and then for a global media and research firm. She is a co-producer of a documentary film, Lessons in Dissent [http://lessonsindissentmovie.com/index.html], on teenage political activists in Hong Kong, and spent her maternity leave writing a blog called the Hong Kong Media Review. She moved back from Hong Kong to Edinburgh as the independence debate was reaching fever pitch, at which point it came to her attention that UK democracy was slipping backwards and she should probably pay more attention. She splits her time between family, work, writing and procrastinating.”