The Scottish referendum: A cause of worry for China?

Lobsang Wangyal

Lobsang Wangyal

By Lobsang Wangyal

MCLEOD GANJ, India, 26 September 2014

Scotland’s vote for “no independence” from Britain in a historic referendum, with the unionists carrying the vote at 55 percent while separatists were at 45 percent, has been watched with interest around the world.

The vote to retain the 307-year union with Britain came as a relief for millions of Britons. But the democratic exercise of voting in a referendum by the Scottish people, and the possibility of separating Scotland from Britain, caused some worry to leaders in Beijing, since China itself has many once-independent countries and oppressed, struggling regions under its rule.

Beijing is said to have closely followed the referendum and assessed its impact. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei has said he would not comment because the issue was another country’s internal affair.

The government-controlled Chinese media carried little coverage of the event except for some factual reports. Beijing might have had the fear that bigger coverage could lead to people discussing similar rights for Tibet, Taiwan, East Turkistan (China: Xinjiang), and even for Hong Kong and Macau.

Tibetans had mixed feelings about the outcome of the Scottish referendum, as did the Scots themselves.

Scotland is one of the models for autonomy in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has proposed that Tibet remain within China but have greater freedom for Tibetans, similar to Scotland’s relationship with England.

Known in Tibetan as “Umay-lam” or “Middle-way” approach for seeking autonomy, this policy was conceived by the Dalai Lama in 1974. He announced it as the official policy of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) at a session of the European Parliament in 1988.

After thorough discussions held over a few decades, an opinion poll was conducted in 1997 in which 65% of the Tibetans living in exile expressed support for the Middle-Way Policy.

Although the Dalai Lama gave up his political powers in 2011 to a democratically-elected political leader, the Policy has remained as the goal for the future of Tibetans.

However, a small section of Tibetans feel that independence is the Tibetan people’s right, and they work towards that end.

Tibetan Youth Congress, which is the largest non-governmental organisation, aims to achieve an independent Tibet.

President of the organisation Tenzing Jigme says that the referendum was a major victory for the people of Scotland.

“The people of Scotland debated, discussed, argued in a democratic fashion and in the end regardless of the outcome the people of Scotland can hold their heads high because the rights that they were asserting by seeking independence are being seriously considered and pledges have been made to give more authority to the Scottish Parliament by the British government. So i think the people who were demanding independence may have lost the battle but have won the war.”

President of the National Democratic Party of Tibet, Gelek Jamyang, noted that the people who voted against independence were mostly of the elder generation, whereas the 45% who voted for it were mostly of the younger generation.

“I think the Scottish people have lost a very big opportunity of standing on their own feet as an independent nation, and should feel ashamed of losing such a big opportunity for the coming generations. If this opportunity was given to us [Tibetans] we would definitely take it,” Jamyang said.

Like the Tibetan Youth Congress, the National Democratic Party of Tibet also seeks the restoration of Tibetan independence.

Tenzin Nyinjey, a researcher working at the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamshala, says that if he was a Scot, he would have voted for independence.

“I was disappointed with the result, that is the majority of the people voting for No. However, it is not an overwhelming majority as 45 percent of Scots voted for independence. And that’s a huge number. Moreover, the quest of Scottish independence will continue.”

Sikyong (Prime Minister) of the Central Tibetan Administration, Lobsang Sangay, has said that the ‘Middle-Way’ Policy is a win-win proposition for both Tibet and China, as it takes the middle path between the status quo and independence. It categorically rejects the present repressive policies of the Chinese government towards the Tibetan people, while not seeking separation from the People‚Äôs Republic of China.

The Middle-Way Policy is an effort to engage the Chinese government in dialogue and find a solution to protect the unique Tibetan culture and identity, and the fragile environment of the Tibetan plateau.

Blogger Tenzin Yeshi writes: “Real growth and harmony will not come only from economic development. It has to be the combination of economic prosperity and individual freedom. When this happens, China should not be wary of any referendum for independence.”

Like the majority of Scots supporting the union, Yeshi says that it would be better for Tibetans to live within China, provided they have freedoms.

“When people cherish freedom and see the benefit of staying in ‘One Big Union’, it’s proven now [by the Scottish referendum] that they do not see the benefits of separation.”

There are many ethnic groups seeking either independence or autonomy within China, Tibet being one. Nyinjey says, “Tibet is being colonised by the Chinese. You never have democracy or referendum in colonised nations. What is significant, however, is the fact that Tibetans in exile and those inside occupied Tibet paid close attention to the [Scottish] referendum and were excited by the event.”

On the other hand, TYC President Jigme says that there is a big difference between the Tibet situation and that of Scotland. “The people of Scotland enjoy freedom and democracy. Their people are not arrested or killed for speaking out against atrocities.”

He feels it is useful to look at the Scotland position as a model for policy or approach for the future. A referendum for the Tibetan people to determine their own future would be ideal, but highly unlikely to be allowed by the Chinese government. “We have to continue to use all non-violent means, and continue to put pressure on the Chinese government to resolve the issue of Tibet.”

Expressing same feelings as that of Jigme, NDPT’s Jamyang says, “We would never get this sort of political opportunity in the form of ‘referendum’ under the Chinese Communist rule unless there is a change of guard or democratic avalanche in Beijing.

So the question remains: Could it ever be possible for China to allow a referendum?

About the author

Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, and edits the Tibet sun website.

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