Why China's wary of Scottish independence

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Beijing

Media caption,
Martin Patience assesses Chinese opinion on the Scottish referendum

The scale of the Great Wall of China as it snakes up and down the hills outside Beijing is stunning.

China built the wall centuries ago to defend the country from its northern neighbours.

On the day we visited you could hear the strains of the bagpipes floating over its watch towers.

The instrument was played by George Tian - one of just a handful of Chinese pipers. The 31-year-old can wax lyrical about all things Scottish despite having never set foot in the country.

He first heard pipe music a decade ago and was instantly smitten. "It makes me cry, it cheers me up," he said, explaining his passion for the music.

But on the issue of Scottish politics, George became uncharacteristically quiet.

Despite standing in a kilt with bagpipes tucked under his arm, he refused to be drawn on whether he'd like to see an independent Scotland.

"I'm not Scottish, I'm not even British," said George. "It's up to the Scottish people and I will respect their right."

His personal reticence was a reflection of China's official policy of "non-interference" in other countries' internal affairs. But as Beijing's influence grows on the world stage, it is a policy that is increasingly under strain.

Becoming "second-rate"

Perhaps, inevitably, on a visit to Britain earlier this year, China's Premier Li Keqiang was asked where he stood on Scottish independence.

Mr Li said he wanted to see a "united" United Kingdom, adding that he believed the UK could "stay at the forefront in leading the world's growth and development".

His reply should not have come as a surprise. It reflects Beijing's worry about any independence movement - even one half the world away - inspiring its own minorities.

Whereas in Scotland people are being offered a vote to determine their future, in China any talk of separation is regarded as treason and will get you locked up.

In its western region of Xinjiang, Beijing has launched a huge security crackdown against what it calls Uighur separatists. In Tibet, people have long claimed of repression under Chinese rule.

And in the case of Taiwan, Beijing says it has the right to use military force if the island declares formal independence.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Chinese authorities have launched a security crackdown against Uighur separatists in Xinjiang
Image source, Martin Patience
Image caption,
George Tian is one of several bagpipe enthusiasts in China
Image source, AP
Image caption,
Mr Li (L) and Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond (R) shared whisky at an Edinburgh dinner in 2011

"In history whenever China has been united it has done better," said Victor Gao, a political analyst. "The economy does better and the living standards of people improve. When the country's been fragmented or occupied, ordinary people have been worse off."

For that reason, Mr Gao says most Chinese find it "unbelievable" that London would even allow the Scots to vote on separation, never mind actually letting the UK split up.

The state-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial this week that if Scotland votes yes then Britain will descend from "a first-class country to a second-rate one."

It said the move "would break the balance of power within Europe" and may even "wield influence upon international geopolitics."

Too many questions

One of the small ironies is that the First Minister and leader of the Yes campaign, Alex Salmond, says he'll make Beijing a key economic partner if Scotland achieves independence.

At a whisky fair in the capital, it's clear that the Chinese have acquired a thirst for what comes out of Scotland.

Total Scottish exports - including whisky - to China were their highest ever last year, worth more than a half a billion pounds.

Stephen Notman, the event's co-organiser, was bullish about the growth of Scottish exports in China. But when it came to Scottish politics, he was staying out of it.

"The Chinese are always asking us about it with genuine interest," he said. "They want to know what's going to happen."

"But it can be sensitive here and raises other questions about issues we probably don't want to talk about."

All politics in China is sensitive, even the politics of a nation thousands of miles away.

And while more people are enjoying a wee dram here, there's certainly no clamour for Scottish independence in China.