China's Central Propaganda Department issued a directive on Monday ordering mainland media not to link the Crimea referendum to the country's own separatist hot spots. China Digital Times obtained the leaked text and published it in full:
Central Propaganda Department: All media must refrain from hyping or exaggerating the referendum in Crimea. In your coverage, you may not connect the story to our own country's issues with Taiwan, Tibet, or Xinjiang, and you must not comment without authorization on the Foreign Ministry's position on and handling of the Crimean issue.
Comparisons between the situation in Crimea and Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang are also being censored on Weibo, China's Twitter-like blogging service. Elsewhere, Russia's actions in Crimea are reminding netizens of land China lost to the Soviets in the territorial turmoil of the early 20th century.
KDNet published a history of Tannu Uriankhai, a Qing Dynasty frontier administrative region now part of the Russian Federation as the Tuva Republic. The author wryly notes that Red Army entered Tannu Urankhai in 1921 under the guise of pursuing White Russian Forces and held a 'pseudo-referendum' not long after. In August 1921 Tannu Uriankhai declared its independence; in 1944 it 'voluntarily' asked to join the Soviet Union, a request Moscow graciously accepted. While KDNet's account is not entirely accurate (the Qing lost control of the region almost immediately after the fall of the dynasty in 1912), Red Army meddling in the region undoubtedly set Tannu Uriankhai on a Soviet trajectory.
The KDNet author goes on to recall the Chinese 'loss' of Mongolia in a similar 'conscientious referendum' held at the behest of the Soviets.
There are other instances of Russian territorial sleights of hand in the region for netizens to draw on.
While the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance signed in February 1950 temporarily put an end to land disputes between China and the USSR, the loss of Stalin's territorial gains in Manchuria during treaty negotiations, and the Soviet leader's desire for warm-water ports, may have been an important factor in precipitating the Korean War.
The Sino-Soviet ideological split peaked with a massive build-up of Soviet troops along China's north-western Xinjiang border in 1968, and clashes along the Sino-Russian border in Manchuria in 1969 over the sovereignty of Zhenbao Island. Earlier, in 1962, tens of thousands of Chinese citizens fled across the Xinjiang border to the USSR to escape the Great Leap Forward. James Millward in Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang says that Soviet propaganda 'no doubt helped to agitate people' about Great Leap policies, and that many crossed the border 'with papers issued by Soviet officials.'
Today, China and Russia are nominal allies, and settled their last territorial squabble in 2008. Interestingly, this time it was Russia ceding territory to China, with the former returning Tarabarov Island and half of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island to the latter. While sticking points remain in the relationship (with Crimea now among them) it's hard to imagine Russia backing an independence movement on Chinese territory any time soon.
But how likely is a home-grown Crimea-style breakaway in the country? China's 2005 Anti-Secession Law stipulates military force would be used should Taiwan ever declare independence. Such a declaration would also throw Washington's One China Policy under the bus, and the guarantee of US military intervention in a potential conflict along with it.
On Tibet, the Dalai Lama has long ceased calling for independence, and seeks instead 'genuine autonomy' and 'stability and co-existence between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples'. In Xinjiang, a jihadist organisation called the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) seeks to create an independent Islamic state. But the TIP operates out of Pakistan and has been responsible for only one or two crude terrorist attacks in China. Xinjiang's place within China has been fortified by massive Han Chinese in-migration (a move straight out of the Russian playbook) and by China's membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Central Asian economic and security bloc. Other SCO member states, eager to boost economic ties with China, have extradited refugees from Xinjiang whom China terms terrorists and separatists.
In short, despite the Central Propaganda Department's hypersensitivity, Russia's actions in Crimea won't bolster separatism in China. But it has highlighted the country's historic mistrust of a supposed friend.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.