Two sides sidestep thorny issues during UK secession advocate’s Beijing visit
YANGON — China’s media took little notice of the visit of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong this week. As Sturgeon met with Chinese political and business leaders, all parties were careful to avoid uncomfortable issues, such as Scotland’s relationship with post-Brexit U.K., aware that secession is a particularly touchy subject with Beijing.
There was just a two line mention on Xinhua news sites regarding Sturgeon’s meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua in Beijing on April 9, discussions that Scotland’s leading independence advocate depicted as “very constructive.” The English language version of The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, did not mention the visit.
Otherwise, the most recent Scotland-related story on Xinhua is from two weeks ago, about Irn Bru, a Scottish soft drink, while The People’s Daily’s latest was on the use of Chinese steel in a new Scottish bridge that opened last year.
After her engagements in Beijing, Sturgeon traveled south to Shanghai, where she met the city’s vice-mayor. She will end her trip in Hong Kong, a former British colony, where, echoing how some in Scotland perceive their relationship with the rest of the U.K., some Hong Kongers favor looser ties with Beijing.
Sturgeon’s role as First Minister of Scotland is roughly equivalent to that of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, though Sturgeon is democratically elected and Scotland has the right to seek independence from the U.K. The last secession vote lost, 44.7%-55.3%, in 2014.
Hong Kong, by contrast, has seen independence advocates banned from entering its legislature as Beijing increases control. Secessionist voices have long been ruthlessly suppressed in China’s ethnic and religious minority regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang. China’s President Xi Jinping recently oversaw the amending of rules that seem likely to allow him to become president for life, while tightening restrictions on freedom of speech.
In a reminder of curbs that include blocking social networking sites such as Facebook, Sturgeon notified her 908,000 followers of her departure for China by reminding them that she “won’t be able to tweet from this account while there — but you can follow @ScotGovFM for updates.”
Sturgeon promised to raise human rights issues in China after being briefed by Amnesty International prior to her departure for China. But her concerns, if raised in private, are likely to have been muted, given that she is in China to boost Scotland’s economic links with the world’s second biggest economy.
The Scottish First Minister’s Twitter account announced on April 11 that Scotland’s exports to China increased by over 40% from 2016 to 2017, and Sturgeon said that Scotland’s food and drink exports to China, such as its world-famous Scotch whisky, have increased by 150% in the past decade.
Hoping for increased investment and trade, Sturgeon, who said there are “enormous opportunities” in China for Scottish businesses, is unlikely to tell her Chinese hosts that Tibet or Xinjiang should be granted status in China similar to Scotland’s autonomy within the U.K.
Sturgeon faces another, related dilemma at home. Clara Ponsatti — an advocate for Catalonia’s independence from Spain who works at St. Andrews University in Scotland — is subject to a Spanish government extradition request. Ponsatti faces charges of inciting violence against police after Catalan separatists held an independence referendum in the region last year.
Spain’s government did not permit the vote, and sent police into the region to forcibly stop locals from voting. The extradition request lies with Scotland’s legal system — another marker of Scotland’s autonomy — rather than with that of the U.K.
The U.K. is scheduled to leave the European Union in just under a year, a split that could spark a renewed independence push in Scotland, where 62% voted to stay in the EU in the June 2016 Brexit referendum.
If Scotland wants to stay in the EU it will have to leave the U.K. first. Sturgeon has repeatedly criticized the London government’s negotiating tactics with the EU leadership in Brussels and warned that Scotland would be better off as an EU member state rather than remaining part of the U.K. once it finally leaves the EU.
Scotland’s population of 5.4 million puts it on a par with independent European countries such as Norway and Finland. An independent Scotland would have a GDP of just over $200 billion — roughly the same, for now, as Vietnam, a fast-growing Asian economy.
“One of the big challenges right now as we look ahead is the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union — something Scotland did not vote for in the EU referendum, but which will affect us greatly, not least the impact on our economy,” Sturgeon said in Shanghai earlier this week.
Scotland was an independent kingdom for several centuries prior to amalgamating with England and Wales as part of Great Britain in 1707. That political union later saw Scotland prosper as Britain industrialized and conquered vast areas of Asia and Africa during an unparalleled bout of empire-building. During that time Scotland produced figures of world renown such as philosopher David Hume, economist Adam Smith, James Watt — widely credited with inventing the first viable steam engine — as well as television inventor John Logie Baird and Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin.Show