From Kosovo to Tibet

LONDON -- Why is China behaving as it is in Tibet? What makes Tibet so important to the government in Beijing? At the heart of the matter is the fact that nothing worries China’s rulers more than when the country’s unity is called into question. And nothing makes them more anxious than their fear that a regional dispute might, if not brought to an end quickly, steamroll into national disintegration.  

Kosovo’s recent unilateral declaration of independence sharpened the Chinese government’s anxieties over the protests in Tibet. Although supporters of Kosovo’s independence argue that it sets no international precedent, China’s rulers fear otherwise. Moreover, Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election has further ratcheted up the tension for China’s government.

Opinion polls in Taiwan suggest that former Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) will defeat Frank Hsieh of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). But some in China fear that the incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, is seeking a pretext to prevent a defeat for the pro-sovereignty camp. He is currently advocating a referendum on whether Taiwan should join the United Nations, which China views as provocative and a threat to China’s unity.

It may sound strange to the outside world that China, which has known nothing but economic success for three decades, should feel its unity to be so fragile.  But China’s history, both ancient and modern, suggests that there is nothing permanent or stable about the country’s current unity.