The Debate

The Cure for Separatism: Democracy

After Scotland’s referendum, Yang Hengjun reflects on the meaning of patriotism and democracy.

The Cure for Separatism: Democracy
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Thomas Nugent

“If you don’t like me – I won’t be here forever. If you don’t like this government – it won’t last forever. But if you leave the U..K – that will be forever.” In these words, from a speech on the Scottish referendum, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron played the patriotism card in an attempt to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. This emotional speech was widely circulated by media outlets, making many people feel that the world has truly changed.

The world wasn’t like this before. The British Empire, where the “sun never set,” used to rule over more than 450 million people in colonies around the world. Many of these colonies fought bloody wars or experienced other trials to free themselves from Britain. For example, the United States, which shared a common heritage with Britain, fought a fierce war to gain independence. Back in the 1700s, if British people had spoken like Cameron, saying “If you don’t like me, I can go,” then tens of thousands of lives would have been saved.

Of course, not every corner of the world has seen this change. At the beginning of this year, the referendum in Crimea lacked any tender manifesto of patriotism. Instead, Crimea had violence and hostility.

Whether it’s Crimea voting to join Russia or Scotland voting to stick with the U.K., the effect on global trends hasn’t been as bad as the exaggerated predictions of some political analysts. The number of countries in the world has grown from over 30 to about 200 today. In reality, there’s nothing more normal than periods of division and unity. What truly has the most influence on the global situation, and the most impact on every single person, are the political concepts and values that guide and implement these independence and separatist movements.

From the Scotland referendum, especially from Cameron’s well-crafted appeal to patriotic mobilization, we can see an increasingly popular attitude, one that is perhaps more meaningful for the world than the question of whether or not Scotland became independent. The next attitude is this: Loving your country is not the same as loving your government, loving the ruling party, or (especially) loving leaders like Cameron.

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So what is patriotism then? To Cameron, it means loving the land and protecting the wholeness of the land. To those Scottish people who wanted independence, patriotism is loving the particular place where you live and loving your ethnic group. Today, Scotland owns some of the most profitable oil fields and fishing grounds. But under the government of the United Kingdom, the people of Scotland were not only not reaping maximum benefits, they even had to pay taxes on their own oil. An independent Scotland certainly wouldn’t have had an easy time of it, but it could have allowed the Scottish people to enjoy more of the benefits from their oil and natural gas fields.

For Scottish people, patriotism doesn’t mean loving the ruling party, the government, or the leader. What’s more, patriotism doesn’t mean valuing territorial unity. Instead, patriotism means loving the soil beneath your feet and those who live upon it, yourself most of all. Although the earlier Crimea referendum was more complicated, the Crimean people voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia for similar reasons. Their decision cannot be separated from the fact that Crimeans believed they personally would be much better off with Russia.

The world’s major countries, including America, China, and some large states in Europe and Asia, all have their own versions of the “Scotland problem.” Ethnic minorities or remote and underdeveloped regions have rich natural resources but they export these resources, playing a supporting role to the unified state according to the tradition of patriotism. If there is some resentment over this, the government can suppress it through charges of opposing the government or advancing separatism.

Cameron’s statement that “If you don’t like me, I won’t be here forever” might have convinced some Scottish people to vote against independence. If we can change our government — if we can force a leader we don’t like to step down — then why we would want to secede? Why would we want to be independent and set up a new government?

This change in political thought has been around for a long time but for many countries and regions it remains a distant dream. In some places, the government has seized power and usurped the authority to determine life and death for its people. In some places, being an official comes with the right to be corrupt, to demand bribes and entertain dozens of mistresses. In these places, patriotism can’t mean loving the land, because this land absolutely doesn’t belong to you. Patriotism also doesn’t mean loving yourself — if everyone loves him or herself, then who will love the government?

In these countries and regions, if you don’t like the leader in charge then you can leave. If not, the powers-that-be might force you out, demolish your house, and seize your resources, all while forcing you to keep your mouth shut lest you be locked up.

People living in these conditions might not understand the Scottish referendum but I believe that they harbor the dream of one day being able to say: if we don’t like you, you won’t be around forever… if we don’t like your government, we can change it.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at