Why splittists will be on a roll around the world

FROM CATALONIA to Kashmir, and from Hong Kong to Scotland, separatist movements will make headlines in 2020. At best, this will lead to political turbulence and tension. At worst, it could lead to violence.

Across the world, two types of identity-driven movements are increasingly clashing—and feeding off each other. On the one hand, there are separatist groups that seek to break away from their nation-state and establish new countries; on the other, there is the outraged and assertive nationalism of existing states, determined to crush separatism.

This process is clearly observable in Spain—where Spanish and Catalan nationalism are now stoking each other in a noxious symbiotic process. Attempts by Catalan nationalists to hold an independence referendum in 2017 were declared illegal by the Spanish central government. Several Catalan leaders have been put on trial in Madrid and given long prison sentences. These developments have stoked the radicalism of the Catalan nationalist movement. But Spanish nationalism is also resurgent, in response to the threat of the break-up of the country—evidenced by the emergence of a far-right nationalist party, Vox, and the fact that centre-right parties are taking an increasingly hard line on Catalonia.

The coming year will also see a resurgence of Scottish nationalism in response to Brexit, which the Scottish Nationalist Party has labelled an English nationalist project imposed on Scots against their will. A clear majority of Scots voted against Brexit in 2016. As a result, demands for a new referendum on Scottish independence will increase in 2020.

Separatism will become an increasingly severe problem for the world’s two most populous countries, China and India. In both cases, hardline policies from the central government risk backfiring—and causing the very separatism they are intended to repress.

Activists in Hong Kong usually prefer to call themselves “localists”, rather than pro-independence campaigners, partly because any suggestion that Hong Kong is aiming for independence risks provoking a ferocious reaction from Beijing. However, whatever the vocabulary employed, the reality is that months of civil unrest in Hong Kong have transformed the political atmosphere. The Chinese government is in a bind. It knows that violent repression—or even moves to curb Hong Kong’s autonomy—are likely to widen the divide between Beijing and Hong Kong. But if mainland China allows Hong Kong to hold fully democratic elections, as the demonstrators demand, it will not be long before pro-independence parties gain ground.

A similar dilemma will face China over the elections in Taiwan in January. Chinese threats of invasion could strengthen support for pro-independence candidates who reject Beijing’s demand for eventual reunification between Taiwan and the People’s Republic.

Meanwhile, repression in the remote Chinese province of Xinjiang remains acute, with over 1m Uighur Muslims apparently interned in re-education camps. The central government in Beijing may succeed in quashing Uighur separatism in the short term. But over the long run, it will fan resentment of centralised rule from Beijing—and demands for a separate state.

Until recently, India seemed considerably more relaxed about regional autonomy than China. But in 2019 the government of Narendra Modi won re-election on a stridently nationalist ticket. Shortly afterwards, the Modi government abolished the special constitutional status of Jammu & Kashmir, India’s only majority-Muslim state. Arun Jaitley, India’s finance minister, justified the move by arguing: “Separate status led to separatism. No dynamic nation can allow this situation to continue.”

There are scholars who agree that devolution of power from central to regional governments can indeed fuel separatism, rather than calming it down. Both Scotland and Catalonia have seen the powers of their regional governments increased in recent decades—and those moves may have helped foster separate political cultures and demands for independence. But efforts to try a different strategy, and crush regionalist sentiment, are rarely more effective. On the contrary, they can create the deep grievances and bitter memories that sustain nationalist and independence movements for decades.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “The coming surge in separatism”