Beijing had wished the troubles in Crimea would not escalate and that a peaceful solution could be found, but when the results of a referendum there on Sunday were announced, Beijing found itself in a conundrum. With 97 percent of voters choosing to support the statement “Are you in favor of the reunification of Crimea with Russia as part of the Russian Federation?” the hypocrisy of Beijing's policy of non-interference in other countries started to unravel. Beijing struggled with a response.
Beijing has long said it does not support interference in the internal affairs of other countries, so when the referendum was quickly denounced in a Western-backed U.N. resolution at an emergency vote, China chose to hide its true feelings and abstain from voting. The draft resolution received 13 votes from the 15-member council, but was rejected after permanent member Russia expectedly exercised its veto. The Chinese ambassador to the U.N., Liu Jieyi, stated the resolution to condemn the Crimea referendum would "only result in confrontation and further complicate the situation." When the Security Council ruled on a similar international crisis between Russia and Georgia in 2008, Beijing also abstained.
The reactions to Beijing's abstention by the Chinese active on Weibo and WeChat, two of China's microblogging platforms, have been spirited. Chinese “netizens” have asked the pointed question of how Beijing would have voted had it not hidden behind its policy of non-interference and vote abstention. Would Beijing apply the same policy of non-intervention if the populations of Taiwan, Tibet or Xinjiang chose to hold a referendum on independence? Beijing would, of course, quickly ask the U.N. Security Council to condemn any referendum on what it deems its own territory. Beijing would likely copy the Russian approach, deploying Chinese troops in the name of protecting Han Chinese, blocking all types of democratic processes and denouncing any proposed referendum.
Yet China has agreed to referendums of its historical territory in the past when it suits their interests. At the end of the 17th century, all of Mongolia had been ruled by the Manchurians during the Qing Dynasty. Following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the Mongols established the Temporary Government of Khalkha in November 1911. That December, Mongolia declared independence from the Qing Dynasty, ending 220 years of Manchurian rule. Eventually the country came under Soviet influence, becoming a Soviet satellite state proclaimed as the Mongolian People's Republic in 1924. When the Soviet Union threatened to further seize parts of Inner Mongolia from China in 1945, China chose to back a referendum on Outer Mongolia's independence. The referendum took place in October 1945, with 100 percent of the electorate voting for independence.
If Confucius were to advise the Chinese government today, perhaps he would say "do not allow other nations to support breakaway territories if you do not want your own territories to breakaway," or some other paraphrase of the Golden Rule. Perhaps if China would have condemned the Crimea resolution, it would have sent a clearer signal to independence advocates in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, who may now believe if it can happen in Crimea, it can happen there. By backing referendums in the past, not condemning them on the territory of other countries, and not wishing for them in the future on their own territory, Beijing has sent a message to the international community that its non-intervention policy is malleable and only meant to serve its own interests.