It all depends on your own viewpoints.
Separatism is defined as a movement or a state of separation (secession, segregation) from a larger unit. Separatist principles or practices are the disposition to separate or withdraw from some combination or union. But what if the “union” was something artificially, something forced upon by foreign powers ?
Nationalism is usually defined as devotion, sometimes excessive or undiscriminating, to the interests or culture of a particular nation-state. It is the belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals. Nothing wrong with a healthy doses nationalism.
Independence is the state of being independent; exemption from dependence upon another or others, or from another’s control; self-support or self-government.
Wherever I go, I wear my double flag pin: the Chinese flag and the Flemish lion flag. Apparently that is controversial. All the time, from both my Chinese as well my American friends, I get the question how it is possible, as a Flemish Nationalist to defend China and the Chinese political system. Most people feel these two are discordant.
That might look conflicting at first sight, but taking a closer look, they’re the same side of the coin.
Language and Culture
Language is the essence of people[i]. And Culture eats Strategy as breakfast. Respect for language and culture should be essential in all international relations. China survived five millennia of wars, invasions, famine and all other kinds of disasters because it is a Culture Nation. In the same logic, Flanders survived in spite of invasions, occupation by the Romans, French, Austrians and Spanish. Flanders was forced to cede one third of its territory to France; Flanders was cut off from its culture and language counterparts in the Netherlands; Flanders was culturally and legally abused by Belgium; Flanders is occupied by the USA. But the Flemish identity lives on, despite Belgium, despite the occupation. Belgium is an artificial construct, created from the buffer zone, created by the Great Powers after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.
Flanders’ century of humiliation
Right after the separation of Flanders from the Netherlands and the foundation of Belgium in 1830, the frencification of Flanders began. “La Belgique sera latine ou ne sera pas” [ii] (Belgium will be Latin or it will not be) was the attitude of the founders of Belgium. The french language became an instrument of oppression. We can safely call this cultural genocide. La Belgique has always tried to keep French as the only and common language for the Belgian elite. The separation of Belgium from its cultural peers in the Netherlands in 1830 was a colour revolution avant la lettre, organised by France.
Still today, Flanders’ culture, language, sovereignty and territorial integrity is under threat. It is no wonder that a large majority of Flemish people pursue for independence. And are looking forward to a reunification with their culture peers in the Netherlands.
The Flemish Front Movement
is a movement of Flemish intellectuals that arose during the First World War on the IJser front. She was expressly Flemish in character and mainly opposed the French language policy of the Belgian army. It was one of the three expressions of Flemish Nationalism during the First World War, alongside activism and passivism. The first two would contribute to the establishment of the Front Party after the war. Thanks to the Flemish Front Movement, the poppy became the international symbol for the Flemish soldiers who fell on the IJser. It is certain that the First World War was a crucial period in the development of Flemish nationalism. In addition to activism in the occupied country, the Front Movement developed in the trenches and camps behind the IJser Front. Its influence continues to this day. The Flemish People’s Movement (Vlaamse Volksbeweging VVB for short)[iii] is the today’s continuation of the former WWII Flemish Front Movement. It is a party-independent association founded in 1956. The VVB is the civil society organization of the Flemish movement and strives for Flemish independence.
The movement of Flemish popular consciousness, which arose during and immediately after the Second World War, has many similarities with the Chinese May Fourth Movement.
In China, the word “separatism” has a negative meaning. Article 4 of the Chinese Constitution states: “All ethnic groups of the People’s Republic of China are equal. […] All areas inhabited by ethnic minorities shall practice regional autonomy, establish autonomous organs, and exercise the power to self-govern. All ethnic autonomous areas are inseparable parts of the People’s Republic of China.”[iv] Therefore, at home, in internal Chinese affairs, in the relations with the Special Administrative Regions (SAR) Hong-Kong and Macau, and in China’s relations with Taiwan, the Chinese government is with valid legitimate reasons, against separatism.
Taiwan is part of the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China. It is the inviolable duty of all Chinese people, including our compatriots in Taiwan, to accomplish the great task of reunifying the motherland.[v] China is taking care for its culture peers.
So far, so good.
But then, China, in the United Nations and its international diplomatic relations with other nations, often without knowing the local situation, China is almost automatically applying the same kind of anti-separatism attitude in regional conflicts. In the matter of the independence of Flanders, Scotland, Catalonia or other regions, China takes a very reluctant position. That’s somewhat understandable, it seems logical, but it is not consistent with China’s respect for minorities.
In the dispute between the Governments of Argentina and the UK about the sovereignty of the Islas Malvinas (the Falkland Islands), currently occupied by Great Britain, China is supporting Argentina for the return of the islands to Argentina. Excellent, but in purely international legal terms, this is separatism from the United Kingdom. It obviously isn’t separatism, in terms of sovereignty, in civil people’s law term, the Islas Malvinas belong to Argentina.
China’s attitude in regard to the independence of Flanders, Scotland, Catalonia is inconsistent with its attitude about the Islas Malvinas.
If China would show the same kind of respect for other people’s language and culture as they’re carrying out in the People’s Republic of China for the Tibetans, Inner Mongolians, the Guangxi Zhuang and other Autonomous Regions, then they should recognize that Flanders and other regions are striving for more autonomy with the same credible legal rights as the AR’s in China.
Particularly Flanders is striving for independence from Belgium with the ultimate goal of reunification with the Netherlands, from which it was separated in 1830. The rights of the Flemings can’t be brushed aside by condemning the legal aspirations of the Flemish people for independence as “separatism“.
China’s Wǔsì yùndòng (May Fourth Movement) on 4 May 1919 was a consequence of the unfair treatment of China at the Treaty of Versailles, right from the start on 18 January 1919. The only victor of the Treaty of Versailles in China was communism.[vi] Mao Zedong wrote: The cultural reform movement which grew out of the May Fourth Movement was only one of the manifestations of this revolution. With the growth and development of new social forces in that period, a powerful camp made its appearance in the democratic revolution, a camp consisting of the working class and the student masses. Around the time of the May Fourth Movement, hundreds of thousands of students courageously took their place in the van. In these respects the May Fourth Movement went a step beyond the Revolution of 1911. [vii]
In the same way as the Chinese May 4th Movement, originated from dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Versailles, the Flemish People’s Movement arose from the despicable treatment of the Flemish soldiers during the First World War.
[i] De Tael is gansch het Volk. (Language is the essence of the people.) Prudens Van Duyse, 1836
[iv] The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China https://english.www.gov.cn/archive/laws_regulations/2014/08/23/content_281474982987458.htm
[v] The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. http://www.npc.gov.cn/zgrdw/englishnpc/Constitution/2007-11/15/content_1372962.htm
[vi] Paul French, author of Betrayal in Paris and Midnight in Peking, explains how China’s betrayal by Western powers at Versailles still influences the country’s thinking today. https://chinaeconomicreview.com/versailles/
[vii] Selected Works of Mao Zedong, the May 4th Movement. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-2/mswv2_13.htm