In the aftermath of Crimea's controversial referendum and overwhelming vote to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia, Chinese diplomats found themselves facing a dilemma: throw their support behind Russia or adhere to China's long-standing policy of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs.
In an attempt to balance this policy with Beijing's budding relationship with Russia, diplomats were non-committal, choosing not to endorse Russia's actions in Crimea or support a U.N. resolution condemning the referendum.
Yet while diplomats took the middle road, in Chinese cyberspace netizens fiercely debated what kind of precedent the referendum set for China's own territorial issues: Was Crimea's referendum like a long-dreamed-of vote in Taiwan to rejoin the mainland? Or like a dreaded vote by Tibet to leave the People's Republic of China?
"A correct comparison would be Chinese troops are stationed in Taiwan and Taiwan votes to reunite with the mainland," wrote one person on China's Twitter-esque micro-blogging site Sina Weibo.
Others took the opposite tack, rebutting pro-referendum sentiment with a dire warning.
"When the day arrives that Americans, Japanese and Europeans encourage [the Chinese provinces of] Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet to have referendums, will our public intellectuals still be so excited?" another blogger wrote. "Yesterday's tragedy can be the lesson of today and the warning for tomorrow. All Chinese need to be highly vigilant."
Issues of territorial sovereignty touch the most sensitive of nerves in China. The reunification of mainland China with Taiwan remains a non-negotiable top priority for the Chinese Communist Party. Taiwan has acted as a de facto state since Chiang Kai-shek's defeated nationalist army fled there in 1949, but any suggestion that Taiwan might declare formal independence from the mainland sets off a firestorm in Beijing. Domestic unrest in the ethnically diverse provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang raises the same red flags for leaders, who warn against shadowy separatist elements seeking to break up the country.
Hyper-sensitivity over territorial matters traces its roots to what is known in China as the "Century of Humiliation," the period from the first Opium War in 1839 to the Communist takeover in 1949. During that time, a weak and divided China sank to pseudo-colonial status while Western powers, Japan and Russia carved up spheres of control on coastal China. Since then, Chinese leaders have invoked national sovereignty and territorial integrity to summon nationalist sentiment.
Regardless of which side of the debate bloggers were on, they largely agreed about one dimension of the standoff: military might trumps ethical or legal considerations.
One Sina Weibo micro-blogger from Jiangxi province put it bluntly in a post.
"Morality and justice are bu****it. Power is truth; that's just the way international affairs work."
The staunchly nationalist editor-in-chief of one state-controlled newspaper, The Global Times, rejected the Taiwan and Tibet comparisons. In a post to his 4.4 million followers, Hu Xijin instead advocated for China increasing its raw strength.
"Don't go comparing Crimea to Hong Kong, Taiwan or Tibet, alright?" he wrote on his Sina Weibo account. "China is never in the wrong. From now on the most important thing is to be strong. These days things around the world are going the way of strength."
Coursing through much of the online dialogue was a sneering suggestion that the U.S. can't control events in this symbolic sliver of land in Eastern Europe. Many bloggers alluded to a famous quote from Chairman Mao Zedong comparing Western powers to "paper tigers." One blogger from the northern Chinese province of Hebei hailed the shifting balance in Asian geopolitics.
"In the past China curried to America, was jealous of America, feared America. After the smoke has cleared on the Ukraine affair, old America's essence has been revealed for all the world to see: a paper tiger.
"Whether you look at finances or military, the U.S. simply can't achieve the rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific region. It's yet another fine opportunity for strategic development for China."