Hong Kong’s Lesson from Tibet: 69 Years ago Today

“This is the end of Hong Kong,” declared Hong Kong legislator Dennis Kwok in a press conference last Thursday.

The current state of political affairs in Hong Kong has never been darker. Beijing’s efforts to bypass Hong Kong’s independent legislature in passing a national security law would effectively end the principle of 1 country 2 systems that has enabled Hong Kong’s unique status and abilities. The proposal will make its way through China’s National People’s Congress—a rubber-stamp legislative body that meets to discuss policy serving the Communist party.

Tortured for three decades in Chinese prison camps, Palden Gyatso was a Tibetan Buddhist monk who became one of the most vocal opponents of the Chinese occupation of Tibet upon his release and escape.

While today marks just another in a series of tense days since news broke of the proposal in Beijing, May 23rd also marks the date the Seventeen Point Agreement was signed between China and Tibet in 1951. The agreement, signed little over a year after the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War, asserted (among other things) Chinese control of Tibet. Since the crumbling of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, Tibet had been operating as its own independent country—governed by the Kashag, a centuries-old council governed by four Kalöns.

After falling to occupation by PRC forces in October of the previous year, Beijing requested that Tibet send delegates to meet to draft an agreement to span the fine details of Tibet’s reincorporation into China. Signed on May 23rd, its anniversary is today—and far from being seen as an emblem of friendship, the agreement has come to serve as a historical footnote indicating the beginning of the PRC’s decades-long crusade to eradicate Tibetan culture, minimize Tibetan autonomy, and constrict the public discourse under the guise of national security.

Point 4 of the Seventeen Point Agreement states that the PRC government shall not interfere in the existing political system of Tibet—analogous to the set-up of 1 Country 2 Systems in the Sino-British Joint Declaration that paved the way for the British handover of Hong Kong to China. Religious freedom is assured in point 7 of the agreement, stating that the religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people shall be respected, as well as monasteries protected.

Suffice it to say, Tibetan autonomy and religious freedom in their previous form became things of the past. Forced cultural assimilation, sterilization, murder, rape, disappearances, public torture, and extrajudicial execution were among the atrocities recorded in ICJ and UN special reports. In 1966, the Red Guards sacked and desecrated the Jokhang—the most sacred temple in Tibet, just fifteen years after having signed the Seventeen Point Agreement ensuring religious freedom.

Just as Tibetan Buddhist temples came under scrutiny and attack under PRC occupation, if nothing is done—so too will Hong Kong’s press, civil society, and public forums—Hong Kong’s temples of democracy.

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