Hong Kong and Tibet

As China completes its takeover of Hong Kong, it should be remembered the Chinese once before took over a territory that they promised — in writing — would retain its own laws, customs and economy. Some forty years ago, Tibetans were given almost the same standing the Chinese have guaranteed Hong Kong.

In its first years, Tibet’s semi-independent status functioned smoothly. Throughout the 1950s, the Chinese occasionally pressured the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, to take actions that made him a little uncomfortable (just as they have already directed Hong Kong’s new governor –Tung Chee-hwa — to eliminate guarantees on freedom of assembly and speech). But social and religious institutions in Central Tibet remained largely untouched during the first few years of communist rule in Tibet. The Dalai Lama himself has written that after the “early spring, 1952, there followed a period of uneasy truce with the Chinese authorities.”

Gradually, though, Tibetans living in China (much of it in territory that had earlier been taken from Tibet) who wished to engage in dissident or illicit activities simply did what they wanted to do and then walked across the border and sought succor in neighboring Tibet from sympathetic compatriots. Soon smugglers discovered they could make fortunes by buying

Rolex watches and other contraband items in Tibet to sell at astronomical mark-ups in China. Increasingly, Tibet’s independence threatened China’s ability to enforce its own stringent rules and regulations. Frustrated by their inability to control this situation, in 1959 the Chinese cracked down and replaced the Tibetan government with a repressive and destructive reign of terror. 

What obliterated the independent government of Chinese-occupied Tibet was not the bad intentions of China’s rulers, but their misunderstanding of the desires of Tibet’s people. The free-wheeling Tibetans operated very differently from the Chinese and, at least in the 1950s, the operation of two systems in one country proved incompatible.

In recent years, Hong Kong has been a sea of relative freedom in an otherwise repressive Chinese ocean. With the window to Hong Kong now open from China, as it opened to Tibet almost forty years ago, the attraction of this autonomy may prove overwhelming. One of the main reasons that Chinese money is already pouring into Hong Kong is that Chinese companies wish to be positioned to get around mainland import and exchange restrictions or simply want to have a way of laundering money and stashing it in foreign bank accounts. Even before the takeover, China’s rich and powerful were staking out opportunities by buying stock in Hong Kong apartments, houses, and companies.

Of course, Hong Kong does not threaten only China’s economic regulations. Democratic stalwarts in Hong Kong can now use even more avenues than in the past to support dissident democratic movements in China. If Tibet was China’s Achilles’ heel, Hong Kong could be its bum leg.

How are the Chinese going to react? We know that in the case of Tibet the Chinese were not willing to tolerate a quasi-independent Tibet because in order to do so they would have had to permit a much freer economic and political system than they could tolerate. It’s true that they abrogated their agreement with Tibet almost 30 years ago and that China is a very different kind of country today. But as Chinese companies buy their way into Hong Kong, worried Chinese officials are already starting to crack down on laws that they regard as inimical to China. With Hong Kong dissidents continuing to insist on their right to support democratic activists in China and rapacious Hong Kong firms drooling over the possibilities of getting in on some of the action, the Chinese already are worrying about the promises they have made.

China’s leaders have never been ones to allow power to slip through their hands. It is hard to see how they are going to tolerate this situation any longer than they put up with the far less threatening one in Tibet.

Lee Feigon is a professor of history at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.  He is the author of "Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets of the Land of the Snow" (1996) and a writer for the History News Service.

July, 1997