A popular slogan among Taiwan student activists who stormed parliament last summer to protest a trade agreement with China is “today’s Hong Kong can be tomorrow’s Taiwan”.
Their fear is that Taiwan will become another Hong Kong — a free and open society being downgraded by Beijing.
Taiwan enjoys democracy while Hong Kong is unlikely to get genuine universal suffrage in the foreseeable future.
In that sense, Hong Kong is more like Tibet.
It’s a living example of what Hong Kong might become if Beijing interferes more invasively in its affairs.
For now, Tibet is out of mind for most Hong Kong people.
We are more likely to hear about it from reports about self-immolations by Tibetan monks and nuns protesting Beijing’s “cultural genocide”, rather than from any mention of its rich history and heritage.
But it pays to know more about our far-flung neighbor.
In 1950, a year after the communists took power, Beijing began negotiations with Tibetan representatives over the region’s future.
With the People’s Liberation Army massed near the border ready to “liberate” the region, the Tibetans were forced to acknowledge Beijing’s suzerainty.
Beijing promised Tibet a “high degree of autonomy” and made it into one of five autonomous regions (the others are Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Guangxi and Ningxia).
Except for foreign affairs and defense, which would be Beijing’s responsibility, Tibet was free to pursue its political, religious and cultural affairs free from any interference from the central authorities.
More than 100 Tibetans who burned themselves to death is the most compelling account of what Beijing has done to the region in the past 65 years.
Tibet has been totally transformed, with its own culture, language, traditions and way of life turned upside down by constant social and ideological remolding by Beijing, according to the Hong Kong Economic Journal.
The observation is based on a new book, Voices from Tibet, by prominent ethnic affairs analyst Wang Lixiong and Tibetan-born dissident Tsering Woeser.
Like Hong Kong, Tibet is heaving with millions of Chinese visitors who have exacerbated social tensions. Tibet’s pristine environment and historical relics are under threat from the influx of outsiders.
While Cantonese is thriving in Hong Kong, Tibet’s alphabet system and dialects are dying.
If the difference between Hong Kong and Tibet is stark, the parallels are striking.
Hong Kong faces massive migration from the mainland under a Beijing-backed family reunion scheme — up to 150 mainlanders a day, enough to change the demographic in the not-too-distant future.
In Tibet, the number of ethnic Hans climbed to 245,000 in 2010 from virtually zero in the 1950s, according to census data.
Woeser said Han people dominate the local government. The party chief of Tibet can only be a Han while its supreme religious leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, has been in exile since 1959.
In the job market, native Tibetans are squeezed to the margins.
“The doctrine of Tibetan Buddhism requires its followers to take care of one’s body, thus one can see how desperate and outrageous these monks could be when they burned themselves in an ultimate protest against Beijing’s domination and ‘colonization’,” according to the book’s authors.
Similarly, after last year’s generally peaceful Umbrella Movement, some fear that local demonstrations will become more radical and aggressive.
Beijing uses a carrot-and-stick strategy to deter and appease Tibetans.
Troops were deployed during the 2008 unrest to clamp down on monks and nuns and pro-independence activists. Beijing followed the crackdown with tens of billions of yuan in infrastructure and welfare spending in the region.
Hong Kong people are familiar with such economic sweeteners as well as Beijing’s repeated warnings against any attempt at self-determination.
Perhaps they should take a cue from the Dalai Lama who said any compromise is fruitless when dealing with an authoritarian regime like Beijing.
Tibet is what everyone hopes Hong Kong will not be.
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