In both 1959 Tibet and 2019 Hong Kong, popular dissent became a flashpoint for the end of meaningful autonomy – just as Beijing had planned.
The current socio-political re-engineering in Hong Kong — called the “Second Handover” by some — is following a script reminiscent of the happenings in Tibet in 1959. Per Beijing’s official accounts, both the “1959 Tibet Rebellion” and the “2019 Hong Kong riots” were flashpoints triggering the end of these region’s distinct ways of life under their respective autonomous frameworks. However, if we compare the histories of the two territories under Chinese rule, a pattern emerges illustrating Beijing’s consistent strategy of handling frontier regions since the 1950s.
The “One Country, Two Systems” Era
Following capture of the Tibetan border town Chamdo by the People’s Liberation Army in 1951, China and Tibet signed the Seventeen Point Agreement. It affirmed Chinese sovereignty over Tibet but granted the region autonomy. For a while, the Kashag (the Tibetan local government) remained in place and protected Tibetan’s religious and socioeconomic systems. This autonomy – an early version of “one country, two systems” – was instituted out of necessity, as it would take time to dissolve the existing network of local interest groups. The same consideration underlay the Hong Kong handover – “one country, two systems” as promised by the Joint Sino-British Declaration was a means to buy time to get rid of the complex, interdependent interest groups in British Hong Kong, which would hinder a complete “reunification with the motherland.”
Another “anomaly” in these two frontier regions that Beijing desperately wanted to resolve was their susceptibility to foreign influence. Tibet was part of the British and Indian spheres of influence and Hong Kong is seen as a pawn for the U.S.-led West to orchestrate a color revolution. Both places were thus characterized as problematic regions that the West can manipulate to subvert China.
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Beijing hoped these differences would go away with socialist reforms. In Tibet, land redistribution was supposed to promote communist ideology, assimilate the region to meet China’s geopolitical needs, and dismantle the local establishment to allow outside interest groups to enter and share local resources. However, the Kashag government refused to implement such reforms. Fifty years later in Hong Kong, Beijing attempted to manipulate the power balance by promoting “integration” between the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of the government, but was met with strong resistance from local civil servants and elites.
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Ending the “One Country, Two Systems”
To scrap its previous agreements, Beijing needed a justification, as Chinese diplomacy emphasizes “not firing the first shot.” In 1959, Tibet provided just that.
What started initially as crowds gathered on rumors of the imminent arrest of the Dalai Lama quickly escalated into a full-scale rebellion, with some Tibetans occupying government buildings and demanding the withdrawal of the Chinese Communist Party from Tibet. The Kashag government sympathized with the protesters and hoped the uprising would attract international attention and pressure Beijing to end the land reform. However, Beijing showed no sign of backing down and instead initiated a full-blown suppression, escalating the tension on both sides. The essence of China’s strategy is captured in Mao’s famous instruction “The more chaos in Tibet, the better,” showing his belief that the uprising provided strong justification for a communist transformation of Tibet.
Similarly, although the 2019 anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong initially caught Beijing off guard, China’s government quickly took an aggressive stance, escalating the crackdown and hiring public relations companies to brand the protests as riots manipulated by foreign agents. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam also swiftly changed her rhetoric from being apologetic to hardline. As many protestors called for riskier brinkmanship strategies (for example, the end of Hong Kong’s special trade status with the United States), the escalation was seen by Beijing as an opportunity to destroy all existing institutions.
At the end of the Tibet uprising, Beijing terminated the Seventeen Point Agreement, dissolved the Kashag government, implemented land reform, and established Tibet Autonomous Region, which runs on a similar system as the rest of China – effectively ending Tibet’s eight-year autonomy. Likewise, in 2020 Beijing imposed a national security law in Hong Kong, which overrides all existing institutions and has changed the city beyond recognition.
The Post-One Country, Two Systems Era
After the 1959 uprising, the Dalai Lama fled into exile in Dharamsala, India, along with 80,000 Tibetans, which represented a significant portion of the population. Those who remained in Tibet were ruled with an iron fist, and the slightest sign of resistance could result in crimes of treason. This spelled the end of Beijing’s early “united front” policies – a tactic to coax or cajole the local elites into supporting the central government in return for business incentives. Beijing’s focus was no longer on the Tibetans, but the rest of the country. The CCP controlled the narrative surrounding the 1959 Rebellion, which it used as internal propaganda to promote nationalism and its ruling authority across the nation.
Similarly, the “united front” era in Hong Kong, where the traditional middle class and British-trained elites thrived, is over. Political pressure is mounting in all facets of society as the government attempts to seize control of all professional sectors. Like post-1959 Tibet, Hong Kong is witnessing a new wave of emigration, with pro-democracy leaders fleeing to avoid persecution. Ironically, although Beijing has repeatedly warned foreign countries not to accept Hong Kong’s exiled activists or promote the formation of a government in exile, one may speculate on its true intentions: only if this occurs will Beijing be able to fulfill the prophecy of Hong Kong as a subversive area manipulated by the West. Hong Kong has simply become part of the propaganda targeting Chinese mainlanders to increase nationalism.
The ending of regional autonomy in both Tibet and Hong Kong and the following crackdown did lead to some international responses. In Tibet’s case, the United Nations passed three resolutions calling for China to end its persecution of Tibetans. However, the international community lacked any real leverage to influence China’s actions. Likewise, in 2019-2020, even as Western countries expressed solidarity with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, with some offering immigration programs to Hong Kongers, none of that changed Beijing’s actions. Beijing believes that the substantial foreign business interests in Hong Kong will override political issues concerning democracy.
What’s Next in the Script?
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After the “re-integration” of Tibet, Beijing supported a local aristocrat as the figurehead chairman of the autonomous region, but retained the real power in its hands. It was only after Tibetan culture was nearly destroyed by the Cultural Revolution that a small group of Tibetans (including the Beijing-appointed Panchen Lama) was finally given a minority stake in the government. This is comparable to the “Second Handover” of Hong Kong. Carrie Lam started out as a moderate, but had since completely succumbed to Chinese pressure. The city had lost its political bargaining power. Only when new Chinese-backed interest groups take over Hong Kong will local holders of vested interests be given a minority stake – a fraction of what it used to be.
One final similarity: One of the motives behind Beijing’s aggressive policies toward Tibet, according to scholar and Tibet expert Li Jianglin, was its usefulness for holding military drills. In 1957-1959, military exercises had begun in Tibetan areas. From 1959-1962, the operation expanded to using Soviet-made weapons in mountainous areas and social re-engineering of a border zone, culminating in a border war with India. In the present day, Beijing may consider Hong Kong as another strategic training ground – to serve as a warning to Taiwan.
What’s Next for Hong Kongers?
For the Tibetan people, their hopes lie in passing down Tibetan culture by spreading it globally. For decades, the unique culture of Tibet has captivated Western audiences, but hopes for regaining their homeland remain bleak. As for Hong Kong, despite the mass emigration, millions of people will remain in the city to witness the post-national security law era. What is their vision for the city’s future? Is it to promote Hong Kong’s culture around the world? To fight and defend Hong Kong’s core values locally? Or to actively integrate into China’s grand plans?
Dr. Simon Shen is the founding chairman of GLOs (Glocal Learning Offices), an international relations start-up company. He also serves as an adjunct associate professor and associate director of the Master of Global Political Economy Programme of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a visiting scholar of National Sun Yat-sen University of Taiwan. The author acknowledges Michelle King, Lei Wu, and Chris Wong for their assistance in this piece.