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Hong Kong's Autonomy & Tibet's Future

posted Jun 18, 2016, 8:23 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Jun 18, 2016, 8:29 PM ]
By the Editorial Board of Tibetan Political Review

  Recently, the United States and European Union issued separate reports expressing concern about Hong Kong’s autonomy.  The EU Report was published on April 25, 2016[i] and the U.S. report[ii] was released on May 11, 2016.  In this editorial, we explore both reports and what implications recent events in Hong Kong may have for the prospect of Tibetan autonomy within the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

EU 2015 Report

The EU’s April 25 report is part of a series of annual reports concerning the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).  In the 1997 handover, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) agreed to provide the former British colony a “high degree of autonomy” (except for foreign affairs and defense) under the so-called “one country, two systems” policy.  The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, guaranteed universal suffrage, judicial independence, enforcement of local laws, election of the local executive and legislative branches, non-interference by the CCP in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, non-interference by the PLA in local affairs (except for national defense), and the capitalist system would be preserved in Hong Kong for 50 years.[iii]  Hong Kong’s autonomy was implemented pursuant to Article 31 of the PRC Constitution which states that “[t]he State may establish special administrative regions when necessary.”[iv]

The EU Report describes how attempts by Beijing to limit universal suffrage and democracy in Hong Kong (by retaining the right to vet candidates for HKSAR Chief Executive) resulted in massive protests in 2015.  Pro-democracy groups dismissed Beijing’s “reforms” as “fake democracy” and the legislature remains deeply divided between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy legislators.  The EU Report describes Hong Kong society as seriously concerned about the erosion of autonomy. 

The most scathing criticism concerns the case of the five Hong Kong booksellers.  The “one country, two systems” policy was called into serious doubt by the disappearance and suspected abduction of five Hong Kong booksellers (two of whom were EU citizens). Despite repeated demands by the EU, the CCP has failed to provide credible explanations for their disappearances, according to the EU report.  The EU referred to the disappearance and abduction of these five booksellers as “serious violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms and raises grave concerns about the ‘rule of law’ under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle….” (emphasis added)

While media freedom generally remained high in Hong Kong, the EU Report expressed concerns about a growing trend of self-censorship by Hong Kong journalists, especially in affairs dealing with mainland China.  In December 2015, the South China Morning Post was bought by Alibaba Group in mainland China and the EU expressed concern about SCMP’s editorial independence and unbiased reports concerning China.

The EU Report also describes a major academic controversy in 2015 when Hong Kong University’s Governing Council rejected a nominee for Vice-Chancellor because of the nominee’s ties to pro-democracy political groups.  This practice threatens independent university governance and academic freedom in Hong Kong, according to the EU Report. 

The negative aspects of the EU’s report concerning Hong Kong’s autonomy received press coverage.[v]  While some aspects of Hong Kong’s autonomy appeared to function well, the EU noted that “a negative trend can be observed in press freedom and academic freedom.”

The U.S. Report

Pursuant to the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, the U.S. State Department delivers an annual report to Congress about Hong Kong.  Even prior to the 1997 handover, the U.S. had long-standing bilateral relations with Hong Kong because Hong Kong’s economy is significant to the Asian region.  The U.S. has expressed strong interest in preserving Hong Kong’s autonomy, protection of civil liberties, and respect for rule of law.

Although the U.S. recognizes that Hong Kong enjoys a sufficiently high degree of autonomy, the report states that “[e]vents over the past year, however, raised concerns that greater Central Government influence and interference are eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy.”  (emphasis added).

The U.S. Report describes how Beijing attempted to limit candidates for HKSAR Chief Executive to only two or three persons that were approved by a nominating committee controlled by pro-Beijing supporters.  Beijing’s proposal did not pass the Hong Kong legislature due to opposition from pro-democracy legislators.  The present process for electing HKSAR’s Chief Executive, is dominated by pro-Beijing members, ultimately denies choice to Hong Kong voters.  The debate over universal suffrage further polarized Hong Kong’s political environment, according to the U.S. Report.

The U.S. Report also describes the disappearance and detention of the five Hong Kong booksellers as “the most serious breach of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy since 1997.”  The U.S. noted that Hong Kong’s rule of law and respect for individual rights have long been pillars of its high degree of autonomy.  Now those pillars are being undermined by the CCP’s efforts to restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy.  In the summer of 2015, Hong Kong prosecutors charged several pro-democracy activists with obstructing police and unlawful assembly.  Allegations arose that political concerns motivated these prosecutions, according to the U.S. Report.

The media also published articles about the U.S. Report and, as usual, China rejected American criticism as interference in internal affairs.[vi]

What Does This Mean for Tibet?

In the 1980s, the Tibetan government-in-exile, officially called the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), abandoned the goal of independence and sought “genuine autonomy” for Tibetan areas within the People’s Republic of China.  In 2008 and 2010, the CTA issued memoranda explaining the its Middle Way Approach (MWA or Umey-Lam).  The current MWA policy seeks a more limited autonomy than Hong Kong and focuses primarily on cultural and religious autonomy for Tibetan areas.  For example, the exile Tibetan Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay, (who was re-elected in March this year) said in 2013 that the exile Tibetan government is not seeking democracy for Tibet and would accept Communist Party’s rule.  The current MWA policy and the Sikyong’s comments were discussed in prior TPR editorials.[vii] 

Nevertheless, Sangay has compared MWA to the high degree of autonomy granted to Hong Kong and Macau.  The Sikyong theorized that Tibet has not been granted genuine autonomy like Hong Kong and Macau because these territories are populated primarily by Han Chinese while Tibetans are ethnically different.[viii]

Recent events in Hong Kong, however, suggest Hong Kong is not as autonomous as many believed.  In 1997, the CCP promised Hong Kong 50 years of the capitalist system, universal suffrage and a high degree of autonomy.  Although a relatively small territory, Hong Kong has a population of 7 million and a GDP of over $412 billion (making it the 44th largest GDP in the world).[ix]  Needless to say, Hong Kong is important economically to China and politically too.  If PRC rule over Hong Kong goes smoothly, it could help the CCP’s efforts to re-unite with Taiwan.

The Tibetan areas under the PRC (which includes the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR] and Tibetan autonomous prefectures/counties in Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, and Gansu provinces) cover a large area of over 2.5 million square kilometers but with a population of only about 6 million.  The TAR’s GDP is only about $15 billion[x] and its economy is heavily subsidized by the CCP.  However, Tibet is rich in copper, gold, silver and other minerals and the waters of the Tibetan Plateau are being dammed to generate electricity and diverted to quench the thirsty regions of eastern China.  Tibet also acts as a buffer region between India and China proper.  Perhaps more importantly, sovereignty over Tibet is a source of national pride for the CCP and efforts to limit that sovereignty are viewed by China’s leaders as undermining their nation.

While both Hong Kong and Tibet are important to China, the treatment of these territories is vastly different.  In Tibet, China rules with an iron fist and created a giant police state.  Beijing makes all decisions for the region and Tibetans have no control over their own affairs.  Rule of law, respect for basic civil liberties, religious freedom, and freedom of the press are non-existent in occupied Tibet.  Tibet is autonomous only in name.

In comparison, Hong Kong enjoys a relatively high degree of autonomy, has an independent judiciary (for now), and individual rights and rule of law are mostly respected by the HKSAR authorities.  In 2015, China stated that autonomy is a privilege, not a right, bestowed by the CCP and, like any privilege, can be limited or even eliminated.  The CCP now insists that any candidate for HKSAR Chief Executive be approved by Beijing.  And the CCP has “disappeared” five people from the Hong Kong territory because they were critical of the ruling Communist Party.  These actions are a clear indication that the CCP is willing to renege on promises it made to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy whenever such autonomy is inconvenient to the CCP.  Concerns about Hong Kong autonomy and democracy have even led to the creation of a pro-independence party.[xi]

If the CCP is willing to restrict or reduce Hong Kong’s autonomy, then why would the CCP agree to honor Tibetan autonomy?  If the PRC were to ever sign an agreement with the exile Tibetan government pursuant to the Middle Way terms, then what guarantee would Tibet have that the CCP will respect such an agreement down the road?  In 1951, the CCP made Tibetan representatives sign the 17-Point Agreement under duress and imposed it on Tibet, but the PRC massively failed to respect the terms of that document.  What makes anyone think the CCP would respect an agreement for Tibetan autonomy now?  How would Tibet enforce the terms of such agreement? Appeal to the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress?  Appeal to the West or the UN?  Would any of these methods have any chance of succeeding?  In light of the CCP’s actions regarding Hong Kong, these questions need to be asked. 

In sum, the CCP’s recent actions and the EU and U.S. reports on Hong Kong do not bode well for Hong Kong autonomy or for Tibet’s chances to obtain genuine autonomy.

[i] http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/2016/160425_02_en.htm.

[ii] http://www.state.gov/p/eap/rls/reports/2016/257085.htm.

[iii] http://www.basiclaw.gov.hk/en/basiclawtext/.

[iv] http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/Constitution/2007-11/15/content_1372963.htm.  In contrast, Tibet’s “regional autonomy” is governed by Articles 112-122 of the PRC Constitution. http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/Constitution/2007-11/15/content_1372990.htm.

[v] http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1938466/eu-issues-scathing-annual-report-attacking-beijing-hong-kong.  http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201604270024.html.

[vi] http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1944446/us-report-highlights-worries-about-hong-kongs-autonomy-being; https://www.hongkongfp.com/2016/05/12/new-us-govt-report-says-bookseller-incident-may-be-most-significant-breach-of-one-country-two-systems/.  China rejects U.S. Report: http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-05/13/c_135357786.htm.

[vii] https://sites.google.com/site/tibetanpoliticalreview/editorials/dimsumsurprisewhythehongkongmodelwontsavetibet.  https://sites.google.com/site/tibetanpoliticalreview/editorials/tashidelekcomrade.

[viii] Interview with Lobsang Sangay: http://thediplomat.com/2015/01/interview-lobsang-sangay-2/.

[ix] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong.

[x] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tibet_Autonomous_Region.

[xi] http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/Policy-Politics/Hong-Kong-pro-independence-party-plans-to-run-in-Legco-elections

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