In October 1950 the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet. The Communists made short work of the Tibetan military. The following year, representatives of the Dalai Lama signed a treaty with the People’s Republic of China (then all of two years old). The “Agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet,” or the “Seventeen-Point Agreement” for short, promised that Beijing would uphold Tibetan autonomy, refrain from interfering with Tibetan politics or with the affairs of the Dalai Lama, and respect the religious freedom of Tibetan Buddhists.
These were words on a page. Before long, the Chinese Communists began to exert pressure over the Tibetan people. Occupation forces spread throughout the region. The authorities collectivized agriculture and broke down institutions of civil society. Farmers and militia rebelled. The resistance was quashed, and the Dalai Lama began an exile that continues today. Tibet, like Xinjiang province to its north, is a cantonment of the People’s Republic.
The Seventeen-Point Agreement is the model for Chinese territorial acquisitions. Verbal pledges of freedom are meaningless. What matters is the correlation of forces and facts on the ground. Communists have no trouble speaking of autonomy and local control. Until the moment Beijing dominates the councils of government and independent power centers have been crushed.
In June 1984, Deng Xiaoping pledged that reunification of Hong Kong and Macau with the mainland would be conducted according to the principle of “one country, two systems.” Deng also mentioned the island redoubt of the nationalists defeated in China’s civil war. “The mainland with its one billion people will maintain the socialist system,” he said, “while Hong Kong and Taiwan continue under the capitalist system.” Taiwan was no imperial possession. It has been independent of the People’s Republic for its entire life. It’s held free and direct presidential elections since 1996. For Beijing, this island of 23 million is simply another lost province that one day will be repossessed.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese control in 1997. Macau followed two years later. For the last two decades, Beijing tightened its coils around Hongkongers. And while many grievances drive the protest movement that has rocked Hong Kong since July 1, perhaps the most significant is the recognition that the mainland is losing interest in upholding the pretense of “one country, two systems.” The extradition law that Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam was forced to table would have put the lie to Deng’s guarantees. At issue is whether a one-party surveillance state, with up to a million ethno-religious minorities imprisoned in a single region, really can include free societies on its periphery.
It can’t. Which is why the protests smack of both idealistic creativity and fatalistic desperation. There is pathos to the civic unrest, to the images of a million umbrellas in the rain. Everyone involved in this situation, participant and observer alike, is aware that across Shenzhen Bay sit more than 10,000 riot police ready to demonstrate the meaninglessness of “one country, two systems.” For the dominions of the People’s Republic of China, there is only one country, one system. At whose pinnacle resides Xi Jinping.
Hong Kong puts Xi in a curious position. He has spent much of his tenure solidifying his position by purging elements within the party opposed to his vision of a Maoist revival. His elimination of the term limits that would have required him to step down in 2022 did not grant him omnipotence. He didn’t anticipate having to deal with President Trump, nor with the fallout from Trump’s retaliation against Chinese mercantilism. His economy is slowing ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.
When confronted with domestic strife, autocrats distract publics by identifying external threats. Xi has taken up a renewed interest in Taiwan. Last October, he told PLA forces to “concentrate preparations for fighting a war.” In January, he said, “Unification between the two sides of the strait is the great trend of history,” under the rubric of “one country, two systems.” He went on, “The private property, religious beliefs, and legitimate rights and interests of Taiwanese compatriots will be fully assured.” Somewhere the Dalai Lama is laughing.
Hongkongers decided to do more than laugh. They decided to resist. In so doing, they not only exercised the will to freedom. They undermined the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party during the run-up to a historical marker, and reminded Taiwanese (who don’t need much reminding) of the vacuity of “one country, two systems.” The protest movement deserves moral support. It also has created an opportunity to weaken an adversary.
What is happening in Hong Kong is just as much about strategy as it is about values. When Hong Kong is pacified, Xi will once again return his attention to Taiwan. And if Taiwan is ever forcibly integrated with the PRC, then Xi and the People’s Liberation Army Navy will have broken through the first island chain separating China from the Pacific. Chinese hegemony will loom. It won’t be benign.
Help Hong Kong by supporting democratic freedoms, and by threatening consequences if Beijing should repress the protests violently. But also remember that words get you only so far. If you really cared about the future of democracy in the Indo-Pacific, then you would support the policies of the Trump administration by reinforcing Taiwan and conducting freedom-of-navigation operations through the Taiwan Strait. Only the self-confident assertion of power will prevent the region from suffering the same fate as Tibet.