Hong Kong and Tibetan activists hang flags from scaffolding at the Acropolis in Athens to protest against the Beijing Winter Olympics, October 17, 2021 (photo: Yorgos Karahalis)

What the Hong Kong diaspora can learn from the Tibetan experience

Using the fate of exile to lay foundations for the future

On December 13, Tibet and Hong Kong activists held a discussion called, “Could Tibet be the model for Hong Kong?” The idea behind it was that Tibetans have been in exile for more than seventy years and during that time have established a government-in-exile and many other institutions: what can Hong Kong people, many of us recently exiled, learn from the Tibetan experience?

As a HongKonger who used to work for Tibetan Children’s Villages in India, I’ve been familiar with the Tibetan freedom struggle and exile community for decades. Drawing upon that double Hong Kong-Tibet perspective, I’d like to make some comparisons between the two diasporas in order to consider where the Hong Kong diaspora is at and where it may need to go.

Of course, the main similarity between Tibetans and HongKongers is that we are both peoples oppressed by the Chinese Communist Party and this has driven significant numbers into exile. But there are also quite a few differences that should not be overlooked.

When Tibetans followed His Holiness the Dalai Lama to India starting in 1959, many were extremely poor and even those who weren’t had to leave everything behind in Tibet. At the time, Tibet was very isolated. Most Tibetans had had virtually no contact with the outside world and had little if any formal education. Almost none spoke English. Descending from the Tibetan plateau, they were thrust into an alien world. Many ended up doing backbreaking work building roads through the mountains of northern India. Their immune systems were not used to the new climate and bacteria, and many caught diseases and died. The organization I worked for, TCV, was started by the Dalai Lama’s sister to provide homes and education to the many children whose parents worked on these road crews or had died.

“Roadbuilders Shovel Songs” by Tenzing Rigdol

Over the past two years, tens of thousands of HongKongers have left their home because of the increasing oppression. Few are wealthy, but they have far more resources than the original Tibetan exiles did. They also have much more education and exposure to the outside world. Most already speak at least some English. Hong Kong is nowhere near as isolated as Tibet was in 1959 and still is today — under CCP occupation, it remains to a large extent cut off from the rest of the world. Hong Kong is no longer the open, liberal society it used to be but it’s not so difficult to find out what’s going on there.

As many have noted, one significant difference between Tibetans and HongKongers is that Tibetans are united around the figure of His Holiness. He is the undisputed leader of Tibetans and widely recognized and revered by much of the rest of the world. He helps to give Tibetans their strong sense of identity and also has drawn global attention to the plight of Tibetans. There’s no other relationship between leader and people quite like it: Tibetans’ veneration for His Holiness is unique. While HongKongers have many leaders almost all respect and admire, there’s no Hong Kong Dalai Lama.

But that’s not the only thing HongKongers lack but Tibetans have. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that prior to going into exile, Tibetans had a system of governance that went back literally centuries, a theocracy with the Dalai Lama as the head of government. That system was bolstered by equally important social and religious traditions and institutions. Though Tibet was not a democracy, Tibetans were used to governing themselves; indeed, they were vastly experienced at it. Hong Kong people, by contrast, have never had self-rule in their whole modern history. First they were a colony of the United Kingdom and then, since 1997, effectively a colony of the Communist Party. They have always been ruled by others, and they have no pre-existing system of governance to bring with them into exile.

When Tibetans went into exile, one of the first things they did was begin to reconstruct many of the institutions that were destroyed or taken over by the CCP. All of the major monasteries in Tibet were refounded in India. The Dalai Lama essentially transplanted his government. Cultural and medical institutions were also established.

Other things which they didn’t have in Tibet — first and foremost a modern system of education — , Tibetans saw quickly they needed, and they began to set up schools that both gave their children a modern education and taught them Tibetan language, culture and religion. While Tibetans from the start largely educated their children in separate all-Tibetan schools, HongKongers who have children put them in existing schools in the countries to which they immigrate. While that arrangement has advantages, it also makes it more difficult for HongKongers to preserve their own language and culture. As Tibetans in recent years have fanned out from India to other countries, mostly in the West, they face similar challenges of assimilation and loss of identity.

While Tibetans have religious, cultural, literary and artistic traditions that go back centuries, HongKongers have nothing of the sort. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the CCP’s invasion of Tibet forced Tibetans out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world. HongKongers, on the other hand, are a thoroughly modern people, created out of colonialism, bereft of the age-old heritage that runs deep in Tibetans. Indeed, this is doubly the case — most Hong Kong people can’t trace their roots in Hong Kong back more than a century, since their families themselves were immigrants from China.

Tibetans were aided immensely in exile by the newly independent and democratic government of India, and even more particularly by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. But Nehru also wanted to maintain good relations with the CCP. The People’s Republic of China is two years younger than independent India. At the time, all these newly independent and developing countries were supposed to get along and regard one another as allies (though war did break out between China and India in 1962). So Nehru was trying to balance his sympathy with the Tibetans with a perceived need to cooperate with China. This meant that while India was exceedingly hospitable toward Tibetans, it was also nervous about allowing them to declare a government-in-exile on its territory, fearing that would go a step too far toward alienating China. This explains the strange official name of what is commonly recognized as the Tibetan government-in-exile, the Central Tibetan Administration. The convenient fiction that both the Indian government and the CTA adhere to is that the latter only “administers” Tibetan affairs.

The role that India has played for the Tibetan diaspora can be compared to the current situation in the UK. Its BN(O) visa scheme has opened the door to potentially hundreds of thousands of HongKongers settling there. Already, not even a year into the scheme, tens of thousands have availed themselves of the opportunity. The UK is quickly becoming the de facto capital of the Hong Kong diaspora. It remains to be seen what the attitude of the UK government would be if HongKongers ever get to the point of declaring a government-in-exile in the UK. It’s not hard to imagine it could be even more ambivalent than India was in the case of Tibet.

When Tibetans went into exile, there were almost no Tibetans abroad, so, from the outset, the newly exiled Tibetans were basically the only ones. Conversely, hundreds of thousands of people of Hong Kong origin already live abroad, with sizable communities in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Taiwan and elsewhere. Some of those emigrated from Hong Kong in the decade leading up to the 1997 handover. In many cases, their reasons for emigrating were at least partly political, but until HongKongers began emigrating in large numbers in the past two years, the primary reason for HongKongers leaving Hong Kong had been economic. Many of those earlier emigrants were apolitical; among those who had political views, there were a variety. Since 2019, the vast majority of people emigrating from Hong Kong are doing so for political reasons and are thoroughly pro-democracy. Unlike the Tibetans in the sixties, they are entering into contexts of pre-existing immigrant communities. This raises the issue of how the new arrivals and the older immigrants relate to one another. When we speak of the Hong Kong diaspora, what do we mean? All people of Hong Kong origin? Primarily the recent arrivals? Should the deciding factor be that, whether older or newer immigrants, they identify as HongKongers?

When His Holiness and Tibetans arrived in India, the need for some kind of government was obvious. For HongKongers who have never ruled themselves, the question of whether or not they should form a government-in-exile or other kind of representative organization is less clear.

Even while the Dalai Lama was a teenage ruler in Tibet, he thought of himself as a reformer and has often spoken of his regret that he never had a chance to implement political reforms in Tibet before the Chinese invasion. But it took several decades in exile before the Tibetan government-in-exile really began to democratize. His Holiness saw that he wouldn’t be around forever and had to wean Tibetans from their political dependency on his leadership so that Tibetan self-governance in the diaspora would outlive him. I joke that the His Holiness told Tibetans in exile, “You must democratize!” And Tibetans responded, “No, no, we don’t want to; we want you!” That’s not far from the truth. (The situation was somewhat similar to Bhutan’s, where the revered king essentially “imposed democracy” on the citizenry.) Arguably, it’s taken Tibetans in exile more time to mature as a polity than to build religious and educational institutions. And democracy in the now decades-old government-in-exile is still very much a work in progress. The first directly elected head of government was Samdhong Rinpoche in 2001. He was a monk whose platform was basically, I just follow His Holiness. Since 2011, there have been two non-monks, Lobsang Sangay and the recently elected Penpa Tsering. They have been slightly more independent. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama has entirely removed himself from politics.

When you see it took diaspora Tibetans more than five decades to elect a non-monastic political leader, you might think that HongKongers still have plenty of time to sort themselves out, but it seems the world, Hong Kong history and much else now move faster than before, and HongKongers are having to rapidly adapt. If we don’t, time and history may pass us by. However quickly we move toward the goal of a free Hong Kong, that goal recedes from us as the CCP seeks to irrevocably remake the place in it own image. The same, of course, goes for Tibet where a new report says 800,000 to 900,000 Tibetan children — 78% of Tibetan students — are removed from their families and placed in colonial boarding schools with the objective of supplanting Tibetan identity with Chinese identity. (Then again, the miracle is that after all of the decades of destruction and social engineering wrought by the CCP, Tibetans still exist at all! Maybe that should give HongKongers hope.)

Diaspora HongKongers have hardly even begun to grapple with the idea of governance. Because Hong Kong has always been a colony and never a democracy, whatever HongKongers do, they will truly be building from the ground up, with almost nothing from their own political tradition to use as a point of reference. HongKongers can seem almost allergic to even discussing the question of whether we need some kind of governance mechanism. Concepts and practices that emerged out of the 2019 protests such as decentralization, lack of hierarchy, widespread anonymity, Be Water and “no big platform” (无大台, ie, no group or groups should take over or dominate) are really hard-wired into many recent Hong Kong exiles, making them suspicious of any talk of government. But while those ideas worked well as protest tactics, they may serve us less well when it comes to developing forms of continuity, stability and political identity that help to perpetuate the freedom struggle over the long run. Perhaps one of the biggest lessons learnt from the Tibetan experience is that institutionalization and the development of diaspora civil society do just that, though not without their own costs.

Facing outward to the rest of the world, our talking points have been that we want freedom and democracy in Hong Kong. But those are quite vague, not least of all because we know the vagueness will be uncontroversial and unobjectionable in the democratic countries where we’ve found refuge. We haven’t even gotten to the point of clearly and consistently labeling the Hong Kong government as illegitimate — even though, in the eyes of many, including myself, it obviously is — , and pondering the implications of that conclusion in terms of our objectives. We’re also afraid of doing anything people in Hong Kong might object to, even as civil society and political opposition there have been destroyed and it becomes more difficult to know what people there want. We fear creating a rift. After all, what exactly would even give us the authority to found a government-in-exile? Isn’t that presumptuous? And upon what constitutional foundation would it rest? Does it mean that we consider Hong Kong an independent country that is under CCP occupation, or that the exile government is the legitimate one to replace the Hong Kong government while somehow recognizing continued PRC sovereignty over Hong Kong? These are big and thorny issues. So we kick the can down the road and put off answering them for another day, remaining in a continual holding pattern, which can result in conservative, passive and reactive habits of thought and action. I should stress that I am not criticizing these tendencies — they have their justifiable logic and reasons — , simply identifying them.

There have been some attempts to drive the discussion, such as the Shadow Parliament and the recent survey on a Hong Kong government-in-exile. But so far, the response of diaspora HongKongers has been tepid. It’s as if people are waiting to see how things play out. Perhaps they believe it is a bit premature to make such a big move. Or they don’t want to get bogged down in some colossal project that involves substantial bureaucracy and could precipitate infighting and division. They want to be swift of foot and able to respond to shifting circumstances. There is a reluctance to engage in what may be seen as futile theorizing, a preference for concrete and immediate actions and projects. Or maybe they’re waiting for more widely recognized leaders to step up. But up to now, those leaders appear reluctant to address this matter, preferring instead to work on building up smaller, more manageable organizations along the lines of NGOs. The result is de facto anarchy (“anarchy” here meaning a system of governance, or maybe lack thereof, not chaos), which itself up to now has proven to have many advantages. Many people have taken many initiatives. There are advocacy organizations like Hong Kong Watch, Hong Kong Democracy Council, Alliance Canada Hong Kong and Stand With Hong Kong. There are many smaller groups as well as local groups with roots in a particular city or region. They’re all doing great work, each in their own way, but is there still something missing? Do HongKongers in exile have to give more attention to this issue of governance or is it simply better to see how things develop and evolve on their own, to grow organically, so to speak, feeling our way step by step rather than forcing it?

There is also the small matter of what a Hong Kong government-in-exile would do. The Tibetan government-in-exile developed to address real and immediate needs in the Tibetan exile community: first and foremost, religious, educational and medical needs. Tibetan communities in both north and south India are quite separate and distinct from the majority Indian society. The Indian government essentially granted Tibetans certain areas, and that is where the communities grew up. There are, on the other hand, few if any true Hong Kong towns or even neighborhoods — HongKongers lives all over, spread out even within cities that have substantial Hong Kong communities. HongKongers’ educational and medical needs are met by the governments of the countries in which they live — they go to the same schools and doctors as other people who live in those countries. In that sense, there isn’t that much for a Hong Kong government-in-exile to do if we’re thinking along the lines of government as service provider.

This would seem to leave a government-in-exile with the task of forging Hong Kong’s political future at a time when that is impossible to do inside of Hong Kong. As in the case of Tibet, it appears that Hong Kong will be occupied by the CCP for quite some time. This is a long-term struggle. Arguably, when it appears there is little prospect for positive change in Hong Kong in the short term, now is an opportunity to work on issues like imagining Hong Kong’s political future and constructing democratic institutions. These seem quite important tasks; the question is whether a government-in-exile is needed to do those things or there are better ways of going about it.

As the Tibetan experience shows, forming a government-in-exile is hardly a panacea, and Tibetans have also struggled to find ways to imagine and debate Tibet’s future. There are, broadly speaking, two strands of thought on the matter. On the one hand, the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach, first articulated in 1988, proposes real and substantial autonomy for Tibet within its own borders while it remains under Chinese sovereignty. Looking at what’s happened in Hong Kong or Tibetans’ actual experience under CCP rule, one could argue that the Middle Way approach appears increasingly over the years since it was first presented unrealistic, unworkable and naive. But because it’s the Dalai Lama’s vision, it’s dominated discourse within the Tibetan government-in-exile for decades. The other main strand is commonly referred to as Rangzen. It calls for full independence for Tibet. (This was also the Dalai Lama’s position up until 1979.) Its argument is that Tibet was an independent country that was annexed by the PRC, and so it deserves to return to its former status. Many young Tibetans prefer the Rangzen approach. It has something of a “rebel” aura to it and has found it tough to enter the political mainstream, crowded out by Middle Way loyalists who see allegiance to the Dalai Lama to be of paramount importance.

In this sense, the competing political visions for Tibet aren’t that different from those for Hong Kong. Since the Umbrella Movement of 2014, some have continued to advocate for real democracy and autonomy under PRC sovereignty (ie, following the Basic Law and the “one country, two systems” principle), while others say the CCP will never grant Hong Kong real democracy or autonomy, so independence is the only way out, and still others argue for something along the lines of self-determination, that is to say, working toward a point where Hong Kong people can eventually decide the political status of Hong Kong.

Beyond the unifying force of their veneration for the Dalai Lama, Tibetans also have Buddhism which over the decades has proven to be a source of inestimable strength. Hong Kong culture may seem superficial by comparison. Does it have anything resembling the power and “glue” of His Holiness and Tibetan Buddhism to hold people together and give them faith? Is the Hong Kong diaspora at greater risk of gradual weakening, dissipation and assimilation? HongKongers are bound by the Cantonese language, the shared experience of political struggle, a common and specific culture that arises from being squeezed together in such a small space, intense devotion to Hong Kong as the home of HongKongers, and shared values such as hard work, perseverance, adherence to rule of law, fairness, and liberalism. Is that sufficient glue, does it provide sufficient “inner resources”? Or do we need to work at inventing, forging and strengthening the ties that bind in exile? It’s often said that before the Chinese invasion of 1950, about the only thing that gave the inhabitants of the Tibetan plateau a sense of common identity is that they were tsampa-eaters (maybe also Buddhism and reverence for His Holiness). Chinese occupation created Tibetan nationalism, and Tibetan nationalism was honed and developed to a large extent in exile. Recognizing it as a construct can help HongKongers to see the possibilities.

Tibetans’ perseverance over seven decades in exile is an inspiration. But at the same time, they’re no closer to fulfilling their ultimate objective, a free Tibet. We diaspora peoples may not be powerful enough to liberate our homelands but we do have the ability to keep hope alive and to prepare for a time when freedom and democracy in our homeland may appear more attainable than it does today.

Diaspora HongKongers survey a landscape spread out before us that is truly terra incognita. We are making it up as we go along. What’s important is that we keep making it up, that we don’t avoid the difficult questions, that we don’t just take the path of least resistance, that we find ways to have productive discussions that advance the cause while also remaining in touch with the desires and aspirations of people in Hong Kong. Yes, the situation there is grim, and we should never forget that, but nor should we should allow ourselves to become so fixated on it that we fail to see that this period is also an opportunity to create something new and lay the foundations for the future.

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Author of three books on the Hong Kong freedom struggle

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