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Jane Ahlin, Published May 25 2013

Ahlin: The three faces of China: Tibet, Hong Kong, mainland

Were there six different types of military/police on the streets of Tibet?

Tourists are strictly forbidden to take pictures of officers in law enforcement uniforms of any kind, which makes it hard for me to remember. What is easy to think of, however, is that soldiers and officers always were in view in Lhasa, the largest city in Tibet, and many of them toted assault rifles. Not surprisingly, Tibetans harbor no illusions about their status since “Peaceful Liberation” by the Chinese in 1951 (think, Chinese takeover) and the forced escape of their revered Dalai Lama in 1959 when their rebellion was crushed. To this day, the massive security forces continually deployed make clear who is calling the shots. For more than 60 years, repression has been Tibet’s way of life.

Tibet comes to mind when considering the many faces of China we saw on a three-week tour in April. In stark contrast to our time in Tibet were days spent in Hong Kong. If Tibet is dominated by – and dependent on – the Chinese government in almost every way, Hong Kong experiences a level of freedom and autonomy evidenced nowhere on the mainland. Of course, Britain had control of Hong Kong for 156 years before 1997 when control reverted to China. Today, Hong Kong is billed as “One Country, Two Systems,” referring to the continuation of many British practices and traditions, including capitalistic businesses and the teaching of English in schools. The agreement continuing “Two Systems” is scheduled to last until 2047.

A protest in Tibet – not uncommonly the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk – often results in closing the borders to tourists; Hong Kong, on the other hand, has bookstores that sell literature deemed subversive and, therefore, illegal on the mainland (think, not flattering to communist history or to its leadership today). The discomfort of the Chinese government to the open nature of Hong Kong and its determination not to allow people on the mainland to be tainted by it are clear. Mainland Chinese citizens cannot pass freely in and out of Hong Kong but must get special, limited visas, as if they were traveling to a foreign territory. Our tour guide said he never is allowed more than a three-day visa.

Still, somewhere between the two extremes of Tibet and Hong Kong, the enormous population of China’s mainland is surging forward. Frankly, my husband and I returned home thinking it’s best we pay attention when

1.3 billion people are out to improve their lives.

Looked at one way, China is more open than ever before. International business is welcome and the affluence of the Chinese people is increasing. Nothing pointed that out more than our guide’s surprising reply to an off-hand comment made about not seeing any old cars on the roads. Evidently, China’s middle class, which hardly existed until the end of the 20th century, now has embraced car ownership as a status symbol. I couldn’t help but think of the 1950s advertising jingle, “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet.” Being able to get into one’s own car and travel away from the smoggy cities into China’s countryside is viewed as freedom that’s entirely new, and the Chinese like it.

Other signs of openness are related to the Internet and the increasing difficulty for the Chinese government to control what people see and hear. Internet sites such as the New York Times and the Washington Post are blocked, and blogs constantly are being shut down, but the Chinese are a well-educated people, and word gets around.

As tourists, we were warned not to ask sensitive questions in public places, such as Tiananmen Square, where “you never know who is listening.” Away from crowds, sensitive questions weren’t out of bounds, although the answers almost always began with the words, “Our government says …”

In Tibet, responses to uncomfortable questions usually began, “Since the Peaceful Liberation …” In Hong Kong, questions and answers simply were questions and answers.

Although the Chinese people still must watch what they say and do, the winds of political and social change are blowing. No question, cultural expectations lean toward greater freedom.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.