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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.
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