Human rights violations were top of the agenda when high-ranking Chinese and European Union officials met last month.
The statement from the European delegation was diplomatic but pointed: “[The European] Parliament remains concerned by the Chinese government’s continued efforts to silence civil society,” said Pier Antonio Panzeri, chair of the European grouping, adding that “constitutionally guaranteed fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association are systematically violated.”
Uncomfortable reading for those living in Hong Kong, no doubt, where Beijing’s looming shadow continues to dwarf that cast even by the Bank of China Tower.
For many people in Hong Kong there must have been some hope two decades ago that the city-state, which had always blazed a different, more politically liberal trail to that of mainland China, would find a way to bond with the Motherland after the handover– that the clash of cultures would also be a meeting of two minds.
Last week, one in three Hong Kong police officers were lining the streets of the city, turning it into a no-go-zone, and legitimate local political representatives languished in jail for more than 24 hours. It is clear that those 20-year-old dreams of mutual understanding were nothing more.
The continued inability of China’s governing elite to show tolerance of even the most minor political criticism from anyone under its rule – arguably a continuation of a policy forged on the blood-soaked pavements of Tiananmen Square – ensures that any sign of political change is increasingly viewed with suspicion.
Nowhere is this better known than in Tibet, where China’s vice-like grip ensures that all critical voices are muzzled, freedom is a word devoid of real meaning and any type of protest is met with the harshest of punishments. Surveillance is extensive and intrusive, while the military are ever present.
The reason for these repressive measures can be summed up in one word: occupation. Beijing may insist that Tibet is one of its many provinces, part of its very own commonwealth.
But for Tibetans, their land is a distinct country, one that is unable to run its own affairs or fly its flag alongside those of other countries at the United Nations only because it was seized from them through a military invasion in 1950. They neither wish to live under Beijing’s rule, nor to live by Beijing’s rules.
The Chinese central government in Beijing knows this, and has made repression an integral part of its rule in Tibet. Despite its huge size and wild terrain, Tibet is now run as the world’s largest prison – literally a vast, open-air penitentiary where a 70-year military occupation has locked up and tortured peaceful demonstrators, where Chinese-owned corporations poison sacred rivers with mining run-off and where local languages are being stamped out.
In April of this year Lobsang Gyatso, a young Tibetan monk, was released from prison. He had spent three years behind bars after carrying a hand-drawn Tibetan flag through the streets of the town of Ngaba.
Since January 2016, Tashi Wangchuk, a language rights advocate, has been in detention without trial. He was arrested after daring to speak to the New York Times about his efforts to ensure that all Tibetan children have access to education in their mother tongue.
In 2014, Thardhod Gyaltsen, a monk, was sentenced to 18 years in prison after being found in possession of illegal images and recordings of the Dalai Lama. He was allegedly found with the proscribed materials after a police raid on his monastery.
The tragedy of these stories is that they are not uncommon. Tibetans know the consequences of Beijing’s obsession with control and “social harmony”, and have never stopped speaking out, protesting or resisting.
Since 2009, nearly 150 Tibetans in Tibet have even made the ultimate sacrifice – setting themselves on fire in protest at the occupation. The majority of these self-immolators died from their injuries.
Yet, within the ‘hierarchy of suffering’ that exists in various forms across all of China there is a commonality: the continued refusal of China’s governing powers to accept growing demands for change from myriad peoples.
EU spokesman Panzeri listed diminished rights for minorities, a lack of freedom of religion and belief, the undermining of human rights and the existence of the death penalty alongside the use of torture as areas of concern in the whole of China.
He expressed concerns about Uyghur political prisoner Ilham Tohti, the terminally-ill human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, the political situation in Hong Kong and the “ grave human rights situation” in Tibet. Barely a stone was left unturned with perhaps only Taiwan, enjoying de-facto sovereignty as it does, not getting a mention.
Of course there is a significant difference in the quality of life and the commensurate freedoms enjoyed among the different peoples under China’s control. It is no secret that petitioners from Tibet and Xinjiang are treated differently from their Han counterparts, for example.
By contrast with the rest of China, Hong Kong’s press remains free. Yet the city’s media have been shown to increasingly self-censor, while corporation-elected, pro-establishment legislators make a mockery of the democratic principle of one-person one-vote.
From Mongols in the north, to Uyghurs in the west, Tibetans in the south and Hong Kongers in the east those who are forced to live under Beijing’s rule are suffering at the hands of an elite who have proved increasingly deaf to a changing world.
The iron fist that enforces that rule must now relax its grip and accept the possibility of a future which is hard to grasp but remains infinitely more open, free and fundamentally beautiful.