Rignam Wangkhang believes Hong Kong needs help

Associate producer at CBC explains the importance of student activism

CBC journalist Rignam Wangkhang spoke to The Journal about the similarities between the struggles in Tibet and Hong Kong.
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Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang was one of the first two Tibetans to immigrate to Canada.

At 13 years old, he fled his home and traversed frigid mountain passes in the region known as the “Roof of the World” with his family to seek shelter in India.

He was among the first in Tibet to feel the cold embrace of the People’s Republic of China’s homogenizing policies. Estimates vary, but at least a million people have been driven out of Tibet, running for their lives from a government that holds veto power on the United Nations' Security Council.

Great Britain ceded control of Hong Kong to China in 1997 under the agreement that Hong Kong would continue operating within its capitalist framework for 50 years. 

This year (22 years later), Beijing overstepped that agreement with a hotly contested extradition bill that plunged Hong Kong into turmoil, inciting record-setting protests against China’s paternalism.

Tsering Dorjee Wangkhang and his wife Tashi had a son in Canada, Rignam, who grew up to attend Queen’s University. After he graduated with a degree in political studies, he went on to work with the UN. Now, he’s a journalist with the CBC. 

Rignam Wangkhang spoke to The Journal about the similarities he sees between the struggles in Tibet and Hong Kong. 

“I find the parallels in the movements. I think that we're all on the same page, we’re all fighting for the same thing [...] it's a battle against colonialism, it's against oppression and a lack of freedoms,” Wangkhang told The Journal in an interview. 

The Hong Kong protesters have been subjected to escalating levels of police brutality, with reports of officers hiding in ambulances to ambush injured protesters or attacking pregnant women. Recently, the Hong Kong Police issued a statement that they may soon resort to using live rounds on their own citizens.

The journalists covering the protests haven’t been spared from the violence. Despite their clearly marked uniforms, journalists have often been fired upon with rubber bullets, beaten with batons, and pepper-sprayed.

According to the Hong Kong Police, the protests often constitute riots, and the police are well within their rights to defend themselves and behave towards the protesters in kind.

“[The protesters and journalists are] not stopping, even if their lives are in danger [...] because they know that this is the last stance. It’s the tipping point. If China ‘wins’ this battle, then I think most Hong Kong people would say that Hong Kong is going to be lost as a truly democratic and free and independent country, and that's why they're fighting so hard. They know that this is the final frontier,” Wangkhang said.

Citizens of Hong Kong are rightfully afraid, considering how Chinese Muslims are being placed in detention camps for having beliefs that deviate from those endorsed by Beijing.

China is unique in that it has no reservations in terms of throwing around its economic weight in non-traditional arenas to incite dissent. As such, global powers—governments, corporations, celebrities—have been reticent to step in despite the protesters’ pleas.

Take for example the Daryl Morey situation. The Houston Rockets GM tweeted support for Hong Kong, and within days TenCent, a Chinese telecom company, threatened to axe billions of dollars’ worth of broadcasting agreements with the NBA.

Morey and the NBA both issued apologies.

“They've been trying to push that soft power, and the suppression of free expression around the world,” Wangkhang said.

“It's quite scary, because now governments are practicing it, where they're self-censoring or there's so many examples of companies that apologize to China after something, or ‘didn't realize that they did something wrong’.”

A year after Wangkhang’s father’s escape, the Dalai Lama, the de facto spiritual leader of Tibet, was also forced to sneak out of Tibet. He fled to the safety of India, where he operated his government-in-exile. He was never allowed to return.

Wangkhang was active with the Queen’s chapter of Students for a Free Tibet, which is a nonviolent organization dedicated to raising awareness for Tibet’s plight through activism. They fundraised and held demonstrations and awareness campaigns. 

One demonstration he remembers vividly was a 24-hour vow of silence the group took.

“It was symbolic because we [felt] that Tibetans didn't have a voice inside of Tibet, and we wanted to show that parallel,” he said. 

As a CBC journalist now, Wangkhang’s platform encourages him to speak truth to power.

“I'm just trying to get to the truth, send the facts out there and show people what is happening and really stand up to injustice,” he said. 

“In the end, it's about certain inalienable rights that people should have around the world. Freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom to choose, freedom to be whoever you want to be and practice that without any kind of repercussions, and I think that's not happening in Tibet, or now Hong Kong, or East Turkestan, in Taiwan, even in mainland China.”

But whereas Tibet had benefit concerts with huge bands like the Beastie Boys and Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, popular support for Hong Kong hasn’t been as forthcoming. If global leaders won’t voluntarily help, it’s hard to know what can be done to rectify the situation.

“It starts off with being aware,” said Wangkhang. “Understanding what the issue is, what the historical truths are.”

“I think that holding our institutions accountable, that happens when you get larger and larger groups of people together on the same page and very informed, making these informed arguments about why we need to be doing [something].”

“That's the kind of campus activism and awareness that needs to happen. I think there's a lot of interest for that, and if people on campus were to organize events around this, or a speaker series or anything along those lines, it would be really well-received.”

Campaigning for Queen’s to stop accepting money from Chinese interests (like controversial tech companies iFlyTek and Huawei), or for Mark Gerretsen to table a bill supporting Hong Kong like the one the US Senate just unanimously approved, are simple but effective ways for students to make a difference.

But at the end of the day, activist rhetoric is only as effective as the action it triggers. All of the noise is useless if the world’s major players don’t do something concrete to ensure the well-being of marginalized communities who can’t stand up to China by themselves indefinitely.

China’s repressive and assimilatory policies are putting Hong Kong in jeopardy of turning into the next Tiananmen Square, and global leaders need to forget the economic angle and prioritize human dignity—their own as well as the protesters’.

“It's a fight for democracy, a fight for [...] the right to self-determination,” said Wangkhang. “Whether it’s Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Falun Gong, the Uyghurs, [or] the Chinese Christians, we're all on the same page.”

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