Commentary / World

Hong Kong a growing thorn in Sino-American relations

by Frank Ching

Just as China and the United States are preparing for another Xi Jinping-Barack Obama summit next month, when the American president is scheduled to visit Beijing for the annual APEC leaders meeting, China is stepping up charges that Washington is secretly supporting student-led pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Warnings against “foreign intervention” have been a constant theme in Chinese statements on the former British colony, but recent commentaries in the official media have raised the level of the rhetoric to such an extent as to make it appear as though the Hong Kong issue dominates the U.S.-China bilateral relationship.

Last Friday, the overseas edition of the official People’s Daily newspaper published a front-page article accusing the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit organization funded by the U.S. government, of involvement in the demonstrations in Hong Kong.

The next day, the paper’s online edition continued allegations of interference in Hong Kong affairs in a commentary headlined “Why is the U.S. so keen on Color Revolutions?”

It repeated charges that Louisa Greve, vice president of NED, had met with “key people” from Occupy Central, the group that had been threatening for months to hold protests if China, in its view, did not allow genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, with a broad choice of candidates.

The article linked Greve to reports about Tibetan independence and Eastern Turkistan or Xinjiang.

Apparently the meeting with “key people” took place last April when Martin Lee and Anson Chan, two prominent advocates of democracy, visited Washington and appeared in an hour-long public forum moderated by Greve.

The State Department has rejected point-blank charges that the U.S. government was “manipulating the activities in any way of any person, any group, or any political party” in Hong Kong. But the People’s Daily commentary said, “It is hardly likely that the U.S. will admit to manipulating the ‘Occupy Central’ movement, just as it will not admit to manipulating other anti-China forces.”

It turns out that the People’s Daily was unhappy not only with the U.S. government, but with the mainstream media as well.

“The mainstream media of the U.S. have shown exceptional interest in Occupy Central,” the article said. “Their reports are full of approval and praise.

This, no doubt, is true. Time magazine, for example, has devoted two cover stories to Hong Kong, with the Oct. 20 issue featuring the 17-year-old student leader Joshua Wong on the cover. But one can hardly blame the U.S. government for that.

The Saturday commentary accused the U.S. of hypocrisy, saying that while it purported to promote democracy and human rights, in reality it was simply “defending its own strategic interests.” It said that, according to U.S. logic, a democratic country “is one that conducts its affairs in line with American interests.”

China’s very public accusations in the U.S. have affected public opinion on the mainland and also pro-establishment political parties in Hong Kong. The House Committee of the Legislative Council on Friday passed a motion to investigate the Occupy Central movement, including sources of funding and whether foreign interference is involved.

If China continues to escalate its anti-American rhetoric, there is a danger that Hong Kong, which has basically been a nonissue in the bilateral relationship, will eclipse genuine issues on the U.S.-China agenda and, possibly, even affect the Obama visit in November.

American unwillingness to overemphasize Hong Kong was evident in September when the U.S. national security adviser, Susan Rice, visited Beijing and barely raised the issue.

Then, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Oct. 1, they discussed a plethora of issues, of which Hong Kong was but one, and certainly not the most important.

As the State Department spokesperson put it, the discussion focused on bilateral issues, especially the forthcoming presidential visit. Also discussed was a global climate deal in Paris next year. Other issues included Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism — especially the Islamic State — the Ebola outbreak and human rights.

True, Hong Kong was discussed, and Kerry urged Chinese restraint, but it was hardly a top American priority. In fact, with the midterm elections looming in the U.S., domestic issues dominate political discussions. China does not figure in any campaign.

The U.S. had decided not to allow Hong Kong to become a distraction. But if Beijing continues to raise charges of sinister American activity in Hong Kong, it is unlikely that the geniality that characterized the Sunnylands summit last year can be repeated. This then will affect the resolution of global issues. It doesn’t help anyone.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator who has covered China for several decades. He opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in Beijing after the U.S. and China established relations in 1979, becoming one of the first American reporters to be based in China since 1949.