HONOLULU – The Chinese Communist Party’s response to the political unrest in Hong Kong is familiar. One aspect of this response was to employ vigilante thugs to attack protestors, most notably in July in a subway station. Using non-uniformed ruffians to intimidate opponents of the government’s agenda is a typical Chinese tactic with deep historical roots. Modern Chinese criminal gangs began as Chinese nationalist activists. Plain-clothed attacks were a common feature of Taiwan politics in the 1980s, when the exiled Kuomintang government was trying to appear less authoritarian.
The objective in Hong Kong is to send what everyone understands is a signal from Beijing, while maintaining plausible deniability for the CCP leadership, which can continue to put forward its genteel spokespersons who emphasize rectitude and principle. We see the same general approach at work in the South China Sea, where deputized Chinese fishing boats commit acts of hooliganism as People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels wait in reserve.
Another typically Chinese feature is the allegation of foreign instigation. The obvious logic is that large numbers of people could not possibly be discontent with CCP rule unless some ill-meaning outsider put dangerous ideas into their heads.
In an Aug. 26 joint statement, leaders at the Group of Seven summit in France made a brief and restrained reference to Hong Kong: “The G7 reaffirms the existence and the importance of the 1984 Sino-British agreement on Hong Kong and calls for avoiding violence.” Chinese reaction was disproportionate to the point of near-hysteria. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang accused the European leaders of “evil intentions” and a “sinister plot.” He asserted the principle that “no country or organization has the right to intervene in Hong Kong affairs by making use of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
Hong Kong appears to be another case where Beijing makes an international agreement but then declares it nullified due to Chinese interests — much like China’s position that the Law of the Sea Convention does not apply to the grandiose and disputed Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
In July, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said of the protests, “We can see that U.S. officials are behind such incidents.” She called on the United States “to withdraw their black hands.”
The “black hands” rhetoric is recycled nearly verbatim from Beijing’s response to the Tiananmen incident in 1989, when the CCP ordered troops to fire on protestors with political grievances. Chinese official rhetoric has also applied the “black hand” explanation to unrest in Xinjiang, where the government has recently imprisoned and in some cases tortured an estimated 1 million ethnic Uyghurs as part of a “re-education” campaign.
Ta Kung Pao, a pro-China newspaper in Hong Kong, blamed the protests on U.S. Consulate official Julie Eadeh meeting with demonstrators. Official Chinese media then publicized personal information about Eadeh, including the names of her family members.
The U.S. Consulate explained that American diplomats regularly meet with not only protesters, but also pro-government groups as part of their routine duties. Student protest leader Joshua Wong later said he had met with Eadeh to request that the U.S. stop exporting tear gas and rubber bullets to Hong Kong.
To what extent does the U.S. government support the demonstrations? U.S. policy is to recognize Hong Kong as part of China, but also to consider Hong Kong autonomous under the Beijing-approved Basic Law and “one country, two systems” arrangements to make its own economic, commercial and legal agreements with outside countries.
Both U.S. diplomats and members of Congress have said publicly that the United States affirms the rights of Hong Kong residents to free political expression and peaceful assembly. I know of no American in a position of responsibility who calls on the demonstrators to carry out acts of violence or destruction. In short, U.S. diplomats in China (including Hong Kong) gather information about the political climate, while also speaking up for national values and the positions on political issues taken by their government. Chinese diplomats in the U.S. do the same thing.
The notion of foreigners molesting one’s territory excites passions at the expense of critical thinking. Nevertheless, the hypocrisy of Beijing’s indignation is striking. There is far less evidence of U.S. involvement in political agitation in China than of Chinese government involvement in the politics of the liberal democracies. The most obvious reason for the difference is the relative openness of the U.S., Japan, Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, of which the Chinese take full advantage. There is no counterpart in China, for example, to the Confucian Institutes found in many foreign universities, or to the prevalence of the propaganda newspaper China Daily on the streets of many U.S. cities, including Washington.
It is, of course, patently absurd to argue that U.S. officials could convince up to a million Hong Kongers to demonstrate against a proposed law, and much more believable that Hong Kongers are reacting to China’s creeping authoritarianism.
What this episode really demonstrates, first, is that the CCP cannot be trusted to keep its promises. It apparently takes a cynical approach to agreements: They are useful for seducing foreign governments for China’s short-term benefit, but are easily ignored afterward.
Second, the CCP is astonishingly insecure, despite its self-congratulation about raising living standards in China. Even with the world (including Taiwan) watching, and even with the former British colony’s relatively strong civil liberties and rule of law largely walled off from the rest of China, the CCP government could not help itself from fulfilling pessimistic predictions that it would move prematurely to dismantle the Hong Kong “system” rather than abiding by the Basic Law pledge that Hong Kong’s “way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.”
China’s pressure to extend authoritarianism into Hong Kong, along with the crackdown on Uyghur nationalism in Xinjiang, help define the Xi Jinping era. Beijing is very worried about a “color revolution,” will do anything necessary to pacify “Chinese” territory and doesn’t care much what the rest of the world thinks about it.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.