In Hong Kong Protests, China Angrily Connects Dots Back to U.S.

A protester in Hong Kong last month. China sees American support for democratic rights in Hong Kong as part of a plot to undermine the Communist Party.
A protester in Hong Kong last month. China sees American support for democratic rights in Hong Kong as part of a plot to undermine the Communist Party.CreditCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

By Steven Lee Myers

  • Sept. 5, 2019 (NYTimes.com)

HONG KONG — Jenny Lee, 26, marched with a friend through the sweltering streets of Hong Kong the other day, hoisting an American flag over her shoulder. “We hold this to tell the world that we want democracy and freedom,” she explained.

The authorities in China, however, are holding up those kinds of gestures as evidence of what Chinese officials portray as an American campaign to orchestrate the protests that have roiled Hong Kong for almost three months.

[As protesters planned more demonstrations, Hong Kong’s leader gave no sign that any more concessions would be forthcoming.]

China’s increasingly caustic accusations against the United States — in state media and official statements — reflect a deepening conviction that support for democratic rights in Hong Kong is part of a broader effort to undermine the Communist Party.

“It’s their bête noire: democracy and democratic values,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of “China Tomorrow: Democracy or Dictatorship?” “The goal is to erase them from Hong Kong.”

There has been no concrete evidence that the protests are anything but what demonstrators say they are: a largely leaderless upwelling of frustration and resistance to the mainland’s encroaching control of Hong Kong’s affairs. But Chinese officials now point to a pattern of American actions that they say amounts to foreign interference, even collusion.

A rally Monday at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. There is no concrete evidence that the protests are anything but the largely leaderless movement they seem to be.
A rally Monday at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. There is no concrete evidence that the protests are anything but the largely leaderless movement they seem to be.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Some of the accusations amount to little more than crude disinformation, but others are grounded in just enough fact to spin a conspiracy theory of covert American nefariousness, intended to loosen the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s authoritarian grip on power.

They include statements of support for the protests from congressional leaders and Democratic presidential candidates, and meetings between Hong Kong opposition figures and administration officials. One such meeting with a diplomat in the United States Consulate in Hong Kong has been seized on by China, as was another in Washington with Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton.

China’s liaison office in Hong Kong on Monday, for example, vehemently denounced a relatively mild, bipartisan statement by the chairman and a ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Eliot Engel of New York and Michael McCaul of Texas, that expressed support for the protests and called on both sides “to refrain from violence and seek a peaceful accommodation.”

A spokesman for the Chinese office replied in a statement that the two men, Democrat and Republican respectively, “have ignored the facts, turned black into white, harbored evil intentions and nakedly interfered in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs.”

China has a long history of blaming “foreign forces” for challenges it has faced internally, including the Tiananmen Square protests 30 years ago. But the depth and ferocity of China’s accusations over Hong Kong suggest they are not merely propaganda intended for domestic or international audiences.

Instead, analysts said, they reflect the thinking of an increasingly anxious leadership that sees any manifestation of popular sentiment in the streets as a potential “color revolution” like those that swept Georgia, Ukraine and later the Arab world.

A 42-page report released recently by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs singled out the National Endowment for Democracy, the congressionally funded organization founded in 1983 to support the spread of democracy and human rights around the world, accusing it of underwriting a similar revolution in Hong Kong.

Foreign Agents and Terrorists: How China Is Framing Hong Kong’s Protests 

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“The U.S. is not satisfied in overt oral support for Hong Kong but resorts to financial backing,” the state English-language television network, CGTN, wrote with inexact grammar in an article posted on its website and included in the ministry’s report. The article went on to argue that the endowment acted in concert with the Central Intelligence Agency “in covert actions against governments.”

The Chinese have not only denounced the American activity publicly, but also privately in meetings with their American counterparts, according to officials in both countries. China is also angrily pushing back against international criticism. A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, denounced a statement by the Group of 7 leaders last week calling on both sides to avoid violence in Hong Kong.

He accused the seven nations — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States — of “harboring ulterior motives.” He also declared moot the 1984 declaration between Britain, then Hong Kong’s colonial ruler, and China that established the framework for Hong Kong as a special autonomous region, with rights not extended to Chinese citizens on the mainland.

That declaration serves as a congressionally mandated benchmark for American relations with Hong Kong and China under the Hong Kong Policy Act, enacted as law in 1992. The State Department is required by law each year to evaluate the extent of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“The tempo of mainland central government intervention in Hong Kong affairs — and actions by the Hong Kong government consistent with mainland direction — increased, accelerating negative trends seen in previous periods,” the latest report, issued in March, warned.

The Trump administration, for its part, has reacted inconsistently to the protests. President Trump, focused principally on the trade tensions with China, once dismissed the protests, calling them an internal matter. Others in the administration have spoken out more forcefully, however, and the protests have galvanized support across the political spectrum in Washington.

And that has given the Chinese fodder for their arguments. After initially ignoring the protests, officials have begun to respond to American statements more directly, while turning up the propaganda against the United States in state media, which has been strikingly effective at shaping public opinion on the mainland.

Demonstrators outside the United States Consulate in Hong Kong in June. Chinese state media have accused a diplomat there of orchestrating the protests.
Demonstrators outside the United States Consulate in Hong Kong in June. Chinese state media have accused a diplomat there of orchestrating the protests.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The report on CGTN cited “more American faces” appearing at rallies. One of those that have drawn attention belongs to Mark Simon, a top aide to Jimmy Lai, the Hong Kong media tycoonwhom China loves to hate. Mr. Simon, a veteran of the United States Navy, helped set up the meeting between Mr. Lai and Vice President Pence in July that prompted an official diplomatic protest.

Mr. Simon said in an interview that he had long helped Mr. Lai to make donations to civic organizations in Hong Kong, but he emphasized that he had no ties to American intelligence and played no role in the protests, despite insinuations to that effect.

“It’s just ridiculous that a big, fat white guy is running the show in Hong Kong as a C.I.A. handler,” he said.

On the streets, Hong Kong’s protesters have also mocked China’s accusations, saying they were intended to belittle their grievances.

Phoebe Chan, who accompanied her American flag-carrying friend, Jenny Lee, ridiculed Chinese media reports that protesters were being paid to participate. “We are coming out on our own,” she said.

If anything, protesters like her would like to see the United States get more involved. She cited the special trade status that Hong Kong receives under American law, which officials in Washington have warned could be revoked if China were to crack down with force. “This is our hope,” she said.

China’s accusations of foreign influence echo those that other authoritarian governments have made in the face of popular opposition.

Tear gas at a protest in the Tsuen Wan district last week.
Tear gas at a protest in the Tsuen Wan district last week.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Since 2017, China has prohibited any political activity by foreign organizations, under a law modeled on one that Russia adopted after the “color revolutions” swept former Soviet republics.

Hong Kong, by contrast, still allows nongovernmental organizations a great deal of freedom, and the work that many of them do is effectively an affront to the values of the Communist government in Beijing. The National Endowment for Democracy, for example, regularly distributes grants to organizations working to preserve democratic rights — a goal very much in line with the protests.

Its grants in 2018 included $155,000 for the Solidarity Center, the American labor advocacy group allied with the AFL-CIO, and $90,000 to the Hong Kong Justice Center, an organization in Hong Kong that monitors the territory’s compliance with rights defined by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“The process we’re engaging with is an official United Nations process, which China is a part of,” said Annie Li, a senior researcher with the Hong Kong Justice Center, referring to the annual assessments of human rights known as the Universal Periodic Review. “They’re obviously aware of our work.”

Another organization that has worked in Hong Kong, the National Democratic Institute — a Democratic Party-affiliated partner of the National Endowment for Democracy — received $200,000 from the endowment in 2018. The institute’s president, Derek Mitchell, who previously served as ambassador to Myanmar, called the accusations that Americans have fomented or funded the protests “utterly ridiculous.”

The institute’s work has been to promote civil society by organizing training seminars for scholars, lawyers and civil servants, according to the National Endowment for Democracy’s grant. That the Chinese government views such advocacy as a threat, Mr. Mitchell said, “shows their insecurity.”

“It’s a fairly consistent theme from China and other authoritarian governments,” he said. “They can either accept responsibility for their own behavior, or they can blame others.”

Steven Lee Myers is a veteran diplomatic and national security correspondent, now based in the Beijing bureau. He joined The New York Times in 1989, and has previously worked as a correspondent in Moscow, Baghdad and Washington. He is the author of “The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin,” published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2015.

Alexandra Stevenson contributed reporting from Beijing. Elsie Chen in Hong Kong and Claire Fu in Beijing contributed research.

Follow Steven Lee Myers on Twitter: @stevenleemyers

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