America and Britain's Hong Kong Catch-22


As the protests in Hong Kong enter their second week, some analysts are increasingly criticizing Western powers (most notably the U.S. and the U.K.) for not being more active in their support for the protesters. Such comments miss the point — the movement in Hong Kong is better served by silence from Washington and London.

The U.K. has been particularly open to criticism, as its government was responsible for negotiating the details of the Hong Kong handover in the 1980s. Now that many in Hong Kong see Beijing as having broken its promises, some have called for the U.K. to do more to hold Beijing to account. Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s highest ranking civil servant under the last years of British rule, aired these complains in a recent interview with Bloomberg. Before the protests began, The Diplomat’s own Kerry Brown also suggested that London should be embarrassed over its failure to hold Beijing accountable for its promises.

The special focus on the U.K. hasn’t relieved the U.S. from pressure, though. U.S. President Barack Obama has often come under fire for not being outspoken enough in his support for human rights and democracy, from Iran’s “Green Revolution” in 2009 to the various “Arab Spring” uprisings. The protests in Hong Kong are just another piece of evidence brought to bear in this long-running domestic political argument. Criticisms of the U.S. for its ‘silence’ have even appeared in the satirical magazine The Onion.

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Despite the criticisms, the U.S. has not actually been silent. Before a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the U.S. stance: “As China knows, we support universal suffrage in Hong Kong accordant with the Basic Law, and we believe in open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by rule of law is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.  And we have high hopes that the Hong Kong authorities will exercise restraint and respect for the protestors’ right to express their views peacefully.” In press conferences, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki has routinely expressed the same sentiments.

Still, the U.S. could certainly have been more forceful in its support — but there are good reasons not to take that route. Beijing’s method-of-choice for discrediting challenges to its authority (whether the Hong Kong protests, the Tibetan self-immolations, or terrorist attacks by separatist groups) is to dismiss such actions as the result of foreign interference. This serves two purposes. First, it effectively removes any responsibility for Beijing to address domestic discontent by denying any discontent exists. Second, it appeals to patriotic sentiments by invoking memories of the century of national humiliation, when foreign meddling was at its worst. Under this paradigm, joining in the Hong Kong protests is an act of treason, not an act of legitimate protest.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party’s greatest fear has been suffering a similar fate. Today, that fear coalesces around the idea of “color revolutions” — Western-organized and backed schemes to foment unrest and ultimately overthrow the Chinese government. The term color revolutions originated with the protest movements in former Soviet states during the early 2000s. In China, however, the term has become a catch-all for various anti-government movements. The uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt are viewed through this lens, as is the recent unrest in Ukraine. Under China’s definition, all these “color revolutions” share two things in common: they are orchestrated behind the scenes by the West, and they bring chaos or even civil war to the countries where they occur.

Beijing has long feared the advent of a “color revolution” within China. This is not a fringe view, either — no less a figure than current Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai accused Washington of fomenting “color revolution” in a 2012 essay. The Hong Kong protests fit all too easily within this pre-made framework. The West, especially the U.S. and the U.K. are presumed to be the puppet-masters behind the current protests. There are even rumors on the Chinese internet of CIA training and funding for the leading protest organizations.

Western media outlets are also assumed to be in on the conspiracy. The widespread use of the term “Umbrella Revolution” convinced some in China that the events in Hong Kong were indeed another attempt at “color revolution,” as explained in a popular online report reposted by numerous Chinese media outlets (including People’s Daily). “The U.S. and U.K. are intentionally pushing ‘Occupy Central’ to become a so-called ‘revolution,’” the commentary explained. The piece added, “Supporting ‘color revolutions’ has already become an important part of America’s strategy for ‘extending democracy.’” The article further warns that all color revolutions have Western backers — and all bring longtime domestic chaos.

Given this background, Beijing argues that supporting the Hong Kong protests is tantamount to treason. A recent Xinhua commentary made this point clear. Xinhua quoted an open letter from Chinese-American Yin Haoliu: “Are you willing to choose a chief executive that sells Hong Kong and the whole country?” According to Chinese media, the Hong Kong protests do not aim at universal suffrage at all, but are the attempts of a minority to force an anti-Beijing (and thus anti-China) leader upon the rest of Hong Kong.

U.S. and U.K. officials are well aware of this background. It lurks behind each Chinese Foreign Ministry pronouncement that Hong Kong’s domestic affairs are none of the world’ s business. Given this context, vocal foreign support for the Hong Kong protesters would do more harm than good. It would become far easier (and far more plausible) for Beijing to paint the protests as a U.S.-sponsored movement if Barack Obama were making fiery speeches in support of the “Umbrella Revolution.”

As much as Beijing would like to deny it, the current protests in Hong Kong are driven by domestic factors — pride in (and fear of losing) a unique sense of Hong Kong identity, plus dissatisfaction with current leaders seen as too close to business interests and Beijing alike. Foreign interference, to use Beijing’s language, dilutes this truth and clouds the domestic issues that are actually at stake. Plus, there’s the cold, hard truth that Western commentaries (no matter how vocal) are unlikely to alter Beijing’s planned response to the protests, at least not for the better. It’s thus hard to see how more U.S. or U.K. support for the protests in Hong Kong would benefit the movement — and easy to see how such support could actually harm the protestors’ cause.

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