China Power

US Lawmakers Are Watching Hong Kong, and China Isn’t Happy About That

After a series of statements from Congress members supporting the protesters, China’s Foreign Ministry claps back.

Shannon Tiezzi
US Lawmakers Are Watching Hong Kong, and China Isn’t Happy About That
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Gage Skidmore

China’s Foreign Ministry had strong words this week for members of the U.S. Congress weighing in on the Hong Kong protests: “Any attempt to interfere in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs is doomed to fail.”

At a regular press conference on August 7, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying was asked about recent statements from U.S. Senators Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) expressing concern about the repression of protests in Hong Kong. Hua slammed the senators for “smear[ing] the just actions taken by the Hong Kong police.” She argued that “The recent protests and demonstrations in Hong Kong have turned into radical violent behaviors that seriously violate the law, undermine security and social order in Hong Kong, and endanger local people’s safety, property and normal life.”

“You called black white and talked nothing about the serious consequences of the radical, violent and illegal behaviors… What are you really up to? What is your true intention behind the Hong Kong issue?” Hua said, addressing the senators.

Hua had a similar response when asked about comments from U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California):

Nancy Pelosi and some other U.S. politicians have been calling white black time and again, bolstering violent radical criminals and even justifying and whitewashing their behaviors. They’ve also wantonly smeared and vilified the just move of the SAR [special administrative region] government and police to uphold the rule of law and order. This is no different from covering up, conniving at and supporting illegal criminal behaviors, which again reveals their malicious intention of anti-China and messing up Hong Kong.

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What sparked such a fiery response? On August 6, Cotton released a statement warning that “the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] appears poised for a violent crack-down on civilian protestors in Hong Kong.” If that were to occur, he said, “the United States will be compelled to reassess our relationship with China in fundamental ways,” including by ending trade talks, sanctioning CCP officials and their families, and revising the Hong Kong Policy Act.

That wasn’t the first time the U.S. senator had weighed in on the Hong Kong protests. A joint statement from Cotton, Romney, and eight other senators (including both Republicans and Democrats) issued on June 12, near the beginning of the protest movement, praised the Hong Kong “demonstrators’ courage in the face of threats, police batons, and tear gas” as “an example for the world to follow.”

“We support these demonstrators as they fight for freedom and call on Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to respect their right to peacefully protest,” the statement concluded.

Pelosi’s statement, also issued on August 6, likewise expressed support for the protesters.The extraordinary outpouring of courage from the people of Hong Kong stands in stark contrast to a cowardly government that refuses to respect the rule of law or live up to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework,” the statement read. Pelosi also warned that, once the summer recess is over, Congress “will begin our work to advance the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.”

That act, introduced by Representative Christopher Smith (D-New Jersey) with bipartisan support, would require the secretary of state to “annually certify to Congress… whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous to justify special treatment by the United States for bilateral agreements and programs” as well as outlining “the degree to which Hong Kong’s autonomy has been eroded due to actions taken by the Government of China.” The bill would also seek to crackdown on re-exports of “sensitive dual-use items” from Hong Kong to mainland China and sanction individuals determined to be involved in the extralegal renditions of Hong Kongers to the mainland.

If passed, the bill could have serious ramifications for Hong Kong. Should it lose its status as a special customs area under U.S. law, Hong Kong would be subject to the much stricter export restrictions the United States places on mainland China, jeopardizing its status as a trading hub.

More broadly, however, the interest from the U.S. Congress in the Hong Kong protests feeds into China’s neuralgia about foreign interference and “color revolutions.” In a typical response to domestic unrest, state media in China have blamed the protests in Hong Kong on “foreign forces” seeking to undermine China’s rise. That view was echoed by none other than China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, in a recent op-ed for Newsweek. “Currently, the biggest peril for ‘One Country Two Systems’ comes from ill-intentioned forces, both inside and outside Hong Kong, who seek to turn the SAR into a bridgehead to attack the mainland’s system and spark chaos across China,” Cui wrote.

In July, Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, went further. She directly accused the U.S. government of being behind violent clashes between protesters and police. “We can see that U.S. officials are even behind such incidents,” Hua said, according to Reuters. “…We advise the U.S. to withdraw their black hands.”

Beijing may be incensed by the statements from U.S. members of Congress, but it has found more supportive rhetoric from an unlikely source: U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump has long remained vague on the protesters’ goals and insisted that China is capable of handling the situation. On August 1, however, he upped the ante by seeming to give a greenlight to Chinese military intervention. Notably, Trump also used the word “riots” rather than “demonstrations” or “protests” to refer to the unrest, adopting the terminology preferred by Beijing.

Asked about the possibility that the Chinese army might be preparing to take action against Hong Kong demonstrators, Trump replied,

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Well, something is probably happening with Hong Kong because when you look at, you know, what’s going on, they’ve had riots for a long period of time. I don’t know what China’s attitude is. Somebody said that at some point they’re going to want to stop that. But that’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China. They’ll have to deal with that themselves.  They don’t need advice.

When a reporter brought up Trump’s comments, Hua was approving: “I think President Trump has got two things right this time. First, what happened in Hong Kong are riots. Second, Hong Kong is part of China.”