by Joel Gehrke · August 15, 2019
China is accusing the United States of orchestrating the Hong Kong protests to set the stage for a military crackdown, a rhetorical tactic that hardens ideological tensions between the rival powers.
“They are now preparing their own people … to support any radical military intervention in Hong Kong,” Jerome Cohen, an adjunct senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Washington Examiner on a Wednesday conference call.
Chinese authorities have intensified their criticism of the United States in recent weeks, denouncing officials across the federal government for praising the protesters and insisting that the “black hand” of President Trump’s administration is to blame for the political crisis. Those accusations underscore the intensifying ideological components of the U.S.-China rivalry, in addition to the potential for violence reminiscent of the infamous 1989 repression of pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square.
“It doesn’t mean it’s going to wind up with a military intervention; but, I think the Chinese are working very hard to lay the groundwork if it becomes necessary to do exactly that,” Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, told the Washington Examiner.
The political crisis that has gripped the semi-autonomous city throughout the summer was sparked by the local government’s Beijing-backed effort to pass a controversial extradition bill. The legislation authorized “legalized kidnapping,” dissidents warned, because it would allow China to take custody of Hong Kong residents based on flimsy evidence. Local authorities only paused the legislative process under intense political pressure, while Beijing directed blame toward the West.
“No foreign powers are fomenting this dissent,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, said Wednesday in a joint statement with Rep. Michael McCaul, his Texas Republican counterpart on the panel. “It is the result of Beijing’s successive violations of their commitment to honor the will of the people of Hong Kong.”
Western analysts disagree about the extent to which Chinese officials are sincere in making these accusations. Retired Air Force Gen. Rob Spalding, who worked as a senior director for strategic planning during President Trump’s first year in office, thinks Chinese anger over the Hong Kong protests could doom any brewing trade negotiations.
“The Chinese Communist Party just believes that the U.S. is constantly fomenting ‘color revolutions’ to overthrow the CCP,” Spalding, now an expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. “As long as this is going on in Hong Kong, there’s no way that we are going to have a trade deal.”
Other analysts think the charges are more cynical, a reflexive effort by the mainland government to shirk blame for any discontentment in Hong Kong, one that reflects the endemic tension between Washington and Beijing.
“The anti-Western, specifically anti-American, narrative is baked into the creation of the People’s Republic of China, which began with Soviet support,” Joshua Eisenman, a China expert at the University of Notre Dame. “So anti-Americanness goes beyond the facts of this particular moment and touches on a longstanding historical narrative of foreign interference in China’s domestic affairs that is part of the country’s founding identity.”
Cheng, the Heritage Foundation analyst, said he sees a bit of both. “Do they think that we helped organize the protesting at the Hong Kong airport? Probably not,” he said. “Do they believe that we have been encouraging Hong Kongese to be unhappy under Communist rule? Absolutely.”
Ironically, Hong Kong dissidents have been troubled by what they perceive as a U.S. tendency to the neglect Chinese moves to undermine the “one country, two systems” agreement ratified when the United Kingdom agreed to relinquish sovereignty over the former British colony. Those worries helped spur a springtime visit from a delegation of Hong Kong dissidents who sought U.S. support.
“How does it benefit your relationship with China when the only Chinese city which is free loses its freedoms?” Martin Lee, a former lawmaker and the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, said at the Wilson Center in May. “And if we can preserve all these things which is the basic principle behind ‘one country, two systems’ if we can keep all that, the chances are that one day you will be dealing with a democratically elected China. That must be in your long-term interests.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping might agree with that sentiment in a way. “Hong Kong’s protests reveal that at least some Chinese people want a more liberal democratic country,” Eisenman told the Washington Examiner. “Every single day that it has a freer environment than the rest of China is a day that other Chinese may ask themselves why Hong Kongers are entitled to privileges and rights that they don’t have.”
Those fears might augur for a crackdown on the protests, but Beijing regards military intervention as a particularly embarrassing way to end the crisis, the analysts agree. It may be paradoxical for an authoritarian regime to have such a concern for public opinion, but Cohen thinks that Xi is more vulnerable than he might appear.
“It’s a much weaker regime than the world realizes,” the Council on Foreign Relations expert suggested. “He’s sitting on a hot tin roof.”
Washington Examiner · by Joel Gehrke · August 15, 2019