China’s bogeyman: ‘black hands’ and ‘foreign forces’

August 12, 2019 14:49
Anti-government protesters clash with police in Sham Shui Po on Sunday. Photo: Reuters

For some time now, China has been blaming “black hands” working for “foreign forces” for the massive anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong, now in their third month. More recently, Chinese officials have been openly saying that the United States is responsible.

On July 30, newly appointed director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s information department Hua Chunying responded to questions on Hong Kong by saying, “In the scenes revealed on media, we saw some American faces among the violent demonstrators in Hong Kong. We even saw the national flag of the US on some occasions. What role has the US played in Hong Kong recently? The US owes the world an explanation.”

It’s not clear how the spokeswoman could discern American faces from non-American ones. Passports are a more reliable indicator of nationality. In Hong Kong, for example, there are plenty of people with Caucasian faces who carry Chinese passports. Just ask the Hong Kong Immigration Department.

There are also plenty of people with Chinese faces in the US who are Americans. In fact, one of them, Andrew Yang, is running for president. Surely, Ms. Hua, hailed by Global Times as not only charming but professional, isn’t confusing ethnicity with nationality.

As for flags, would an American “mastermind” of the protest movement be so stupid as to wave a US flag? “Mastermind” is the word used by Tung Chee-hwa, former Hong Kong chief executive and currently vice chairman of China’s top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Last Thursday [Aug. 8], China’s Foreign Ministry Commission in Hong Kong summoned an official from the American consulate general to lodge “stern representations” over a “media report” that an American diplomat had met with “Hong Kong independence” activists. A Chinese official expressed “strong disapproval and firm opposition”.

The “media report” was in Ta Kung Pao, a paper controlled by the Communist Party. It published a photograph of the consular official, Julie Eadeh, standing in the lobby of the JW Marriott Hotel with student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and members of their political group Demosistō. The photo appeared under the headline “Foreign Forces Intervene”.

This is the same newspaper that had the previous week published a photograph of a purported foreign agent using his cellphone to tell protesters of police movements. The next day, an AFP fact-checker, Rachel Yan, reported that the man was actually Kevin Roche, an editor at The New York Times, who was communicating with a reporter. Ta Kung Pao isn’t what most people would consider an independent, objective media organization.

That night, CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, described Ms. Eadeh as “the behind-the-scenes black hand creating chaos in Hong Kong”.

In a statement, the foreign ministry commission said, “We strongly urge the members of the US Consulate General” to abide by international law and to “make a clean break from anti-China forces who stir up trouble in Hong Kong”.

A State Department spokesman, asked about the Foreign Ministry’s accusations, said that American diplomats “meet regularly with a wide cross-section of people across Hong Kong” and on the day of the encounter with student activists, “our diplomats also met with both pro-establishment and pan-democratic camp legislators, as well as members of the American business community and the consular corps”.

"This is what American diplomats do every single day around the world," the State Department said.

International law on this issue is clear. Article 3.1 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations says the functions of a diplomatic mission include “ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving state, and reporting thereon to the government of the sending state”.

That is, it is the job of American diplomats based in China, including Hong Kong, to ascertain political, economic, social and other developments and to report such information back to their government. Evidently, this requires contact with people of various backgrounds and interests, including those the Chinese government regards as “anti-China forces who stir up troubles”.

If foreign diplomats don’t understand what opposition forces are thinking, they will be unable to send a full report to their government which, in turn, will be hampered in the formulation of policies.

Similarly, foreign diplomats need access to senior government officials. If denied such access, their reports home might be distorted. This is not in the interests of the host country, in this case China.

So, all in all, the American policy of having its diplomats maintain contact with all sides, including both government and opposition, benefits all parties, very much including China. Indeed, China might want to consider adopting such a policy itself.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.