What would happen if China picks a fight with US over Hong Kong?

October 14, 2014 09:28
Is this the last time we've seen Xi Jinping and Barack Obama in such a congenial mood? A lot depends on how China and the United States handle issues relating to Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Just as China and the United States are preparing for another Xi Jinping-Barack Obama summit next month, when the American president is scheduled to visit Beijing for the annual APEC leaders meeting, China is stepping up charges that Washington is secretly supporting student-led pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Warnings against “foreign intervention” have been a constant theme in Chinese statements on the former British colony, but recent commentaries in the official media have raised the level of the rhetoric to such an extent as to make it appear as though the Hong Kong issue dominates the US-China bilateral relationship.

Last Friday, the overseas edition of the official People’s Daily newspaper published a front-page article accusing the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a non-profit organization funded by the US government, of involvement in the demonstrations in Hong Kong.

The next day, the paper’s online edition continued allegations of interference in Hong Kong affairs in a commentary headlined “Why is the US so keen on Color Revolutions?”

It repeated charges that Louisa Greve, vice president of NED, had met with “key people” from Occupy Central, the group that had been threatening for months to hold protests if China, in its view, did not allow genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, with a broad choice of candidates.

The article linked Greve to reports about Tibetan independence and Eastern Turkistan, or Xinjiang.

Apparently, the meeting with “key people” took place last April when Martin Lee and Anson Chan, two prominent advocates of democracy, visited Washington and appeared in an hour-long public forum moderated by Greve.

The State Department has rejected point-blank charges that the US government was “manipulating the activities in any way of any person, any group, or any political party” in Hong Kong.

But the People’s Daily commentary said, “It is hardly likely that the US will admit to manipulating the ‘Occupy Central’ movement, just as it will not admit to manipulating other anti-China forces.”

It turns out that the People’s Daily was unhappy not only with the US government but with the mainstream media as well.

“The mainstream media of the US have shown exceptional interest in Occupy Central,” the article said. “Their reports are full of approval and praise.

This, no doubt, is true. Time magazine, for example, has devoted two cover stories to Hong Kong, with the October 20 issue featuring the 17-year-old student leader Joshua Wong on the cover. But one can hardly blame the US government for that.

The Saturday commentary accused the US of hypocrisy, saying that while it purported to promote democracy and human rights, in reality it was simply “defending its own strategic interests.” It said that, according to US logic, a democratic country “is one that conducts its affairs in line with American interests.”

China’s very public accusations in the US have affected public opinion in the mainland and also pro-establishment political parties in Hong Kong. The House Committee of the Legislative Council on Friday passed a motion to investigate the Occupy Central movement, including sources of funding and whether foreign interference is involved.

If China continues to escalate its anti-American rhetoric, there is a danger that Hong Kong, which has basically been a non-issue in the bilateral relationship, will eclipse genuine issues on the US-China agenda and, possibly, even affect the Obama visit in November.

American unwillingness to overemphasize Hong Kong was evident in September when US National Security Adviser Susan Rice visited Beijing and barely raised the issue.

Then, when US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Oct. 1, they discussed a plethora of issues, of which Hong Kong was but one, and certainly not the most important.

As the State Department spokesperson put it, the discussion focused on bilateral issues, especially the forthcoming presidential visit. Also discussed was a global climate deal in Paris next year. Other issues included Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism – especially the Islamic State – the Ebola outbreak and human rights.

True, Hong Kong was discussed, and Kerry urged Chinese restraint, but it was hardly a top American priority. In fact, with the mid-term elections looming in the US, domestic issues dominate political discussions. China does not figure in any campaign.

The US had decided not to allow Hong Kong to become a distraction. But if Beijing continues to raise charges of sinister American activity in Hong Kong, it is unlikely that the geniality that characterized the Sunnylands summit last year can be repeated. This then will affect the resolution of global issues. It doesn’t help anyone.

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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.