By Malcolm Wong
As the United States becomes more vocal over the Hong Kong protests, we ought to remember that any change must come from within the city itself.
In many ways, this does not need to be stated. The US flag-wavers do not represent the majority of Hongkongers who participate in the protests. Indeed, any substantive interview with any of the flag-bearers discloses the animosity they receive from fellow protesters. After all, how can they support self-determination if they are calling on a foreign power to help them determine their future?
Accusations that the “black hand” of the US has played a role in propping up the protests are not new, and were the subject of at least one pro-establishment march as early as June. The day after around two million and took to the streets, China Daily, in turn, took to Twitter to tell the world about protests against American interference.
Until recently, the accusations have been laughable at best. It is unlikely that the individual in Wong Tai Sin who covered tear gas with a metal wok bowl was a CIA operative. The famous “Hong Kong Hermit,” as he is known on Twitter, is probably not communicating with protesters via belly-itches or by the way he eats his McDonalds.
It should go without saying that stopping every Western-looking bystander to search them for contraband is undoubtedly a waste of time, and is probably more of an intimidation tactic than investigative police work.
Other accusations do not hold up under any serious scrutiny. Establishment sympathisers on social media who question where the protesters get their yellow hard hats ought to consider the possibility that they’re bought at a store (they shouldn’t be too hard to find, I imagine).
Accusations of foreign interference were largely treated as a joke. Then came the photo.
The photo of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and others meeting with American official Julie Eadeh was a blunder. While it is true that the accusations of foreign interference already existed before the photo, and would continue to abound regardless of how the demonstrations unfold, the photo transformed such accusations from a groundless joke to a legitimate point of discussion in the blink of an eye.
While the US State Department has denied intervening directly, US politicians across the ideological spectrum have commented on the protests with a near-unanimous critical voice. Staunch conservative Ted Cruz and left-wing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have both spoken out in favour of the protesters.
In the aftermath of the crackdown on protesters on August 11, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned China that violence was “completely unacceptable” and “The world is watching.” President Donald Trump weighed in, commenting on the presence of Chinese military personnel in Shenzhen and suggesting a “personal meeting” with Chinese President Xi Jinping to “quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem.”
I know President Xi of China very well. He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people. He is also a good man in a “tough business.” I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 14, 2019
There is certainly nothing wrong with politicians stating an obvious truth, standing in solidarity with the protests, or proposing solutions. The violent acts repeatedly committed by the Hong Kong police department are a travesty, and the use of military force by Beijing would lead to a horrific outcome both short and long term for Hong Kong and the mainland.
What worries me is not that US politicians are raising awareness of the ongoing crisis, or that they are voicing their support for the protest movement. What makes me nervous is the growing call from US politicians to use their government’s power and influence to intervene in Hong Kong.
Policymakers in Washington come together over very few political issues, but one thing that unites the two parties in DC more than anything is their addiction to foreign intervention.
Consider Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement, in which she apparently justified a US response by saying: “If we [the United States] don’t speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out elsewhere.”
In this context, Speaker Pelosi’s use of the word “speak” referred to an active and authoritative response related to the introduction of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, as well as bipartisan consensus around it.
This bill has amassed considerable support in Hong Kong, with protesters holding signs calling for its passage. Additionally, organisers of a planned rally on Sunday at the US Consulate General said they intend to voice their support for the bill. Meanwhile, multiple pro-democracy figures including Democratic Party lawmaker James To have echoed this call.
The proposed bill is an amendment to the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992. But the Act is not controversial — it allows the US government to afford Hong Kong privileges in economic and trade matters, separate from China.
The amendment is undeniably an attractive bill. Among other things, it includes protections for visa applicants arrested at protests (Section 4), it seeks to encourage economic cooperation between the US and Hong Kong (Section 3), it promotes the implementation of universal suffrage in Hong Kong (Section 3), and it even requires the Executive Branch of the United States to submit a report to Congress outlining those responsible for the Causeway Bay kidnappings in 2015 (Section 7).
This Act is an attempt to leverage Hong Kong’s economic strength to promote local policies that the US government prefers. An essential feature of the Act is an annual report to the US Congress on the social and political status of Hong Kong. This report will determine and justify Hong Kong’s status as a distinct economic partner.
It is true that there are portions of the Act and this bill that work to ensure the rights of Hongkongers. I admit that I personally like nearly everything in this bill. Yet I cannot bring myself to support it. All these undeniably positive aspects of the bill, the very things that millions of Hong Kong protesters are fighting for, must be achieved by Hongkongers themselves.
Currently, the views of US politicians and Hong Kong protesters may broadly align, but we cannot assume that will always be the case. The fact is a negative report to Congress could trigger a wide range of foreign policy options responding to the implementation of local Hong Kong laws that the US government does not agree with.
There is no guarantee that existing ideological solidarity between the US government and protesters will remain forever. And as we can see in this bill, the language of the Act can be amended to fit the agenda of the day.
Asking the US to enact this legislation because it could possibly help at the moment does not restore sovereignty to Hong Kong, but merely transfers it elsewhere. It is for these reasons we should not call for this kind of direct action from Washington.
Not only could direct intervention be used to justify an even harsher and more forceful response from the mainland, but it opens the door for Hong Kong politics to be dictated by a foreign power — after all, isn’t that what we wanted to avoid?
One of the drivers of the wider protest itself is a yearning for self-determination. Hongkongers want to elect their Chief Executive and have a voice in the election of all their lawmakers. Not only are these calls for greater self-determination present at every rally, but they have been a driving force of distrust between Hongkongers and their government for years.
Thousands believe the Hong Kong government is completely beholden to the party apparatus faraway in Beijing. Not by coincidence, a growing number of Hongkongers are not only embracing a local identity but are expressly hostile towards assimilation and identification with the mainland.
People who support the city, and especially those who support self-determination, are appalled by gross interference from mainland China.
Whether it’s election meddling through the liaison office, or t-shirts sent from Guangzhou worn by brutal thugs (so much for that Greater Bay Area identity), interference in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs by greater powers have had an overwhelmingly negative effect on society at large.
As a matter of principle, it is imperative that only those who will be impacted by Hong Kong policies should have a say in the city’s governance. This ideal should apply equally to Washington as it should to Beijing.
At times it can hard to be optimistic. But I believe in Hong Kong, and I believe in Hongkongers. The resilience shown over the past few months has not only encouraged me, but it has encouraged so many others to fight harder for the freedoms and liberties we all hold dear. I am convinced that those who will deliver Hong Kong’s liberation are the people of Hong Kong themselves. Until that day comes, be water and add oil.
HKFP granted a pseudonym to the writer, a Tuen Mun-based university student, owing to the sensitive nature of their employment.