US Meddling in Hong Kong Could Trigger a Tragedy

This article appeared on The Hill (Online) on September 12, 2019.
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As Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrations intensify, the Chinese government accuses the United States of fomenting the trouble. It is easy to dismiss such accusations as propaganda from a communist regime making excuses for its own blunders. There is considerable truth to that explanation, but Beijing's suspicions are not entirely unfounded. American democracy activists are stepping up efforts to support their Hong Kong brethren. Even more significant, the U.S. government is becoming increasingly involved.

Sympathizing with the agenda of the Hong Kong protesters is entirely understandable. However, American enthusiasts—especially executive branch officials and members of Congress—need to be more cautious, lest their high-profile backing antagonize Xi Jinping’s government to the point that a bloody crackdown becomes more likely.

Beijing cites the proliferation of American flags in recent demonstrations as well as statements from protest leaders admiring Western values as evidence of U.S. meddling. Indeed, Chinese state media outlets attribute the protests to the "black hand" of foreign interference. That allegation has become the centerpiece in a concerted campaign of fake news.

According to Beijing’s official thesis, Washington is trying to orchestrate another “color revolution,” similar to those that produced pro-Western regimes in countries such as Ukraine and Georgia. A 42-page report that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released in August singled out the National Endowment for Democracy, the congressionally funded organization established in 1983 to support the global spread of democracy, for special loathing, accusing it of underwriting the turmoil in Hong Kong.

It is a self-serving ploy for Beijing to use the NED as a scapegoat. Nevertheless, the organization has been more than a mere bystander in Hong Kong for years. Among other steps, it has taken advantage of Hong Kong’s surprisingly open policy toward political activities by foreign organizations to distribute financial grants to an array of groups working to preserve “democratic rights,” a goal that is at the heart of the current street demonstrations. It is hardly surprising that Chinese leaders are suspicious and resentful about a foreign, quasi-governmental organization taking such steps.

The New York Times notes that Beijing even more sharply denounces “support for the protests from congressional leaders and Democratic presidential candidates, and meetings between Hong Kong opposition figures and administration officials.” The latter U.S. behavior seems especially ill-advised. One such meeting took place with Julie Eadeh, a political counselor at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong; the Chinese government responded with a variety of harassing measures against her. Another even more high-profile meeting in Washington occurred between protest leaders and Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton. Pence added to Beijing’s annoyance by publicly admonishing China to respect Hong Kong’s laws and autonomy.

Some congressional supporters want even stronger U.S. backing for the Hong Kong protesters. An especially incendiary proposal is the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bipartisan measure with numerous sponsors in both the House and Senate. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the principal sponsor, is candid about the legislation’s rationale and objectives. In a Sept. 6 press release, Smith contends that the willingness of Beijing’s appointed chief executive in Hong Kong to abandon the proposed extradition law (the controversial bill that triggered the initial demonstrations) “is not enough. Hong Kong needs to do more to secure free elections, democratic institutions and autonomy .” He goes on to assert that his legislation “with its reinforcing mechanisms, including sanctions for those who commit human rights abuses and work to gut Hong Kong’s autonomy, sends a strong message of support to the freedom loving people of Hong Kong who are threatened by Beijing’s crackdown.”

Passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would heighten Beijing’s already substantial paranoia about the growing turmoil and Washington’s stance toward it. Mitchell Blatt, a writer at the National Interestoffers an important cautionary note that “direct Western intervention would almost certainly backfire. It would give Beijing an excuse to crack down that would be credible with Mainland Chinese citizens, many countries in the world that are skeptical of Western intervention, and also a significant proportion of Hong Kong’s people. Remember that the pro-Beijing/pro-establishment parties routinely win about 40 percent of the popular vote in Hong Kong elections.”

Overly enthusiastic U.S. efforts to encourage resistance to authoritarian rule have backfired before. The most tragic example was the Eisenhower administration’s ambitions to “roll back” the Soviet Union’s East European satellite empire during the 1950s. Avid propaganda associated with that strategy encouraged Hungarian anti-communist factions to rebel against the country’s Soviet-backed communist regime. Moscow’s tanks and troops crushed that uprising, and despite previous supportive rhetoric, Washington stood by passively.

Likewise, the United States has no intention to take significant steps—especially military measures—to help the Hong Kong demonstrators if Beijing cracks down. Neither the Trump administration nor Congress will do anything more than express outrage and perhaps impose some temporary diplomatic and economic sanctions. Given that reality, U.S. leaders need to avoid needlessly antagonizing Beijing regarding Hong Kong. They also owe it to the brave Hong Kong protesters to make clear now the strict limits of any backing from Washington. We must not lead them down the garden path to a Tiananmen Square-style debacle.

Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 800 articles on international affairs.