Hong Kong protesters call for US help, but they may be in for some disappointment

In a photo taken on Sept 8, 2019, protesters carry US national flags during a march from Chater Garden to the US Consulate in Hong Kong.
In a photo taken on Sept 8, 2019, protesters carry US national flags during a march from Chater Garden to the US Consulate in Hong Kong.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - The Hong Kong protests at times seem like love fests for the United States. Depending on the day, demonstrators wave American flags or Uncle Sam recruitment posters, and even dress as Captain America, complete with shield.

The US represents democracy, and the activists hope that maybe, just maybe, it will save Hong Kong. Five months in, they are trying harder than ever to draw the US into their movement.

The protesters are pressing Hong Kong officials and their overseers, the authoritarian Communist Party leaders of China, for greater democratic rights and rule-of-law in the autonomous territory.

As they see it, the Trump administration might be able to make demands of Chinese leaders or Hong Kong officials, especially because members of elite political circles want to maintain access to the US.

Also, they note, the trade war with China, started by President Donald Trump, is adding pressure overall on President Xi Jinping.

For the US government, the protests are more complicated - they are a potential policy dilemma, but also a potential point of leverage with Beijing and a way to channel US values to the rest of the world.

"The United States should continue to deter Beijing from use of force, maintain an unblinking eye on Hong Kong, and make Beijing pay a heavy reputational cost for curtailing the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong citizens," said Mr Ryan Hass, a former State Department and National Security Council official now at the Brookings Institution.

Yet, he added: "I worry that the protesters in Hong Kong risk misinterpreting American sympathy and support of their cause for expectation that the United States will shield them from Beijing's heavy hand."


If the protesters are sending out a siren call, some US officials and lawmakers are answering it, eager to show their commitment to the cause.

Members of Congress have appeared in Hong Kong in public displays of solidarity. Last month, senator Ted Cruz donned an all-black outfit, while senator Josh Hawley posted photographs from a protest.

In Washington, Ms Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, has met activists, pro-democracy politicians and Mr Jimmy Lai, a publisher considered radioactive by Beijing.

Vice-President Mike Pence singled out Hong Kong as a beacon of liberty in a speech, saying: "We stand with you; we are inspired by you."

And versions of a Bill that would give support to the protesters are moving though Congress with bipartisan backing. The legislation, among other things, would allow the US to impose economic sanctions and a travel ban on Hong Kong officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses.

"We hope this Bill will pass," said Ms Selina Po, a 27-year-old protester wearing a mouth mask in the Admiralty neighbourhood as she held up a sign with the Bill's name, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

"It's our hope for winning this war. We're trying all we can."

But American officials say the US needs to weigh its moves carefully.

Greater involvement by Americans could give Beijing more ammunition in its propaganda effort to portray the pro-democracy movement as one stoked by foreign forces.

In a photo taken on Oct 7, 2019, a man wearing a Captain America costume walks on a street as protesters and pedestrians gather near the Mong Kok police station in Hong Kong. PHOTO: AFP

The Chinese government and state-run news organisations talk about "black hands" behind the unrest and spread conspiracy theories, including one centred on a US diplomat in Hong Kong who was photographed with activists in the lobby of the JW Marriott Hotel.

As the protests persist, US officials are watching for surges in violence and tracking the movement of People's Liberation Army soldiers into Hong Kong. Some are beseeching demonstrators to stick to non-violent tactics, even in the face of police crackdowns and attacks by people sympathetic to Beijing.

On Sunday (Nov 3), at least six people were injured when a man with a knife, who is believed to be against the democracy movement, attacked a family at a shopping mall. In the melee, the attacker bit off part of the ear of a pro-democracy district council member, Mr Andrew Chiu.

"We're telling everyone that we interact with, we don't want violence," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last Wednesday. "We think there should be a political solution to the conflict that's taking place there."

Two Democratic congressmen, Mr Tom Suozzi and Mr John Lewis, the icon of the American civil rights movement, posted a video last month praising the activists for their "great work" and urging them to stick to non-violence.

Whether the US takes greater action on Hong Kong hinges on the unpredictable Mr Trump.


Administration officials and US lawmakers talk openly about checking the authoritarian impulses of the Chinese Communist Party. But the President rarely, if ever, mentions human rights and democracy, and he has not made strong statements on Hong Kong.

He is a transactional president. In June, he told Mr Xi on a call that he would stay quiet on Hong Kong as long as Washington and Beijing were making progress on trade talks, according to a US official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In October, the Trump administration imposed some restrictions on Chinese companies and organisations for their roles in the mass repression of Muslims in mainland China, but Mr Trump has held back from harsher actions for fear of upsetting the trade negotiations.

If a Hong Kong Bill reaches Mr Trump's desk, analysts say, the President might see it as merely a tool to wring concessions from China and could forgo support if a trade agreement were close.

"Strong American bipartisan support for the peaceful protesters is not enough to override President Trump's transactional instincts," Mr Hass said. "He does not look at Hong Kong through a values-based lens. And as long as he remains president, this outlook will limit America's responses to developments in Hong Kong."

Administration officials argue that Mr Trump's approach gives the US a stronger hand in constraining Beijing on Hong Kong - even if it appears that Mr Trump just wants to use the Chinese territory to his advantage.

"America expects Beijing to honour its commitments," Mr Pence said, "and President Trump has repeatedly made it clear it would be much harder for us to make a trade deal if the authorities resort to the use of violence against protesters in Hong Kong."


In the eyes of Beijing, there has been no shortage of provocations by US politicians. On Oct 22, Ms Pelosi posted on Twitter a photograph of herself on Capitol Hill with three pro-democracy figures - Mr Lai, Mr Martin Lee and Ms Janet Pang.

"My full support and admiration goes to those who have taken to the streets week after week in nonviolent protest to fight for democracy and the rule of law in #HongKong," she wrote.

Last Wednesday, Ms Pelosi slammed the decision by Hong Kong officials to bar activist Joshua Wong from running in local elections. She said it was "another blow against rule of law in Hong Kong and the principle of 'one country, two systems'", referring to the foundation for the policy of autonomy that Britain and China agreed would be used to govern the territory.

Ms Pelosi met Mr Wong in Washington in September.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ms Hua Chunying, lashed out, saying: "It is precisely because of the naked cover-up and connivance of external forces such as Pelosi that the violent anti-law forces are even more fearless."

"No matter how your eyes are blinded by prejudice, no matter how your heart is filled with evil, Hong Kong is China's Hong Kong," the spokesman added. "Any attempt to interfere in Hong Kong affairs will not succeed."

Many demonstrators want US intervention and are focusing their attention on the legislation. The mere threat of US sanctions, they say, would give the movement greater voice with Beijing.


On Oct 14, the night before a vote on the Bill in the House of Representatives, protesters held a rally in the Central district to call for its passage. Tens of thousands attended, many of them carrying US flags.

"The power of Hong Kong people alone is limited, and we need other countries, such as the US, to help us counter China and keep 'one country, two systems'," said Mr Eric Kwan, 32.

"I doubt the act can be an ultimate game-changer, but I think it is enough to give pressure to China."

Along with allowing for sanctions, the legislation requires the State Department to review each year whether Hong Kong is still autonomous enough to qualify for the benefits of the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act, which grants the city a trade and economic status different from that of mainland China.

Some US officials say the Bill could harm Hong Kong residents if the US determines that the territory no longer qualifies as an autonomous entity. But the Bill's proponents defend its practical and symbolic value.

"Standing in support of Hong Kongers and preserving Hong Kong's autonomy should be a priority of the United States and democracies worldwide," said one of the Bill's sponsors, senator Marco Rubio.

The Bill passed the House by unanimous vote last month. Though the Senate majority leader, Mr Mitch McConnell, has not scheduled a vote yet, the measure is expected to pass that chamber easily, with a veto-proof majority. Then Mr Trump would have to decide whether to sign it into law.