According to the Chinese foreign ministry, much of the unrest in Hong Kong can be attributed to a handful of American non-governmental organizations. This is an absurd assertion, but it is absurd in an instructive way.
Last week the ministry announced sanctions against Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. Spokesperson Hua Chunying explained that these organizations "have supported anti-China plotters" and "separatist activities" in Hong Kong, "aiding and abetting them in extreme violent criminal acts."
None of this is true, of course. Most of these organizations don't even have offices in Hong Kong, and none of them promotes separatism or violence.
China targeted the NGOs in response to President Donald Trump signing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last month. It also announced it would suspend approval for US Navy and Air Force visits to Hong Kong. China did not, however, pull out of trade negotiations with the US, as some of Trump's advisers feared it would if he signed the bill. So it's possible to punish and pressure China for human-rights violations while simultaneously renegotiating the terms of US-China trade.
The targeting of the NGOs is also telling because it reveals a deep insecurity within the Chinese Communist Party. Since the 1990s, desperate leaders have made scapegoats of organizations such as Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy. This is almost always a response to internal challenges to an autocrat's legitimacy.
The tactic has two purposes: to make US programs that support democratic opposition toxic; and to make popular unrest appear to be the result of US meddling.
This is not to say that autocrats don't have reason to fear America's promotion of democracy. Groups such as the International Republican Institute played a crucial role in helping to fund and train the democratic opposition to Serbia's late dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, for example, but they were not responsible for his downfall. He was toppled because Serbian citizens organized a campaign of civil disobedience after Milosevic attempted to steal an election in 2000. Serbs led that revolution, not Americans.
Chinese President Xi Jinping does not face an existential challenge the way Milosevic did. He nonetheless has good reason to be nervous about Hong Kong. Last month, pro-democracy candidates swept to power in city council elections, a rebuke to Xi's heavy-handed policies. This has followed a half-year stand off between the mainland and the city-state over a proposal that would allow Hong Kong residents to be extradited to Chinese courts. If Hong Kong's protests continue to flourish, the Chinese people may start to believe that resistance to Xi's regime is not futile.
In this respect, there may be a silver lining to China's response to the US Hong Kong legislation. "There is a great opportunity to highlight what we do versus what they do," says Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska, the chairman of the International Republican Institute. "There is a good counterpunch idea here."
Sullivan is working on legislation aimed at restoring more reciprocity to the US-China relationship, only partly focused on trade. "China has around 2,000 journalists who have free rein inside the United States," he says. "For American journalists in China, the restrictions are legendary." Sullivan wants to press Beijing to allow US reporters in China the same kind of access afforded to Chinese reporters in America.
Another idea Sullivan has is for the US to start a "James Madison Institute" program at Chinese universities. Such centers would promote American values to Chinese students, similar to how China uses its Confucius Institute program at US universities to support Chinese values.
It should be said that the FBI considers Confucius institutes to be a part of China's broader campaign to steal technology and infiltrate US society, and that the US government has pressured universities to close their Confucius institutes. Nonetheless, the lack of any kind of US counterpart to the Confucius institutes in China is a reminder of how unfair the broader US-China relationship is.
Sullivan tells me that he has raised this James Madison Institute idea with senior Chinese officials. "They say, 'The Confucius institutes are about Chinese culture and language. The James Madison Institute would be about propaganda.'"
This is another false claim that proves too much — much like China's assertion that the grass-roots activism in Hong Kong is due to the machinations of human-rights organizations. The reason that China's Communist Party fears the promotion of democratic values is clear: because it fears the empowerment of the Chinese people.
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