One of the many colorful images from the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong was of a demonstrator wearing a Gulf War-era U.S. military helmet and carrying a red-white-and-blue Captain America shield.
Was it finally irrefutable proof that Washington was behind the political unrest aimed at local government and mainland Chinese leadership in Beijing?
Not quite. The protester was 30-year-old kung fu instructor and Hollywood movie buff Ken Chow, who said the Marvel Comics prop would protect him from riot police.
Nevertheless, among the more persistent conspiracy theories being bandied about during the recent turbulent days in Hong Kong is that demonstrators calling for more self-rule are taking cues from the West, particularly the U.S. Hong Kong, a former British territory, returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
Days before riot police shot tear gas into crowds of protesters in the city’s financial center nearly two weeks ago, the pro-Beijing local newspaper Wen Wei Po published what it called an expose on student leader Joshua Wong’s ties to the U.S. government.
Citing Internet sleuths who claimed to capture photographs of the 17-year-old meeting with U.S. consular officials, the newspaper alleged Washington had been cultivating Wong for years as a political “superstar.” The piece even went so far as to claim the scrawny teenager received combat training from U.S. Marines. Wong told Hong Kong media the story was “science fiction.”
Other pro-democracy figures such as Benny Tai, a founder of the group Occupy Central with Love and Peace, and media tycoon Jimmy Lai have also been accused of being stooges for Washington.
“Jimmy Lai is the black hand behind the scenes in cahoots with the Americans,” read protest signs carried recently by pro-Beijing demonstrators in Hong Kong. “Black hand” is a term popularized by Cultural Revolution-era propaganda, used to disparage intellectuals and the ruling class.
Accusing opponents of foreign meddling harks back to those days too, but it has become an increasingly popular tool for the Chinese Communist Party under President Xi Jinping.
Xi has ordered his censorship apparatus to bar discourse on Western democracy, one of several forbidden topics deemed threatening to China’s heightened nationalistic temperament.
That narrative emphasizes a Western world intent on containing China’s rise. It embitters schoolchildren at an early age about Japan’s brutal wartime occupation and Britain’s invasion during the Opium War. The loss of Hong Kong to the British crown in the 1840s remains a shameful chapter in Chinese history.
“After 110 years of foreign predation, the communists took power [in 1949] arguing that China has stood up,” said Clayton Dube, executive director of the USC U.S.-China Institute. “Blaming the foreigners plays into all of that.”
Beijing has long been wary of American influence in the color revolutions that swept Eastern Europe and the Arab world. Beijing supporters accuse nongovernmental organizations such as the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy of channeling money to advocacy groups to destabilize China. (The NED denies this.)
As if to quash even the thought of that happening in Hong Kong, the People’s Daily, a government mouthpiece, said last week that any color revolution in the territory of 7 million amounted to a “daydream.” It warned that the protest movement could result in “significant economic loss, and possibly serious consequences in terms of injuries and deaths.”
“Beijing has made it very clear that it will not allow people to collude with hostile foreign forces,” said Willy Lam, a political analyst and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It’s mostly to delegitimize the opposition and stir up nationalism within China. From Day One, Xi has been stoking these flames. Now it’s being used to stop the ‘evil Americans’ from taking over Hong Kong.”
In recent days, an infographic has been making the rounds on the Chinese Internet that tries to explain how foreign forces have been behind the mass sit-in movement in Hong Kong, which emerged as a result of new rules imposed by authorities in Beijing that would limit voters’ choices in the 2017 election for chief executive, the territory’s top official.
“They’re like ghosts who have been shadowing the movement everywhere,” an introduction to the infographic reads.
Graphics include a dark-skinned hand with claws for fingernails wearing a jacket sleeve colored in the Stars and Stripes shaking another hand.
It contends that the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong harbors a high-level spy and that a U.S. research center at the Chinese University of Hong Kong trained members of the Occupy movement.
The consulate has said it was not picking sides in the recent protests. However, it fired back at the allegations of collusion with the demonstrators.
“We categorically reject accusations that we are manipulating the activities of any person, group or political party in Hong Kong,” said Scott Robinson, a spokesman for the consulate. “What is happening in Hong Kong is about the people of Hong Kong, and any assertion otherwise is an attempt to distract from the issue at hand, which is the people of Hong Kong expressing their desire for universal suffrage and an election that provides a meaningful choice of candidates representative of the voters’ will.”
There are those within Hong Kong who are wondering why the international community hasn’t picked sides – especially Britain.
In an op-ed Sunday in the Guardian, a British newspaper, former Hong Kong chief secretary Anson Chan said one of the “most profoundly disappointing responses to the events in Hong Kong has been Britain’s silence – or its weak words that have sometimes been worse than silence.”
Chan said London had an obligation to ensure that Beijing lived up to promises made 30 years ago to move toward free elections in Hong Kong.
When Chris Patten, the former unelected British governor of Hong Kong, suggested in a newspaper opinion piece last week that Britain had a moral obligation to pressure Beijing, he was met with derision from China’s ambassador in London.
“For more than a century and a half, Britain had total responsibility for the territory – and did nothing to encourage or produce democracy,” Liu Xioaming shot back in another newspaper opinion piece. “It is therefore the rankest hypocrisy of people such as Lord Patten to criticize China for any perceived failings to introduce democracy.”
Tommy Yang of The Times’ Beijing bureau and special correspondent Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong contributed to this report.