Accusing Hong Kong Activists of Being Tools of US Policy is Both Ignorant and Dangerous
Libeling a Democracy Movement
A number of progressive and left-leaning writers in the US have jumped on a report by Wikileaks that the neo-con dominated National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and various other US-government linked organizations with a history of subversion and sowing discord abroad are operating in Hong Kong and on that basis are making the leap of “logic” that the democracy protests in Hong Kong must therefore be a creation of US policy-makers.
As a progressive, Chinese-fluent journalist who has spent years working in China and especially Hong Kong, and who has spent decades exposing the secret workings of US agencies and their network of fake NGOs in support of US empire, as well as their anti-democratic activities here in the US, I can understand why people might be suspicious, but I want to explain that Hong Kong is not Ukraine or even Venezuela or Brazil.
Long a colony of Great Britain, Hong Kong has a more than century-long tradition of people fighting for their freedom and for the right to have a government elected by themselves, and not simply appointed to rule over them. Especially in the years of the 1960s-’90s, as the time drew ever closer when the British would have to leave and an increasingly powerful and assertive China would assume sovereignty over this British colony, they won freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and a legal system that largely protected them from arbitrary arrest and detention without charge. They even won a small degree of democratic power, as the British agreed grudgingly to allow a minority of the seats in the city’s Legislative Council (Legco) to be elected by popular vote by district. Britain did not, right up to the handover of sovereignty to China in July 1997, allow Hong Kongers to elect the city’s “mayor,” known as Governor, who remained a crown appointee of the UK right to the lowering of the Union Jack.
But because of the militant demands of Hong Kong people, who regularly took to the streets en masse to demand that freedom and democracy both be not just protected but expanded after the handover, China was forced -- by its need to reassure foreign investors and companies that political stability and rule of law would be continued in Hong Kong under Chinese rule -- to grant those demands. Thus the Basic Law that governs the relationship between China and what is now called the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, assures the democratic election by popular vote of 40 of Legco’s 70 seats (the remainder are “elected” or chosen by various occupational sectors like law, banking, etc.). The Basic Law also guarantees the continuation of the key freedoms won by Hong Kong people: speech, press, religion, assembly, etc., including labor rights like the right to join unions and to strike. Significantly, nearly all of the elected seats in Legco have been won repeatedly by representatives of the various pro-democracy parties, which have the overwhelming support of Hong Kong residents.
I give this history to make it clear that there is a multigenerational history of struggling for and defending individual rights and of fighting for democratic rights in Hong Kong. Hong Kong people are not new to this stuff, and as an educated population with access to a world of information in their open media and wide open internet, they are not a population that is readily susceptible to the kind of manipulation and subversion practiced typically by the likes of the NED.
Certainly in a time like this, the NED, USAID (and the CIA), could be expected to try to gain some influence. Why not? But saying that they are active in Hong Kong and trying to have influence is a far cry from saying they are “behind” the protests or that they have “orchestrated” the protests. Those who make this leap are, I believe, exhibiting unintentionally an attitude of Western cultural superiority that assumes that “We Americans” are smart enough to see this kind of subversion, but Hong Kong people wouldn’t notice how they are being used.
To suggest, for example, that long-tested leaders of Hong Kong’s democracy movement like Martin Lee Chu Ming, Emily Lau, or labor and democracy activist Lee Cheuk Yan, are “in bed with” the NED because they might have attended some NED event or that 17-year-old student protest leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung is working for the US because he and his father allegedly once visited the US Consulate in Hong Kong, is both nonsense, and the height of imperial-minded arrogance. Lee, Lau and Lee are virtually the MLK, Mother Jones and Cesar Chavez of the Hong Kong freedom struggle and worked at great personal sacrifice to win more freedom and local control from the British long before China was in charge of the territory! And Wong, despite his tender years, clearly has courage and a mind of his own. Visiting the US Consulate is a commonplace event in Hong Kong, and that action signifies nothing. (By the way, what are the odds the NED or CIA would opt to go with a 17-year-old kid to organize this massive protest? Seriously? That’s about as likely as that the International Muslim Conspiracy to Create a Sharia Law America would have selected a young Kenyan-born black child as their vehicle to become their Manchurian-candidate president and then subvert the US. The truth is this kid, who won his organizing spurs at 14 opposing a politically-guided Hong Kong history curriculum, has won his current surprising position of influence through conviction, intellect, guts and charisma.)
Let me tell a personal story to illustrate what I’m talking about with respect to jumping to conclusions:
Back in 1990, when my wife and I were between jobs, I applied for and was awarded a one-year Fulbright post in Shanghai, where I would be teaching journalism at Fudan University, one of China’s top schools.
Over that year I came to know my students, and some of my teaching colleagues, well. The kids were smart, and for the most part dedicated to being good journalists. There was one ardent Maoist from an important Communist family in the class, whom I learned along the way had been required to deliver the students’ papers to monitors in the school’s foreign affairs office (waiban) for vetting before they were turned in to me. Most of these kids were quite sophisticated politically. They were interested in the world and in the US, but were well aware of America’s crimes as well as of its virtues, just as they were aware of the good and bad aspects of their own country’s culture and politics.
Midway through the year, there was a gathering of all 20 Fulbright professors at a tourist spot in Kunming. The event was hosted by the office of press and cultural affairs of the US Embassy in Beijing.
It soon became apparent that there was a big issue for us to confront. One colleague, a professor of economics from a university in Texas, had run afoul of the Chinese authorities at his school and in Beijing because he had given his students an assignment to write a paper analyzing the relative competitive benefit, if any, to one country using prison labor to produce products for export to another country. There was at that time a big scandal where Newsweek magazine had exposed a chain of Chinese prisons that were using forced prison labor to produce products for export to the US--including products owned by US companies that had moved their production facilities to China. (That edition of the magazine had been banned in China, but he had distributed copies of the article to his students.)
The university had ordered the professor to turn over his students’ essays to them, and his students, who had waxed passionate against the prison and legal system in China, and against the widespread practice of “re-education through labor,” were pleading with him not to turn over their papers. He had refused to do so, and was being threatened with deportation and termination of his Fulbright appointment.
The embassy, which the Fulbright Program had asked to mediate, was pressuring this professor to cave in and to sacrifice his students “for the sake of the program,” but the other 19 Fulbrighters, myself included, protested. I proposed that we take a vote to support him and we then unanimously demanded that academic freedom be respected and that the professor not be required to turn in the papers. We also demanded that the US oppose his deportation, with some of us saying we’d rather all be sent home in solidarity than have him forced out for defending his students from retaliation or worse.
In the end, he burned the students’ papers and ended the issue. He was allowed to stay on for the rest of the school year and finish the program.
A revealing moment in this struggle came when the head of the press and cultural affairs office at the US Embassy, a Special Forces veteran of the Vietnam War and, I suspect, a CIA officer who was using his official post as cover at the Embassy, lectured us saying, “Remember: You Fulbrighters are all special forces personnel parachuted behind enemy lines here in China.”
While we were shocked to hear such a thing said about us, we were not surprised to learn that we were viewed in Washington as being cogs in America’s foreign policy strategy. Most of us came through the 1960s as anti-war and civil rights activists, after all, and we shared at least a jaded, or in many cases like my own, an oppositional view of US foreign policy. But none of us were cooperative “agents.” This guy was roundly denounced for saying what he had said about us, and we assured him we were not doing his bidding, but rather would act on our own -- as we were all doing in our role as visiting professors. No one went along with his “orders” to surrender our colleague and his students.
I tell this story to illustrate how the mere fact that someone participates, or at some point in the past participated, in a US government program, whether it’s the Peace Corps, the Fulbright Program, or some other project or conference sponsored by some organization like USAID or NED, does not mean that person is “bought” or “controlled” or even “influenced” by those organizations.
Another story: After I had finished my year in China as a Fulbrighter, and was living in Hong Kong, working as a free-lance correspondent for Business Week, I was called by someone claiming he was a correspondent for Chronicle of Higher Education, a US journal for academics. He came to our house and started interviewing me about my experience as a Fulbright professor in Shanghai.
As the interview progressed, his questions started veering into areas that seemed curious, such as the ideological position of my students and faculty colleagues at Fudan, and my opinion about what Chinese students, faculty and ordinary people thought about their government. I found an excuse to end the interview, and then, after he had left, began investigating him. I called the Chronicle for Higher Education and found that there was no such contributor writing for them. They had never heard of him. The business card he gave me had a number that was not working. Asking around in Hong Kong, I learned that this guy was fairly well known in the foreign press corps as a US government operative -- probably CIA.
Clearly, the agents of US imperialism are tireless -- and utterly without principle, as using journalists was barred by law -- in their efforts to use people. Equally clearly, outfits like the NED or NID are going to try to take advantage of movements like the current one in Hong Kong to make trouble for a country like China that is viewed as a US enemy, opponent or rival. But the mere fact that such efforts are made does not mean that they succeed.
Particularly where there is an educated, well informed populace as in Hong Kong, and/or where there is a long tradition of popular movements in defense of liberty, as is also the case in Hong Kong, it a kind of Western arrogance to suggest that a moment like this must be the creation of US imperialism and its agents.
I find the gullibility of journalists and bloggers who glibly make such charges -- most of whom have little if any knowledge of Hong Kong and its history of struggle -- and the gullibility of some readers, who all to quickly are ready to believe the wildest of conspiracy claims on the flimsiest of evidence, disappointing and disturbing.
The truth is, American activists have a lot to learn from activists in Hong Kong.
I’m not saying that the NED, CIA, USAID and other such organizations should not be exposed for their efforts to infiltrate movements, and to try to sow chaos in Hong Kong and around the globe. But those who exaggerate the impact of such agencies, as some writers are doing in this instance, pose a threat to the people of Hong Kong. Beijing wants to claim that all protests in Hong Kong are the work of subversives and US imperialism, and those in the US who are saying that same thing are makng China’s task easier.
What we on the left who oppose US empire should be doing is not undermining the indigenous activists in Hong Kong in their long and continuing struggle to defend and expand their liberty and autonomy, but rather working to insist that the US government and its secretive agencies of imperialism butt out of Hong Kong.