Is US being weak - or careful - on Hong Kong protests?

As pro-democracy protests continue in Hong Kong, critics are calling for US sanctions on China. But, as long as the demonstrations remain largely peaceful, some US-China experts counter that the US is right to take a cautious approach, especially publicly.

Wally Santana/AP
Student protesters cross a main thoroughfare in Hong Kong, early Wednesday. Hong Kong's leader refused to meet with pro-democracy demonstrators by their midnight deadline Tuesday, despite their threats to expand the protests that have clogged the streets with tens of thousands of people in the stiffest challenge to Beijing's authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997.

As pro-democracy protesters have filled central Hong Kong – and ignored orders to disband – the United States has toed a careful line: supporting Hong Kongers’ right to free expression, but avoiding public criticism of China and the political decisions out of Beijing that sparked the protests. 

“The United States supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with the basic law and we support the aspirations of the Hong Kong people,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said this week.

Yet with each day that the protesters refuse to back down, the cautious US approach risks looking increasingly thin and weak on democracy, supporters of a more robust US response say. Some are already calling for sanctions along the lines of those slapped on China in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The get-tough-with-China-now camp is also blasting Britain for what some saw as a wobbly show of support for the protest movement. The government of Prime Minister David Cameron said it was monitoring the demonstrations closely and that the people’s rights need to be “preserved” even as the protesters need to exercise those rights “within the law.” 

But some US-China experts counter that the US is right to take a cautious approach, especially in its public comments on what is still an evolving – and so far largely peaceful – struggle.

“Washington has to walk a fairly careful line here, especially when you have the Chinese already making the claim, unfortunately, that the Hong Kong protests are externally motivated,” says Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington. “Any really overt level of support for the protesters’ demands would only reinforce those claims.”

What should be occurring behind the scenes, Mr. Cheng adds, is a strong message to Chinese officials – and in particular to President Xi Jinping – that repression cannot be an option, and that how Beijing resolves the crisis will have significant repercussions for Hong Kong’s and China’s relations with the world. 

“I would hope that Washington is making it very clear that 25 years after Tiananmen Square, the world is smaller, the whole world is watching Hong Kong, and that any forceful suppression of the Hong Kong protests will result in an even stronger backlash against China than in 1989,” he says.

The Hong Kong protests were sparked by Beijing’s recent announcement that, while it will allow the city’s next chief executive to be elected by universal suffrage in elections set for 2017, it will now insist on vetting the candidates. Pro-democracy demonstrators say the new restrictions violate the “basic law” adopted when the former British colony was turned over to Beijing in 1997.

As Mr. Xi navigates what is arguably the first crisis of his tenure, Cheng says the Chinese leader is being pulled between two key demands: to “stay firm, stay strong” toward the protesters on one hand, but to “keep Hong Kong viable as a world financial center” on the other.

Especially with the Chinese economy slowing, the US can remind Beijing of its interest in seeing Hong Kong remain a top international investment destination and not a new symbol of Chinese repression, Cheng says – but again, that kind of diplomacy should be carried out in private, he says. 

Xi also can be reminded that Beijing’s vision of “one country, two systems” is being tested in Hong Kong and watched closely, Cheng says – by the whole world in a general sense, but with particular interest by Taiwan, he adds, where Beijing wants to see that same vision applied.

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