Hong Kong protesters call for US help. China sees a conspiracy.

Edward Wong, The New York Times

Posted at Nov 04 2019 10:11 AM | Updated as of Nov 04 2019 10:12 AM

University students wearing Guy Fawkes masks pose for a photoshoot of a graduation ceremony to support anti-government protests at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, in Hong Kong. Tyrone Siu, Reuters

HONG KONG — The Hong Kong protests at times seem like love fests with 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 United States 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 United States 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 United States.

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

For the U.S. government, the protests are more complicated — a potential policy dilemma but also a potential point of leverage with Beijing and a way to channel U.S. 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 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 song, some U.S. 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, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, donned an all-black outfit, while Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., posted photographs from a protest.

In Washington, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, has met with activists, pro-democracy politicians and 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 United States 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 Selina Po, a 27-year-old protester wearing a mouth mask in the Admiralty neighborhood 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 U.S. officials say the United States 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.

Pro-Hong Kong protesters in costume finish walking in the 46th Annual Village Halloween Parade in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., October 31, 2019. Yana Paskova, Reuters

The Chinese government and state-run news organizations talk about “black hands” behind the unrest and spread conspiracy theories, including one centered on a U.S. diplomat in Hong Kong who was photographed with activists in the lobby of the JW Marriott Hotel.

As the protests persist, U.S. 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 nonviolent tactics, even in the face of police crackdowns and attacks by people sympathetic to Beijing.

An anti-government protester throws a Molotov cocktail during a protest in Hong Kong's tourism district of Tsim Sha Tsui. Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

On Sunday, 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, Andrew Chiu.

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

Two Democratic congressmen, Tom Suozzi and 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 nonviolence.

Whether the United States takes greater action on Hong Kong hinges on the unpredictable Trump. Administration officials and U.S. 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 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 U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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

If a Hong Kong bill reaches 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,” 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 Trump’s approach gives the United States a stronger hand in constraining Beijing on Hong Kong — even if it appears that Trump just wants to use the Chinese territory to his advantage.

“America expects Beijing to honor its commitments,” 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.”

Anti-government protesters wear Guy Fawkes masks during a Halloween march in Lan Kwai Fong, Central district, Hong Kong, China October 31, 2019. Tyrone Siu, Reuters

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

On Wednesday, 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.

Pelosi met Wong in Washington in September.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, 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 spokeswoman added. “Any attempt to interfere in Hong Kong affairs will not succeed.”

Many demonstrators want U.S. intervention and are focusing their attention on the legislation. The mere threat of U.S. 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 U.S. flags.

“The power of Hong Kong people alone is limited, and we need other countries, such as the U.S., to help us counter China and keep ‘one country, two systems,’” said 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 U.S. officials say the bill could harm Hong Kong residents if the United States 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, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

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