(Originally published by South China Morning Post on August 6, 2019.)
US diplomats and politicians talk endlessly about American ideals.
When addressing audiences worldwide, many are so high on rhetoric, they can’t see how many eyes in the room they send rolling. Human rights and democracy, they will tell captive audiences from the four corners of the Earth, are sacred to the American sensibility.
Therefore, accusations that the United States government is somehow behind the unrest gripping Hong Kong might not seem far-fetched at first blush.
But there’s a reason the rhetoric US officials spew elicits more groans than hallelujahs. Their oratory would be more inspiring if it wasn’t for what everyone familiar with US foreign policy knows: corporate interests trump all other considerations.
Even Christian zeal takes a back seat to the almighty dollar. Why else would the US be so willing to maintain close ties with Saudi Arabia in the face of the kingdom’s butchering of Jamal Khashoggi or its legally enforced paternalistic treatment of women under a strict interpretation of Islamic orthodoxy? Perhaps US$8 billion worth of arms sales to Riyadh?
Here’s another reason to doubt officials, including China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Hong Kong’s former leader Tung Chee-hwa when they blame the US for the popular uprising and subsequent violence in Hong Kong: Washington’s entire 40-year relationship with Beijing is premised on the understanding that criticism of China’s human rights record will not be allowed beyond the point at which it damages business ties.
Every US president over the past four decades toned down their criticism of China’s human rights record once they took their seat in the Oval Office and were schooled by the real powers that be in America: corporate lobbyists.
Donald Trump may be the first US president in that history to ignore the US Chamber of Commerce by starting a tariff war with China, but his move is aimed at forcing the Chinese to buy more US products and give US companies more market access. Whether Trump achieves his objectives is yet to be seen, and another debate entirely.
Suffice to say that Trump has no interest in human rights unless the issue begins to threaten revenues. And when it comes to that point, he’d be the first to approve of tear gas and rubber bullets.
And what about the 1,400-plus US companies operating in Hong Kong? The US has a larger representation in Hong Kong than anywhere else in terms of the number of companies with regional headquarters in the territory. Who in Beijing really believes that these companies would encourage the increased political risk they are now facing?
To be sure, the US has done a lot of damage around the world with its regime-change efforts. Washington’s “black hands” played a role in the downfall of Indonesia’s Sukarno and Iran’s Mohammad Mosaddegh. There have been more examples in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America through the decades, pretty much anywhere American companies make lots of money.
But those interventions undercut democracy to protect the interests of American oil companies and other corporations. Washington might have supported the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya during the Arab spring, but American companies had relatively few interests there anyway.
If there is any hope for Hong Kong protesters’ bid to preserve their individual rights and the territory’s autonomy, it comes in the hopelessness of the accusations by the likes of Yang and Tung.
The truth is now so simple, obvious and inescapable that Beijing and the Hong Kong pro-establishment camp find themselves in the same position as autocrats the world over, who face popular challenges they weren’t prepared for.
A broad swathe of the Hong Kong public is trying to slow Beijing’s plan to nullify the specialness of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Now that civil servants and a flash mob of financial sector workers have joined the hordes of protesters, Beijing will need more than accusations against American “black hands” to resolve the crisis.