HONG KONG — One of the young protesters directing traffic on Friday morning at a street barricade here was wearing a reproduction of British military fatigues, complete with a Union Jack on the shoulder. In any other city, the outfit might have been dismissed as hipster chic. But in Hong Kong, it caused a stir.
An older demonstrator approached and said the uniform was a bad idea because it might suggest foreign influence over the pro-democracy protests, especially given Hong Kong’s status as a former British colony. Then a young woman wearing a blue dress to show support for the police strode by, stuck out her right arm and gave him a thumbs down.
CreditRolex Dela Pena/European Pressphoto Agency
“They are the minority,” she said of the protesters. Declining to give her name, she added, “They are motivated by some forces behind them. They have huge supplies, so many masks — I think it is American money.”
The Chinese government’s stand also reflects its longstanding national security concerns about Hong Kong — and pervasive suspicions among Chinese officials, their local allies and a segment of the public that the protesters receive foreign support.
Some officials contend that the United States and Britain wield so much influence in Hong Kong that China cannot open the nomination process for candidates to succeed Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, in 2017 as protesters have demanded. Doing so, they argue, risks allowing voters to be manipulated and a puppet of the West to take power.
“Strategically, there is an American pivot to Asia still going on, so can you imagine it will not make use of the current turmoil?” asked Lau Nai-keung, a member of a Hong Kong committee that advises China’s legislature. “This is how the Beijing leadership views what is going on.”
Those who sympathize with the democracy movement tend to dismiss such concerns as paranoia. But many who back the government insist these worries are justified given the 155 years Hong Kong spent as a British colony and the unique autonomy it enjoys in China, not to mention the mixed record of the United States in toppling governments overseas in the name of spreading democracy.
Demographics are a cause for concern, too. Three-fifths of the population in Hong Kong grew up and went to school while it was governed by Britain. Many resident, as much as a tenth, have sworn loyalty to another government and carry passports from Canada, Australia, the United States and elsewhere, many acquired in the years immediately before Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
The city also has one of Asia’s largest concentrations of foreign diplomats and is home to several nongovernmental organizations deemed hostile by China, like the Catholic Church, the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Chinese officials, in public and in private, have been quick to portray the protests as the latest in a series of Western-sponsored color revolutions after those in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. They have seized on any hint that the demonstrators might be inspired by foreign powers, especially the United States and to a lesser extent Britain, to make their case.
“People will find that supporting color revolutions has already become a habit and mission of some people in the United States,” wrote Wu Sike, a longtime Chinese diplomat, in Liberation Daily, the official paper of the Communist Party in Shanghai.
There is no dispute that diplomats representing the United States and other Western governments have met on occasion with members of the pro-democracy camp, nor that American-funded nongovernmental organizations have invited Hong Kong citizens to conferences extolling the merits of democracy.
But in several dozen interviews with protesters and protest leaders over the last week, all emphatically denied that their movement had been directed or manipulated in any way by any foreign government. The United States has also denied playing any guiding role here.