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On Hong Kong, China Tells Key Senator to Butt Out

The Chinese government rebuked the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, instructing New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez to keep his opinions about Hong Kong’s democratic unrest to himself. On Tuesday, Menendez had sent a letter to Hong Kong’s chief executive, urging him to respect the democratic rights of Hong Kong’s people. ...

Getty Images
Getty Images

The Chinese government rebuked the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, instructing New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez to keep his opinions about Hong Kong’s democratic unrest to himself. On Tuesday, Menendez had sent a letter to Hong Kong’s chief executive, urging him to respect the democratic rights of Hong Kong’s people.

“Hong Kong affairs fall entirely within China’s internal affairs,” Chinese Embassy spokesman Geng Shuang told Foreign Policy. “We hope that some countries and people can be prudent in their words and deeds, refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of Hong Kong in any way, do not support the illegal activities such as the ‘Occupy Central,’ and do not send any wrong signals.”

As massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong continued for a sixth day, Beijing has grown increasingly sensitive to any outside involvement in the dispute. Tens of thousands of protesters, incensed at China’s refusal to allow the open selection of candidates for Hong Kong’s first democratic election in 2017, have shut down the city’s business hub and ignored appeals to leave. The situation escalated on Sunday, when Hong Kong police attempted to break up the demonstrations with pepper spray, tear gas, and batons, which shocked a public unaccustomed to aggressive crowd-control tactics and only succeeded in swelling the protesters’ ranks.

Menendez’s letter was in response to the crackdown. In it, he implored Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to respect the rights of his people to assemble peacefully and condemned the Hong Kong government’s “excessive” use of tear gas.

“I write today to express my grave concerns over current events in Hong Kong, including the use of tear gas and pepper spray targeting peaceful demonstrators gathered to call for the right of the citizens of Hong Kong to be able to choose their own representatives,” the letter reads. “Beijing has made numerous statements over the years about its commitment … to provide the people of Hong Kong with a genuine say in their governance and future…. Beijing has reneged on the promises it made.” 

The Chinese government has consistently defended Leung’s handling of the protests and considers the activities of civil disobedience group Occupy Central illegal. “The Chinese central government firmly opposes all kinds of illegal acts in Hong Kong that undermine the rule of law and sabotage social security, including the illegal assembly of ‘Occupy Central,’ stirred up by some people in Hong Kong,” Geng said.

When contacted, Hong Kong Commissioner to the United States Clement Leung, the most senior Hong Kong official in the U.S., also defended the police’s handling of the situation. “The Police response … was tactical and measured,” said Leung. “It had been prompted by violent clashes at the cordon line coupled with the huge pressure of a surging crowd. It had been taken after repeated, unsuccessful warnings to protesters to stop charging the Police line.”

China’s ruling class clearly fears that the demands for democratic reforms in Hong Kong could spread like a virus to the mainland. As a result, they’ve gone to great lengths to block news of the protests in mainland China, deploying an army of online censors to delete photos and comments posted to Weibo, a Chinese social platform with 46 million daily users. On Sunday, Weibo censorship reached a yearly high at 152 censored posts per 10,000, according to Weiboscope, a project run by the University of Hong Kong. (The day’s top censored terms were “Hong Kong” and “police.”)

On Monday, the White House offered support for the protesters’ demands that went beyond the administration’s usual pro forma response for greater democracy in China.

“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. “We have consistently made our position known to Beijing and will continue to do so.”

In the past, the administration has been reluctant to weigh in too forcefully on the side of Hong Kong activists to avoid jeopardizing the independence of the grassroots movement and further alienating Beijing. The issue is likely to come up on Wednesday, when Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the State Department.

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