Beijing Blames Foreigners When Hong Kongers March

Belief in foreign spies is projection about the Party's own overseas activities.

Protesters demonstrate bill on June 16, 2019 in Hong Kong.
Protesters demonstrate bill on June 16, 2019 in Hong Kong. Carl Court/Getty Images

As many as 2 million Hong Kongers marched in black on Sunday against a feared extradition bill, according to the protest’s organizers. That was more than a quarter of the city’s population, making it one of the largest protests in modern history—and up from a million the week before. On June 12, thousands of people faced down riot police on the streets, after having earlier surrounded the legislature, and caused a halt to proceedings on the extradition bill.

But according to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the driving force behind these acts of defiance was not the determination of Hong Kongers to protect their own legal system and rights but “foreign interference” by hostile governments. China’s Foreign Ministry even released a statement (in Chinese) directly blaming Western media for inciting foreign governments to interfere. Chinese state media like Global Times (where I worked several years ago) has been putting out numerous articles in the past week warning against “powerful influence from foreign forces” while accusing the “Hong Kong opposition” of being “hand in glove with the United States.” Even Hong Kong’s only representative to China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee referred to protesters as “pawns” after meeting with China’s top official in Hong Kong.

Blaming what is clearly a popular movement supported across society on shadowy foreign forces reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge that Hong Kong’s opposition to the proposed law is due to heartfelt distrust of China. But it’s also a warning sign about how deep paranoia about the outside world runs among the Chinese leadership today.To be sure, accusations of a sinister foreign hand are nothing new in the CCP playbook as it made very similar accusations about the 2014 Umbrella Movement that occupied central Hong Kong for almost three months to try to effect electoral change. It might seem ridiculous, but it’s a very effective argument among the mainland public—and something that’s truly believed by part of the leadership.

There is genuine concern among some CCP leaders of foreign support for public movements calling for overthrowing the government. In part, that’s because the CCP has so effectively crushed civil society, especially in recent years. Chinese still protest frequently, but those protests are isolated and limited to narrow or local causes. While in the past, protests, such as the 2011 marches against chemical plants in Dalian and elsewhere, sometimes caused change, under Xi Jinping the government’s reaction has become much harsher. Foreign intervention is thus seen as the only factor that could power widespread dissent.

In part, this stems from the experience of the Arab Spring. The so-called “color revolutions,” as Chinese media described them, that took place across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 are often cited by China as being caused by Western interference. It’s hard to tell how sincere that belief is, but it’s certainly rhetorically convenient for Beijing. After all, the CCP was built on popular revolution—or claimed to be—itself, and revolution by the young was a core value of Maoism. Any actual revolution that threatens the party, therefore, has to be ideologically discounted or minimized. That worry is especially acute in Hong Kong, where the ability of the public to mobilize, gather, and protest has not been hamstrung by decades of oppression.

But it’s also very effective propaganda for a domestic audience that has been primed to see the outside world as hostile. After all, the CCP has been remarkably effective in pushing the “century of humiliation” among both domestic and international audiences. While based on real events, especially the Opium Wars, the CCP’s premise is that China’s misfortune during the 19th and 20th centuries was wholly due to humiliating defeats and bullying from Western powers. This goes hand in hand with the CCP never owning up to its own faults such as the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen tragedy. The cultivation of China’s suffering a century of humiliation at the hands of the West has led to a persistent and ongoing victim mentality.

This isn’t just in the past. Beijing has been steadily ramping up anti-foreigner campaigns in recent years. These have included expat nightclubs and bars in Beijing and Shenzhen getting raided by police for drug checks, public notices urging Chinese to report “suspicious” Westerners, and cartoons depicting big-nosed Western spies seducing innocent Chinese girls. Meanwhile, numerous foreigners have been arrested on vague charges of espionage and subverting state power over the past few years. This includes Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig last December, still held in solitary confinement as hostages against the detention of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

When the Umbrella Movement unfolded in Hong Kong five years ago, Beijing initially blocked all reporting on it in the mainland. As the protest continued for weeks in the midst of Hong Kong’s main administrative district, Beijing soon began making allegations of foreign interference, such as claiming that the CIA had helped the protesters by supplying them with goods. Never mind that years later, no credible proof has been provided by Beijing or its Hong Kong pro-establishment political allies to establish this case. The same playbook has come out now.

This time, Beijing’s accusations centered on Hong Kong opposition political figures meeting with U.S. politicians in the United States this year, as well as statements put out by the United States and other countries expressing concern over the proposed extradition law.

As during the Umbrella Movement, there have also been messages circulating on Twitter and other social media with photos supposedly showing white foreign agents talking to Hong Kongers at the protests. Some of these people are actually Western residents of Hong Kong, mostly students and journalists, several of whom expressed amusement on social media at their newfound status as CIA staff.

Another very popular message claims that protesters were paid by the CIA at least $500 Hong Kong dollars to attend. Given that well over 1 million Hong Kongers reportedly attended both Sunday marches, the CIA budget this year must be really stretched. Proof is never forthcoming for these accusations, of course, but that doesn’t stop anyone.

While most people would find these claims laughable, apparently some Chinese in Hong Kong think it credible that foreign forces are behind the protests. That belief is probably even more solid in the mainland. And there’s always a few gullible foreigners willing to believe anything spouted by dictatorships in the name of anti-imperialism. (RT, as part of China’s sometime propaganda alliance with Moscow, has been enthusiastically spreading the idea, too.)

Perhaps the ultimate reason for Beijing’s willingness to blame foreign forces for interfering is projection. After all, through its United Front Work Department, Beijing has run a global campaign of coercion, bribery, and propaganda worldwide, particularly targeting the Chinese diaspora. From co-opting political parties to setting up cells in universities and interfering in campus politics, Beijing has been effective at exerting major influence in countries all over the world.

There’s credible evidence that Beijing actually does pay off so-called protesters at pro-China rallies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. No wonder it sees the sinister hand of the CIA everywhere—it must be galling that foreigners are so good at it that they can get 2 million people to turn out.


Hilton Yip is a journalist in Taiwan.