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US, EU reluctant to criticize China

Rodion Ebbighausen
August 14, 2019

Clashes in Hong Kong have grown more violent and Beijing has ramped up its intimidation tactics as protests enter their 11th week. But so far, the West has shied away from openly chiding China.

Proteste in Hongkong
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/V. Yu

Europeans have so far only expressed muted criticism of China's government, which is suspected of having instigated recent violence in Hong Kong. When police and protesters clashed at Hong Kong airport on Tuesday, the EU Commission released a statement saying that "in light of the continuing unrest and the increase in violent incidents in Hong Kong, it is crucial that all sides exercise restraint, reject all kinds of violence, and take urgent steps to de-escalate the situation."

Germany, too, has called for restraint and urged dialogue. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday, "Everything must be done to prevent violence and to find possibilities for a solution within the framework of dialogue."

While the EU supported the protesters from the very beginning, the bloc could have been more critical of Beijing's intimation tactics, according to Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Centre for Chinese Studies.

He told DW that the EU had so far only issued typical diplomatic statements. Lam said he believes that since southern and eastern European nations have close economic ties with China, they are not eager to support a "strong [EU] statement to condemn" Beijing.

Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong: 'We will never step backward'

Trump shies away from chiding China

US President Donald Trump, too, has largely held back from commenting on the Hong Kong protests. He adopted the tone of Chinese propaganda, calling the protests "riots" and at an Ohio campaign rally declared the situation a domestic issue for China "because Hong Kong is a part of China. They'll have to deal with that themselves." 

Lam told DW there is a "theory that Donald Trump did not want the Hong Kong issue to complicate the trade talks." This is why, he said he thinks, Trump "was using very mild language." 

Kristin Shi-Kupfer, a sinologist at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), said she shares this view.

"The US is sending a signal that Hong Kong is apparently not the top of its agenda when it comes to US-China relations," she told DW, adding that Washington is focused on its trade dispute with China.

Read more:  Opinion: Chinese military intervention in Hong Kong would be costly

But when protesters in Hong Kong on Monday and Tuesday forced Hong Kong's international airport to temporarily suspend flights, Trump took to Twitter to warn that "our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong." On Tuesday, he described the situation in Hong Kong as "tricky," saying he hopes a solution will be found that works for all parties, including China, without anyone getting hurt or killed.

Earlier, however, the East China task force of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) had published images of military vehicles being stationed on the border with Hong Kong.

US Congress sides with protesters

Many Democratic and Republican senators, meanwhile, are dissatisfied with Trump's soft stance. Democratic Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, a staunch human rights advocate, criticized Trump for his "dangerous" language that "invites miscalculation."

Since the Hong Kong protests started, the US Congress has sided with the activists. Ten senators published a statement praising demonstrators' courage, saying they set "an example for the world to follow." The statement also said, "We support these demonstrators as they fight for freedom and call on Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to respect their right to peacefully protest."

After the outbreak of the unrest in Hong Kong, US lawmakers proposed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in early June. The legislation would require the US president annually to evaluate and verify the "autonomy" of Hong Kong. If it were to lose this status, the former British colony would lose its trading privileges. Such a step would severely harm its economy, but also deal a blow to Beijing, as many state-owned companies rely on Hong Kong as a gateway to the international financial and capital markets.

UN expresses concern

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also voiced concern over the escalating Hong Kong violence. She said there is credible evidence that security forces fired tear gas canisters directly at protesters. This, she said, risked causing severe injuries or even deaths.   

A reporter from the Global Times restrained in plastic zip ties in the Hong Kong airport
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

But the UN has limited means of influencing the situation, Shi-Kupfer pointed out. She said, "China is [veto-holding] a member of the UN Security Council, which makes it practically impossible to impose certain UN sanctions on or pass resolutions against China."

Lam emphasized that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who also serves as the general secretary of the Communist Party and as commander-in-chief, is the one truly in charge. And while Xi will try to gauge how the US and EU might react, Lam said, this is not his main concern. What matters to him, the professor said, "is the stability of Hong Kong and the control of the Communist Party over the city."

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