Ties to China Shape Cautious Reaction to Hong Kong Protests

In this Aug. 17, 2019, file photo, pro-China counter-protesters hold Chinese flags during an anti-extradition rally for Hong Kong in Vancouver. Governments around the world are taking a cautious approach to responding to the protests roiling Hong Kong. With the notable exception of Taiwan, cautious comments from a handful of governments fall short of support for the demonstrators. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

For Canada and the European Union, they are a “situation.” For President Donald Trump, a potential stumbling block in ongoing trade disputes. And for South Korea, an issue to be monitored.

With the notable exception of Taiwan, cautious comments from the few governments willing to speak out on the ongoing protests in Hong Kong fall far short of support for the demonstrators. They are so mild that even the word “protest” itself was left out of the joint EU-Canada statement that was the most recent to infuriate the Chinese government. And the vast majority of countries are unwilling to risk that fury at all.

China’s weapon is also its greatest lure: a population of nearly 1.4 billion. Otherwise known as the world’s largest market, to be opened or closed at will. China has also become a major builder of roads, ports, power plants and other infrastructure in developing countries.

“It’s really an anodyne statement,” Theresa Fallon, a researcher on EU-Asia relations, said of the one released by the EU and Canada. “Of course the Chinese knew that these statements would be made, but they cracked down right away. They have zero tolerance for that. … Everyone is afraid to be punished by China.”



In the early days of the protests, Trump described them as an internal matter. Then he suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping could resolve the situation by meeting with protest leaders.

On Sunday, he went a step further and said the use of Chinese troops to quell the demonstrations would worsen the current U.S.-China trade dispute, referring to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

“I mean if it’s another Tiananmen Square, I think it’s a very hard thing to do if there is violence,” Trump told reporters in New Jersey.

He and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about the protests last week, according to Trudeau’s office. The Canadian leader has been among the most outspoken on the protest movement. He said the 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong represent the region’s largest contingent of foreigners.

“We are going to continue to call upon the Chinese government to respect the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement that they have long abided by,” he said earlier this week.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang avoided commenting on Trump’s remarks directly, but referred to the president’s previous statements on the protests.

“We have noticed that President Trump has previously stated that Hong Kong is part of China, and that they must solve it themselves and do not need advice. We hope that the U.S. side can match its acts to its words,” Geng told reporters.

The European Union joined with Canada in a statement Saturday.

“It is crucial that restraint be exercised, violence rejected and urgent steps taken to de-escalate the situation. Engagement in a process of broad-based and inclusive dialogue, involving all key stakeholders, is essential.”


South Korea has avoided criticizing China, its largest trading partner and a country believed to have significant leverage over rival North Korea.

“Our government is monitoring the latest moves in Hong Kong with interest and we hope this issue will be settled smoothly,” the Foreign Ministry said in response to a question from The Associated Press.

South Korea is currently preoccupied with stalled negotiations on how to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons and trade disputes with Japan, and that could make Seoul even more reticent.

Choi Kang, vice president of Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said even if there’s a Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong, South Korea would likely end up expressing little more than “regrets” or “hopes for an early, peaceful resolution.”

As for North Korea, the country’s propaganda outlets have accused the United States and other Western countries of using the Hong Kong case as a chance to slander China and interfere in its domestic affairs.

“To take measure for internal affairs belongs to the sovereignty of relevant country,” the North’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary last week. “But the Western forces are obtrusively interfering in China’s internal affair to add fuel to the reckless moves of the dishonest elements, saying this or that.”

It didn’t directly refer to the United States but an earlier Rodong Sinmun commentary said that “the Western countries including the U.S. are using (the Hong Kong issue) as a golden opportunity to defame China while raising the level of threat and blackmail against China.”

North Korea has long bristled at any outside criticism of its own human rights conditions as a U.S.-led attempt to bring down its political system.

A Foreign Ministry statement on Aug. 11 said that “we fully support the stand and measures of the Chinese party and government for defending the sovereignty, security and reunification of the country and safeguarding the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.”


Southeast Asian countries generally have little need or desire to take a public stand on the Hong Kong protests.

Many try to strike a balance between Beijing and Washington, moving toward the Chinese end of the scale in recent years as China has projected its influence more vigorously.

The poorer members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar —have become reliant on Beijing’s economic largesse, and virtually all have embraced China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to help expand their infrastructure, though often with reservations and in the case of the more developed nations, with some hard bargaining.

At the same time, several nations have publicly complained of China’s efforts at expanding its influence, especially its ambitious territorial claims over the South China Sea at the expanse of Beijing’s smaller neighbors.


The leaders of both Australia and New Zealand have been measured in their comments.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison disagreed last week that the protests were beginning to show the “sprouts of terrorism,” as a Chinese official said, but he didn’t criticize the statement directly.

“My view is one to seek to de-escalate things, to encourage the chief executive of Hong Kong to be listening carefully to what people are saying in Hong Kong and work toward a peaceful and calm resolution of what is a very serious issue,” he said.

Australia warned China against interfering in related demonstrations in Australia after a Chinese diplomat praised Chinese students who clashed with supporters of the protests in Brisbane.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern denied she was constrained in what she could say about China, and said her country’s stand on the protest movement has been consistent. China is a key export market for New Zealand and has overtaken Australia as New Zealand’s largest trading partner. The agricultural-driven economy of New Zealand relies on selling billions of dollars’ worth of milk powder to China, which is used in infant formula.

“De-escalation, peaceful dialogue on all sides, and, of course, a restoration of the ‘One China but two systems’ philosophy that has been in place for a significant period.”


Britain handed Hong Kong over to Chinese rule in 1997, but 156 years as a colony left a mark.

Its last governor, Chris Patten, called for the government to be “outspoken” in defending the city’s freedom.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has previously described Britain as open for business from China and is now embroiled in Brexit, has been uncharacteristically silent on the protests. But his foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, “condemned violent acts by all sides but emphasized the right to peaceful protest, noting that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people had chosen this route to express their views.”

China said Wednesday a staffer at the British Consulate in Hong Kong, who was earlier reported missing while on a trip to the mainland, has been given 15 days of administrative detention in the city of Shenzhen for violating a law on public order. The British Foreign Office has said it is “extremely concerned” about his situation.


In Taiwan, support for the protests has been widespread, including among young Hong Kongers studying in the self-ruling democracy that China claims as its own territory.

On Saturday, a student group called “Hong Kong Outlanders” organized flash mobs, street film screenings and sit-ins in more than half a dozen cities, including in front of Taipei’s famous Taipei 101 skyscraper that is a frequent destination for Chinese visitors. Support groups have also collected hardhats and set up public outdoor galleries of protest art known as Lennon Walls.

“We understand that the leaders cannot speak up for Hong Kong because of the financial situation. It’s politics and money,” said Dora, a Hong Kong native living in Taiwan, who only gave her first name for fear of reprisal. “But we’re still reaching out for support and help from people of different countries to do whatever they can to help us.”

Public opinion surveys show generally strong but not overwhelming public support for the government’s backing of the protests, perhaps reflecting a general unwillingness for Taiwan to be identified with Hong Kong’s situation.

Though Taiwan was a Japanese colony for 50 years until 1945, Taiwanese are swift to point out that they have been a de-facto independent state since Chiang Kai-shek relocated his Nationalist government there in 1949, rather than a British colony or a special administrative region governed by Beijing.

Perhaps more than anything, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen says and many believe the protests show China’s “one country, two systems” framework that Beijing also proposes imposing on Taiwan simply cannot work.

Tsai has expressed her personal support for the protests and said the island would consider taking in Hong Kong residents seeking asylum, something that drew an angry rebuke from Beijing on Monday. Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the Chinese Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said Taiwan’s offer would “cover up the crimes of a small group of violent militants” and encourage their “audacity in harming Hong Kong and turn Taiwan into a “heaven for ducking the law.”


Ma demanded that Taiwan’s government “cease undermining the rule of law” in Hong Kong, cease interfering in its affairs and not “condone criminals.”


Associated Press writers Jim Gomez and Kiko Rosario in Manila, Philippines, Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing, Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand, and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.