As protests have mounted in Hong Kong, with a possible violent resolution in sight, the U.S. Consulate in the SAR has done little more than issue tepid statements on the demonstrations, which had been largely peaceful and orderly until the past two days. “We do not take sides in the discussion of Hong Kong’s political development, nor do we support and particular individuals or groups involved in it,” the consulate’s most notable statement said. The statement’s anodyne weakness basically suggested that the United States did not care whether the democracy movement succeeded in Hong Kong, or whether Hong Kong people were granted the real universal suffrage and political rights promised them under the 1984 handover agreement. And as the New York Times reported on Saturday, when President Obama briefly met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week, they discussed a wide range of issues to be examined during Obama’s upcoming trip to Beijing; Hong Kong appeared to be just an afterthought for Obama and clearly would be an afterthought in Obama’s conversations in Beijing.
By contrast, even former colonial power Britain, which had in the past been relatively muted in its criticism of Beijing’s strangulation of Hong Kong’s media and political freedoms—British leaders believed their statements would only rebound against Hong Kong democrats, who could be labeled as stooges of the old colonial power—spoke out more openly about the situation in Hong Kong. Last week, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg called the Chinese ambassador to London in for a formal protest about China’s actions in Hong Kong. Clegg further warned that China was repressing political freedoms in Hong Kong at its own risk—that this repression would rebound on China and undermine Hong Kong’s financial stability and prosperity, which are critical to the Chinese economy. These British actions displayed a solid, tough stand that was applauded by many in Hong Kong.
The U.S. Consulate’s approach, however, is sadly reminiscent of U.S. embassies’ approaches to repressed political freedoms throughout Southeast Asia over the past five years. After the May 2013 national elections in Malaysia, in which the opposition coalition won the popular vote but was denied control of Parliament through a mix of massive gerrymandering and outright fraud by Malaysia’s long-ruling coalition, the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur quickly embraced the ruling coalition despite its dubious victory. Other embassies in the Malaysian capital were not so quick to embrace the ruling coalition as winners. Even before the election, many Malaysian opposition politicians and political analysts rued the fact that the U.S. ambassador in Kuala Lumpur at the time had built a personally close relationship with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak, making the embassy less of an impartial observer in Malaysian politics.
Similarly, after the Obama administration decided to boost relations with Myanmar and to appoint an ambassador to the country, the first U.S. ambassador in Yangon in decades, the embassy in Yangon has been increasingly reluctant to criticize the Myanmar government for its jailing of journalists, see-no-evil approach to the growing attacks on Muslims across the country, and maneuvering to entrench the military in politics after the 2015 elections. Amidst this dispiriting record on democracy and human rights in the region, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok has been a notable exception, with U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney to Thailand clearly condemning Thailand’s May 2014 coup and following up with continuing scrutiny of the Thai junta government’s actions.
The consulate in Hong Kong now seems to have realized that its initial statement was almost embarrassingly weak. The New York Times on Saturday reported that the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, tried to tweak the consulate’s statement, noting that, indeed, the United States still does back “a genuine choice of candidates that are representative of the [Hong Kong] people’s and the [Hong Kong] voters’ will.” Just don’t expect the Obama administration to do anything about it.