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The worst thing Obama could do for Hong Kong's protests is support them

Protesters in Hong Kong
Protesters in Hong Kong
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

When pro-democracy movements break out, the United States tends to show them a lot of at least rhetorical support. America sees itself, and often is seen, as a champion of democracy, sees the spread of democracy as in its interest, and believes it can often exert a little pressure on authoritarian government to respect those movements.

But the United States government, right up to President Obama, has been conspicuously quiet on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. On the surface, that might seem disappointing (and, if shit hits the fan in Hong Kong, you can bet protesters will call on the US for a show of support). But the truth is that, given how paranoid the Chinese government is about foreign influence, and given the risk that Beijing could crack down with bloody force, Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement is probably better off with Obama keeping quiet.

The silence has been, to use a cliche, deafening. On Wednesday, China's National Day (sort of like their fourth of July), Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement congratulating China that did not mention the Hong Kong protesters who were using the holiday to demand Beijing live up to its pledge to grant them democracy. The statement did not even make an oblique reference to, say, the abstract importance of freedom of assembly, the sort of subtle nod that the State Department often makes in delicate situations like this.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also called China's foreign minister on Wednesday; the subject of Hong Kong reportedly did not even come upLater, the White House announced that Obama would travel to Beijing in November; a bit like announcing a goodwill trip to Cairo in the middle of the Egyptian revolution.

The reason for American silence comes through in the one significant public mention, from Kerry during a joint press conference in Washington with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Kerry raised the issue in the most restrained possible language, saying, "We have high hopes that the Hong Kong authorities will exercise restraint and respect for the protestors' right to express their views peacefully." Wang responded defensively, in language that made it sound as if the US were planning on handing out AK-47s to protesters:

Secretary Kerry mentioned Hong Kong. The Chinese Government has very firmly and clearly stated its position. Hong Kong affairs are China's internal affairs. All countries should respect China's sovereignty. And this is also a basic principle governing international relations. I believe for any country, for any society, no one will allow those illegal acts that violate public order. That's the situation in the United States, and that's the same situation in Hong Kong. We believe that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's government has the capability to properly handle the current situation in accordance with the law.

The thing you have to understand is that, in the context of how China sees the United States and sees pro-democracy protests generally, this is a restrained response. The Chinese Communist Party has long been absolutely convinced that the US is bent on their destruction, and actively working toward that end. It also tends to see any protest, especially a pro-democracy protest, as a dangerous conspiracy that is seeking to foment chaos and bring down the entire country. And, maybe most crucial of all to understand, they see their country as perilously weak, constantly on the precipice of disaster and implosion.

So even a gentle hint of a suggestion of a whisper of rhetorical American support for protesters in Hong Kong risks being heard in Beijing as "the Americans are covertly backing a dangerous rebel movement that is seeking to plunge us into chaos and will succeed if allowed the slightest opportunity."

That same thinking drove China's response to the pro-democracy protests in Beijing and elsewhere in 1989. State media and official government rhetoric accused the peaceful demonstrators of being a foreign-backed rebel movement — which also became the official justification for the military-led massacre that killed an estimated 2,600 peaceful protesters. It wasn't just rhetoric: internal Communist Party documents released years later showed that senior Chinese leaders — smart people — earnestly believed their own conspiracy theories.

Fast forward to 2014, and Chinese state media are already accusing Hong Kong's protest leaders of being foreign-backed agents.

Were the United States to offer louder public support for the Hong Kong protests, yes, this would put the Chinese government under a bit more pressure to handle those protests responsibly, maybe even give in to some of the (relatively modest) protester demands. But it would also seriously raise the risk, already dangerously high, that ever-paranoid and ever-insecure Beijing could come to see the peaceful protests as a foreign-backed threat so existential that they have to be put down at any cost. That would doom the movement. The best thing that Obama can do now, unfortunately, is probably to keep quiet.

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