Hong Kong at the Obama-Xi Summit

Not surprisingly, Hong Kong came up at the summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both governments have spoken out about the continuing crisis, but the way the two leaders addressed it at today’s press conference was interesting.

In his statement, Obama was responding to a question about the wave of anti-American rhetoric and the specific charge that the United States was the “black hand” behind the Occupy protest movement. He confirmed that Hong Kong was one issue in his talks with Xi, and then said: “I was unequivocal in saying to President Xi that the United States had no involvement in fostering the protests that took place there [Hong Kong]; that these are issues ultimately for the people of Hong Kong and the people of China to decide.” The denial has the virtue of being true, but it was very important that President Obama say it, both in private and in public. He would not have provided such an “unequivocal” assurance unless he himself was confident that it was true.

Commenting on the current situation in Hong Kong, Obama then said that he had told Xi that “the United States, as a matter of foreign policy but also a matter of our values, we are going to consistently speak out on the right of people to express themselves, and encourage the elections that take place in Hong Kong are transparent and fair and reflective of the opinions of people there.” While avoiding details, he thus reaffirmed U.S. support for a political process in Hong Kong that would allow a competitive election for chief executive.

As interesting as Obama’s statement was Xi’s response to it. He did not directly dispute Obama’s statement that Washington was behind the protests, but instead addressed the issue more generally. He said that “Hong Kong affairs are exclusively China’s internal affairs, and foreign countries should not interfere in those affairs in any form or fashion.” Of course, this is a standard Chinese formulation when it comes to any American activity concerning any territory that Beijing claims. Taking the two statements together, however, we have an interesting narrowing of the disagreement.

  • Xi said that China opposed any interference of any form in its internal affairs.
  • Obama denied any role in the protests, so that is no longer an issue (or shouldn’t be).
  • Obama promised that the United States would continue to speak out on Hong Kong issues, which Xi would say falls outside the scope of what he regards as acceptable activity. On this point, the two sides will continue to disagree.

Now that this exchange of interlocking statements has occurred, it will be interesting to see whether the Chinese propaganda apparatus will continue its “black hand” attacks on the Obama Administration, even though Xi Jinping passed up an opportunity to explicitly challenge Obama’s pledge.

On the current situation in Hong Kong, Xi Jinping stated that he had told President Obama that: Occupy Central is an illegal movement in Hong Kong; Beijing is “firmly supportive of the efforts of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government to handle the situation according to law” to maintain social stability and to protect life and property; and that the rights and interests of foreign citizens and business organizations in Hong Kong would be protected. Xi did not tip his hand on how he thought the Hong Kong government should in fact “handle the situation,” but a reasonable inference is that he neither ruled out some degree of coercion nor some measure of conciliation. From the point of view of both Hong Kong people and the United States, the latter is clearly preferable.