VANCOUVER, British Columbia — What do you think the reaction would be in the U.S. if protests engulfed the streets of New York City and a photo was leaked of protest organizers meeting in a hotel lobby with a Russian or Chinese diplomat stationed at the local consulate? Surely the public response would be measured and rational, assuming that the foreign official had a perfectly reasonable explanation for meeting with the agents provocateurs. And it would certainly never cast the mass disruption unfolding in the streets as a product of foreign meddling, right?
Not a chance.
We know how such an incident would play out in America. Members of the Trump administration would fire up their Twitter accounts and accuse the organizers of subverting and dividing American society through influence operations. We’d be reminded that one of the primary functions of foreign intelligence agencies is subverting target nations. We’d hear about it on cable news for days. The foreign country involved would face new sanctions. The diplomat caught meeting with the protest leaders would be expelled.
The conversation would then move beyond established facts to rampant paranoia. Experts would claim that any photographic evidence is likely just the tip of the iceberg of a much more insidious foreign threat that has already dug its tentacles deep into critical American institutions. The protest movement would be thoroughly discredited as the product of foreign manipulation. The protesters’ grievances would be dismissed outright. Anyone adopting positions similar to those of the protesters would be marginalized, accused of being an asset of a foreign government.
It wouldn’t be long before the hawks of the Trump administration started throwing around the term “terrorism,” since the protests would be recast as a security threat. The more hawkish officials might ask the Pentagon to draw up plans to attack the foreign country — you know, just in case — while also trying to connect the dots between that country and another nation whose government they’re eager to overthrow, like Iran or Venezuela.
U.S. technology giants might announce measures to censor those on social media who align with the movement too enthusiastically, in the interest of protecting American democracy from viewpoints too synergistic with those of a foreign government. Washington think tanks would fall all over themselves trying to figure out how to exploit the situation to scare up funding from the rich donors with a letter that starts out: “Dear Friend. America is under attack by an enemy that hates our freedom, and we here on the front lines of this battle rely on your generosity.”
The 2020 presidential election would feature a parade of candidates from both sides of the aisle fighting to prove who would look the most “presidential” or “strong” in the “America vs. Rogue Nation” reality show that the world would have to endure over the next several years.
Indeed, the reaction to photographic evidence suggesting foreign interference in America would be entirely reasonable, judging by what we’ve witnessed in the last few years.
So how do we expect China to react when a veteran American diplomat stationed in Hong Kong, Julie Eadeh, is photographed meeting in the lobby of a luxury hotel with four leaders of the massive protests currently paralyzing Hong Kong to the point of shutting down its airport? Would China be justified in accusing the U.S. of foreign meddling and floating the idea that clashes with Hong Kong police could escalate into terrorism, as Chinese authorities have done?
The spark that initiated the protests weeks ago was proposed legislation (since suspended) to extradite Hong Kong residents accused of committing crimes to mainland China. Hong Kong was transferred from British to Chinese control in 1997, but the agreement between the U.K. and China allows Hong Kong to operate under its own democratic system, developed by the Brits, until 2047.
The outrage over the extradition bill may have been legitimate, but the perception of foreign interference — and with the photo of Eadeh meeting with protest organizers splashed all over Chinese media, that perception certainly exists — could discredit legitimate opposition.
The U.S. State Department accused China of poor form in its response.
“I don’t think that leaking an American diplomat’s private information, pictures, names of their children, I don’t think that is a formal protest, that is what a thuggish regime would do,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.
Isn’t “thuggish regime” what U.S. officials call countries that interfere in the domestic affairs of other nations? With the perception that the U.S. is adding fuel to this domestic Chinese conflict, the State Department has lost credibility as a voice of reason on the matter.
Rachel Marsden is a columnist, political strategist and host of an independently produced French-language program that airs on Sputnik France. Her website can be found at www.rachelmarsden.com.