Why Obama Should Say Very Little About Hong Kong, and Other Protest Readings

What looks "strong" to the Washington commentariat would only weaken the demonstrators' position

Students in Hong Kong (Reuters)

Following this item last night, three more useful things to read about the drama unfolding in Hong Kong:

1) "Why Obama should keep quiet about the Hong Kong protests," by Benjamin Carlson in Global Post. Ben Carlson—who is a much-missed former Atlantic staffer, and in recent years a resident of Hong Kong and Beijing—underscores this crucial point. What is happening in Hong Kong is not about foreign "interference" or meddling in China. But that is exactly how the government in Beijing would love to be able to portray it, and for them comments from an American president would be an absolute godsend.

Why does this matter? Because I am already anticipating the wave of op-ed columns and grumblings on the weekend talk shows about this latest case of Obama's "weakness" or "passivity" or reliance on "leading from behind." Anyone who encourages him to get in the middle of this reveals both ignorance of China and indifference to the consequences there.

2) "They are only fighting for their dreams."  Over the weekend Joseph Jao-yiu Sung, the vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote a letter to students involved in the protests. The original Chinese-language text is available here from Ming Pao.

As part of its live-stream, the South China Morning Post is carrying an English version, which you can find here. A crucial passage:

When I saw on Saturday afternoon that students who 'claimed' the People's Square were removed one-by-one, I could not hold my tears.... In these few days, when I see students sleeping on the street, scorched by the sun, hit by storm and yet picking up garbage on the road, I could not hold my tears.

I respect the students for their peaceful and persistent effort in requesting freedom of expressing their opinions. I was touched by their courage and their sacrifices.

They are only fighting for their dreams, though they may not understand the whole complicated issue. Let us give our students the greatest tolerance and leniency. Here, I call upon all to refrain from using force of any kind.

To say it for the hundredth time, until recently Hong Kong has been no one's idea of a highly politics-minded society (as opposed to a business-minded one), nor have its students been chronic protestors. That is why this movement is so extraordinary.

3) The SCMP in general has an effective (and justified) paywall policy. For now it is providing extensive non-paywalled live-streamed coverage in its Occupy Central section. This is a real public service and worth following.

Bonus point #4: Be wary of anyone who sounds too confident about what is going to happen next, especially if that assessment is being made from thousands of miles away. This is superficially similar to some other protest movements, but in important ways it really is something new. In Hong Kong, in Beijing, and at points in between and beyond people are right now figuring out what to do next.

UPDATE: This will teach me to have given up ever reading the WaPo's official editorials on any international subject. If I'd dared look there today, I would have seen that they've already kicked off the "oh that weakling Obama" theme. Though today it's "gallingly timid." Over to them:

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s response so far has been gallingly timid. White House and State Department spokesmen have carefully avoided offering explicit support for the demonstrators’ demands for free elections for the city’s leader, rather than a managed choice among nominees approved by Beijing. They have urged the demonstrators to be peaceful, though only the police have resorted to violence.

Thanks to the reader who alerted me to the editorial, who as it happens is in the U.S. military. That reader adds:

Mind you, there's meddling and there's meddling.  I hope to God that quietly without any cameras around people in the Administration are reminding the Chinese how great it will be for their confidence and that of American business if the thing gets resolved peacefully, and that they are reminding the Chinese that there's a US election coming up and if there's a bloodbath then there will be irresistible pressure on US candidates to bash the Chinese.  But I also hope they shut up about it in public.

Right on all fronts.