Now it’s getting personal. After months of sniping at American policy, China has turned its fire on Washington’s senior diplomat in this former British colony.
In an unusual public rebuke, the Hong Kong branch of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused U.S. Consul General Stephen Young of breaching diplomatic norms and ignoring “solemn warnings” to keep quiet about democracy in the region, which since 1997 has been part of China.
The scolding by China’s top diplomat here follows a series of articles in Communist Party-controlled media denouncing Young — who served in Kyrgyzstan during a democratic uprising there in 2005 — as part of an American plot to spread disorder and keep China down.
“Wherever he goes, there is trouble and so-called color revolution,” said Wen Wei Po, a pillar of the party’s still mostly secret political apparatus in Hong Kong. The paper described Young — the son of an Army officer who fought in Korea and Vietnam and served as a military adviser in Taiwan — as coming from “an anti-China, anti-communist family.”
The consulate said Young has done nothing wrong. “We categorically reject any assertion that the behavior of U.S. diplomatic and consular staff in Hong Kong has been anything other than appropriate and in keeping with longstanding diplomatic and consular law and practice,” a spokesman said.
Pro-Beijing groups in Hong Kong have long grumbled about the U.S. Consulate, but the intervention of Lu Xinhua, the foreign ministry’s senior official here, suggested a new push to curb what China views as American interference in Hong Kong and beyond.
Always prickly over alleged foreign meddling, Beijing has grown particularly jittery following this year’s Arab Spring and calls on the Internet for the Chinese to follow suit with a “jasmine revolution.”
China’s push-back, both in Hong Kong and Beijing, has been unusually personal, with state-run media and, on occasion, government officials denouncing American diplomats, including former U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. and his successor, Ambassador Gary Locke.
This, said Li Datong, a Chinese writer and former editor, reflected authorities’ alarm that the Internet has turned previously obscure U.S. envoys into prominent public figures whose remarks and actions get praised — and pilloried — on Web forums and micro-blogs.
“The propaganda department wants to eliminate the influences of the U.S. diplomats as much as possible,” said Li, who was fired as editor of Freezing Point, a weekly journal, after he published an article that partly defended the actions of imperial powers in the 19th century.
First to come under fire was Huntsman, who quit April 30 as ambassador and launched a now sputtering campaign for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
Beijing was furious when the ambassador in February appeared outside a Beijing McDonald’s that online postings had designated as a venue for a “jasmine revolution” protest. Huntsman said he was just out for a stroll with his family. Police blanketed the area and roughed up foreign journalists. No protesters were sighted.
Locke also has at times faced vicious criticism.
Although Locke, who is the first U.S. ambassador to Beijing of Chinese ancestry, has won plaudits from many ordinary Chinese for his modest, open manner that contrasts starkly with the imperious habits of many Communist Party officials, the state-run Guangming Daily in August published a lengthy screed denouncing him as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” sent to Beijing to lull Chinese into neo-colonial submission.
“His Chinese blood . . . makes Chinese people feel close to him,” the paper wrote, but “this has just exposed the evil purpose of the U.S., to use Chinese against Chinese and to instigate political turbulence in China.”
The intemperate tone apparently unnerved some officials. The article was deleted from the paper’s Web site after attracting widespread attention.
In Hong Kong, China’s foreign ministry now has taken up the cudgels. It has avoided personal attacks, leaving that to party-controlled newspapers. But in a departure from usual custom, it has publicly admonished Young.
The episode doesn’t appear to signal a dramatic deterioration in a relationship that is often bumpy but also indispensable to both countries. China, for example, has allowed three U.S. aircraft carriers to visit Hong Kong this year and a fourth is expected soon. But Beijing does seem determined to silence America’s voice in the political development of a territory that, for more than a century, played a big part in shaping China’s own political destiny. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of China’s 1911 revolution against the Qing Dynasty, sheltered here, as did communist revolutionary Zhou Enlai and the Tiananmen Square protest leaders who fled Beijing in June 1989.
In a meeting with a small group of Hong Kong journalists, Lu, the foreign ministry official, warned outsiders not to interfere in China’s internal affairs, singling out Young for criticism over remarks he made earlier this month about local elections, the selection next year of a new chief executive and plans to introduce universal suffrage in 2017. Young didn’t challenge China’s handling of Hong Kong since 1997 or side with any particular party, he only noted that “because the United States . . . supports this democratization process, we’ll be watching closely.”
Such comments, said Lu, could not be tolerated. “This is something we resolutely oppose,” he said, adding that China has the right to protest and even expel diplomats who don’t follow internationally accepted rules. “Chinese diplomats in America would never comment on next year’s presidential election,” he said.
Staff researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.