U.S.’ claims of innocence in Hong Kong are fooling no one
A protester wearing a U.S. military costume waves a U.S. flag during an anti-extradition bill protest in Hong Kong, Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019. | Vincent Thian / AP

For no particular reason, I’ve been thinking of Claude Rains in Casablanca lately. You remember him—the Moroccan police captain who is “shocked, shocked” to find gambling in Humphrey Bogart’s establishment during a raid, only to be handed his winnings without missing a beat.

You might wonder at the relevance of that famous movie moment. I’ll explain.

Amid ongoing violence and turmoil in Hong Kong, Chinese media outlets have brought up a few relevant facts: That “pro-democracy” opposition heads had met with politicians in the United States, protest leaders had been in contact with State Department officials, and major figures like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi have issued statements supporting the demonstrators. With all this in mind, it’s been suggested the U.S. has been inflaming tensions in the city and encouraging escalation in an already heated environment.

To wit, the Claude Rains moment: Members of the diplomatic corps were “shocked, shocked” by this news. Why, it’s unthinkable that the U.S., that bastion of democracy and freedom, would ever attempt to interfere in the affairs of another country! China was called a “thuggish regime” for even bringing this up—naturally, the “free press” was all crickets when it came time to do their purported jobs and speak a little truth to power.

Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 film “Casablanca.” Rains plays a corrupt Moroccan police captain.

Safe to say none of these faux-outraged government functionaries or their lapdogs in the media bothered to ask a Libyan what they thought of the idea. The NATO intervention there in 2014 turned the African country with the highest standard of living into a disaster zone, complete with open-air slave markets.

They wouldn’t have asked an Iraqi, either. I’m sure the families of the million-plus people killed by the U.S. military since 2003 would have a few things to say about their invaders’ good intentions.

Or a Haitian. Or a Syrian. Or a Venezuelan. Or a Honduran. Or an Iranian. The list goes on.

The truth is U.S. “diplomacy” has never been that innocent, and everyone knows it. State Department personnel—in league with military and intelligence agencies—have spearheaded countless interventions since the turn of the 20th century, destroying countries or political formations they saw as counter to U.S. interests. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and especially after the Cold War began, this meant subverting communists or socialists and materially supporting anti-communists and fascists.

Among the best-known examples of this skullduggery are the hundreds of assassination attempts on Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro—none successful; he died at 90, probably laughing at the U.S. as he went—and the overthrow of democratically-elected Chilean Marxist Salvador Allende. The U.S. loved democracy so much in the latter case they replaced Allende with a military dictator. These and many other interventions were overseen by the same sort of “diplomats” who now act offended at the notion they may be doing something untoward in Hong Kong.

But things are a little different now. These clandestine activities used to be the sole purview of the Central Intelligence Agency, and when word got out the U.S.’ definition of “liberty” really meant “not being communists,” quite a few people were furious. So in a long process which began in the 1970s, the CIA delegated its regime change responsibilities to a host of organizations, each given a degree of separation with some legalese and clever accounting.

Though the Agency remains a potent force for subversion—and you would have to be truly naïve to think their cloak-and-dagger era is over—the interventional landscape has been somewhat diversified, with a host of non-governmental organizations taking the place of traditional spies. The National Endowment for Democracy, the largest among them, has of course given a great deal of money to “pro-independence” forces in Hong Kong. Nothing to worry about, I’m sure.

Allan Weinstein, an early leader of one such think tank, admitted it outright when he said, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” While this makes U.S. influence operations easier to track, it also gives them a veneer of respectability among the general public. It’s a bigger deal when a government agency is funding rebellious elements in another country; much less so if it’s some “non-governmental” cutout with a bit of plausible deniability.

When news of CIA activity broke in the past, it was big news. That was bad for optics. Somewhere along the way, powerful government figures and capitalists realized by doing all their influencing in the open—and with a media that had long since stopped pretending to question motives—the scandal brought by secrecy would go away. This has worked wonders on a browbeaten population fed a steady diet of propaganda. It turns out if you’re told every other country on earth is inferior to yours, you’ll start thinking intervention is great for everybody else.

Some people normally skeptical of official U.S. narratives look back on this sordid history and conclude it’s a thing of the past, the stuff of ancients. But what’s changed between then and now? Why would any empire stop consolidating its influence if it had the ability to continue? In fact, the U.S.’ capacity for interference has only grown more sophisticated since the end of the Soviet Union. With that country’s dissolution in 1991, the world lost a counterweight against imperialism—and logic dictates things would get worse rather than better in an era of unilateral hegemony.

So the question remains: Why would the U.S.’ well-established, well-funded campaigns of subversion suddenly cease? Well, they wouldn’t, of course. There’s an equally bizarre notion from otherwise right-thinking people that intervention stops at certain countries’ borders. This is patently ridiculous. If it can happen in Venezuela, Iran, Libya, Cuba, or Syria, it can happen in Hong Kong—a geographically small Chinese territory with longstanding ties to the West. It is, in fact, perfectly positioned as a pressure point for the rest of China.

U.S. consular official Julie Eadeh, second from right, was photographed meeting with Hong Kong protest leaders at the JW Marriott Hotel in the Admiralty area of Hong Kong in early August.

And it’s not just a question of economic or political systems anymore. The U.S. doesn’t trust anyone, even its own imperial allies; recall that the National Security Administration had German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone tapped for years. There’s no telling how they’re keeping tabs on other NATO members. Because the U.S. has the largest economy and military many times over, however, leaders who might otherwise speak out against this treatment stay silent. Yet the idea of U.S. benevolence still has a hold on the world’s imagination. I encourage anyone on the fence to think about it this way: If this is how the U.S. treats its friends, imagine what it tries to do to its enemies.

And make no mistake, the U.S. considers China an enemy. It says so in official statements and policy briefings, and academics and journalists uncritically launder these claims for a mass audience on their enormous platforms. No matter how many times China says it wants peace and to handle its own affairs, the myth of the “China Threat” persists—stoked by U.S. “diplomats” and their lackeys in the press.

These inflammatory statements serve a twofold purpose. On a personal level, they attract attention to the authors’ work and better position them for career advancement. More broadly, they further U.S. interests and provide cover for narratives that wouldn’t get consideration by the public if they came straight from the military-intelligence apparatus. It’s a win-win for everyone—except the U.S.’ victims.

None of this is to say that things in Hong Kong are perfect, or that everyone in the city was happy as a clam before the State Department and NED came along. Severe inequality plagues the city and must be addressed for the government to enjoy continued support from the people. But bad actors take advantage of existing negative sentiments and amplify them, turning issues that could be handled peacefully into profound existential crises.

This playbook has worked for decades now, undermining countless sovereign governments whose existence ran counter to the interests of the United States; it’s the height of foolishness to think it can’t happen here.


Ian Goodrum
Ian Goodrum

Ian Goodrum is a writer and digital editor for China Daily in Beijing, China.