In both places, black-clad masked protesters vandalised and set fire to facilities, as videos and photographs on social media attest. These shadowy protesters were part of the reason for allegations of organised groups stoking unrest in collusion with external forces in the US and Hong Kong.
US Senator Marco Rubio tweeted of the US protests on Monday (June 1), “I guess the violence from organised bands of young white men, dressed in all black, with helmets, gas masks, knee pads, shields & hammers isn’t enough to be at least a little suspicious?”
Yet Mr Rubio sponsored the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which enables the US government to sanction Hong Kong and Chinese officials deemed to violate the human rights of Hong Kong protesters. The act was passed last November.
Of course, there are differences between the situations in the US and Hong Kong. Protests in Hong Kong broke out in the middle of last year against a proposed law to extradite Hong Kong residents to mainland China. Although the Hong Kong government has shelved this bill, the Chinese government will impose on Hong Kong the far more draconian national security law. This law, which is expected to take effect in several months, has given fresh impetus to the Hong Kong protests.
In the US, the killing of an African-American, George Floyd, by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 has sparked protests in over 30 US cities. One key motivation for the demonstrations is anger at perceived racial injustice against African-Americans.
But no less than US President Donald Trump and US Attorney-General William Barr allege organised groups are stirring up the US demonstrations.
On May 30, Mr Barr said: “Unfortunately, with the rioting that is occurring in many of our cities around the country, the voices of peaceful protest are being hijacked by violent radical elements. Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate and violent agenda. In many places, it appears the violence is planned, organised, and driven by anarchistic and far left extremists, using Antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from out of state to promote the violence.”
On May 31, Mr Barr said: “The violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”
Antifa is a far-left movement in the US that seeks to achieve its political aims through activism rather than political reform. It was among the groups which protested against the election of Mr Trump as US President in November 2016.
On May 31, Mr Trump tweeted that the US will be designating Antifa as a terrorist organisation.
This is ironic, since Hong Kong’s security law will make terrorism a punishable crime. On May 29, while demonstrations rocked the US, Mr Trump announced his government would eliminate US preferential policies towards Hong Kong because the national security law will erode the Asian financial hub’s autonomy. Collusion with foreign forces in Hong Kong matters will be another punishable offence under the law, yet Mr Trump and other US officials are claiming outside agitators are involved in US protests.
On May 30, Minnesota officials said protests in the state have become more destructive due to infiltration by extremists and outside agitators.
At a press conference on May 31, New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John Miller said: “We’re seeing a lot of outside and independent agitators connected with anarchist groups who are deliberately trying to provoke acts of violence.”
On CNN on May 31, the US network’s journalist Chris Cuomo “guaranteed” there were outside agitators in the protests in several US cities, without naming any group.
In an interview with CNN on May 31, former US National Security Adviser Susan Rice alleged the Russians could possibly be involved in hijacking the US demonstrations, but gave no proof. She said: “I would bet based on my experience, I’m not reading the intelligence these days, but based on my experience this is right out of the Russian playbook as well.”
Ms Rice is a critic of Mr Trump, while CNN is unfriendly in its reporting of Mr Trump. If all three and multiple people agree that outside agitators were involved in the US protests, such claims are probably true.
What they differ on is the identity of these agitators, whether they are Antifa or Russians or other groups. I do not think Chinese agents are involved in the US demonstrations, because Chinese intelligence lacks the experience and network in racial relations between blacks and whites in the US.
Likewise, the Chinese government alleges foreign forces are colluding with local protesters in Hong Kong. On June 1, a spokesman of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office alleged some US politicians are encouraging and fanning the flames of the Hong Kong protests while offering protection to the protesters.
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has been open about his support of pro-democracy Hong Kong activists like Mr Jimmy Lai Chee-ying. In an interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox News on May 31, Mr Pompeo disclosed he met the Hong Kong tycoon a few months ago and described Mr Lai, the proprietor of an anti-Beijing newspaper Apple Daily, as “a remarkable, freedom-loving patriot”.
US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tabled a legal amendment which included US$1.5 million (S$2.1 million) of funding for Hong Kong democracy activists. The amendment was passed in September 2019.
While it is currently unclear whether any foreign power is involved in the US demonstrations, the examples of Mr Pompeo and Mr McConnell unambiguously prove US support of Hong Kong demonstrations to varying degrees.
Instead of criticising and accusing each other, both Washington and Beijing should reflect on the similarities in the unrest facing them. In that way, each side will better understand the other. As the world tweeters on the brink of a global financial crisis, the world’s two biggest economies should not point fingers at each other but cooperate.
Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.