LONDON—More than 50,000 people have filled the streets of Hong Kong in the past few days, and at times the number has climbed higher. The photographs of these gatherings have shown a remarkably calm, remarkably disciplined crowd. Students do their homework on the sidewalk. Others stack up plastic bottles for recycling and sweep the streets.
That kind of organization is not unusual. In Kiev, Ukraine, last winter—before the use of sniper fire turned the protests ugly—people would drive up to the demonstration, drop off food, and then continue on to work. Something of that same spirit seems to be operating in Hong Kong as well. Local supporters donate food and water, which are then carefully distributed by protest committees.
To a Western audience, all of this looks very much like the work of what we would call “civil society”: unofficial, self-organized groups that have joined together to press for a political change that cannot be accomplished using normal political tools. The same forces have powered many street protests in our history too, from the March on Washington to Occupy Wall Street.
But is this what the government of China sees? Not necessarily. According to Foreign Policy, one widely read Chinese article describes the events in Hong Kong not as a spontaneous outpouring of public opinion but as a conspiracy of Hong Kong separatists, backed by “an America hoping to push [the movement] to its height.” With sideswipes at the National Endowment for Democracy and the CIA, the article goes on to accuse the U.S. government of causing “multiple troubles for China, making China unable to pay attention to its great power struggle with the United States.”
Curiously (or perhaps not), Russian state television—long accustomed to ascribing Russian and Ukrainian protests to American plots (even to Hillary Clinton personally)—has now settled on the same narrative. There is an additional, self-regarding twist: Russian commentators say the Hong Kong protests are American revenge for China’s strong support for Russia in its struggle against Ukraine.
There are several breathtaking leaps of illogic in this construction, starting with the notion that China has strongly supported Russia’s struggle in Ukraine. But behind it lies a mentality deeply rooted in both Russian and Chinese official thinking. To the truly authoritarian mind, “spontaneity” is impossible. The state can and should control all organizations. There is no such thing as a self-organized crowd. If people are sleeping in tents in Hong Kong’s central business district or Kiev’s Maidan, somebody must be paying them and directing them, and if it isn’t our state, then it must be someone else’s.
I don’t know whether those who talk like this necessarily believe it (for the record, I’m guessing Vladimir Putin does but Hong Kong’s leaders don’t). The vision of foreign conspiracy is self-serving: If there is a foreign power directing the protest, then the government can legitimately destroy it. The conspiracy narrative has an explanatory purpose, too. If the Hong Kong protests are an American plot, then mainland Chinese can safely ignore it.
Should the U.S. react to these accusations? On one level, there’s no point, because the conspiracy doesn’t exist. It’s true that many American institutions, mostly academic and charitable, offer human rights seminars or journalism training to groups around the world. But the funding for such activities is limited, a fraction of what China spends on lobbying or Russia spends on disinformation campaigns designed to influence U.S. policy. Their beneficiaries aren’t trained to become Western allies, let alone to follow American orders. On the contrary, really successful political movements always have local roots, local leaders, and unpredictable dynamics. Nobody was more surprised by the uprising in Egypt’s Tahrir Square than the U.S. government. Nobody was less prepared for Ukraine’s pro-Europe protests than Europe.
The U.S. government shouldn’t pick sides in the argument about the future of Hong Kong either, just as we should never pick winners in anybody else’s election. We aren’t very good at that kind of intervention, and we can’t influence the result anyway.
In the end, we can only respond to events in Hong Kong with a reiteration of our principles: We believe that individuals are capable of spontaneous action. We believe that the people of Hong Kong can and should organize their own institutions, separate from those of the state. As I write this, I don’t know the fate of these protests, and of course the end could be tragic. But if people can organize themselves once, they can do it again. Someday their rulers may learn to respect what they have created, not destroy it.