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Police use tear gas to disperse protesters, one of whom is holding a U.S. flag, in Hong Kong on Aug. 5, 2019. Beijing has accused Washington of exerting 'black hand' influence in the city to stoke continuing unrest.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

For some time now, China has been blaming "black hands” working for “foreign forces” for the massive anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong, now in their third month. More recently, Chinese officials have been openly saying that the United States is responsible.

On July 30, newly appointed director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s information department Hua Chunying responded to questions on Hong Kong by saying, “In the scenes revealed on media, we saw some American faces among the violent demonstrators in Hong Kong. We even saw the national flag of the U.S. on some occasions. What role has the U.S. played in Hong Kong recently? The U.S. owes the world an explanation.”

Just how the spokeswoman could distinguish American faces from non-American ones is unclear. Passports are a more reliable indicator of nationality. In Hong Kong, there are plenty of people with Caucasian faces who carry Chinese passports. Just ask the Hong Kong Immigration Department.

Surely Ms. Hua, hailed by Global Times as not only charming but professional, isn’t confusing ethnicity with nationality.

As for flags, would an American “mastermind” of the protest movement be so stupid as to wave a U.S. flag? “Mastermind” is the word used by Tung Chee-hwa, former Hong Kong chief executive and currently vice-chairman of China’s top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Last Thursday, China’s Foreign Ministry Commission in Hong Kong summoned an official from the American consulate-general to lodge “stern representations” over a “media report” that an American diplomat had met with “Hong Kong independence” activists. A Chinese official expressed “strong disapproval and firm opposition.”

The media report was in Ta Kung Pao, a paper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. It published a photograph of the consular official, Julie Eadeh, standing in the lobby of the JW Marriott Hotel with student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and members of their political grouping, Demosisto. The photo appeared under the headline “Foreign Forces Intervene.”

This is the same newspaper that had the previous week published a photograph of a purported foreign agent using his cellphone to tell protesters of police movements. The next day, an Agence France-Presse fact-checker, Rachel Yan, reported that the man was actually Kevin Roche, an editor at The New York Times, who was communicating with a reporter.

That night, CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, described Ms. Eadeh as “the behind-the-scenes black hand creating chaos in Hong Kong.”

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry Commission said, “We strongly urge the members of the U.S. Consulate-General” to abide by international law and to “make a clean break from anti-China forces who stir up trouble in Hong Kong.”

A State Department spokesman, asked about the Foreign Ministry’s accusations, said that American diplomats “meet regularly with a wide cross-section of people across Hong Kong” and on the day of the encounter with student activists, “our diplomats also met with both pro-establishment and pan-democratic camp legislators, as well as members of the American business community and the consular corps.”

“This is what American diplomats do every single day around the world,” the State Department said.

International law on this issue is clear. Article 3.1 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations says the functions of a diplomatic mission include “ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving state, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending state.”

That is, it is the job of American diplomats based in China, including Hong Kong, to ascertain political, economic, social and other developments and to report such information back to their government.

Evidently, this requires contact with people of various backgrounds and interests, including those the Chinese government regards as “anti-China forces who stir up trouble.” If foreign diplomats don’t understand what opposition forces are thinking, they will be unable to send a full report to their government which, in turn, will be hampered in the formulation of policies.

Similarly, foreign diplomats need access to senior government officials. If denied such access, their reports home might be distorted. This is not in the interests of the host country, in this case China.

So, the American policy of having its diplomats maintain contact with all sides, including both government and opposition, benefits all parties, very much including China. Indeed, China might want to consider adopting such a policy itself.

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