June 5, 2020
It’s like lecturing your kid on the dangers of drunk driving – while you’re behind the wheel sipping on your tenth Schlitz tall boy of the evening.
Until recently, the United States could still credibly claim some moral authority over autocratic and dictatorial countries around the world when it came to tear gassing and beating up their own citizens.
In November, Reuters reported this about protests in Hong Kong…
The United States on Monday condemned “unjustified use of deadly force” in the latest Hong Kong violence and urged police and civilians alike to de-escalate the situation, a senior Trump administration official said.[The U.S.] urged Beijing to honor commitments that “Hong Kong will ‘enjoy a high degree of autonomy’ and that the people of Hong Kong will enjoy human rights the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.
Fast-forward six months, and the U.S. is in the midst of the worst civil strife since the 1960s. Protests across the U.S. over the death of George Floyd and other police-related killings, and racial inequality more broadly, have turned violent.
And in the country that’s home to Hummer stretch limos, malls the size of 78 football fields, and 64-oz. Big Gulps, “deadly force” is supersized. Within a week, at least 13 people died in U.S. protests, as hyper-militarized police forces have gone head-to-head with a citizenry that owns, on average, 1.2 guns per person. (As an American abroad, I can’t tell you how many times I’m asked What is it with Americans and their guns?)
The violence in Hong Kong that the U.S. was decrying last year is toddlers in a sandbox by comparison. Over many months of protests involving millions of people last year, only two people died (neither as a direct consequence of police violence) in Hong Kong’s protests.
Rubber bullets, which were cracked out within hours in the U.S., were considered a massive escalation in police tactics against protestors in Hong Kong. In early November, it was international news when a policeman in Hong Kong fired his gun – not even at anyone, but as a warning against advancing protestors. (Hong Kong gun ownership is just 3.6 guns per 100 people, or around 3% of the U.S.)
Videos of police brutality in Hong Kong that circulated last year on social media platform Telegram – which served as motivation for hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets – are Little League next to the MLB of what’s been happening on the streets of America recently.
At a protest in Hong Kong that I went to back in December, there was a smattering of American flags in the crowd. Weeks earlier, Trump signed measures that threatened sanctions on officials responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong… They banned the export of tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray to the Hong Kong police.
In their pursuit of “democracy and freedom,” some protestors in Hong Kong held up the U.S. as a savior and an example. But China has long accused the U.S. of actively fomenting unrest in Hong Kong. Some pro-Beijing observers suggested that boxes of gas masks produced by 3M (an American company) that appeared on street corners during protests in Hong Kong were evidence of U.S. involvement in demonstrations in the city.
As recently as May 25, according to news reports, protestors in Hong Kong were carrying placards asking for “U.S. troops” to come and “help… protect HK people.”
Yet in the wake of what’s been happening on the streets of America, that’s all very yesterday. You may remember Joe, a Hong Kong protestor I wrote about in April. When I recently spoke with him, he was appalled at what was happening in America.
Glued to his monitor, Joe watched scenes of violence in the U.S. that – even as a seasoned Molotov cocktail-tosser himself – made him cringe.
The U.S. is steadily depleting its “soft power,” which is one of the few ways it can come out ahead in the post-pandemic world. And China smells blood, as news service AFP explained…
As violence broke out in the U.S. over the weekend, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying … took aim at Washington.
“I can’t breathe,” she said on Twitter… quoting the words George Floyd was heard saying repeatedly before his death…
Over the weekend, Chinese media also circulated video clips of the U.S. violence, accompanied by the hashtag “How restrained are the Hong Kong police” on the Twitter-like platform Weibo.
Iran jumped on the bandwagon as well. On Tuesday, according to CNN, the head of Iran’s judiciary said that “U.S. leaders should stand trial before the international courts on charge of deliberate homicide and racial discrimination.”
The United States imposes economic sanctions on the individuals and organizations responsible for mistreating citizens. I wonder when Iran – and Cuba, and Congo, and Russia, and any of the dozens of other entities that have suffered U.S. sanctions – will threaten similar sanctions on American officials for abusing human rights and inciting violence.
That sort of interference in domestic American affairs would support a White House narrative of “foreign involvement” in protests around the U.S. So far, the Trump White House – without providing evidence – has blamed Antifa for looting and violence at some of the protests around the United States. That’s “a decentralized group of far-left activists who advocate using violence to combat white supremacists and neo-Nazis,” according to the Financial Times.
To further deflect responsibility and redirect the media conversation, it wouldn’t be surprising to see presidential tweets accusing China of delivering behind-the-scenes support to violent protestors in American cities. The White House doesn’t require evidence to make accusations (and it helps that China similarly accused the U.S. previously)… The objective is to distract.
Any president appreciates the opportunity, even if it’s generated artificially, for a “rally ’round the flag” moment. That’s especially true when the country – like the U.S. now – is coming apart at the seams. The bonus in blaming China could also justify the opening of another front in the U.S.-China trade war.
As the U.S. loses its remaining credibility in decrying human rights abuses in Hong Kong, China will have an easier time of completing its destruction of the “one country, two systems” principle. One of the biggest winners of that process is a competing financial center that’s a four-hour flight away – Singapore, where I live.
For multinational and regional companies with hubs or headquarters in Hong Kong that are concerned about China taking over, Singapore is the obvious alternative. It’s similarly safe, multilingual and multicultural, with a world-class infrastructure and airport, and nosebleed property prices. My kids’ school has been inundated with inquiries from anxious parents in Hong Kong who are looking to escape China-to-be.
In April, deposits from non-residents in Singapore’s banks jumped by 44% – probably much of it from Hong Kong. The country’s stock market, which has lagged that of other regional markets, is a recent hot rebound pick (the Singapore market ETF is traded on the NYSE, ticker EWS)… And it could benefit well from an inflow of white-collar Hong Kong refugees.
But Singapore isn’t immune to what’s going on in the rest of the world… As scores of cities in the U.S. go up in flames and Hong Kong is engulfed by China, things have been getting pretty ugly here, too.
“Woman filmed not wearing mask at Shunfu market,” screamed a headline last month in the country’s (state-controlled) daily. She’d “engag[ed] passers-by in a heated argument,” and had also “caused annoyance to the public by shouting loudly and creating a scene at the market.”
The renegade was subsequently charged on one count of “being a public nuisance,” and three counts of “violating COVID-19 rules.”
The episode – and the local public uproar – is on-brand for follow-the-rules Singapore, which is globally renowned for outlawing chewing gum. (You can chew gum in Singapore… But you can’t import or sell it, or – God help you – throw your used gum anywhere but a trash can.)
And if you’re of a certain age, you may remember back in 1994 when an American teenager vandalized cars with spray paint in Singapore. After the high-profile intervention of then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, the boy’s sentence was reduced from six strokes of the cane to four (caning is still a widely used punishment here in Singapore).
Bill got a victory, Singapore burnished its law-and-order reputation, and the young American vandal learned his lesson by, literally, having his butt whipped. (Or not… Back in the U.S., months after being caned, he went into rehab for an addiction to butane. A few years after that, he was busted for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.)
Unrest and turmoil are anathema to Disney-meets-1984 Singapore. People here were aghast last year at the demonstrations in Hong Kong. In a country where crossing the street on red – even if there are no cars within sight – earns you glares, throwing Molotov cocktails in the Central Business District is as difficult to understand as the notion of “government intelligence.”
The Singaporean government was “terrified” that similar protests could happen in their country, the Financial Times reported in November. One member of the country’s parliament, writing in the state-controlled national newspaper, recited the Chinese line that the protests “were the result of foreign manipulation and received foreign support.”
It just goes to show, that everywhere in the world, it’s easier to blame someone else…
May you find your way through the chaos.
Now here are some of the stories we’re reading…
Coronavirus Live Updates: Cases Worldwide Multiply at Fastest Pace Yet
The number of new cases is growing faster than ever worldwide, with more than 100,000 reported each day. The increase has been driven by emerging hot spots in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
U.S. Jobless Claims Persist Even as Businesses Reopen
As business reopenings picked up nationwide, Americans filed nearly 2 million applications for unemployment benefits last week, reflecting a slowing – though far from a halt – in job losses.
Travel plans? You might change them after reading this passenger’s nightmarish overseas flight
“The 777-300 is 100% full except for the last 3-4 rows reserved to isolate passengers who develop fever in the flight.”
Are public pensions doomed because of the coronavirus pandemic?
Before this crisis even began, state pension plans across the country were already more than $1 trillion short of the funding needed to pay their future obligations to retirees.
And let us know what you’re reading at [email protected].
Chaos Chronicles Editor, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
June 5, 2020