HONG KONG – Trump signs, Pepe the Frog graffiti and British and American flags have become a common sight at Hong Kong’s anti-government protests — and an unsettling one to longtime democracy activists on the left.
Beijing has seized on the images to portray the movement as a coddled, westernized middle class incited by foreign organizations and governments to rebel against the world’s largest communist country, China.
“Why does the American flag appear at every violent scene in Hong Kong?” state broadcaster CCTV asked.
Many of Hong Kong’s hardcore protesters are working-class construction workers and hairstylists battling an establishment government dominated by business interests and real estate tycoons. Some wave U.S. and other flags to appeal to the rest of the world for support.
But a small group of followers of far-right activist Horace Chin regularly join the long-running protests, drawing the glare of television cameras with big banners reading “President Trump, Please Liberate Hong Kong”.
For liberals, Chin is a pariah hijacking the demonstrations.
“It's really disappointing to see people try to drive a wedge between Hong Kong people and the Chinese people in this way,” said Wilfred Chan, founder of Lausan, a leftist collective that seeks to build international solidarity with the Hong Kong protests. “This is a mistake.”
There is little, though, that they can do about it. Protesters have vowed to avoid the internal divisions of the pro-democracy “umbrella movement” in 2014. Demonstrators refrain from criticizing each other’s tactics or politics to stay focused on what unites them: opposition to the communist government in Beijing and the ruling establishment in Hong Kong.
The protests are “not your traditional left or right movement,” said Avery Ng, chairman of the League of Social Democrats, a left-wing political party. “This is a broad-spectrum movement against a totalitarian government.”
But basic disagreements bubble beneath the surface: What do the protests stand for? Who are they for, and who are they against? How do you save a city caught in a growing confrontation between the U.S. and China?
When four far-right Ukrainian activists flew into Hong Kong and posed for pictures with protesters, some Chinese state media played up what they said was the protest movement’s true colors.
“Ukrainian neo-Nazis exposed colluding with Hong Kong rioters,” trumpeted a headline in the Global Times, a nationalistic state-owned newspaper.
Hong Kong’s left-leaning activists feel caught in the middle. The right-wing imagery is misleading, they said, fearing it feeds into Beijing’s narrative and harms the movement.
The protests started in June to oppose a bill that would have allowed the city to extradite suspected criminals to China and rapidly snowballed into a full-blown defense of the city’s semi-autonomy under Beijing’s rule.
Chan, founder of Lausan, treks the world to seek support from grassroots organizers. He sees a common struggle between demonstrators in Chile, Kashmir, Bolivia and Puerto Rico, saying their struggles stem from the same root: governments that lie to their own people.
“We have to think beyond trying to appease elites far away,” he said, “When it comes to the question of Hong Kong's autonomy, I think that neither China nor the United States desires Hong Kong to truly be free.”
Many of the most overt displays of support for President Donald Trump are led by Chin, the far-right activist and a former professor.
“Dear President Trump, communism is AIDS,” he said in a December tweet. “Where’s your cocktail therapy & shock therapies for communist China?”
In 2011, Chin published an influential book, “On the Hong Kong City-State.” His supporters admire him for being one of the first to outline a concrete strategy to preserve the city's identity and traditional Chinese heritage from China's all-controlling Communist Party.
His language, though, veers into the bombastic, angering many with anti-China rhetoric that some call racist.
The expressions of people like Chin and attacks by bands of hardcore protesters targeting mainland Chinese-connected businesses and shoppers allow Beijing to tar the whole movement as being bigoted, critics say.
Cedric, a 30-year-old former construction worker turned front-liner, is somewhat indifferent towards Trump, whom he calls “just a businessman." Nor does he think the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, passed by Congress as a rebuke to Beijing and Hong Kong's leadership, has had much impact so far.
Cedric, who like most protesters didn’t give his last name out of fear of arrest, rejects political labels, calling himself “just a Hong Kong citizen." Like many in the movement, he embraces Pepe the Frog as a protest symbol, unaware of its association with far-right extremists in the U.S.
Some of his friends have been arrested and he now lives in hiding, nursing a shoulder injured in clashes with riot police. As the protests march on, Cedric hopes that more people across the globe will support the Hong Kong cause, including Chinese on the mainland.
“We won't reject support from people of any country or race, because we know those people value freedom and democracy,” he said.
Ng, the head of the far-left party, sees the Chinese government as the common enemy of both Hong Kong and ordinary Chinese.
His left-wing yet anti-Beijing views were shaped by his years as a consultant helping multinational corporations buy stakes in Chinese companies. On visits to factories in distant corners of the country, he found that the lion’s share of profits went to officials and business people, not the workers.
The trips jarred Ng, who struggled to square the Communist Party’s socialist slogans with the exploitation and lack of basic worker rights he saw on the ground.
“The Chinese Communist Party is the most anti-communist party in the world,” he said. “What they are operating is authoritarian state capitalism.”
Ng sees the appeals of Hong Kong protesters to the U.S. as a distress signal, more a desperate cry for help than a sign of any ideological inclination.
“Hong Kong people are traditionally very utilitarian,” Ng says. “They will try whatever path that they may think to help the cause.”
Associated Press news assistant Phoebe Lai contributed to this report.