In the past week, U.S. President Donald Trump has described Chinas trade practices as “an anchor on us,” saying Beijing is “killing us” and wants to “hurt” U.S. jobs.
Yet as Chinese officials increasingly hint at a potentially violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, Trump has remained largely silent.
The bifurcated approach is just the latest example of what former U.S. officials and analysts say is Trumps transactional approach to foreign policy, as well as his comfort with authoritarian rule. Even though the presidents own aides are sending a more forceful message on situations like the Hong Kong protests, they add, its a message that will inevitably get lost amid Trumps comments — or lack thereof.
“Trump is telling [Chinese President] Xi Jinping very clearly: Do whatever you want in Hong Kong. All I care about is a trade deal,” argued Michael Fuchs, a former State Department official under the Democratic administration of Barack Obama. What Trump aides say means “nothing when the president is making his own position very clear again and again and again.”
In some cases, overt U.S. support can hurt pro-democracy movements.
Trumps defenders argue his comments are either misinterpreted or not considered in full.
When asked about Hong Kong in early July, supporters point out, Trump said the protesters are “looking for democracy. And I think most people want democracy.”
But Trump later drew flak for saying Xi had “acted responsibly” in handling the protests, for calling the demonstrations “riots” and for saying the issue is “between Hong Kong and China.” While Trumps supporters said the president was trying to praise Xi for not yet cracking down on the protesters, while also implying the movement wont succeed if it turns violent, Chinas state-run media quickly hyped up his description of the Hong Kong protests as “riots.”
“Perception definitely matters,” said a senior State Department official. “But I think sometimes [Trump] gets willfully or accidentally misconstrued by the press.”
Behind Trumps limited commentary on the Hong Kong protests — which escalated on Monday with a widespread strike that led to public transit disruptions and more than 200 flight cancellations — his top aides have shown consistent support for the movement.
Civilians mill about during a standoff between protestors and riot police after a students arrest at Sham Shui Po district on August 06 in Hong Kong | Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who typically takes pains to avoid showing any difference with the president, has met with prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy figures, such as publisher Jimmy Lai and activist Martin Lee. He used the sessions to emphasize the U.S. position that Beijing should not curtail the freedoms in Hong Kong. Lai also met with Vice President Mike Pence.
The State Department, when asked, issues fairly strong statements calling on China to “respect Hong Kongs high degree of autonomy.”
Hong Kong is a former British colony that was handed back to China in 1997. At the time, Beijings communist leaders agreed to a “one country, two systems” setup, meaning people in Hong Kong have more democratic, speech and other rights than Chinese residents on the mainland.
The protests date to this past spring, sparked by a February proposal that would allow for the extradition of suspected criminals to the mainland for trial. At one point, more than 1 million people marched against the plan, an expression of anxiety among Hong Kong residents that Beijing is trying to erode their rights.
The proposed extradition rule has been put on hold, but protesters have expanded their demands to cover, among other things, desired democratic reforms. In recent days, there has been some violence at rallies, and China has indicated it is willing to take tough measures in response.
“We would like to make it clear to the very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them: Those who play with fire will perish by it,” one Chinese official said on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. “Dont ever misjudge the situation and mistake our restraint for weakness.”
Hours after that comment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement praising the protesters, saying their “dreams of freedom, justice and democracy can never be extinguished by injustice and intimidation.” The California Democrat also promised congressional action on legislation aimed at penalizing Chinese officials who infringe on Hong Kongs autonomy.
If Trump did ramp up his pressure on Beijing to respect the Hong Kong protesters, the Chinese arent likely to be moved by mere words, said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.
Trump didnt comment.
Its not clear whether Trump would support the proposed legislation, which has bipartisan support. It could all depend on where things stand with the trade deal, the topic that animates Trump most when it comes to China. According to the Financial Times, Trump has told Xi, whom he frequently praises in public, that his administration would limit its commentary on Hong Kong to push forward the trade talks.
“Its just hard to escape a core element of the presidents foreign policy is transactions, and if something isnt part of what he wants, hes willing to sacrifice it,” said Scott Kennedy, a China specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Still, Trump may have squandered any goodwill he had from Xi this week by labeling China a currency manipulator, said Jonathan Pollack, a China analyst with the Brookings Institution think tank.
“Trumps detachment seems more characteristic of his non-interventionist stance toward the actions of any number of authoritarian leaders,” Pollack added in an email.
While every presidential administration, Democratic or Republican, picks and chooses its human rights battles, activists say the Trump team is unusually selective. It routinely hammers a handful of governments it considers implacable foes, such as those in Iran, Cuba and Venezuela, while ignoring similar rights abuses in countries seen as necessary partners, like Egypt.
China, with its sheer size, strong economic links to America and growing global influence, would pose a messaging challenge to any U.S. president, despite a growing bipartisan hawkishness toward Beijing across the Washington foreign policy establishment.
There also are the bitter lessons of the not-too-distant past when it comes to U.S. support for democratic movements.
Several Arab Spring campaigns failed to produce more democratic governments. In Egypt, for instance, the current government is increasingly viewed by the human rRead More – Source