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China’s Hong Kong Nightmare, and the US Response

Donald Trump has kept his promise, reportedly made to Xi Jinping in June, that Washington would “tone down” its comments on the spiraling HK protests. “Very tough situation” Trump tweeted on August 12. “I hope it works out for everybody, including China.”

Memo to Trump: It won’t “work out” on its own, and you would do well to try something else if you don’t want to see a bloodbath there.

True to form, Trump seems to be tying the US attitude on the Hong Kong demonstrations to Xi’s willingness to come to terms—Trump’s that is—on trade and investment. “Of course China wants to make a deal. Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!” Trump tweeted on August 14. That approach is likely to be a non-starter. The Chinese leadership, which regards Hong Kong, like Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, as an exclusively internal matter (Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said as much), will surely reject bargaining over Hong Kong to get a better trade deal.

If linking Hong Kong to trade is the best the Trump administration can suggest, it will have no influence over an explosive situation that could, if it continues to escalate, result in direct Chinese intervention. Chinese sources say the Hong Kong demos are “descending into terrorism,” using language reminiscent of the months before military intervention to remove mass protesters from Tiananmen square in 1989. Chinese of a certain age will remember the People’s Daily editorial of April 26, 1989, a warning signal to the demonstrators that eventuated in the June 4 crackdown. The editorial, “We Must Take a Clear-cut Stand against Disturbances,” warned against chaos and charged that “an extremely small group of people” wanted to overthrow the communist party and system.

Flaunting the banner of democracy, they undermined democracy and the legal system. Their purpose was to sow dissension among the people, plunge the whole country into chaos and sabotage the political situation of stability and unity. This is a planned conspiracy and a disturbance. Its essence is to, once and for all, negate the leadership of the CPC [Communist Party of China] and the socialist system. This is a serious political struggle confronting the whole party and the people of all nationalities throughout the country. If we are tolerant of or conniving with this disturbance and let it go unchecked, a seriously chaotic state will appear.

“Chaos” has deep meaning in Chinese history, and the highest priority of every Chinese leader from Mao to Xi has been to maintain “stability” and order. In 1989 Deng Xiaoping and colleagues warned that ongoing protests might bring China’s economic reforms to a halt, and today, similarly, the leaders’ concern is preventing any social movement from disrupting China’s drive for economic heights and great-power status. Now as then, the young people in the streets were characterized as a small number, not representative of the greater population but a threat to communist party rule.

In a tweet on August 14, Trump said: “I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?” Pick up the phone and talk to the man, Mr. President, but don’t expect Xi to be in the least interested in the idea. Not only would Xi regard a meeting with the protesters as a grant of legitimacy to them. (First the Hong Kongers, then the Uyghers!) Trump’s credibility with Beijing is about as low as one can imagine, thanks to his barrage of tariffs, branding of China as a currency manipulator, and constantly chortling that the longer the trade war goes on, the better it is for America. John Bolton, ever unhelpful, further alienated Beijing by warning China that a “misstep” would politically and economically costly. Thus does this administration demonstrate anew its ignorance of its opponent.

Trump would do better to work with US allies that have a direct interest in avoiding further violence in Hong Kong and further damage to US-China relations. Together they can make clear to Xi that while they do not support violent protesting, and accept China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong, a crackdown there would be disastrous for China’s international political and economic relations. Seeking a peaceful solution that meets some of the protesters’ demands, on the other hand—such as having the Hong Kong chief executive, Carrie Lam, step down, permanently removing the extradition law, and reaffirming commitment to Hong Kong’s social and political autonomy—would be a sign that China is indeed a “responsible great power.”

And while he’s at it, Trump might reexamine his tariffs-based trade policy that is causing worldwide economic chaos and great harm to both the Chinese and US economies. But don’t hold your breath.

More articles by:

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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