Trump Loves Democracy…in Hong Kong

Photograph Source: Studio Incendo – CC BY 2.0

As you run from the tear gas militarized police are firing as you protest racist murders by cops, you can take solace in the fact that the Trump Administration is terribly upset that democracy is being crushed in Hong Kong.

While Hong Kong was a British colony, the US treated it differently and more favorably than it did mainland China.  In the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, the US undertook to maintain this favorable treatment so long as Hong Kong remained autonomous.  China promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 that following Hong Kong’s reversion to China in 1997 at the expiration of the UK’s 99-year lease that Hong Kong would “enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs.”

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed in 2019 added a requirement for the secretary of state to make an annual certification that Hong Kong “continues to warrant” different treatment.  In a May 27 statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he was unable to make the certification.  Pompeo declared that “No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground.”

Pompeo referenced “a series of actions that fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms,” culminating in China’s recent decision to ram new national security legislation down Hong Kong’s throat.  According to the New York Times, the national security legislation would “allow the mainland’s feared security agencies to set up their operations publicly in Hong Kong for the first time, instead of operating on a limited scale in secrecy.”

President Donald Trump announced on May 29 that the US was ending Hong Kong’s special status.  Trump said that China had “replaced its promised formula of ‘one country, two systems’ with ‘one country, one system.’”  Trump also said that the US would impose economic sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials.

Revoking Hong Kong’s special status is likely to have enormous consequences.  Peter Harrell, a lawyer and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security lists several privileges the US can revoke.  Trump may choose to no longer exempt Hong Kong from the stiff tariffs he has heaped on China.  Hong Kong investors may have a harder time investing in the US.  Hong Kongese may find it harder to obtain long-term visas to visit the US.  The US can create new barriers to the export of sensitive “dual use” American technology (technology having both commercial and military applications) to Hong Kong.

Trump does not have to do any of this, however.  The Hong Kong Policy Act gives the president complete discretion to decide what privileges a no longer autonomous Hong Kong will lose.  We will have to wait and see how far Trump will go.

*     *     *

In late 2019, President Trump approved a Congressional ban on exporting tear gas to police in Hong Kong.  Now we know the reason.  Trump was afraid he would run out of tear gas to use on Americans.

On June 4, Reuters ran a story under the headline: “White House, on Tiananmen Anniversary, Urges China to Respect Human Rights.”  The Onion must be pissed off that they didn’t think of that one.

Trump has yet to go full Tiananmen Square on the George Floyd protesters.  Still, the day may not be far distant when a lone Black protester faces down a column of US tanks.  Trump speaks openly of calling out the army.  So far, though, attacks on the protesters have been left to heavily armed police and National Guardsmen.

While Trump and Pompeo stew over Hong Kong’s vanishing liberties, the US is burning.  Sometimes the flames are literal, as in Pittsburgh and Brooklyn, where police cars were torched, or in Nashville, where the courthouse was set on fire.  In New York City, police cars drove into crowds of protestors.  (“Don’t Forget to Like and Subscribe,” the YouTube video reminds us.)

Beijing could hardly fail to notice Trump’s hypocritical support for protesters in Hong Kong while he urges the use of violence against protesters in the US.  China’s state media has run extensive coverage of the George Floyd protests, and NPR quotes a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman who commented:  “Many people may want to ask this question: Why does the U.S. refer to those ‘Hong Kong independence’ and black-clad rioters as ‘heroes’ and ‘fighters’ but label its people protesting against racial discrimination as ‘thugs’?”

Why, indeed?  Of course, Beijing glosses over its own hypocrisy.  China’s human rights record is lousy.  US criticisms of human rights violations in China are opportunistic, but they’re not inaccurate.  The US points out human rights abuses when they’re committed by enemies like China or Iran.  Equally severe human rights violations committed by US allies like Saudi Arabia or Israel get a pass.

Trump loves democracy so long as it’s somewhere else.  It’s time to bring democracy to the US.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at