Donald Trump said Friday that Xi Jinping would have “obliterated” Hong Kong, and killed “thousands” of its people, if he had not personally asked the Chinese leader to refrain from mass murder. Trump went on to call Xi “a friend of mine,” and an “incredible guy.”
In an interview with Fox & Friends, the president refused to commit to signing a bipartisan bill that would impose sanctions on Chinese officials for any human-rights abuses committed in Hong Kong. The legislation, which passed Congress this week, came in response to an escalation in Chinese repression of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
“We have to stand with Hong Kong,” Trump said Friday, “But I’m also standing with President Xi.”
The president proceeded to explain that “if it weren’t for me, Hong Kong would have been obliterated in 14 minutes. [Xi]’s got a million soldiers standing outside of Hong Kong that aren’t going in only because I asked him, please don’t do that. You’ll be making a big mistake. It’s going to have a tremendous negative impact on the trade deal. And he wants to make a trade deal.”
One should probably interpret Trump’s remarks on this subject (and/or, any subject) as a pack of self-aggrandizing lies. It is unlikely that Xi has held off on mass murdering Hong Kong’s protesters solely out of fear of Donald Trump’s personal commitment to safeguarding democratic freedom overseas. Still, it’s notable (if unsurprising) that Trump failed to recognize any tension between boasting about how he personally stopped the Chinese president from committing an atrocity, and bragging that he and that president are very good buddies.
Trump’s inability to discern a dissonance between those two sentiments reflects the fact that he is not merely indifferent to human-rights violations, but a longtime supporter of them. Trump hasn’t praised the authoritarian president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte in spite of Duterte’s extrajudicial slaughter of supposed drug criminals, but specifically for his handling of “the drug problem.” He’s said of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, “in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A”; of Kim Jong-un, “You gotta give him credit … He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games.”
But China’s human-rights violations have always held a special place in the mogul’s heart. “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump told Playboy magazine in 1990. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak … as being spit on by the rest of the world.”
Even without Trump’s backing, there is likely enough support on Capitol Hill for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act for Congress to enact the law over the president’s veto.