The past few days have been a mix of good and bad news for Hong Kong’s protest movement. On the upside, 1.7 million people turned out on Sunday for the largest rally in weeks, massively overflowing the area in Victoria Park where police had authorized a gathering. Drawing a quarter of the city’s population, Sunday’s demonstration was the largest in weeks, bringing renewed momentum to the movement after an embarrassing setback last week, when a sit-in at the airport descended into chaos and violence, prompting a group within the leaderless movement to issue a public apology.
On the downside, the Chinese government is stepping up its efforts to discredit the protesters and appears to be ramping up preparations for a possible crackdown. Facebook and Twitter have suspended hundreds of fake accounts being used to spread disinformation about the protests in what Twitter described as “a coordinated state-backed operation.” These social media sites are blocked in mainland China but not in Hong Kong. Many of the accounts posted English-language content, intended for a global audience. At the same time, paramilitary security officers of the People’s Armed Police have been amassing in Shenzhen, the next town over from Hong Kong, in a reminder that Chinese president Xi Jinping can still bring the hammer of state force down on the protesters whenever he wants.
In the meantime, the U.S. is indicating that it would prefer Xi not resort to violence. On Sunday, President Donald Trump said he wanted to see “Hong Kong worked out in a very humanitarian fashion,” and that “it’d be very hard to deal if they do violence,” referring to ongoing negotiations to resolve the trade conflict he started with China last year. Vice-President Mike Pence echoed that sentiment on Monday, stating in an address at the Detroit Economic Club: “For the United States to make a deal with China, Beijing needs to honor its commitments — beginning with the commitment China made in 1984 to respect the integrity of Hong Kong’s laws through the Sino-British Joint Declaration.”
Chinese state media dismissed these calls as unwelcome meddling by U.S. “elites,” which Beijing has accused of instigating what it describes as “riots” in Hong Kong. Trump and Pence’s remarks may stir hope that that U.S. will throw some of its diplomatic and geoeconomic clout behind the Hongkongers, the unfortunate reality is that the president and vice-president are not speaking from a position of strength vis-à-vis China. Even if Trump decides to stick his neck out for Hong Kong, which seems unlikely, his implicit threat rings hollow considering that he is losing his trade war and is in greater political peril than Xi if the negotiators can’t reach a deal.
Part of the cause for pessimism is that Trump and his Chinese counterpart are operating under two completely different sets of incentives, some of which are mutually exclusive. Trump’s most pressing concern for the next 15 months is the 2020 election, which polls suggest will be an uphill battle for him. His case for reelection will rest on the strength of the economy, the fulfillment of his campaign promises from 2016, and the positive impact of those promises on the lives of working-class voters in the Rust Belt.
That case will be much easier to make if he can credibly claim to have won his trade war with China — meaning a deal in which China agrees to buy more goods from the U.S. at high prices and sell fewer goods to the U.S. at market-bendingly low prices. Because Trump promised his voters that this trade war would be easy and have no downsides for the American consumer, and because these statements are not true, the president has given Beijing a degree of leverage. He needs to make this deal, both for the sake of accomplishing a stated goal and now also as a means of avoiding an election-year recession.
Can Trump win reelection without winning the trade war? Sure, but it will be that much harder to do with unfinished Chinese business hanging over his head. (Especially as China’s intelligence agency will almost certainly engage in voter-manipulation efforts in the lead-up to next November.) The Chinese trade negotiators know this, so it must strain credulity in Beijing when the Trump administration threatens to scuttle a trade deal that does not yet exist and that Trump can’t afford to walk away from negotiating. After all, he’s already holding off on one tariff threat out of fear of raising prices on U.S. consumers before the holiday season. Why would he follow through on a threat to hurt himself politically over human rights in Hong Kong, especially when he has previously signaled that he sees this as an internal matter for China?
Xi, on the other hand, does not have to worry about winning elections. He does have to worry about maintaining the confidence of the Central Committee and National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, but these bodies are even less concerned with Hongkongers’ rights than Donald Trump is, and wouldn’t reward him for kowtowing to Washington for the sake of an unfavorable trade agreement. If Xi has refrained from cracking down violently on the demonstrators because of optics, it is not for fear of being seen as a brute in the eyes of the world; rather, he doesn’t want his rivals within the party or China’s enemies abroad to perceive Hong Kong as a matter serious enough to require a heavy-handed intervention. He is looking to project stability and strength, so he would rather solve the problem quietly, but he’s clearly prepared to crack skulls if needed.
As for the trade war, yes, Xi has an interest in ending it, but not on Trump’s terms. China’s economic growth is slowing and a trade conflict naturally exacerbates that slowdown. Xi would like to keep the economy bubbling, though his political future doesn’t rest on it quite as squarely as Trump’s does. The problem is that there’s no win-win: An outcome that Trump can campaign on next year would mean a clear loss for China and a humiliation for Xi. Some of the demands the administration are making are very legitimate — such as curbing China’s anti-competitive practices around intellectual property in the tech industry — but Trump has been gunning for a trade agreement that would impose punitive terms on Chinese industry and force China to import American products it doesn’t need, purely for the sake of arbitrarily reducing the U.S. trade deficit.
China will never agree to this, and indeed has been retrenching in recent months. If there is some critical mass of economic pressure that could force Xi to accept a deal that is so transparently bad for China, it is more than the U.S. can realistically afford to impose. Being bullied into bad trade deals is a historical sore spot for China, going back to the Opium Wars; one could even characterize China’s transformation into a global power in the 20th century as a conscious effort to ensure that Western imperialists could never pull that kind of crap again. The gunboat diplomacy 19th-century empires used to enforce their terms on China is unavailable to Trump: Even in Trump’s worldview, a trade deficit is not a good enough reason to go to war with another nuclear weapons state. Neither, for that matter, is Hong Kong.