After a week of run-up asserting that Washington would announce measures to push back on Beijing’s announcement that it will impose a national security law on Hong Kong, President Trump stepped to the podium Friday afternoon and spoke for several minutes before mentioning the fight for democracy in that small territory. Instead, he reiterated a litany of complaints about Chinese economic competition, the country’s alleged responsibility for the coronavirus, and it ripping the U.S. off.
Then, to the shock of reporters and international officials, he announced that the U.S. would be “terminating its relationship with the World Health Organization” — a U.N. body whose largest donor, until Friday, had been the United States. He also made a threat to exclude certain categories of Chinese students and academics from the U.S., but he offered no details on how his administration, as a consequence of the new national security law, would begin pulling back the special status that Hong Kong enjoys in financial, economic, and diplomatic relations with the United States.
The odd and shambolic presentation, an hour behind schedule with no questions, was in very much in character. While Trump didn’t cause the crisis in Hong Kong, he bears a heavy responsibility for it coming now, in this form. And his responses are likely to make both U.S.-China relations and the position of pro-democracy forces in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan worse, rather than better.
Looming over the event was his silence — up to that point broken only by tweets condoning violence against protesters — on the killing of African-American George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer and the demonstrations that have followed. Seldom has the fate of democracy at home felt so tragically linked to that of democracy abroad.
Hong Kong’s democracy movement and ordinary citizens put up an extraordinary fight, and against long odds. As far back as the 1980s, when the U.K. under Margaret Thatcher was negotiating the territory’s return to China, it was clear to all that, even as relatively poor and isolated as Beijing then was, the combination of geography, size, and the sordid history of Western colonialism meant it would always have the upper hand over the island city. The decline of a system in which the West defends capitalist democracies with military force, and China’s growing confidence that it could deflect economic pressure from outside, devalued two of the cards Hong Kongers held. What remained was the moral high ground, city unity, and Hong Kong’s unique economic status as the doorway through which 60 percent of China’s outbound investment, and 10 percent of its financial sector, flow.
Hong Kong protesters held out longer and more successfully than many observers anticipated — and succeeded in putting into question whether Beijing could, as it had always assumed, let the territory keep its economic freedom while gradually pulling back its political liberty. For a brief moment it looked as if business and activists could find common cause.
That alliance was always at risk of fraying, as the protests and mainland Chinese reactions caused the Hong Kong economy to shrink. The coronavirus, and the economic collapse that came along with it, brought that day faster.
But the activists’ struggle was made even harder by signals Trump sent over recent months that he would not push back hard against Beijing, that he in fact needed Beijing and his trade deal for his re-election, and that he was not fundamentally committed to democratic principles for Hong Kong — or the U.S., for that matter. Many commentators have speculated that Chinese president Xi Jinping wants to regain control over Hong Kong, and push his advantage as far as possible, while Trump is still president. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, while not identified with the loudest China hawks, has pushed the message that he would get tough on Beijing more effectively. Perhaps more important than campaign rhetoric, Biden certainly harbors none of Trump’s envy for Xi’s authoritarian prerogatives, or Trump’s illusions that his personal powers of persuasion can alter Beijing’s trajectory.
Now Trump has the ability to decide how much to downgrade Hong Kong’s special economic relationship with the United States — perhaps the last big card Washington has to play. Business, and Beijing, seem to be betting that Trump will not remove all of Hong Kong’s privileges, or even the most important ones. Trump’s threat on Friday about the risk posed to U.S. investors and the rule of law under the new regime could, if the administration wanted to do so, offer the mainland a face-saving out to reverse or back down from its assertion of national security sovereignty over Hong Kong.
Of course, it’s not easy to imagine this administration executing a delicate maneuver of international face-saving, especially as Trump appears to call for the execution of protesters on Twitter at home. Instead, actions like banning some Chinese students and pulling out of a U.N. organization do nothing, or less than nothing, to make it harder for China to control and reap profit from Hong Kong.
They signal that for Trump this continues to be all about domestic politics — and that Chinese moves against Taiwan, a vibrant island democracy that Beijing also explicitly intends to return to mainland rule, might be met with similarly indifferent response. If China concludes that the United States has no policy tools to wield between toothless exclusion on the one hand, and proposals to return nuclear weapons to Taiwanese soil on the other, it has no reason not to act. Nor does it have any incentive to reverse its appalling treatment of Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities, more than a million of whom are imprisoned in what can only be called concentration camps.
China’s move is being made easier by Trump’s promotion of bigotry and injustice at home. While Trump remained silent on George Floyd’s death, other nations that could have spoken out on Hong Kong are instead speaking out on Minneapolis. The 55 member countries of the African Union have “condemned the murder of George Floyd” and rejected “continuing discriminatory practices against black citizens of the United States of America.” The U.K. called for journalists “to be free to do their job and hold authorities to account without fear of retribution” — in reference, not to China’s proposed national security law for Hong Kong, but to Friday’s brief detention by Minneapolis police of a CNN reporter and crew covering the protests there.
It is entirely possible that no U.S. president could have stopped Beijing from reasserting sovereignty over Hong Kong. But it is absolutely true that this president — and his embrace of racial oppression and illiberalism that seems to put the U.S. closer to Beijing’s autocracy — made it easier.