Protesters occupy the departure hall of the Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration on Monday. The Chinese are alleging the U.S. is instigating the protests in Hong Kong. | Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
The escalating events in Hong Kong have laid bare some of the challenges the U.S. faces in dealing with China.
Updated 08/13/2019 09:07 PM EDT
Lawmakers and government officials across Washington, including some of President Donald Trump’s top advisers, are growing increasingly alarmed about the unrest in Hong Kong.
One person, however, seems less concerned than most: Trump. Story Continued Below
As pro-democracy protesters clash with police and as China hints that it may violently quell the demonstrations, the events in Hong Kong have laid bare the tough choices facing the U.S. when it comes to dealing with the communist-led government in Beijing.
It is, after all, a major economic partner of the United States, but it also shows little sign of allowing for democracy. In fact, the Chinese are alleging the U.S. is instigating the protests in Hong Kong.
That Trump is commander in chief makes the U.S. approach all the more unpredictable because, unlike most presidents, he has shown fondness for authoritarian leaders and little interest in promoting human rights or democracy.
Trump has so far stayed relatively blasé about the Asian crisis, telling reporters on Tuesday: “The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation. I hope it works out peacefully. I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.”
At the White House, however, aides to Trump, including his economic advisers, are watching events closely and worry that it could spiral out of control, according to a current and a former White House official. It’s not clear what, if anything, Trump wants to do in response, the sources said.
An administration official said the Hong Kong crisis was increasingly reminiscent of another infamous case in Chinese history when democracy activists were violently crushed.
“It’s about as close to Tiananmen Square, potentially, that you’re going to get in the modern age,” the official said of the protests that took place 30 years ago.
The official acknowledged that Trump appears less interested in the matter than the trade negotiations with China. But he said aides around the president were used to the way he prioritizes such things.
“I’m confident that no one at the top levels feels that he’s said anything they’re aware of to make them think he’s going to prohibit any sort of course of action,” he added.
Top American lawmakers, meanwhile, are increasingly speaking out against Beijing, underscoring the growing — and bipartisan — anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. capital.
On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy signaled his support for the protesters.
“To the thousands of young people in Hong Kong who are speaking UP for human rights and speaking OUT against the Communist Party of China: we see you waving the American flag, and we hear you singing our national anthem,” the California Republican tweeted. “America stands for freedom. America stands with Hong Kong.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week promised to push forward legislation that would penalize Chinese officials who infringe on Hong Kong’s autonomy. In her statement, the California Democrat praised the “courage” of the protesters standing up to “a cowardly government that refuses to respect the rule of law.”
Also speaking out this week was Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is running for president. She tweeted on Monday: “The people of Hong Kong are making clear that they will not tolerate repression, and their movement affirms: The power is with the people. They deserve our support and the support of the world.”
At least one other Democratic presidential contender, former Vice President Joe Biden, has expressed support for the protesters, saying in June, “All of us must stand in support of democratic principles and freedom.”
To date, Trump has said relatively little on the Hong Kong crisis, sparking criticism that he is more worried about getting a trade deal with China than supporting movements for democracy.
Still, his laconic approach hasn’t stopped China from linking the U.S. to the chaos. China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday once again leveled accusations that American officials are encouraging the “rabble-rousers in Hong Kong.” Beijing had earlier claimed that the “black hand” of the CIA was involved.
“We urge the U.S. to observe international law and the basic norms governing international relations, and to stop interfering in China’s internal affairs at once,” Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said.
Separate from his remarks to reporters, Trump tweeted about the issue on Tuesday, deflecting China’s allegations.
“Many are blaming me, and the United States, for the problems going on in Hong Kong. I can’t imagine why?” he tweeted. At one point he also tweeted: “Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!”
Hong Kong is a former British colony handed back to China in 1997 under an agreement that was supposed to follow a “one country, two systems” model. That effectively meant that people in Hong Kong would have more freedoms than Chinese living on the mainland.
The protests in Hong Kong began in the spring, but have intensified since June. They were sparked by a proposal that would have let some suspected criminals be extradited to the mainland, leading to fears that Beijing is trying to gain more control over the lives of Hong Kong residents.
The protesters’ demands have evolved to include calls for reforms that allow for a more democratic environment in Hong Kong. As the demonstrations have continued, China has escalated its threats and started using terms like “terrorism” to describe the demonstrations.
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In the past few days, protesters have clashed with riot police, including at the Hong Kong airport, one of the busiest in the world. The protests there have grown so large that officials canceled all incoming and outgoing flights on Monday and dozens more on Tuesday.
Videos posted this week by Chinese propaganda outlets are said to show security forces amassing in Shenzhen, a city bordering Hong Kong. While the forces may be there to conduct exercises, the implied threat to the protesters was obvious. It was not clear whether the intelligence Trump referred to was the same as what was shown on the video.
The president’s comments regarding Hong Kong have been mild compared with how harsh he has been on the Chinese when it comes to striking a trade deal.
Trump has claimed that Beijing is ripping off the United States, and he has imposed tariffs on China to force it to negotiate a new deal. But the Chinese have indicated that they are willing to bear the pain, at least for now.
In a potential effort at defusing those tensions, the Trump administration announced earlier Tuesday that it would delay import duties on cellphones, laptops, video game consoles, toys, and certain footwear and clothing made in China. The duties will take effect in mid-December, not Sept. 1 as Trump had originally wanted.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department as a whole have taken a sharper approach to the topic of Hong Kong, although Pompeo — as always — is careful not to get too far ahead of Trump.
On Tuesday, Pompeo met with Yang Jiechi, a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official who deals with foreign affairs. The State Department readout of the meeting was a terse single sentence that said the pair “had an extended exchange of views on U.S.-China relations.”
Last week, a State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, sharply rebuked Beijing after its state-run media revealed personal details about a U.S. diplomat reported to have met with some of the pro-democracy movement’s activists.
“Official Chinese media reports on our diplomat in Hong Kong have gone from irresponsible to dangerous,” Ortagus tweeted. “This must stop. Chinese authorities know full well, our accredited consular personnel are just doing their jobs, just like diplomats from every other country.”
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