US President Donald Trump’s August 18 warning to Beijing that trade talks would suffer if China resorts to violent suppression of protests in Hong Kong are viewed by many as an unnecessary mixing of two separate issues as well as an egregious interference in China’s internal affairs. Yet from a human-rights perspective, Trump’s statement serves as a strong caution to Beijing, compelling the regime to exercise restraint toward the protesters.
In his conversation with the press, Trump was careful to explain that while he has sole authority to strike a trade agreement with Beijing, his respect for the views of Congress and the American people would oblige him to take their views into account. He went on to point out that a violent suppression of the Hong Kong protesters would likely sour Congress’ views of both US-China relations and the trade deal. Such an outcome, Trump implied, would leave him with little room to maneuver in his efforts to secure a trade deal and could doom the entire endeavor.
By linking the trade war and Hong Kong protests, Trump is dangling an agreement in front of China with the hope that it will impress upon Beijing the need for moderation vis-à-vis the protesters.
For good measure, Trump took it a step further in his August 18 discussion with reporters, suggesting that Chinese President Xi Jinping himself has the competence and skills to resolve the unrest if he were to meet with the protesters. While some understandably assert that such a direct statement could be interpreted as a face-losing public challenge to Xi and a further intrusion into China’s domestic affairs, Trump’s comments place the onus on the Chinese leader to refrain from the use of force to suppress the Hong Kong protests.
Trump’s remarks have put renewed focus on Beijing’s next move. In particular, the world is closely watching how Xi will handle this vexing problem with the growing protest movement in Hong Kong.
Over the past two months, the world has watched as protesters have expressed their opposition to the city government’s extradition bill that would have allowed the transfer of suspects to mainland China in addition to other locations where Hong Kong does not have either jurisdiction or extradition agreements.
The protests have included the vandalizing of the Chinese government’s liaison office, attacking police, and disrupting commerce by paralyzing airport operations and train departures.
Yet thus far, the People’s Armed Police have not been sent in to quell the demonstrations. This is notwithstanding the Chinese government labeling the protests as “near terrorism,” mobilizing paramilitary forces to the neighboring city of Shenzhen, and making pronouncements similar to what was used prior to the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Clearly, Xi doesn’t want to do anything rash given the potential ramifications.
Hong Kong’s specialized services sectors, financial markets and legal system – all of which facilitate the flow of foreign money into China – would be at stake if a violent suppression of the protests were to take place.
Beyond this, foreign businesses would likely transfer their operations and businesses to other Asian capitals such as Singapore and Tokyo, taking away a key link between the outside world and mainland China.
Trump’s underscoring of the need for a peaceful solution and tying this outcome to a trade deal could serve as an effective impetus toward what is clearly needed: a political resolution between Beijing and Hong Kong.
Xi is cognizant of Trump’s considerable leverage in the trade war, which makes the emphasis on a non-violent settlement in Hong Kong all the more powerful. Xi understands the disproportionate effect of trade on the Chinese economy when compared with that of the US; the broad, bipartisan support in Washington for a get-tough approach on China; and the fact that Trump presides over a historically strong economy with unemployment at a 50-year low.
By suggesting that the peaceful resolution of the unrest in Hong Kong is a requirement for a trade deal, Trump’s statement may help foster a non-violent compromise to this difficult impasse. If played right, Trump’s words could provide a diplomatic service, sparing the territory of a widely feared Tiananmen Square–style massacre while standing up for US economic interests in the process.