Just last week, Trump cast doubt on his support for the Hong Kong protests when he called in to “Fox & Friends” and said, “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine… I’d like to see them work it out, OK?”
But Trump defied the expectations of many on Wednesday and signed the Human Rights and Democracy Act, as well as the Protect Hong Kong Act — both of which passed Congress with broad, bipartisan support.
The first bill authorizes sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses, while the second bans the export to Hong Kong police of US-made crowd control munitions such as tear gas, stun guns and rubber bullets. This is significant given that Hong Kong police have used teargas produced by NonLethal Technologies Inc., a company based in Pennsylvania. That gap will now presumably be filled by Chinese firms, which should be more than willing to fill the purchase orders of the Hong Kong police.
Trump’s move, heralded as an early Thanksgiving present by the protesters in Hong Kong, was met with swift condemnation from China amid ongoing trade talks with the US. But was it a casino roll by Trump to legitimize his credentials on the foreign policy field? Or a risky attempt to show Beijing, amid trade talks, that America means business?
Words of Anger from Beijing
During one of my visits to Hong Kong this summer, I stood among tens of thousands of mostly young protesters in front of the US Consulate in the central business district. Many carried American flags and at the time it seemed uncertain whether the Trump administration, eager to seal a trade deal with China, would risk jeopardizing progress on that front with punitive legislation. “We are here to let Americans know that the US stands for freedom,” one male protester told me.
What this means for trade talks
Beijing despises suffering a loss of face. Perhaps it knows that the legislation signed by Trump comes with bad PR. But on the other hand it also knows Trump — who may not wish to further damage relations with China or hurt US companies with substantial operations in the city — will likely use the provisions sparingly, if at all.
China is eager for a deal, and it knows that Trump, pressured by growing desperation among his base (such as farmers) ahead of a presidential election, needs to seal a deal. On the other hand, China, faced with a slowing economy that could trigger unrest, has little room to maneuver.
An Uncertain Future Ahead for Hong Kong
By messing with Hong Kong’s rule of law — a bedrock of the “one country, two systems” arrangement which accounted for the city becoming an international financial hub — China signaled the extent it will go to enforce its will.
Even if Beijing shows restraint towards Hong Kong, it is unlikely that the protests will fizzle out on their own. During my last two visits, I detected an astonishing amount of resentment towards the government, the tiny elite that dominates its economy, and the Hong Kong police force.
The free-wheeling Hong Kong as we know it is not yet lost, but China is in no mood to tolerate dissent. In light of China’s repression in regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, it seems the international community, including the United States, has little leverage to support the protest movement in the long run.
The passage of US legislation only plays into Beijing’s narrative that dark forces from abroad are behind the Hong Kong protest movement. But at least a US president not known for his defense of human rights — and who has remained mostly silent on the protests — has given the young Hong Kong people on the streets a badly needed jolt of adrenaline.