In the past week, President Donald Trump has described China’s trade practices as “an anchor on us,” saying Beijing is “killing us” and wants to “hurt” U.S. jobs.
Yet as Chinese officials increasingly hint at a potentially violent crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, Trump has remained largely silent.
The bifurcated approach is just the latest example of what former U.S. officials and analysts say are Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy and comfort with authoritarian rule. Even though the president’s own aides are sending a more forceful message on situations like the Hong Kong protests, they add, it’s a message that will inevitably get lost amid Trump’s comments — or lack thereof.
“Trump is telling [Chinese President] Xi Jinping very clearly: ‘Do whatever you want in Hong Kong. All I care about is a trade deal,’” argued Michael Fuchs, a former State Department official in the Obama administration. What Trump aides say means “nothing when the president is making his own position very clear again and again and again.”
Trump’s defenders argue his comments are either misinterpreted or not considered in full.
His supporters point out that Trump, when asked about Hong Kong in early July, said the protesters are “looking for democracy. And I think most people want democracy.”
But Trump later drew flak for saying Xi had “acted responsibly” in handling the protests, for calling the demonstrations “riots” and for saying the issue is “between Hong Kong and China.” While Trump’s supporters said the president was trying to praise Xi for not yet cracking down on the protesters, while also implying the movement won’t succeed if it turns violent, China’s state-run media hyped up his description of the Hong Kong protests as “riots.”
“Perception definitely matters,” a senior State Department official said. “But I think sometimes [Trump] gets willfully or accidentally misconstrued by the press.”
Behind Trump’s limited commentary on the Hong Kong protests — which escalated on Monday with a widespread strike that led to public transit disruptions and more than 200 flight cancellations — his top aides have shown consistent support for the movement.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who typically takes pains to avoid showing any difference with the president, has met with prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy figures, such as publisher Jimmy Lai and activist Martin Lee. He used the sessions to emphasize the U.S. position that Beijing should not curtail the freedoms in Hong Kong. Lai also met with Vice President Mike Pence.
The State Department, when asked, issues strong statements calling on China to “respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.”
Hong Kong is a former British colony that was handed back to China in 1997. At the time, Beijing’s communist leaders agreed to a “one country, two systems” setup, meaning people in Hong Kong have more democratic, speech and other rights than mainland Chinese residents.
The protests were sparked by a February proposal that would allow for the extradition of suspected criminals to the mainland for trial. At one point, more than 1 million people marched against the plan, an expression of anxiety among Hong Kong residents that Beijing is trying to erode their rights.
The proposed extradition rule has been put on hold, but protesters have expanded their demands to cover, among other things, desired democratic reforms. In recent days, there has been some violence at rallies, and China has indicated it is willing to take tough measures in response.