Trump Calls Hong Kong Protests ‘Riots,’ Adopting China Rhetoric

Derek Wallbank and Iain Marlow
Trump Calls Hong Kong Protests ‘Riots,’ Adopting China Rhetoric

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump labeled recent protests in Hong Kong as “riots,” adopting the language used by Chinese authorities and suggesting the U.S. would stay out of an issue that was “between Hong Kong and China.”

“Something is probably happening with Hong Kong, because when you look at, you know, what’s going on, they’ve had riots for a long period of time,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday before departing for a campaign rally in Cincinnati.

Trump said he didn’t know what China’s attitude was toward unrest in the former British colony, which is home to tens of thousands of Americans. “Somebody said that at some point they’re going to want to stop that,” Trump said. “But that’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China.”

Trump’s comments about the protests in Hong Kong could bolster the city’s Beijing-backed government to crack down, despite the U.S. State Department’s official efforts to defend protesters’ freedom of expression. Protests erupted outside police stations earlier this week when the Hong Kong government charged 44 demonstrators with a colonial-era rioting statute that carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

The Global Times, a nationalistic newspaper published by China’s Communist Party, signaled approval with an article headlined “Trump tells truth about HK riot.” The ruling party has long used such allegations to justify using force against dissidents, dubbing the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square a “counter-revolutionary riot.”

“The use of the term riot is a bit sensitive to the protesters,” said Joseph Cheng, a retired political science professor who is involved in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. “More significant still, I think people will pay attention to the fact that he said this is something between China and Hong Kong. It appears to the Hong Kong people that the Hong Kong issue is not an important issue in the agenda of the president.”

Hong Kong protesters have so far largely enjoyed support from American officials and business groups. Activist Joshua Wong urged the president to reconsider his comments, tweeting an Aug. 1 letter from American lawmakers including Senators Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, urging the White House to condemn Beijing’s actions.

Hong Kong has been stricken by weeks of escalating protests -- including crowds of more than 1 million people -- in response to Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s now-suspended proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China. Protests have turned more violent as some demonstrators grow frustrated with the government’s refusal to meet their demands, including the bill’s formal withdrawal and the revival of plans for direct leadership elections.

Here’s What Hong Kong’s Protesters Plan Next

On Friday, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told Bloomberg TV’s Haslinda Amin in Bangkok that the U.S. has urged China to “do the right thing” on Hong Kong. People should be free to express their views, he said, urging all sides to “proceed in a way that is not violent” and adding that violence was “not constructive” in trying to resolve the disputes.

Pompeo didn’t say what the U.S. might do if China decided to intervene militarily. “One thing this administration has been really good about is not tipping our hand to what we will or won’t do,” he replied, declining to comment further.

Hong Kong’s rioting law was passed by the U.K.-appointed government in 1967, when the city was in the depths of unrest driven by leftists sympathetic to the Communist Party. The law holds anyone who commits a “breach of the peace” while participating in a unlawful assembly liable for a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

China has recently sought to blame the U.S. for crimes committed by some protesters on the front lines of rallies, saying violence was the “creation of the U.S.” and calling the country a “black hand” behind the demonstrations. Tying the U.S. to the unrest could serve several purposes for Beijing, including discrediting the protesters, rallying mainland sentiment against them and potentially justifying more direct intervention.

China Says Hong Kong Protest Violence ‘Is Creation of U.S.’

After eight weeks of unrest -- and more anti-government protests planned for this weekend -- anxiety is growing that Beijing might call in the People’s Liberation Army. China seems willing to at least feed the speculation with hints and signals, including the release of a video Wednesday showing troops practicing riot control.

In his remarks, Trump signaled that he considered the issue China’s internal matter to resolve. “They’ll have to deal with that themselves. They don’t need advice,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Derek Wallbank in Singapore at dwallbank@bloomberg.net;Iain Marlow in Hong Kong at imarlow1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Karen Leigh

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