Trump is harsh on China, except when it comes to democracy

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.”

People arrested by policemen during a face off at Sham Shui Po district in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
People arrested by policemen during a face off at Sham Shui Po district in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

“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.

"We would like to make it clear to the very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them: Those who play with fire will perish by it,” one Chinese official said on Wednesday, according to The Associated Press. “Don't ever misjudge the situation and mistake our restraint for weakness.”

Hours after that comment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement praising the protesters, saying their “dreams of freedom, justice and democracy can never be extinguished by injustice and intimidation.” The California Democrat also promised congressional action on legislation aimed at penalizing Chinese officials who infringe on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Trump didn’t comment.

It’s unclear whether Trump would support the proposed legislation, which has bipartisan support. It could all depend on where things stand with the trade deal, the topic that animates Trump most when it comes to China. According to the Financial Times, Trump has told Xi, whom he frequently praises in public, that his administration would limit its commentary on Hong Kong to push forward the trade talks.

“It’s just hard to escape a core element of the president’s foreign policy is transactions, and if something isn’t part of what he wants, he’s willing to sacrifice it,” said Scott Kennedy, a China specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Still, Trump may have squandered any goodwill he had from Xi this week by labeling China a currency manipulator, said Jonathan Pollack, a China analyst with the Brookings Institution.

“Trump’s detachment seems more characteristic of his non-interventionist stance toward the actions of any number of authoritarian leaders,” Pollack added in an email.

While every presidential administration, Democratic or Republican, picks and chooses its human rights battles, activists say the Trump team is unusually selective. It routinely hammers a handful of governments it considers implacable foes, such as those in Iran, Cuba and Venezuela, while ignoring similar rights abuses in countries seen as necessary partners, like Egypt.

China, with its sheer size, strong economic links to America, and growing global influence, would pose a messaging challenge to any U.S. president, despite a growing bipartisan hawkishness toward Beijing across the Washington foreign policy establishment.

There also are the bitter lessons of the not-too-distant past when it comes to U.S. support for democratic movements.

Several Arab Spring campaigns failed to produce more democratic governments. In Egypt, for instance, the current government is increasingly viewed by human rights proponents as even more repressive than the regime Egyptians overthrew in 2011.

In some cases, overt U.S. support can hurt pro-democracy movements.

In Russia, for instance, President Vladimir Putin has used hints of foreign involvement as an excuse to clamp down even harder on rights groups. Putin blamed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for fueling crowds protesting reports of fraudulent elections in 2011. In recent months, protesters have again taken to the streets in Moscow, leading to mass arrests. The Trump administration has said little, although the State Department said in a statement it is “concerned” about the situation.

“These kinds of protests are becoming more global, and as yet the international community hasn’t really worked out what it wants to do for these kinds of events,” said Richard Youngs, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank.

Trump aides at times criticize their immediate predecessors for not doing more to support some pro-democracy movements, such as Iranians protesting their government in 2009. In that case, Obama administration aides have said Iranian opposition activists wanted the U.S. to stay away to avoid tarnishing the grassroots image of their struggle.

Some analysts suspect protest movements that successfully ousted autocrats in Algeria and Sudan this year were successful in part because the U.S. kept a relatively low profile. Those movements haven’t ended, however, and their long-term effects are unclear.

China at times has tried to taint the Hong Kong demonstrations by alleging the “black hand” of the United States was orchestrating them. Pompeo has called the claim “ludicrous on its face.”

“These are the people of Hong Kong asking their government to listen to them. So it’s always appropriate for every government to listen to their people,” Pompeo said.

If Trump did ramp up his pressure on Beijing to respect the Hong Kong protesters, the Chinese aren’t likely to be moved by mere words, said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch. There’s no sign, however, that the administration is preparing sanctions or other punishments to get China’s attention on the Hong Kong issue.

Walter Lohman, an Asia expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Trump's difficulty arises in part because he has tied U.S. foreign and national security policy with economic policy, something past presidents worked hard to avoid.

“We should be able to pursue a trade policy with China and still say what needs to be said on the human rights front,” Lohman said.