President Donald Trump warned Beijing on August 18 that trade talks would suffer if China resorts to violent suppression of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. This warning was 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 and compels the regime to exercise restraint towards the protestors.
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 protests would likely sour Congress’ views of both U.S.-China relations and the trade deal. Such an outcome, Mr. 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, this much is clear—Trump is dangling the trade agreement in front of China with the hope that it will impress upon Beijing the need for moderation in Hong Kong.
For good measure, Trump took it a step further in his 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 protestors. 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 while also praising him.