Update (August 13, 12:50 p.m. ET): This piece has been updated throughout to reflect the latest developments in Hong Kong.
Police started clashing with protesters at Hong Kong's international airport Tuesday after ongoing demonstrations against China that Beijing has hinted might be met with a military invasion.
At this crucial moment for Hong Kong, President Donald Trump’s statements have only undermined those on the street, while departing dramatically from the best traditions of American foreign policy. "The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation, very tough. We'll what see what happens. But I'm sure it'll work out. I hope it works out for everybody, including China, by the way," Trump said Tuesday about the latest events.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, despots tend to respond to American weakness or green lights with additional aggression and oppression.
Even worse, earlier this month when asked about the possibility of China taking military action, he said, “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. And I don’t know what China’s attitude is. Somebody said that at some point they’re going to want to stop that. But that’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China. They’ll have to deal with that themselves. They don’t need advice.”
Trump has no problem walking the walk on taking tough action on China over economic issues, as he recently labeled China a currency manipulator and sent the stock market reeling. But when it comes to sustaining America’s most powerful asset in the broader competition with China — democratic moral authority — the president seems reluctant to even talk the talk.
Get the think newsletter.
Something is happening in Hong Kong, indeed. The people are standing up to an authoritarian bully in a courageous effort to secure their inalienable rights — and acting indifferent to their plight is both immoral and reckless.
Extraordinary numbers of Hong Kong residents are protesting because a bill was introduced to permit the extradition of people from Hong Kong to the mainland. They justifiably feared that the legislation’s passage would mark the end of freedom in Hong Kong and the beginning of the Chinese Communist Party’s absolute authoritarian control there. The protests have continued based on fears that the legislation will be revived despite promises by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam to drop it. Protesters are calling for her resignation and the release of detained protesters, among other demands.
When the people of Hong Kong protest peacefully to protect their freedom, they are not “rioting.” That is the term that the Chinese Communist Party has used to mischaracterize the protests, and it is unbecoming of the leader of the free world to mimic them. Convictions in Hong Kong for rioting reportedly can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Perhaps that is why a key demand of the protesters is that the government stop using the term “riots.” It would be reasonable to expect the same from the president of the United States.
Perhaps most disturbing, Trump displayed ambivalence at best toward the plight of the protesters and a potential Chinese military crackdown. That’s the worst possible message to send to Beijing.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, despots tend to respond to American weakness or green lights with additional aggression and oppression. When the Obama administration weakly offered a “reset” to Moscow, Putin responded with aggression in Ukraine. In 2009, the Iranian people rose up against the mullahs in the Green Movement. Faced with a delayed and weak response by President Barack Obama, Tehran stepped-up its oppression of the Iranian people.
If the U.S. neglects its principles and fails to express strong support for the peaceful protests in Hong Kong, it could incentivize a crackdown and leave Beijing with the impression of flagging U.S. commitment to the region. That could have unwelcome implications for Beijing’s actions toward Taiwan. From the Communist government’s perspective, would a U.S. president unwilling to express even rhetorical support for peaceful protesters in Hong Kong be willing to go to war to defend Taiwan?
If Beijing comes to believe that the White House will subordinate all other considerations to trade negotiations, one can reasonably expect Beijing to engage in additional bad behavior elsewhere. That could mean, for example, additional aggression in the South China Sea and additional persecution of Muslim Uighurs in China’s western Xinjiang province.
It could also even hurt Trump’s ability to rein in China economically. If Beijing comes to view him as desperate for a deal, and willing to sacrifice Hong Kong to China, it will undermine the administration’s negotiating position.
A U.S. foreign policy solely focused on a narrow view of American economic interests is dramatically inconsistent with the best traditions of U.S. foreign policy. Trump’s own 2017 National Security Strategy recognized as much. “For much of the world, America’s liberties are inspirational, and the United States will always stand with those who seek freedom,” the document promised.
If Beijing comes to believe that the White House will subordinate all other considerations to trade negotiations, one can reasonably expect Beijing to engage in additional bad behavior.
In Washington last month, Hong Kong entrepreneur Jimmy Lai emphasized America’s “moral force.” He warned that “America has really forgotten how important a weapon they have in their hand,” and implored: “We need the hope. We need to know that America is behind us.”
Mr. President, your comments undermined democracy in Hong Kong, increased the chances of a brutal crackdown by Beijing, endangered U.S. regional credibility and damaged America’s democratic moral authority.
Your administration deserves credit for recognizing the severity of the threat Communist China poses and for beginning to marshal the tools of national power necessary to compete with Beijing more effectively. In this competition, however, for the sake of both our security and democratic principles, please do not forfeit America’s most powerful and noble asset.