Post #241: China’s Hong Kong Nightmare, and the US Response

Donald Trump has kept his promise, reportedly made to Xi Jinping in June, that Washington would “tone down” its comments on the spiraling HK protests. “Very tough situation” Trump tweeted on August 12. “I hope it works out for everybody, including China.” Memo to Trump: It won’t “work out” on its own, and you would do well to try something else if you don’t want to see a bloodbath there.

True to form, Trump seems to be tying the US attitude on the Hong Kong demonstrations to Xi’s willingness to come to terms—Trump’s that is—on trade and investment. “Of course China wants to make a deal. Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!” Trump tweeted on August 14.  That approach is likely to be a non-starter.  The Chinese leadership, which regards Hong Kong, like Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, as an exclusively internal matter (Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said as much), will surely reject bargaining over Hong Kong to get a better trade deal.

If linking Hong Kong to trade is the best the Trump administration can suggest, it will have no influence over an explosive situation that could, if it continues to escalate, result in direct Chinese intervention.  Chinese sources say the Hong Kong demos are “descending into terrorism,” using language reminiscent of the months before military intervention to remove mass protesters from Tiananmen square in 1989.  Chinese of a certain age will remember the People’s Daily editorial of April 26, 1989, a warning signal to the demonstrators that eventuated in the June 4 crackdown (  The editorial, “We Must Take a Clear-cut Stand against Disturbances,” warned against chaos and charged that “an extremely small group of people” wanted to overthrow the communist party and system.

Flaunting the banner of democracy, they undermined democracy and the legal system. Their purpose was to sow dissension among the people, plunge the whole country into chaos and sabotage the political situation of stability and unity. This is a planned conspiracy and a disturbance. Its essence is to, once and for all, negate the leadership of the CPC [Communist Party of China] and the socialist system. This is a serious political struggle confronting the whole party and the people of all nationalities throughout the country. If we are tolerant of or conniving with this disturbance and let it go unchecked, a seriously chaotic state will appear.

“Chaos” has deep meaning in Chinese history, and the highest priority of every Chinese leader from Mao to Xi has been to maintain “stability” and order.  In 1989 Deng Xiaoping and colleagues warned that ongoing protests might bring China’s economic reforms to a halt, and today, similarly, the leaders’ concern is preventing any social movement from disrupting China’s drive for economic heights and great-power status.  Now as then, the young people in the streets were characterized as a small number, not representative of the greater population but a threat to communist party rule.

In a tweet on August 14, Trump said: “I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?”  Pick up the phone and talk to the man, Mr. President, but don’t expect Xi to be in the least interested in the idea.  Not only would Xi regard a meeting with the protesters as a grant of legitimacy to them.  (First the Hong Kongers, then the Uyghers!)  Trump’s credibility with Beijing is about as low as one can imagine, thanks to his barrage of tariffs, branding of China as a currency manipulator, and constantly chortling that the longer the trade war goes on, the better it is for America.  John Bolton, ever unhelpful, further alienated Beijing by warning China that a “misstep” would politically and economically costly.  Thus does this administration demonstrate anew its ignorance of its opponent.

Trump would do better to work with US allies that have a direct interest in avoiding further violence in Hong Kong and further damage to US-China relations.  Together they can make clear to Xi that while they do not support violent protesting, and accept China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong, a crackdown there would be disastrous for China’s international political and economic relations. Seeking a peaceful solution that meets some of the protesters’ demands, on the other hand—such as having the Hong Kong chief executive, Carrie Lam, step down, permanently removing the extradition law, and reaffirming commitment to Hong Kong’s social and political autonomy—would be a sign that China is indeed a “responsible great power.”

And while he’s at it, Trump might reexamine his tariffs-based trade policy that is causing worldwide economic chaos and great harm to both the Chinese and US economies.  But don’t hold your breath.



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  1. And who should be tasked to reach out to U.S. allies? Our consummate diplomat, John Bolton? Next suggestion, please.

  2. Dear Mel: once again your deep knowledge of all things Chinese is showing.

    It just so happens, I wrote a letter to The Economist along similar lines; up to and including abandonment of the Hong Kong peninsula:

    “I’ll admit it; the idea of evacuation of the Hong Kong peninsula sounds far-fetched, but the central government in Beijing has violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Basic Agreement of transfer of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese.

    “So why not adopt a British (and American, Australian, European; etc) Marshall Plan to evacuate any and all residents who desire to move elsewhere; and provide the huaqio ren; (Overseas Chinese [families]: the Wang’s, Li’s, Qi’s etc.) the means to do so?

    “Such a policy, although admittedly extreme, would dramatically emphasize to the Mainland Chinese communist government that human rights are not to be “messed with,” and would draw a red line that would serve as a warning to tyrants everywhere.”

    1. Thanks, Mike. Unfortunately, such a plan would indeed be “extreme”; it would be viewed by Beijing as an act of war, akin to a blockade, since China exercises sovereignty over HK. And the Trump administration would be the last to stand up for human rights at the cost of a fight with China.

      1. HK protest indeed is a huge challenge to the Chinese government. The preferred solution should be of course a peaceful compromise. That would depend on how the government and the protesters act and react to each other. While most protesters have legitimate causes for dialog, a small but extremes, violent group lead the protests and openly despise and hate China. So much so that they publicly insult China and the Chinese people, verbally and physically. They feel superior to their fellow Chinese citizens and actually do not consider themselves Chinese. They do not recognize China and its sovereignty over Hong Kong. They wave flags of Union Jack and sing Stars and Spangled Banners, both of which are viewed as treacherous by the Chinese population. These acts, if encountered anywhere in the west, would have been swiftly labeled as unpatriotic at the least and more probably Nazis, racists by news media and politicians alike and condemned universally. Imagine Confederacy Flags being waved and marched through the halls of the US government offices in Washington DC and The Fifth Avenue in NYC. Imagine the Puerto Ricans being called racial slurs upon their arrival to the mainland USA. These HK protest leaders have shown their biases, xenophobia, reverse discrimination (them being minority) in the ugliest form. They are front and center of the protest. They have pushed the agenda far to far towards separatist movement. This can absolutely not be accepted by the Chinese government and the Chinese people. The challenge is how to separate and isolate these ugly elements from the legitimate petitions to improve livelihood and political environment. The Western media, political establishment have labeled these people as “pro-democracy” fighters against the repressive Chinese regime. It is unhelpful by being blindly supporting the movement as a whole or even intentionally condoning and encouraging the racism, nazis separatism, and hatred. The Chinese media in China is predictably controlling the narratives, while the west is busy banning on Twitter, Facebook the opposing views of these protests by labeling them as government sponsored misinformation. If this continues, it will not end well and will be big challenge to the entire world, not only China.

        PS: I read with delight an article that you coauthored, “The Dangerous New US Consensus on China and the Future of US-China Relations”. It is one of the few level headed discussions in the current political climate. You are able to see what it is, rather what you wish it to be. Some China friendly intellectuals have turned against it since Trump’s election. What has changed? China has not, politically, in the last 30 years in significant ways. Thank you for that article. It is with that article that I searched for your other writings and found this article about HK challenge. Thanks again.

  3. You put it all in one place. There is no question in my mind as to whether China’s Belt & Road Initiative will put China in place as the world’s #1 superpower in good time, not so long away. As for how the U.S. is treating China, it is one more area where Trump’s ego and ignorance are causing the U.S. to play with fire, threatening the U.S. future. He seems to have not the least comprehension of the value of working with allies or expanding the pie rather than just ever-more dividing it, preferring 3rd grade schoolyard tactics: besting, SImiilarly, you called it re: John Bolton’s ignorance, his stupid behavior, which, combined with power, can help lead this ignorant administration into disaster dealing with China & other allies.

    What can we do, those of us sitting here furious as Trump helps muck up the world? I guess helping to turn out the vote in 2020 is the fallback strategy for those of us, older now, who still want to do something to get us away from this Trumpian nightmare set of policies. Thanks, Mel.

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