War hawks are showing their hand by calling for President Trump to declare Twitter solidarity with the Hong Kong protestors. Some have compared this struggle for democracy (and independence) to Reagan facing down Gorbachev at the Berlin Wall, to Obama sanctioning Iran, or to the myriad of times an American president has stood atop some moral precipice and denounced tyranny. For others, the only defensible posture is to side with the protesters to Chinese repression and to vocalize solidarity—via tweet.
President Trump, however, is right to stay focused on the trade deal.
[Americans] have little inclination to spread democracy by putting boots on the ground, freeing people who possess or claim to possess a right to self-governance.
What many don’t realize is that we are dealing with China and a “semi-autonomous region” over which they have a legal (both by international law standards and by an agreement within the PRC) claim over.
And we should first accept that the American people, just like during the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, Tibet since 1950, or the Xinjiang internment/re-education camps since 2014, have little inclination to spread democracy by putting boots on the ground, freeing people who possess or claim to possess a right to self-governance.
Note: tariffs are already in place, effectively sanctioning Beijing for the time being—though some have been delayed due to the Christmas season (sanctions, it would seem, observe the holiday season as well). It’s worth pausing to wonder, then, what exactly we gain by Trump denouncing China as it’s already established that we have no resolve to defend with bullets our convictions or those of the Hong Kong people.
President Xi Jinping’s global influence and firepower are unique among global leaders. He controls the second-largest economy in the world, commands a People’s Liberation Army with over 2.5 million employees, and has been appointed president for life by the National People’s Congress.
Open rebellion in Hong Kong, the impact of American tariffs, and yet another arms deal with Taiwan would certainly impact President Xi’s position domestically and abroad. And while term limits have been eliminated, Xi’s life-long position at the helm of the Communist Party is by no means guaranteed. And President Xi, who likens himself to Mao and actively curates a cult of personality within China—complete with a propaganda machine at levels that fall just short of Cultural Revolution times—has given no indication he intends to surrender power. Moreover, Hong Kong and Taiwan mean much more to China than they do to the international community. Consider an old idiom in Taiwan: “Today’s Hong Kong is tomorrow’s Taiwan.”
The evidence is stacking up that Beijing is prepared to unequivocally quash protest should the Hong Kong police lose control.
Make no mistake; China isn’t saber-rattling. The evidence is stacking up that Beijing is prepared to unequivocally quash protest should the Hong Kong police lose control. The Foreign Minister to Macau and Hong Kong, as well as other Beijing spokespeople, have threatened “those who play with fire will perish by it.” Beijing possesses “enough solutions and enough power to swiftly quell unrest,” they continue, likening the protestors’ actions to “terrorism.” Furthermore, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China condemned China for more overt actions like doxing a U.S. Diplomat and detaining U.K. consulate personnel – behavior the U.S. State Department called “thuggish.”
Recently, President Trump tweeted that U.S. Intelligence has confirmation China has moved paramilitary troops to a stadium in Shenzhen just over the border from Hong Kong. Further still, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam refused to answer questions of whether the extradition bill would be withdrawn, leading many to speculate that she is under pressure from Beijing.
The stakes simply are too high, and there seems to be something qualitatively different this time.
What the international community and the people of Hong Kong fear the most is a second Tiananmen Square, and with President Xi at the helm, we can expect a swift and lethal resolution to the recent protests. It’s also difficult to see a world in which, once the Chinese go in and assume control, they voluntarily leave.
While Trump’s instincts to keep the focus on trade with China might seem insensitive and undemocratic, he is right to avoid adding fuel to the aggressive propaganda campaign already underway within China.
And as much as the international community would prefer a China that doesn’t relegate Hong Kong to a pseudo-democratic economic zone, foregoing diplomatic footsie with Taiwan for fear of Chinese reprisal, that is not the reality we find ourselves in, nor do we have the resolve to alter these conditions with anything but lip service (i.e. boots on the ground).
Therefore, while Trump’s instincts to keep the focus on trade with China might seem insensitive and undemocratic, he is right to avoid adding fuel to the aggressive propaganda campaign already underway within China that’s eager to spin the protests as an American-driven phenomenon. By giving Xi the ability to “save face” and avoid looking as if he has lost control, it leaves open the possibility for a peaceful outcome—albeit kicking the ultimate question of Hong Kong’s legal status down the road.
For now, President Trump is wise to avoid comment and not provoke President Xi; we can only hope that protestors remain peaceful and are presented a solution to the extradition bill they find acceptable—before the Hong Kong police lose control.