HONG, KONG/WASHINGTON – As concerns grow that Beijing is considering direct intervention in Hong Kong, U.S. President Donald Trump linked a possible trade deal with China to a peaceful resolution to the political unrest that has roiled the semi-autonomous city for 10 weeks.
In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Trump urged China to “humanely” resolve the violent standoff with pro-democracy protesters.
Washington has become increasingly alarmed by the build-up of Chinese security forces on the border with Hong Kong as the protests continue and Beijing intensifies its intimidation against a movement pushing democratic reforms and a halt to sliding freedoms.
“Millions of jobs are being lost in China to other non-Tariffed countries. Thousands of companies are leaving. Of course China wants to make a deal. Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!” Trump wrote on Twitter, in the first clear indication that the trade deal could be threatened by how Beijing reacts to the protests.
“I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it,” Trump said in a subsequent tweet, suggesting a “personal meeting” with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
His comments came as U.S. stock markets tumbled, in part because of uncertainty over Trump’s trade standoff with Beijing. Investors have also been rattled about the widespread protests in Hong Kong.
Flights resumed at Hong Kong’s airport on Wednesday after two days of disruptions that descended into clashes with police.
While Trump has been reticent to take sides, some Republican and Democratic members of Congress have voiced their support for the protesters. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, issued a statement last week saying that “dreams of freedom, justice and democracy can never be extinguished by injustice and intimidation.”
Trump also voiced optimism about the off-again, on-again trade negotiations with China. Administration officials publicly and privately have voiced beliefs that a trade deal is still a ways off even as the president voices frustration about the lack of progress.
Unhappy with the pace of negotiations, Trump announced two weeks ago that the U.S. would apply 10 percent tariffs on about $300 billion in Chinese imports, beginning Sept. 1. But the administration moved Tuesday to delay the tariffs on a wide range of Chinese-made products, including cellphones, laptop computers, some toys, computer monitors, shoes and clothing. And it is removing other items from the list based “on health, safety, national security and other factors.”
At a sports stadium in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, hundreds of members of China’s People’s Armed Police could be seen conducting exercises on Thursday.
Chinese state media have made several mentions of exercises in Shenzhen.
The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid run by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, published a slick video early this week showing columns of trucks and armored personnel carriers rolling through the city. The paper said the vehicles belonged to the People’s Armed Police and had gathered for “apparent large-scale exercises.” Its editor, Hu Xijin, described it on Twitter as “a clear warning to rioters in Hong Kong.”
The Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, said on the social media platform Weibo that the force handles incidents that include riots and terrorist attacks.
Still, diplomats in Hong Kong said they believe Chinese leaders are well aware that moving mainland forces into Hong Kong would shatter international faith in the “one country, two systems” model at the heart of Hong Kong’s role as a global financial hub, and would swiftly lead to sanctions.
The Hong Kong protests were sparked by opposition to a plan to allow extraditions to the mainland but have since morphed into a wider — sometimes violent — movement for democratic rights.
The movement represents the greatest challenge to Beijing’s authority since the city was handed back by the British in 1997 under a deal that allowed it to keep freedoms that many Hong Kongers feel are being eroded.
Activists are planning another series of mass rallies this weekend in a bid to show their movement still maintains broad public support despite violent scenes during a disruptive occupation of the airport.
On Tuesday, chaos erupted at one of the world’s busiest transport hubs as protesters physically stopped travelers from boarding flights, battled riot police and assaulted two men they accused of being Chinese infiltrators.
Beijing — which has refused to grant any concessions to the protest movement — has seized on the airport violence, with state-media churning out a deluge of condemnatory articles, pictures and videos.
“The radicals’ violent attacks on innocent citizens are tantamount to an act of terrorism that should be condemned in the strongest terms possible,” Xinhua wrote in a commentary Thursday.
Until the airport protest, hard-core demonstrators had largely focused their anger toward the police, with whom they have fought weekly battles, or state institutions such as the city’s parliament and Beijing’s main office in the city.
The chaotic scenes inside the airport have prompted some soul-searching within the largely leaderless movement over whether violence has undermined their cause.
As some groups sent out apologies, messaging forums used to organize protests have filled with calls to support a planned rally on Sunday organized by the Civil Human Rights Front — a group that advocates nonviolence and has previously managed to get colossal crowds out onto the streets.
“An urgent call from the peaceful, the rational and the non-violent: the whole world come out on August 18!” read one popular thread on the Reddit-like LIHKG forum used by protesters.
Trump’s tweets on Hong Kong appeared to signal something of a change on his approach to the city.
In recent days he has been criticized by both sides of the political aisle for shying away from the issue, avoiding criticizing Beijing even as he cited U.S. intelligence reports of Chinese forces moving to the territory’s border.
Only a few hours before Trump’s tweets, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — a key figure in the trade talks — told CNBC that the Hong Kong protests were an “internal matter” for Beijing.
China has portrayed the protests as a foreign-funded attempt to destabilize the motherland rather than a popular revolt against its policies.
Washington and Beijing have imposed tariffs on $360 billion in two-way trade, but Trump has delayed tariffs on electronic goods from China, giving investors hope for a detente in the trade conflict.
The introduction of Hong Kong as a potential bargaining chip in those talks could produce a further wrinkle.
Beijing has made it clear it is in no mood to offer concessions to Hong Kong’s protesters, whose demands include an independent inquiry into the police’s use of tear gas and rubber bullets as well as a long-demanded right to elect the city’s leader.