Washington – U.S. President Donald Trump’s long-touted response to China for its crackdown on Hong Kong included a barrage of criticism but stopped short of fully escalating tensions between the two nations.
While the U.S. president’s speech Friday was heated in rhetoric, it lacked specifics around measures that would directly impact Beijing. He announced the U.S. would begin the process of stripping some of Hong Kong’s privileged trade status without detailing how quickly any changes would take effect and how many exemptions would apply.
The president also promised sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials “directly or indirectly involved” in eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy but didn’t identify individuals. The administration hasn’t yet decided under what authority it would implement that action, according to a person familiar with a matter, who declined to be named because the deliberations are private.
“Our actions will be strong. Our actions will be meaningful,” Trump said in the White House Rose Garden.
The president said that the U.S. will terminate its relationship with the World Health Organization, which Trump has accused of being too deferential to China and of failing to provide accurate information about the spread of the coronavirus. He also said he would limit visas for certain Chinese students.
Both those moves are tangential to China’s escalations in Hong Kong and don’t strike at Beijing to the degree that some in markets had feared earlier in the week. For instance, there was no unraveling of the phase-one trade deal signed between the world’s two biggest economies in January.
Trump repeated a list of his grievances with China and punted tougher policy measures that his administration had discussed, including financial sanctions.
His remarks also didn’t include mention of legislation passed by Congress earlier in the week that could sanction Chinese government officials over the treatment of Uighurs, who have been forcibly detained in internment camps in China’s Xinjiang region.
“This binds the president to nothing with regards to China,” Derek Scissors, a China analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “With regards to a Hong Kong policy, it is a nonevent. Nothing happened.”
The Trump administration and China for weeks have been trading barbs over who’s to blame for the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. and Republican lawmakers have been pushing Trump to hold the country accountable. More hawkish advisers wanted the president to take decisive action against Chinese Communist Party officials for alleged human rights violations in the city.
Trump’s announcement came after China’s rubber-stamp parliament earlier in the week approved a plan to draft legislation that Hong Kong democracy advocates say will curtail freedom of speech and undermine the island’s independent judiciary, and after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo decertified the former British colony’s autonomy under U.S. law.
That certification determination, however, doesn’t mean the U.S. has to treat Hong Kong exactly like mainland China for purposes of tariffs, sales of sensitive technologies or visas. Instead, the administration has a wide spectrum of options for actions to take — but most of them do little harm to Beijing and instead hurt not only Hong Kong but also the U.S.
The new laws for Hong Kong to curb sedition, secession, terrorism and foreign interference. Mainland security and intelligence agents may be stationed in the city for the first time — moves critics say put the city’s extensive freedoms at risk.
Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong insist the legislation will target only a small number of “troublemakers” who threaten China’s national security. They say such action is urgently needed after months of sometimes violent anti-government protests rocked the city last year.
Protests are simmering again as Hong Kong emerges from its coronavirus shutdown. Demonstrators are expected to take to the streets on Sunday.
Trump’s remarks omitted key details about what actions he’s taking, but his tone marked an escalation of hostile relations with China, said Jude Blanchette, China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“This further entrenches the view in Beijing that we haven’t found rock bottom yet in the relationship,” he said.
The president said Beijing “unlawfully claimed territory in the Pacific Ocean” and “broke its word with the world on ensuring the autonomy of Hong Kong.”
“The Chinese government has continuously violated its promises to us,” Trump said. “These plain facts cannot be overlooked or swept aside. The world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government,” he added, referring to the pandemic.
Senior Hong Kong government officials lashed out on Saturday at moves.
Speaking hours after Trump, security minister John Lee told reporters that Hong Kong’s government could not be threatened and would push ahead with the new laws.
“I don’t think they will succeed in using any means to threaten the (Hong Kong) government, because we believe what we are doing is right,” Lee said.
Justice Minister Teresa Cheng said the basis for Trump’s actions was “completely false and wrong,” saying the need for national security laws were legal and necessary.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said Saturday marked “a sad day” for China’s freest city.
“This is an emotional moment for Americans in Hong Kong and it will take companies and families a while to digest the ramifications,” AmCham President Tara Joseph said in a statement.
“Many of us … have deep ties to this city and with Hong Kong people. We love Hong Kong and it’s a sad day,” she said, adding the chamber would continue to work with its members to maintain Hong Kong’s status as a vital business center.
China’s Global Times, published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, said Trump’s decision was a “recklessly arbitrary” step.
Mainland officials earlier Friday called potential U.S. actions over Hong Kong “purely nonsense,” saying the matter was an internal affair and that essential freedoms in the city would remain intact.
Beijing urged the U.S. to stop its “frivolous political manipulation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing, reiterating Beijing’s support for Hong Kong police in upholding the law. Chinese officials have indicated they may retaliate against U.S. firms over the president’s decisions.
Trump ramped up expectations on China actions in the run-up to the announcement. Even without many immediate actions outlined, the president used Friday’s announcement to laud his administration’s tough stance on Beijing with less than six months left before the presidential election.
“This was an election speech,” Blanchette said. “This will be the tone and tempo until November.”