Trump Ties Hong Kong Protests to China Trade Deal in a Move That Could Backfire

August 15, 2019, 3:33 PM UTC

President Donald Trump late Wednesday seemed to conflate the protests in Hong Kong with the U.S.’s trade war with China. “Of course China wants to make a deal. Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!” he tweeted. If Trump thought wielding the Hong Kong protests as leverage in the ongoing U.S.-China trade war would prompt concessions from Beijing, he seemed to have miscalculated—by a large margin.

Trump turned his Twitter attention to the growing unrest in Hong Kong on Wednesday, when he urged those involved to “be calm and safe” amid reports that the Chinese government was amassing troops on the border with Hong Kong. He later picked up the thread, looping the ongoing trade war into the matter.

“I know President Xi of China very well,” Trump tweeted. “He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people. He is also a good man in a ‘tough business.’ I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?”

Trump’s decision to link the protests in Hong Kong with the trade war negotiations may have been a misstep, as it plays into China’s narrative of what the demonstrations are all about. Over the past two months, Beijing has repeatedly accused the U.S. of stirring up unrest in Hong Kong in order to serve the White House’s trade agenda. State media now runs news stories alleging that white foreigners attending the Hong Kong protests are actually CIA operatives instigating turmoil. The protesters themselves, meanwhile, cite demands for greater democratic freedoms as the reason for taking to the streets.

Beijing on Thursday appeared unmoved by Trump’s Twitter overtures. In a terse statement, the Ministry of Finance said that a threat by Trump earlier this week to levy the final $300 billion of Chinese exports violated the understanding Trump and Xi reached during the G20 summit last year and deviated from the path of reconciliation. “China has no choice but to take necessary measures to retaliate,” the Ministry concluded.

That cold rebuff sent a chill through global markets, which had showed upbeat signs just days ago when Trump announced his intention to postpone the tariffs. It’s unclear how China will retaliate. Beijing has been making ominous overtones for months and has a few options available.

Beijing also seems to be losing patience with the protests, as it has used heightened rhetoric to describe the demonstrations and leaned on businesses to call for an end to the actions. Last week, some 500 industry and political delegates from Hong Kong travelled to Shenzhen for a meeting convened by China’s Hong Kong Affairs office where they were urged to “stand up” against protesters.

Later that day, Hong Kong’s Real Estate Developers Association (REDA)—a group that represents some of the wealthiest individuals and firms in Hong Kong—issued a statement condemning the acts of a “escalating violence.” The following day, Cathay Pacific changed its mind about permitting staff to protest. This week, more business leaders signed petitions opposing the protests.

Nevertheless, there are more protests scheduled for the weekend in Hong Kong, and it’s hard to imagine, even if Xi agreed to meet with Trump on the matter, that the U.S. president could offer any resolution to the unrest. Trump views the protests as an economic issue, but for the protesters—many of whom feel isolated from Hong Kong’s economy—the issue is existential.

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