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What Do We Want in Hong Kong?

Terry H. Schwadron

May 30, 2020

Here’s what I understand from Donald Trump: China is this year’s enemy.

He keeps saying so, even reminding us endlessly that he is tougher than Joe Biden on China, whatever that means right now.

Yesterday, he said he would end targeted favorable trade terms with Hong Kong, and set sanctions on travel to the U.S. on particular senior Chinese officials. And, as if there were a logical link here, withdrawing from the World Health Organization.

So once again, we have sudden crisis, this time over China, as if there had not been months of mass protests over the future of democracy in what has for decades been a semi-autonomous entity. Now, forced by China, we’re taking an action — without clearly explaining (or knowing?) what the end goal is.

It is exactly what has happened with coronavirus, and with racism and continuing police killings of black men. Our messages have been muddled, and, in the end, it is not clear what we’re really doing at home, never mind abroad.

For the record, Trump walked into the Rose Garden in the midst of 100,000 coronavirus deaths and a heart-wrenching police murder in Minneapolis and used his smack the Chinese, throwing the WHO international health folks in for good measure. He did not come out to talk to talk empathy or to offer direction. In fact, it is not quite clear what Trump is ordering –even about Hong Kong — and how it will help achieve any goal that I can understand.

It is real?

It makes me wonder how much of all this is about diplomacy in response to real international danger and how much is Trump huff and puff, because there always needs to be an enemy. China policy has never been uncomplicated.

The timing of new friction over Hong Kong seems particular concerning — not only because our attention is on our own need to re-open a dead economy and on exploding feelings over race — but also because of the obvious gulf here: Hong Kong believes so strongly in democracy that it fills the street with protests, while Trump wants all protest in Minneapolis or Washington simply to vanish.

It does feel if our White House has no control over any of the crises it faces.

Trump has explained that China is a bad actor because coronavirus began there, and officials were cagy about victim numbers, sources of the disease and any warning to the United States. But rather than beat up on China, Trump picked the World Health Organization as a target, because, by charter, it repeated whatever China had said about disease spread. We can all agree that WHO should have pressed harder, but how does this dropping support for international health either help us or punish China?

Throughout his administration, Trump has painted China as a bad trading partner, taking unfair advantage in a variety of ways, although he uses unusual measurements of raw dollar “trade imbalances” that omit costs of services outside of actual goods transferred. We came to a first-round agreement with China on addressing bilateral trade, but some combination of coronavirus and Chinese diffidence is bringing even that agreement into question. Meanwhile, U.S. farmers continue in trouble, and it is unclear what the White House is doing about enforcing even this first-round agreement, never mind move on to the trickier issues.

What we imposed on China more or less reintroduced trade that had been suspended under Trump’s announced tariff war with China. Among other things, renewing trade forestalled more serious price hikes for U.S. consumers on clothing and other goods.
We’ve heard China described repeatedly as a bad guy for allowing too-close harassment of our naval warships, for increasing its sway in places like Africa and the Middle East, for failing to meet environmental standards, for refusing to accept nuclear and missile treaty agreements that we’re breaking with Russia ostensibly because they do not also include China. The House has added formal criticism for Chinese detention of a million Muslim Uighurs. We’ve even heard our officials trash China for seeking to muzzle journalists, even as they seek a similar result in this country.

Questions about solutions

Now China is bad because they are moving to quash democracy in Hong Kong. Though the details are still in the making, it is clear that China is gobbling up whatever is left of independence in the former British colony and crushing the very passionate pleas there for democracy. The Chinese military is ready to force the issue.

Our reaction has been to say that independence no longer describes Hong Kong, and we are halting any favorable trade terms with Hong Kong, and setting sanctions on travel to the U.S. on selected senior Chinese officials. Doing so is a big deal in the diplomatic world, but if the goal is to help keep Hong Kong democratic, it is not clear how this helps. Indeed, it may well drive a permanent split with China altogether — the opposite of our stated goals.

Revoking Hong Kong’s special status will hasten its economic and financial decline. The Trump administration also plans to cancel the visas of Chinese graduate students and researchers with ties to universities affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army.

So are trade terms are going to stop this move to quash democracy? Changing trade terms probably has more effect on the 85,000 Americans in Hong Kong and 1,300 U.S. companies there as it does on Chinese Communist Party thinking. Ousting grad students?

Here’s the muddle: Do we care about the future of democracy and Western-style outspokenness in Hong Kong? Do we care about territory-grabbing? Do we foresee a takeover of Taiwan and establishment of wider Chinese dominance in the South China Sea? Trump has been lukewarm about criticizing months-long crackdowns in Hong Kong, but how he feels he must act? H0w does he square his actions with his repeated talk of good personal relationship with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. Do we want a fight?

What is our goal? It seems to me that China is playing us at every turn. The main takeaway from Hong Kong is that we can’t do anything about it, any more than we could do nothing about coronavirus getting out of Wuhan province or even about forcing Chinese adherence to fair trade principles.

Instead, we have a president who talks about being tough while a virus goes on killing, black citizens feel under siege in their own country and jobless numbers spike historically. Maybe Trump can send a tweet.


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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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