President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are playing a high-stakes game of chicken that encompasses both trade negotiations and the protests against Chinese oppression that have continued for 11 weeks in Hong Kong.
Over the past week, the contest has resulted in a standoff that won’t last long.
The Hong Kong protests began in January in opposition to legislation proposed by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. That bill would have significantly changed Hong Kong’s system — established in 1997 when the UK surrendered sovereignty over Hong Kong to China — to enable the Xi government to extradite any Hong Kong citizen accused of a crime to face trial under the communist mainland government.
To bring Hong Kong citizens under the oppression of China’s government-controlled courts would have the effect of negating their freedoms. Lam has backed off the proposal but has by no means abandoned it. (Beijing would never permit that.)
Since they began, the protests have continued to grow and are now — from what can be seen in televised interviews of protesters — against the Xi government and the Chinese Communist Party, not just the proposed extradition bill. Some demonstrators have carried American flags.
The protesters had shut down Hong Kong’s principal airport for days. They may — and should — again.
Yesterday, in defiance of police, the protesters numbered in the hundreds of thousands. On several occasions, they have numbered more than one million.
The importance of Hong Kong to China is enormous. The former British possession has served to attract enormous foreign investment in China by promising safe, stable banking and commercialization of China. If that is destabilized, or even ended, China’s economy will suffer a major blow.
Last week, China deployed thousands of troops to the nearby city of Shenzhen in a major show of force. It seemed then — and still seems — that the Xi regime intends to put down the protests, probably as violently as China put down the Tiananmen Square freedom protests in 1989.
It is very likely that it will do so. The principal force holding it back is Trump’s nascent trade war with China.
Trump has been trying to negotiate a trade deal with China for about a year. Our principal demands include the cessation of Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property — military and commercial secrets such as patents and trademarked goods — which have amounted to U.S. losses of at least $225 billion annually.
Credible reports say that half of Chinese intellectual property was stolen from U.S. and other Western sources. At least one in five U.S. companies have had their technology and other intellectual property stolen by the Chinese.
In answer to that, Trump has leveraged tariffs, and the threat of greater tariffs, on goods imported from China.
The trade talks broke off when China, which had agreed to stop theft of intellectual property, reneged on the deal at the last minute.
Xi knows that any military action against the Hong Kong protesters would result in huge new tariffs against their exports. The tariffs Trump has imposed so far have slowed China’s economy considerably, so the Chinese can’t afford more.
Trump has been criticized — rightfully — for not speaking out in support of the Hong Kong demonstrators. He knows, however, that suddenly increasing the tariffs now might result in China taking actions that might emulate or exceed the murderous repressions of 1989.
Xi, too, is playing a cautious game. But he may not be able to for much longer.
Macau, a former Portuguese possession close to Hong Kong, exists — like Hong Kong — in “semi-autonomous” status. And, like Hong Kong, Macau has helped attract foreign investments in China. But recent student protests in Macau have begun in support of the Hong Kong demonstrations. Xi knows that he cannot afford the Hong Kong protests to spread.
Every despotism, including the that of the Chinese Communists, is fragile. The credibility of the Chinese Communist Party has, over the past several years, diminished significantly among the Chinese population, which is slowly learning of the benefits of real freedom. Every day the Hong Kong protests continue diminishes the party’s credibility further.
The greater the protests spread, the more likely China will act forcefully to suppress the Hong Kong protests. Hence the fragility of the standoff between Trump and Xi.
On Tuesday, Trump delayed further sanctions against Chinese exports, which had been scheduled to go into effect next month, until December 15. His action bought more time for the Hong Kong demonstrators, but that time is finite.
Chinese rhetoric has not indicated any relaxation on Hong Kong. On Wednesday — after Trump’s delay of the added tariffs — Chinese officials were calling the demonstrators “terrorists.” Xi’s restraint may not last much longer.
Trump must know that a successful trade deal with China — one that ends its theft of U.S. intellectual property and opens Chinese markets to U.S. agricultural products — is unlikely in the extreme. From that, the inevitable conclusion is that speaking out in favor of freedom in Hong Kong is much more important than making a deal.
At this point, Trump should speak out clearly in defense of freedom in Hong Kong. He should say that the demonstrators there are no more terrorists than those who erected a small version of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago. He has said that Xi should meet with the demonstrators. That won’t happen.
In a private telephone call with Xi, Trump should link the tariff threat to the threat of Chinese military action in Hong Kong. The threat — which will be more effective if made in secret — should be clear. He should say that if Xi takes action to suppress the protests, new and increased tariffs will go into effect immediately.
Trump should remember that historically important movements, such as the Lech Wałęsa’s freedom movement in Poland, which helped bring about the fall of the Soviet Union, can begin with protests such as those going on in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong protests aren’t likely to bring about the fall of the communist Chinese regime, but — with the support of American calls for freedom there — they could be the beginning of its end.
If Trump speaks out in the protesters’ behalf, that could bring the standoff to a successful end. Nothing else will.