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Why Hongkongers owe Donald Trump nothing, despite the steadfast support of Congress

Hong Kong’s self-styled saviour does not deserve the gratitude of the city’s citizens. Mr Trump may have signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act but his words show whose side he is really on.

American presidents engage in realpolitik, this is a given. They have to make tough decisions and sometimes have to keep schtum about horrors being committed beyond their borders. At best, when they go about this business they will, as the Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky put it, ask themselves “how will it look to the boys in the camps?”. Yet for all the sentimental thoughts in the world they nevertheless act as Washington’s head.

donald trump

Donald Trump. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Congress, by contrast, is where the heart is at – and boy, has this heart bled in recent months. Since millions of Hongkongers took to the streets in opposition to the proposed extradition bill with Beijing, there has been an outpouring of solidarity from senators and members of Congress alike. This support has remained steadfast as one demand expanded into five in the face of violent police suppression. All which shows that although Hong Kong can easily slip off Capitol Hill’s radar goodwill towards the city’s pro-democracy movement remains widespread.

We’ve been here before. Following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, Congress was quick to help Hong Kong. Immigration reforms ensured that more Hongkongers would have access to an escape hatch should the city’s autonomy quickly deteriorate post-handover. More importantly, in 1992 Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell pushed through the Hong Kong Policy Act ensuring special treatment for the territory providing Beijing obeyed by its promise of One Country Two Systems. In recent years this law, and the threat to revoke it, has given Washington significant leverage over an overly zealous Chinese Communist Party.

This month, now in the lofty position of Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell has once again been part of passing through Congress landmark Hong Kong legislation, despite some unnecessary delays on his part. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act increases the level of executive reporting and orders the US executive to impose sanctions on individuals responsible for suppressing basic freedoms. While the bill proposes visa bans, and asset freezes, for perpetrators it also ensures that arrested pro-democracy protestors do not face visa blocks. All in all, these are substantial measures which also send a strong message to China.

October 14 chater garden rally US human rights and democracy act

Photo: Studio Incendo.

Despite the overwhelming level of support on the Hill for the bill, Trump spent a week refusing to say whether or not he will sign it. Surprise, surprise – this arch-mercantilist was more concerned about his precious trade deal. Not that this mattered so much. Barring a presidential veto the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would have become law anyway, given that it has passed both houses of Congress.

In the end, Trump did sign, as many expected he would, but it should be noted without much public fanfare. A short accompanying statement from Trump said: “I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong.” Words so banal they can hardly be presented as the message of solidarity for the city’s pro-democracy movement which many Republican’s, like McConnell, have been urging him to make.

Yet the lacklustre signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act is totally in line with the President’s track record. Throughout the past few months, Mr Trump has remained suspiciously silent. His state department and its chief, Mike Pompeo, have talked tough. His Vice-President has blasted Beijing on a range of issues, including Hong Kong, over the past year. Yet the few remarks made by Trump # have been stupefyingly facile if not downright stomach churning.

October 14 US rally Hong Kong Human Rights Democracy Act Chater Garden

A poster of US symbol Uncle Sam with the phrase “Fight for Freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

Of course silence from the White House is nothing new. As mentioned earlier Trump is not the first man to sit in the Oval Office to opted for the ‘pragmatic course’. Yet even Barrack Obama, who was keen to avoid fuelling Beijing’s foreign interference line during the Umbrella occupations, told General Secretary Xi:

[T]he United States, as a matter of foreign policy but also a matter of our values, we are going to consistently speak out on the right of people to express themselves, and encourage the elections that take place in Hong Kong are transparent and fair and reflective of the opinions of people there.

At the height of tensions this summer, as Chinese paramilitary vehicles moved along the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border, Trump did little to live up to his title of Leader of the Free World, saying it is a ‘very tough situation’ ‘I just hope it gets solved’. Quite a contrast to the moral and purposeful statement of his predecessor is it not?

More gut wrenching still has been the level of  praise heaped on the “King” of China by the current Commander-in-Chief. “I’m also standing with President Xi” Trump told Fox & Friends upon the Senate’s approval of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. “He is a friend of mine. He is an incredible guy” he went on to say about the dictator responsible for the vast network of concentration camps in Xinjiang.

More outrageous still has been Trump’s attempt to present himself as Hong Kong’s saviour, after having just sucked up to the man responsible for squeezing the city. In years to come, those digging through the archives will have a better idea of whether or not Trump himself saved Hong Kong from a fourteen-minute obliteration. For now, however, I think it is safe to assume that this is just more Trump bluster. Whatever the president said to persuade Xi from rolling back the tanks I cannot imagine. Whatever it was would stand in stark contrast to the weaselly promise, reported by Politico, which he made to stay quiet about a Chinese government crackdown during a phone call with Xi in mid-June.

Trump’s lacklustre signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, along with his history of silence, interrupted with pro-Xi outbursts, tells you exactly who the president’s friends are and who he is his prepared to stand by. Those flying the Star-Spangled Banner on the streets of Hong Kong are not wrong to do so, there are many in Washington who care deeply about freedom in the city. Sadly, at this moment in time, this group of people does not include the top decision-maker.

Why Hongkongers owe Donald Trump nothing, despite the steadfast support of Congress