President Trump Waffles On Hong Kong Democracy Bill Amid China Trade Talks

Nov 22, 2019
Originally published on November 22, 2019 6:04 pm

President Trump said Friday he supports pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. But he stopped short of saying he would sign legislation requiring sanctions against China for any crackdown on Hong Kong protesters.

"We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I'm also standing with President Xi," Trump said in an interview on the Fox News program Fox and Friends. "He's a friend of mine."

The U.S. House and Senate this week passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act with overwhelming, veto-proof support. The bill calls for stripping Hong Kong of its preferential trade status if China fails to maintain the freedoms guaranteed to the former British colony when Beijing took over more than two decades ago.

Now it heads to Trump's desk as the U.S. and China attempt to broker a mini trade deal that would boost China's purchases of American farm goods. The talks have stumbled over how much tariff relief the Trump administration is willing to grant China.

If no deal is reached by mid-December, the administration is preparing to impose new tariffs on another $160 billion worth of Chinese imports, including popular consumer items such as cellphones and laptops.

"The bottom line is we have a very good chance to make a deal," Trump said Friday, calling the Hong Kong protests a "complicating factor." China could withdraw from the talks if Trump signs the Hong Kong bill.

"I stand with Hong Kong. I stand with freedom," Trump said. "But we are also in the process of making the largest trade deal in history. And if we could do that, that would be great."

In fact, the mini deal under negotiation would provide limited trade gains while postponing action on the major structural issues that prompted Trump to launch the trade war with China more than a year ago.

Trump said in the interview that his relationship with China's president has prevented Xi Jinping from taking a harder line against the Hong Kong protests.

"He's got a million soldiers standing outside of Hong Kong that aren't going in only because I asked him, 'Please don't do that. You'll be making a big mistake.' " Trump said. "It's going to have a tremendous negative impact on the trade deal, and he wants to make a trade deal."

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The impeachment hearings showcased Congress at its most divided, but another issue this week united Democrats and Republicans. The House and Senate voted nearly unanimously to support pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. The bill they passed faces an uncertain fate in the White House. President Trump said this morning that Hong Kong could be a, quote, "complicating factor" in the administration's trade talks with mainland China. In a moment, we'll get reaction from Hong Kong. First, we're joined in the studio by NPR's Scott Horsley.

Hey, Scott.


SHAPIRO: Why won't the president say whether he'll sign this bill?

HORSLEY: China's Foreign Ministry has already warned the U.S. that it sees this measure as meddling in its internal affairs. And Trump is trying to avoid antagonizing Chinese President Xi Jinping. Now they're at the negotiating table for weeks now. The administration has been trying to nail down a mini trade deal with Beijing to give the president something to show for the lengthy and costly trade war he launched last summer. And Trump is worried that, you know, a big gesture of support for Hong Kong could sour those already difficult talks. Here's the president speaking this morning on "Fox & Friends."


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I stand with Hong Kong. I stand with freedom. I stand with all of the things that we want to do. But we also are in the process of making the largest trade deal in history. And if we could do that, that would be great.

HORSLEY: Now it's actually a pretty limited trade agreement that's being discussed at this point, but this is typical of Trump's very transactional approach to foreign policy, where he's less interested in promoting democracy or high-minded idealism and more focused on the deal.

SHAPIRO: Why, after months of protests in Hong Kong, did Congress pass this bill? And it was such an overwhelming margin.

HORSLEY: Yeah, it really was. It was unanimous in the Senate. There was only one dissenting vote in the House. So even if Trump were to veto this bill, it looks as if lawmakers have the muscle they would need to override that. Congress is really trying to show support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators. And they're also trying to hold China to its commitments to give the former British colony a measure of autonomy. Under this bill, the State Department would have to report each year on whether China's measuring up to those promises. And if it's not, Hong Kong could be stripped of its special trading status. The bill also authorizes the president to impose sanctions against Chinese officials for any harsh crackdown on Hong Kong protesters. But in both cases, the administration would have some discretion to cut China some slack if it wanted to.

SHAPIRO: Over these last six months, the people in Hong Kong have been protesting. What, if anything, has President Trump said about China's reaction to these protests and the protests themselves?

HORSLEY: He's been pretty quiet on the subject, at least in public. Trump rarely criticizes authoritarian governments. Instead, it has fallen to Vice President Pence to play the bad cop here and deliver warnings to Beijing. In his interview with Fox News, though, Trump did claim credit for discouraging a tougher crackdown on the demonstrators. He says that's a tribute to his relationship with President Xi.


TRUMP: He's got a million soldiers standing outside of Hong Kong that aren't going in only because I ask him, please don't do that. You'll be making a big mistake. It's going to have a tremendous negative impact on the trade deal.


TRUMP: And he wants to make a trade deal.

HORSLEY: Meanwhile, the trade talks continue to grind along in low gear. And the clock is ticking, Ari. Unless there's a deal in about three weeks, the U.S. is set to impose a new round of tariffs on some $160 billion worth of Chinese imports.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Horsley, thank you for the update.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.