Trump’s remarks will be read in the historical context of his previous comments on repression in China. In a now-infamous interview with Playboy in 1990, Trump reflected on a recent visit to the Soviet Union. “Russia,” he said, “is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.” The interviewer followed up by asking, “You mean firm hand as in China?” Trump responded: “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
Much will be made of the immorality of Trump’s position, how he has abdicated the role of leader of the free world, and why his stance makes violence more likely. That is all true—but Trump’s stance is even worse than it appears.
The Hong Kong crisis comes at a particularly sensitive moment in U.S.-China relations. Competition between the two global powers may be inevitable, but its scope and intensity depends on the decisions both countries make. In Hong Kong, Xi faces a crucial choice—a 21st-century version of the Tiananmen Square crackdown would make a new Cold War all but inevitable.
A violent crackdown would make it much more difficult to calibrate competition with China. China will have revealed itself to be a totalitarian dictatorship guilty of the excesses associated with such regimes. Cooperation will become difficult, if not impossible, even on matters of mutual interest. Having crossed the Rubicon and incurred the costs, Xi may be even more willing to flex China’s muscles in the South China Sea and East China Sea, increasing tensions with its neighbors and the United States. If China handles Hong Kong in a heavy-handed way, that would also have repercussions for Taiwan, which would see its suspicions of the mainland confirmed.
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A violent crackdown would also accelerate economic decoupling, with Western investors fleeing Hong Kong as it becomes just another Chinese city. More than 1,300 U.S. firms have a presence in Taiwan, including nearly every major U.S. financial firm. There are 85,000 U.S. citizens in Hong Kong. They would likely leave. A violent crackdown would almost surely lead to the imposition of sanctions by the U.S. Congress, if necessary with a supermajority to overcome a presidential veto. The decoupling would not be confined to Hong Kong. The tariffs and restrictions imposed to generate leverage in trade negotiations would become permanent.
I asked Michael Green, who served in senior positions on Asia in the George W. Bush administration, what Trump should say now. The president, he said, should point out to Xi that the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act allows the administration to change its approach should Hong Kong become less autonomous. He should also say that China’s actions here will be seen as an indicator of its direction more generally, and make it abundantly clear there is no place for the use of force or violence as the people of Hong Kong express their aspirations as allowed under the rule of law. The administration should then work to ensure that Japan, Australia, and the European Union issue similar statements.