What Happens When President Trump Brings Hong Kong Into the Trade War?

Protesters face off with police outside the Legislative Council Building after a school boycott rally in Central district on September 2, 2019 in Hong Kong.

Protesters face off with police outside the Legislative Council Building after a school boycott rally in Central district on September 2, 2019 in Hong Kong. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

September 3, 2019

The summer of discontent shows signs of continuing into the fall.

Hong Kong’s protests, which are entering into their thirteenth week, were initially spurred by a proposed law that would enable the region to extradite suspected lawbreakers to China. But even after the legislation was tabled, demonstrations continued, reflecting wider concerns such as police brutality and the economy. An estimated 2 million people have participated in the occasionally violent protests, which at one point stopped dozens of flights at Hong Kong International Airport.

“I think the protests have really evolved into a greater democracy movement,” University of Toronto professor Lynette Ong told FRONTLINE. “People are generally worried about erosion of the rule of law and penetration of the Chinese Communist Party into all aspects of Hong Kong’s life.”

Even as U.S. leaders as diametrically opposed as Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi offered words of support for a non-violent resolution, the White House avoided wading into the issue in a significant way until August, three months after the protests first broke out. Suddenly, Trump began to link the peaceful handling of the demonstrations to a trade deal with China, The New York Times reported.

“I think it would be very hard to deal if they do violence,” he said on Aug. 18. “I mean, if it’s another Tiananmen Square, it’s – I think it’s a very hard thing to do if there’s violence.”

Four days before those remarks, he tweeted: “Of course China wants to make a deal. Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!”

The U.S. and China have been going tit-for-tat on billions of dollars in tariffs for months. Could the future of the economic balance really hinge on how the protesters are treated?

“The question is, is that a credible threat?” Jude Blanchette, a Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of Trump’s comments. “Trump has linked multiple issues to the deal now beyond the terms on the table.”

Blanchette noted that the president had previously suggested a trade deal might be contingent on China cooperating with the U.S. on its policies on North Korea, as well as on the extradition of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who is accused of fraud. 

“In terms of adding moving parts to an already fantastically complicated trade deal, Trump is continuing to make resolution less, not more likely,” Blanchette said. “I suspect Beijing at this point is kind of shrugging its shoulders to some extent because this is a case of the boy who cried wolf.”

However, Ong believes that if the U.S. makes a strong connection between the trade talks and a peaceful resolution of the protests, Beijing might be willing to compromise with the protesters, whose demands include democratic reforms and an investigation into policing tactics. The professor also told FRONTLINE she had signed a letter to U.S. senators advocating for the U.S. to alter Hong Kong’s favored trading status if they continue to take repressive actions against the protesters.

“If Trump and the U.S. Congress come down very hard on Beijing, making a very explicit link between the Hong Kong protests and the trade war negotiations, I think Beijing will eventually bow,” Ong said. “Beijing has a lot of things to consider — the slowing down of the economy is a major pressure.”

The Chinese economy, however, has already taken a major hit, which ultimately limits the extent of Washington’s influence. Harvard Kennedy school fellow and author Shirley Yu told FRONTLINE that what happens in Hong Kong likely won’t be steered by the president’s financial threats — the hostility of Trump’s current economic foreign policies is already severe.

“From Beijing’s perspective, the U.S. has tariffs on the entirety of Chinese goods; the U.S. blacklisted Huawei and other tech companies; the U.S. named China a currency manipulator,” Yu said in an email. “How many more economic sanctions can the U.S. [enact] onto China after what’s been done already?”

“Beijing won’t be too much worse off, and won’t be better off, no [matter] what Beijing decides to do with Hong Kong.”

On the ground, it’s unlikely Beijing will roll in the tanks, Tiananmen Square-style, but that does not mean the protests have been handled peacefully, according to Notre Dame political science professor Victoria Tin-bor Hui.

“Beijing has been using the Hong Kong police to do the dirty work,” she said. “It doesn’t really need to send out its own troops.”

However, there are scenarios where a line might be crossed, leading to what international observers seem to fear: a violent clampdown by China on Hong Kong.

“Obviously, China wants to maintain economic stability and the financial strength of Hong Kong,” Yu said. “But when it comes to a choice that is mutually exclusive between how Beijing sees national sovereignty and financial prosperity, definitely national sovereignty – and sacrifice the other.”

In the meantime, there is at least one person that is sure President Trump has affected the situation on the ground in Hong Kong: Trump himself. 

He told reporters on Aug. 30 that “if it weren’t for the trade talks, Hong Kong would be in much bigger trouble. I think it would’ve [been] much more violent,” the South China Morning Post reported.

Beijing responded through state media, declaring that “any attempt to use the Hong Kong issue as a bargaining chip will not succeed.”

Catherine Trautwein, Former Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

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