‘Hong Kong Thing’ Is ‘Very Tough,’ but Trump Doesn’t Criticize China

WASHINGTON — President Trump, presenting himself as a neutral observer of the mass protests in Hong Kong, offered lukewarm support on Tuesday for pro-democracy demonstrators there but stopped short of criticizing the government in Beijing.

In comments to reporters and in a series of afternoon tweets, Mr. Trump took no strong position on the demonstrations that have gripped Hong Kong for weeks and have drawn an increasingly brutal response from local security forces. He echoed none of the defenses of freedom and democracy coming from both Democrats and Republicans.

“The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation. Very tough,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he left New Jersey for an official event in Pennsylvania. “We’ll see what happens. But I’m sure it’ll work out.” He added: “I hope it works out for everybody, including China. I hope it works out peacefully. I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.”

The president later tweeted that intelligence reports indicated that China’s government “is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong.”

“Everyone should be calm and safe!” he added.

Critics and allies alike said that the combination of Mr. Trump’s relative disinterest in human rights and his narrow focus on America’s economic relationship with China leave him with little appetite for taking sides in the escalating showdown between China’s government and the protesters in Hong Kong. But some warned that he was tacitly approving what many fear could be the most brutal suppression of democratic dissent in China in nearly 30 years.

In his comments to reporters, Mr. Trump did allow that he “hopes it works out for liberty,” without explaining what he meant. He did not offer any opinions about the protesters’ demands for more political freedom and protection from mainland China’s growing influence in the former British colony.

This month, Mr. Trump echoed Chinese state media by calling the demonstrations “riots” and said, “That’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China.”

Democrats have been sharply critical of Mr. Trump, painting him as weak and equivocal in the face of a threat to fundamental American values.

“This is not foreign policy,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, responded on Twitter to Mr. Trump’s tweets. On Monday, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who is running for president, tweeted that the people of Hong Kong “deserve our support and the support of the world.”

Michael Pillsbury, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who advises the Trump administration on China policy, said the president was almost exclusively animated by the economic relationship between the United States and China and saw human rights violations as a diversion.

“The regime has to change its economic model and its trade misconduct and World Trade Organization violations,” Mr. Pillsbury said. “That’s his focus.”

Mr. Trump has bashed China’s economic policies for decades, including in several of his books. But one of them, “The America We Deserve,” published in 2000, also condemned China’s political system and praised his own “unwillingness to shrug off the mistreatment of China’s citizens by their own government.” Mr. Trump branded China “an oppressive regime,” adding, “Let’s not pretend we’re dealing with anything less.”

Today, Mr. Trump’s willingness to look the other way has made him an outlier in his own party.

On Monday, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, tweeted a warning that a violent crackdown on the protests “would be completely unacceptable,” adding, “The world is watching.” And Mr. Trump’s State Department took a notably more supportive line toward the demonstrators than the president did.

“We condemn violence and urge all sides to exercise restraint, but remain staunch in our support for freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Hong Kong,” the department said in a statement. “Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are core values that we share with Hong Kong; these freedoms must be vigorously protected.”

Some foreign policy experts noted that Mr. Trump once spoke with seeming admiration of China’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1990, telling Playboy magazine: “They were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”

Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has focused on the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, said Mr. Trump was making a grave mistake by signaling to Beijing an indifference about a potential crackdown on the protests.

“It basically gives a green light to Beijing to do whatever they want to do, and when read in the context of his general support for authoritarians I think the message the White House has sent is pretty clear, which is that this is purely a matter for the regime internally,” Mr. Wright said.

Mr. Trump’s comments came on a day when he announced the delay of planned tariffs on Chinese goods in the midst of a larger trade showdown with Beijing that poses risks to the global economy ahead of the 2020 election.

Stephen K. Bannon, a former Trump White House adviser who strongly supports the protests, said Mr. Trump was probably exercising caution for fear of destabilizing China and endangering its president, Xi Jinping, with whom he has cultivated a relationship.

“I think Trump is throwing Xi a lifeline,” Mr. Bannon said. “One tweet, one comment from Trump can cause the whole thing to go in a certain direction. I think he’s being very careful about unintended consequences.”

Mr. Bannon, who views the United States as locked in mortal combat with China, made his own view unmistakably clear. “The young Hong Kong protesters are like the patriots of 1776,” he said. “We must have their back.”

Mr. Trump also seemed sensitive on Tuesday to accusations from Beijing that the United States had fomented the uprisings in Hong Kong, including one made on Monday by a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry.

“Some senior U.S. politicians and diplomatic officials met and engaged with anti-China rabble-rousers in Hong Kong, criticized China unreasonably, propped up violent and illegal activities, and undermined Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability,” the spokesman, Hua Chunying, said in comments posted on the Foreign Ministry’s website. “These facts are only too obvious.”

An editorial on Tuesday in the nationalist Chinese newspaper The Daily Times, which is often seen as a mouthpiece for government hard-liners, echoed the charge, saying that the protests could “lead to long-term turmoil in Hong Kong, thereby increasing China’s political and economic burden.”

“This is what some American and Western forces want to see,” the editorial continued.

Mr. Trump appeared to respond to such charges in one of his tweets on Tuesday. “Many are blaming me, and the United States, for the problems going on in Hong Kong,” he wrote. “I can’t imagine why?”

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