- President Donald Trump has offered tepid support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, which experts warn paves the way for China to use military force.
- China has massed troops near the Hong Kong border amid the protests, which have turned violent at times and have brought the city’s airport to a standstill, increasing fears a Tiananmen-style crackdown is on the horizon.
- "It’s a green light for Beijing to proceed with a crackdown (rather than, say, a flashing yellow) and emboldens other dictators and would be authoritarians as well," Ian Bremmer, a geopolitical expert and president of the Eurasia Group, told INSIDER.
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President Donald Trump’s lackluster response to the increasingly chaotic situation in Hong Kong serves as a "green light" for China to squash ongoing pro-democracy protests with military force, experts warn.
China has massed troops near the Hong Kong border amid the protests, which have turned violent at times and have brought the city’s airport to a standstill, increasing fears a Tiananmen-style crackdown is on the horizon.
But in a break with previous presidents from both parties, Trump has so far avoided offering a defense of the protesters, and not offered an explicit warning to China against using military force. He’s been tough on China on trade, but soft when it comes to championing democracy.
Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Trump adopted a nonchalant tone regarding Hong Kong.
"The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation, very tough. We’ll see what happens but I’m sure it will work out. I hope it works out for everybody — including China, by the way," Trump said.
The president added, "I hope nobody gets hurt, I hope nobody gets killed."
Subsequently, Trump took to Twitter and said he’s being blamed for the "problems" in Hong Kong. Trump in a separate tweet added, "Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!"
Comparatively, on the topic of trade Trump in recent days has accused Beijing of "killing" the US with "unfair trade deals," also referring to China as an "anchor on us."
Tough on trade, weak on democracy
The protests in Hong Kong began roughly 10 weeks ago in response to a controversial extradition law put forward by the Chinese government, but they’ve evolved into a broader critique and rejection of Beijing’s authority.
The situation has captured the world’s attention and has led US politicians — including congressional Republicans — to speak out unequivocally in support of the Hong Kong protesters. The State Department has also issued statements in defense of the pro-democracy demonstrators, on Wednesday urging Beijing to "allow Hong Kong to exercise a high degree of autonomy."
"The US is deeply concerned by reports of Chinese paramilitary movement along the Hong Kong border," the State Department’s statement said. "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 also issued a travel warning for Hong Kong on Wednesday.
Trump has been more ambiguous in his remarks on the protests, which he controversially referred to as "riots" earlier this month. In July, the president also appeared to side with Chinese President Xi Jinping over the demonstrators.
"I think President Xi of China has acted responsibly, very responsibly," Trump said at the time. "I hope that President Xi will do the right thing but it has been going on a long time."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday night urged Trump to "walk away from his recent statements, which invite miscalculation, and to work to advance peace, justice and democracy in Hong Kong."
Foreign policy experts closely monitoring the situation are issuing similar warnings.
"Trump’s statements, including references to the protests as riots, could be intercepted by Beijing as signaling the US would not oppose use of force," Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told INSIDER.
‘It’s a green light for Beijing to proceed with a crackdown’
Trump’s ongoing trade war with China is looming over the situation in Hong Kong and his reaction to it, which was evident in Wednesday afternoon tweets from the president on both topics.
In this context, geopolitical expert and Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer told INSIDER that the US doesn’t have "a lot of leverage over an internal China issue and clearly has bigger fish to fry with the Chinese right now."
But Bremmer also said that Trump’s "statements of indifference" on the Hong Kong situation "are not something we would usually see from a US president."
"The sympathies of the US should be with those who want to ensure that rule of law continues to have force in Hong Kong. That is not the case with the Trump administration," Bremmer added. "It’s a green light for Beijing to proceed with a crackdown (rather than, say, a flashing yellow) and emboldens other dictators and would be authoritarians as well."
‘As weak a response in the face of such a potential crisis that I can recall from a US president’
Trump has made a habit of praising Xi, among other authoritarian leaders. "I get along with him great," Trump boasted of his relationship with Xi in April. The president’s tepid stance on Hong Kong could also be linked in part to his amicable relationship with the Chinese leader, and experts warn this sends a chilling message.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University who specializes in authoritarianism and fascism, told INSIDER, "Trump’s history of public admiration for Xi Jinping as a repressive ruler who may stay in office indefinitely sends a clear signal of approval for anything Xi does to show his strength, including any military action in Hong Kong."
David Rothkopf, a foreign policy expert and CEO of The Rothkopf Group, told INSIDER that the president’s disposition toward Xi is part of a "cumulative message" in terms of his routine praise for repressive and controversial leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump has "sent a message to the Chinese that we are not going to prioritize human rights," Rothkopf said, adding that in the face of the Hong King crisis the president has "essentially said, ‘I hope it works out OK’" as he’s urged people against blaming him for it.
"It is as weak a response in the face of such a potential crisis that I can recall from a US president…at least since [Former President Barack] Obama in Syria," Rothkopf went on to say.
"What [Trump] should have done is early on sent a message of solidarity to the protesters," Rothkopf said. "He should have made it clear that in the event of violent repression, the US would sanction the Chinese, perhaps withdraw from trade talks, stand down from military-to-military contacts, raise the issue in the UN Security Council, etc. … The point is he and his government should be engaged, working it on many levels, and recognizing that it is a situation that could easily go out of control."
- A Republican leader spoke out in support of the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, but some say he’s actually hurting the cause
- Trump said US intelligence shows Chinese troops moving to border with Hong Kong and says he’s being blamed for ‘problems’ there
- Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warns against pushing the city into the ‘abyss’ as protesters force airport to cancel hundreds more flights