Donald Trump is a Tariff Man But Not a Hong Kong Man

Although the latest round of China-US trade talks were productive in respect of the fact that they resulted in a good faith agreement by China to purchase more US agricultural goods, there was no breakthrough in the trade deadlock itself. This was hardly surprising given the fact that both sides seem to have resigned themselves to a prolonged negotiation process. It should furthermore not be surprising that as a result of the trade talks failing to achieve any breakthrough that Donald Trump announced further tariffs on Chinese imports to the US.

Yet in spite of his caviller use of tariffs against multiple countries but China in particular, Trump continues to show little interest in the ongoing Hong Kong riots. When asked about the situation hours after announcing new tariffs on Chinese goods, the US President stated:

“Something is probably happening with Hong Kong, because when you look at, you know, what’s going on, they’ve had riots for a long period of time. Somebody said that at some point they’re going to want to stop that. But that’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China”.

This is not the first time that Trump has made it clear that he has no desire to intervene in China’s domestic affairs. Trump’s recent press conference delivered whilst hosting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was highly instructive on multiple levels. Although issues regarding the US relationship to Pakistan as well as issues relating to neighbouring India, Afghanistan and Iran featured heavily in the lengthy exchange with the press, Trump’s remark on Hong Kong was among his most important.

When touching on China-US relations, Trump delivered a predictable statement about how tariffs are good for the American economy but that he nevertheless remains somewhat optimistic that a good trading agreement with China will eventually be signed. Things got even more interesting when Trump was asked specifically about the recent wave of agitation in Hong Kong. When asked about Hong Kong Trump stated:

“I’m not involved in it very much but I think President Xi of China has acted responsibly, very responsibly”.

In addition to largely praising Beijing’s handling of the situation, Trump further implied that the police have exercised something of a soft touch against the agitators. Although Trump is famous for hitting China with incredibly harsh tariffs even when compared to many other countries on the receiving side of his infamous trade war, this is only part of the broader picture.

However, Trump’s views on China’s internal development are largely that of a respectful head of state who does not seek to meddle in the affairs of a foreign land. Unlike many western leaders, Trump has tended to shy away from the fake news regarding the situation in Xinjiang and yesterday’s remarks prove that he also does not seek to directly meddle in Hong Kong. This does not mean that elements of the American so-called “deep state” are not promoting reckless behaviour in Hong Kong and nor does it mean that the US State Department will suddenly change its official stance on China’s internal conditions. But as the leader of the United States, Trump displays a clear willingness to be very tough and even very rough on the issue of trade but when it comes to prodding into the business of others, Trump is refreshingly laissez-faire. As such, Trump’s remarks not only demonstrate that he has no time for elements in Washington that continue to salivate over lawlessness in Hong Kong but it also represents one final blow to the outgoing UK Prime Minister Theresa May whose government has taken a vocal position on Hong Kong and one that is not consistent with a rules based world order based on the respect for national sovereignty.

All of this was accurately predicted in a piece I wrote on the second of July which is re-posted below in its entirety: 

The fact that the current wave of Hong Kong protests has a foreign hand behind it is generally considered self-evident. When the protesters broke into Hong Kong’s local Legislative Council, defaced the property, vandalised walls with hateful graffiti and hoisted the colonial era flag, it became clear enough that the protesters represent the latest shriek of minority opinion in Hong Kong that would prefer to turn back the clock and go back to living under British rule.

It is also now obvious that the protests are about more than opposition to a so-called extradition law (one that was incidentally going to be far less extreme than the EU’s European Arrest Warrant) that has now been scrapped. The axing of the law was supposed to make the protesters satisfied but in all attempted colour revolutions, a general foreign backed agitation is merely masked by a specific grievance. When this specific grievance is settled and the protests continue, one realises that there was no real ethical dimension to the protests form the get-go. So far – so obvious. Here is where it gets interesting.

Trump doesn’t care 

Whilst meddlesome elements of America’s wealthy elite and their friends in the so-called US deep state are almost certainly behind substantial elements of the Hong Kong provocations, Donald Trump does not seem to care and the fact of the matter is that based on Trump’s known proclivities, he likely does not care at all. Whilst Trump seeks to dictate the terms on which the world trades with the United States, unlike most of his predecessors, he cares little about the internal developments of foreign countries.

It should be of note that Barack Obama would talk frequently about molesting China’s sovereign rights in the South China Sea whilst also making provocative and false comments about the status of human rights in China. From Trump there is none of this kind of unhelpful and tiresome talk. One could imagine therefore that if someone like Hillary Clinton had a trade dispute with China, she would use the Hong Kong situation to try and leverage China into a bad deal in return for calling off her proverbial dogs in Hong Kong.

From Trump however, no such deviousness pervades. For Trump it is all about dollars and cents – nothing more and nothing less. As such, whilst his protectionist views are rather dated, at least they do not carry with them a hidden agenda. This is all the more reason for China to intensely work on a trade deal with the US. Such a trade deal would be good for a mainland economy more dependant on traditional trade and high quality product development than financial markets. Such a deal would also help to pave the way for trade fuelled financial markets on the mainland (in Shanghai) to gain further confidence among international investors who remain more influenced by Wall Street than by Shanghai for the time being.

Just as many in Britain continue to view Hong Kong as a colony inside of China whilst many in the US feel the same way about Taiwan, Trump merely wants to do trade deals and sell weapons to whomever will purchase them. In this sense, even Washington’s current provocative Taiwan policy is more about making a quick buck than it is about re-writing the One China Policy. By extrapolation, the same is true of America’s continued provocative South China Sea policy. Whilst some might say that the policies are the same as prior to Trump – Trump’s end game is very different. Trump wants to make new trade deals (for better or worse) and sell countries expensive weapons that will likely never be used. By comparison to his predecessors, this view is actually benign by modern US standards.

All of this should be considered when analysing Trump’s views on China. Trump might have normalised anti-China racism in a politically divided America looking for a successful foreign scapegoat, but apart from that, he actually harbours far less condescension towards China than the likes of Obama and Clinton.

China’s soft hand 

Those who unlike Trump are obsessed over Hong Kong will perversely be disappointed that the Chinese police have been highly restrained in trying to curtail the outbursts of lawlessness. There are several reasons for this. First of all and most obviously, China does not want bad publicity from a wider world that has been fed constant anti-China narratives by liberal western media outlets ever since China became the world’s second largest economy. If anything, this should make China realise that it requires better methods of distributing foreign language (English in particular) information to the outside world.

Moreover, the fact is that whilst Hong Kong forms part of the economically important Greater Bay Area, in many respects, Hong Kong is less important in the eyes of Beijing than it is in the eyes of foreigners. The reason for this is that among Chinese officials, Hong Kong is just another region of an extremely large country with multiple important, substantial, ultra-modern and business friendly cities – all of which are now more open to foreign direct investment (FDI) than at any time in contemporary Chinese history.

But whilst Beijing takes a rational view of Hong Kong, many westerners and western minded Asians outside of China tend to fetishise Hong Kong as a kind of “China for people who don’t like China”. Whilst the population is ethnically Han Chinese, whilst the people speak Chinese and whilst the island is part of China, because of its peculiar history, both visiting and doing business in Hong Kong is seen by many foreigners as the geogrpahic version of “Chinese cuisine” as cooked by a chef in San Francisco as opposed to the Chinese cuisine cooked by a chief in Beijing.

Whilst Beijing has no problem with the fact that Hong Kong has naturally retained some western cultural characteristics, this is hardly considered novel within China. By contrast, many non-Chinese tend to romanticise Hong Kong in the same way that white middle class liberals are happy to listen to foreign music so long as it’s sold to them as “world music” by the white English public school boy Peter Gabriel. In this sense, whilst emotion should not factor into geopolitical developments, it nevertheless often dose. This is why even among many who wouldn’t dream of supporting imperialist causes, Hong Kong nevertheless has an oddly special place in the hearts of many foreigners. This might be good for tourism but it is bad for political sovereignty due to the sense of entitlement that western liberalism has always created in the minds of its adherents.

China is aware that in order to maintain Hong Kong as a China’s “Disneyland for naieve foreigners”, it needn’t act with brutality. Also, as Hong Kong’s population is generally economically well-off (as are most people in China’s coastal regions), the protests will eventually die down in ways that are less likely in economically depressed and socially retrograde places. Thus there is no need to treat the well dressed/well educated protesters of Hong Kong in the way that a paramilitary force might treat a heavily armed mob in Afghanistan.

Hence, China is more frustrated than enraged by what is going on. Some might see this as a fine line, but it is a bigger line than many have imagined.

Solutions 

Chinese officials tend to take the long view when problem solving. As such, they will neither politically alter the nature of Hong Kong to please protesters who often feel more European than Chinese but nor will China declare a state of emergency in a desperate attempt to restore normalcy. As most businesses in Hong Kong continue to operate under normal conditions, the protests are more of a physical disturbance to Hong Kong at a logistical level than they are a financial or political disturbance.

Naturally, if the protesters continue to increase their violence against property (something that would incidentally be despicable in both Britain and China), police will respond proportionally but without resorting to excess. As such, it is notable that whilst French police have blinded and maimed unarmed Yellow Vest protesters, no such brutality is occurring in China. This is perhaps ironic given the fact that the Yellow Vests tend to be nation minded whilst Hong Kong’s protesters are more or less begging for colonialism to return to north east Asia.

For China, the lesson learnt is that certain elements of Hong Kong have gone out of their way to act as bad citizens. This will not be punished in any traditional sense but nor will it be forgotten. Hong Kong may well remain a “Disneyfied” version of China for foreigners, but when it comes to China’s serious business cities, Hong Kong’s importance over the course of this century may well go the way of the British Empire itself.

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