(Originally published by South China Morning Post on August 20, 2019.)
It’s both funny and tragic to see Donald Trump’s messaging about the unrest in Hong Kong shift so quickly.
Funny because his duplicity is about as subtle as the script of a low-budget sitcom, and tragic – mostly for himself – because it reveals that even he is becoming aware that his China strategy might be flawed.
The massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong almost certainly disturb United States President Trump, whose apparent affinity for authoritarian strongmen is his most visible longing. But the situation in Hong Kong has developed to the point where he knows continued support for Beijing in this stand-off would undermine his re-election hopes.
As a global chorus of condemnation rises around China’s new “one country, one system” approach to Hong Kong (farewell, Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg), Trump is changing his tune as quickly as a Sichuan opera performer changes his masks.
In the space of a few weeks, Trump has gone from calling the demonstrations in Hong Kong “riots” to suggesting Xi Jinping should sit down and talk to the protesters to “humanely” solve the Hong Kong problem. Where is Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor in Trump’s magical solution that he thinks will sort everything out “in 15 minutes”?
Trump’s apparent assumption that the entire Hong Kong government is no more autonomous than the municipal authorities of any other mainland Chinese city shows one of two possibilities. Either he’s aware that Hong Kong’s 50 years of autonomy have run out 28 years early or he’s never understood the terms of the 1997 handover.
This brings us to another important realisation Trump has come to with regard to China. As the Post’s Jodi Xu Klein showed in her analysis earlier this month, Trump’s trade war with China has not brought manufacturing jobs back to the US. Meanwhile, American soybean farmers have all but lost their most lucrative export market.
The trade war will turn out to be neither a net benefit for the US economy nor an effective cudgel with which to force Beijing to make significant structural changes. The conflict Trump started will not get him and free-trade Republicans the Chinese market access that they want, nor will it lead to the political and religious freedom that most Democrats and others on the American ideological spectrum are calling for.
So now Trump is left with the only achievable outcome in the trade war: inflict economic damage on China. As he sees it, whichever side suffers less wins.
Just as Trump doesn’t understand that American businesses and consumers are paying Trump’s tariffs, he also doesn’t get that damaging the economy of the world’s most populous country isn’t in America’s interest.
The Chinese government has made it clear it never had any intention of being Washington’s friend. Beijing, with its zero tolerance of political discourse that deviates from the party line and its expectation that all Chinese citizens, companies and counterparties will serve its goals, poses a major diplomatic challenge to the US.
But an economically destabilised China would make this challenge even more formidable. Trump will not rise to this occasion. He deserves credit for recognising Washington needed a new approach to Beijing. However, his mistake was to antagonise every American ally and go it alone with respect to China.
In Trump’s playbook, you don’t concede and change tack when your plan isn’t going as expected. You lash out at your political enemies, aiming to create as much chaos and spill as much blood as possible.
This is why Trump can’t get through any public appearance without airing an endless, repetitive list of grievances against any number of individuals, groups and institutions – including America’s own intelligence community – that question him.
Sort of like what Mao Zedong did in the 1960s, after it became clear that his Great Leap Forward was a disaster. The ensuing Cultural Revolution set China back by decades, inflicting misery and poverty on the entire country.
It’s no wonder Trump is and will always be so besotted with China’s leaders, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the demonstrations in Hong Kong.