Donald Trump, seemingly unsatisfied that the market has had enough of his tweeting, weighed in on China and the upheaval in Hong Kong on Wednesday evening, hours after the closing bell sounded on the worst session of 2019 for the Dow.
The administration’s position on the civil unrest in Hong Kong is largely a mystery. Sure, the White House has urged calm, and the State department ostensibly views any physical threats against the protesters as a potential human rights violation, but on the other hand, Trump is desperate to secure as much leverage as possible in the trade standoff. To the extent the civil unrest weakens Xi’s international image and keeps Beijing occupied or otherwise off balance, that arguably plays to Trump’s benefit. That’s why Hua Chunying (a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry) continues to accuse the US of “interfering” in China’s internal affairs by fomenting local discord. This is complicated by the fact that Trump hasn’t really condemned the use of violence against protesters either, a nod to his affinity for strongman tactics and disdain for political opposition.
“Many are blaming me, and the United States, for the problems going on in Hong Kong. I can’t imagine why?”, Trump wondered on Tuesday. He also suggested on Twitter that Chinese troops were preparing to institute martial law and, while speaking to reporters, casually said he “hopes nobody gets killed”.
On Wednesday afternoon, he (correctly) assessed that the Hong Kong situation is adding to market angst, and in a series of tweets which crossed just before Asian trading got going, the president talked up his Chinese counterpart’s leadership skills.
“I know President Xi of China very well. He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people”, Trump said, before characterizing the Chinese strongman as “a good man in a ‘tough business'”. It wasn’t immediately clear what “business” Trump was referring to, but he went on to to say that the White House has “ZERO doubt that if Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it”. Although well-meaning, “humane” wasn’t the best word choice – it suggested Xi is dealing with animals at a time when Beijing has castigated some protesters as akin to domestic terrorists.
Trump then asked: “Personal meeting?”
Probably not. Or at least not if that means between himself and Xi, considering Beijing is whatever the opposite of happy is with Trump right now.
The tweets may have been a response to a Politico article which suggested the US president has demurred when asked by his advisers to offer his support to the protesters.
“In recent days, national security adviser John Bolton, China hands at both the National Security Council and the State Department, and several economic advisers have pushed for a more assertive posture on the Hong Kong demonstrations”, Politico reported on Wednesday afternoon. “They are finding little traction with a president focused more narrowly on trade negotiations with Xi Jinping – and worried that criticizing the Chinese leader’s efforts to stamp out dissent in Hong Kong will scuttle the possibility of inking a deal this winter”.
The article also says that in a June phone call with Xi, Trump promised not to condemn China in the event a crackdown should prove necessary to quell the unrest.
Shortly before his “personal meeting” tweet, Trump delivered a little more color on the trade phone call and the decision to delay tariffs on consumer goods.
“Good things were stated on the call with China the other day”, he began.
So far, so good, but it quickly went off the rails.
“They are eating the Tariffs with the devaluation of their currency and ‘pouring’ money into their system”, Trump continued, proving yet again that he has no idea how to use scare quotes and also no idea how to get through a single tweet about international relations without insulting another country. He then spoke for the American consumer, who the president imagines is “fine with or without the September date”.
On Wednesday, during interviews with Fox Business and CNBC, Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross said the US got nothing in return for the tariff delay. Navarro begrudgingly admitted that the tariffs could have pushed up prices during the holiday shopping season.
True to form, Trump tried to say that there was reciprocation, or at least that there will be at some point, despite Ross and Navarro making it clear that this was not, in fact, a quid pro quo.
“Much good will come from the short deferral to December. It actually helps China more than us, but will be reciprocated”, Trump said, adding that “millions of jobs are being lost in China to other non-Tariffed countries”. (Don’t forget that Trump is “tariffing” some of those countries too.)
He finished up by insisting that “China wants to make a deal”, but suggested they need to “work humanely with Hong Kong first!”
It’s anybody’s guess what the point of Trump’s Wednesday evening remarks was, and, again, it’s not at all clear what his position on the Hong Kong situation actually is.
One thing we do know, though, is that lawmakers in the US have been unequivocal.
“The people of Hong Kong are making clear that they will not tolerate repression, and their movement affirms: The power is with the people”, Elizabeth Warren proclaimed this week. “They deserve our support and the support of the world.”
“To the thousands of young people in Hong Kong who are speaking UP for human rights and speaking OUT against the Communist Party of China: we see you waving the American flag, and we hear you singing our national anthem”, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday. “America stands for freedom. America stands with Hong Kong”.
Right. And Donald Trump stands for and with… something and someone? Maybe? He’ll let you know.