President Trump for once was the cautious outlier as lawmakers of both parties in Congress warned China not to crack down on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, as tensions continued to simmer Wednesday over the enclave’s fate.
Critics in Congress also took aim at Mr. Trump, who has been uncharacteristically muted in his response to the escalating clashes, though the State Department said Wednesday it was “deeply concerned” by reports that China’s communist leaders have been assembling military assets near Hong Kong and warned Beijing to respect Hong Kong’s political and economic autonomy.
Mr. Trump, locked in a raging trade war with China, has told reporters he wants the Hong Kong standoff to work out for “everybody, including China.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, issued statements strongly supporting the Hong Kong protesters. The bipartisan leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee squarely faulted Beijing for the unrest and rejected Chinese charges that Washington was secretly encouraging the unrest.
“It is Beijing’s actions that are at the root of the frustration among the people of Hong Kong,” wrote Chairman Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, and Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the panel’s ranking Republican. “No foreign powers are fomenting this dissent. It is the result of Beijing’s successive violations of their commitment to honor the will of the people of Hong Kong.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said military action would be “completely unacceptable,” and Mrs. Pelosi said Mr. Trump’s neutral comments were inviting “miscalculation.”
“If America does not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out elsewhere,” Mrs. Pelosi said.
Tensions appeared to ease slightly Wednesday in Hong Kong after two days of protests shuttered the city’s international airport, a hub of transportation for flights across Asia and the Pacific. Protesters were regrouping and expressed regret for the disruptions and reports of abusing suspected police informers in their ranks.
But the situation was far from resolved, and The Associated Press published satellite photos of what appeared to be Chinese military vehicles parked at a sports complex in the city of Shenzhen near Hong Kong.
Seeking the right tone
Mr. Trump and his top aides have struggled to find the right tone for the unrest in Hong Kong, where some protesters have been waving American flags but where the U.S. government has little political or military leverage.
Mr. Trump, who is on a weeklong vacation and is hoping to strike a trade deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping, said the Hong Kong situation is “very tricky.”
“I hope it works out for everybody, including China,” he said Tuesday from Morristown, New Jersey. “I hope it works out peacefully. I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.”
While lawmakers rebuked Beijing, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross echoed Mr. Trump’s careful tone by suggesting Wednesday that Hong Kong is a puzzle that China needs to solve.
“It’s not that we’re not watching” the events in Hong Kong, Mr. Ross said in an interview with the financial news network CNBC. “The question is: ‘What role is there for the U.S. in that matter?’ “
He called the clashes “an internal matter” for China.
Mr. Trump captured the presidency on a platform of avoiding new foreign military missions and putting “America first.” He is also intent on resetting the trade relationship with China, which depends in part on cultivating a personal bond with Mr. Xi.
Yet his softer approach compared with Congress may have more to do with the nature of the presidency, said Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Unlike lawmakers, he said, presidents are expected to back up tough talk with action.
In addition to trade, Beijing and Washington are dealing with such issues as the future of Taiwan, the Iran nuclear deal, Mr. Trump’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea and China’s aggression in the heavily trafficked South China Sea.
“Generally, any president has a more complicated task dealing with a situation like this than Congress does. Of course, Congress is able to say whatever it wants. It can pass new laws and put out statements without bearing any direct consequences for it,” he said. “The administration has to balance a lot of different things: trade, military and things it wants to do with Taiwan or whatever else. I think that accounts for most of it.”
Mr. Lohman rejected Mr. Ross’ assessment, however. He said the “one country, two systems” arrangement in Hong Kong was written into law when the United Kingdom handed over the island colony to China in 1997, so it’s not just a matter for the Chinese to resolve.
“To say this is an internal affair is just wrong,” he said.
Robert Spalding, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said part of the disconnect between Congress and the administration is that diplomats are trained to bring up sensitive issues with China in private, which allows the communist government in Beijing to control the narrative.
“They can brand peaceful protesters as terrorists without pushback in public. This makes it appear the U.S. supports their claims while privately it does not,” he said. “My preference would be to be vocal in our support of democratic principles and human rights. If that forces the [Chinese Communist Party] to be less accommodating towards diplomatic engagement, then so be it.”
State Department speaks up
The State Department was noticeably sharper than Mr. Trump in its latest response, issuing a travel warning for Americans in the region and expressing support for the pro-democracy demonstrators. The department pointedly noted Beijing’s legal obligations under the 1997 accord with Britain.
“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. “The ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong reflect the sentiment of Hongkongers and their broad and legitimate concerns about the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
The latest protests were sparked by a move by the Beijing-appointed city administrator to enact an extradition law that opponents said would open the door to putting Hong Kong residents at the mercy of China’s laws and justice system. But the protest movement’s demands have rapidly expanded to demand greater democracy and local control of Hong Kong affairs.
Democratic presidential contenders have pounced on Mr. Trump’s equivocal public stance.
“I stand with the people of Hong Kong and affirm the fundamental right of all people to peacefully protest for their rights. The president of the United States should call for the same,” Democratic presidential contender Kamala D. Harris tweeted.
Other candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said the people of Hong Kong “deserve our support.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Washington and other foreign capitals need to butt out.
“We solemnly remind you this plain truth: Hong Kong affairs are entirely China’s internal affairs, and you are neither entitled nor qualified to wantonly comment on them,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Tuesday. “Mind your own business, and stay out of Hong Kong affairs.”
Capitol Hill lawmakers showed no signs of taking their advice.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, warned this week that Chinese suppression would be a “grave mistake” on a par with the Tiananmen Square massacre, a comparison evoked by Mr. Engel and Mr. McCaul in their joint letter.
“Thirty years after the Chinese Communist Party’s brutal massacre of peaceful democratic protestors in Tiananmen Square, we are concerned that China would consider again brutally putting down peaceful protests,” the lawmakers said. “We urge China to avoid making such a mistake, which would be met with universal condemnation and swift consequences.”
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.
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