U.S. conservative activists are increasingly taking up the cause of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, with some saying President Trump’s hard-line trade stance on Beijing is inspiring the protesters, while others are urging the administration to more publicly stand up for the movement amid threats of a crackdown by China’s communist government.
Longtime China watcher Gordon Chang urged Mr. Trump to “channel his inner Ronald Reagan” and come out publicly in support of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, whose demonstrations have roiled the onetime British colony and global financial center for more than a month.
“I believe the White House should step up its rhetoric,” said Mr. Chang, who is on the board of the American Conservative Union and recently traveled to meet Hong Kong protest leaders with ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp and Executive Director Daniel Schneider.
“I would like [Mr. Trump] to come out publicly, in clear tones, to express America’s common cause with the people of Hong Kong and the protesters there,” Mr. Chang said in an interview.
Mr. Schlapp and Mr. Schneider said Mr. Trump is rightly engaged in an unprecedented confrontation with China over its human rights abuses and mercenary trade practices, and both said a more outspoken U.S. stance could have a major impact on the crisis in Hong Kong.
“How things play out in Hong Kong could have a devastating impact on the Chinese regime’s ability to do business as usual,” Mr. Schlapp said.
Mr. Schneider added that “conservatives may not speak with a unified voice, but conservatives do take very principled stands on issues and lay out markers for public officials to pursue.”
The ACU, he said, “has been very clear that we stand with the freedom fighters who are on the front lines of this battle between authoritarianism and freedom in Hong Kong.”
The ACU might best be known for its annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, but the group engages internationally as well. Mr. Chang, Mr. Schlapp and Mr. Schneider said their views were strongly influenced by what they described as a harrowing experience in Hong Kong.
The home of Hong Kong media tycoon and democracy movement advocate Jimmy Lai, a frequent target of the Beijing government, was firebombed just hours after the ACU leaders had dinner there early this month.
No one was hurt in the 1 a.m. attack. Local reports said two masked men were seen throwing firebombs at the gate of the home, but state media in mainland China had been calling Mr. Lai a traitor for months. Mr. Schneider told The Washington Times that he believes Chinese government operatives may have been involved.
“It’s clear that Beijing has sent spies who masquerade as journalists, and these spies camp outside of Jimmy Lai’s house taking photos of anybody coming in,” he said. “I don’t know if those spies are doing recon or somebody else was responsible, but three hours after we left Jimmy’s house, it was firebombed with Molotov cocktails.”
A central reason that Mr. Schneider and the others traveled to Hong Kong was to show solidarity with another leading pro-democracy activist, Andy Chan.
Pro-China Hong Kong authorities detained Mr. Chan early this month while he was attempting fly to Tokyo. Mr. Chan was scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the annual Japanese Conservative Political Action Conference.
The ACU criticized the detention and warned that it would not be the last time that the Chinese Communist Party hears from the organization. “The battle between freedom and authoritarianism will not end with the communists raising a victory flag,” the ACU said in a Twitter post.
The protests were sparked in June when a Beijing-appointed city administrator moved to enact an extradition law that opponents said would put residents of semi-autonomous Hong Kong at risk of being sent to China, where they could face politically motivated trials.
Some saw the law as an open threat by China — which is under increasing economic strain from its trade war with Washington — to the autonomy of private banks and other businesses run from Hong Kong because extradition could potentially be used to coerce the heads of such firms.
The proposed law has been withdrawn in the face of widespread popular outrage, but the protest movement has increased its momentum. Demonstrations have taken on a wider, pro-democracy scope with demands for free elections in Hong Kong. Adding a pro-American strain, some protesters wave U.S. flags and even sing “The Star- Spangled Banner.”
The situation escalated last month when Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered Chinese military forces to begin massing near the mainland’s border with Hong Kong. The move sparked fears of a crackdown akin to the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Chinese authorities also ramped up allegations that American officials were meddling in Hong Kong and fomenting the unrest to tarnish Beijing’s reputation against the backdrop of the U.S.-Chinese trade war.
Mr. Trump and his top aides, apparently wary of the impact their comments might have on delicate trade negotiations, struggled to find the right tone in responding.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties warned China not to crack down, but the president offered only muted comments last month. He said the situation in Hong Kong was “very tricky.”
Mr. Trump subsequently told reporters that “it would be much harder” for him to accept any trade deal with China if Beijing engaged in violence in Hong Kong.
Critics had already pounced. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said that “if America does not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out elsewhere.”
Some Republicans also criticized Mr. Trump. Mr. Schneider came to the president’s defense in an interview with The Times, asserting that this “is the first administration maybe ever to recognize that trade deals with China are really national security fights.”
“For a long time, people were hoping engagement with China would help produce democratic reforms and eventually a peaceful nation. Those bets have now been shown to be bad bets,” Mr. Schneider said.
“President Trump, I think, recognizes this threat and is addressing it head-on,” he said. “But it’s not a simple fight he’s engaged in. It is a complex fight, and it’s not one for the faint of heart.”
Mr. Schlapp told The Times that nearly everyone he met on his trip to Hong Kong “said they’d never seen an American president be this tough in terms of standing up for human rights and standing with them in their movement against China.”
Mr. Chang credited Mr. Trump for conveying the message that a trade agreement would be difficult to reach if Beijing uses violence in Hong Kong, but he said the White House should be clearer about its support for the protesters.
“If we don’t confront China in Hong Kong, we’re going to be confronted by China closer to home,” Mr. Chang said. “The big picture is Hong Kong is the front line of the fight for democracy and freedom, and the same regime that’s encroaching on the autonomy of Hong Kong is also attacking our democracy and the notion of democracy itself.”
All three of the ACU leaders pushed back against China’s allegations of U.S. meddling in Hong Kong.
“It’s a city of 7 million people, and there are at least 2 million who are organizing on their own, organically, to demonstrate against the Chinese Communist Party for their own liberty,” Mr. Schneider said.
As for the ACU’s trip to Hong Kong, Mr. Schneider stressed that the union is a nonprofit well known to the international community for having “no ties to the U.S. government or any other government.”
“There is no government or any single leader behind the movement in Hong Kong,” he said. “This is a bottom-up protest driven by the pursuit of freedom.”
Mr. Schneider said the Hong Kong crisis is particularly vexing for Beijing, with a semi-autonomous government and economy at a time when China is hoping to use its economic clout and cash reserves to expand its global influence through such initiatives as President Xi’s Belt and Road initiative.
“China needs fuel in the form of cash to fund these projects that are very heavily debt-laden,” Mr. Schneider said.
Hong Kong, he said, is the heart of financing for the Communist Party’s push for global domination. If Beijing tries to absorb Hong Kong, then “it would put a dagger in its own financing heart, causing its own collapse,” he said.
“It’s a Catch-22 for Beijing,” he said. “They don’t want a free Hong Kong to exist, but they can’t exist without a free Hong Kong.”