Donald Trump urges Xi Jinping to meet Hong Kong protesters, clarifies earlier tweet interpreted as an offer to meet Chinese president

Robert Delaney

US President Donald Trump on Thursday urged his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to meet with anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, apparently clarifying comments he made a day earlier that were taken as a suggestion that Trump himself should meet with Xi over the matter.

Retweeting his own Twitter post from about 14 hours earlier, Trump said: “If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem”.

He repeated the suggestion to White House reporters later on Thursday, adding that he has a phone call scheduled with Xi “very soon” and that he expected another round of trade talks next month.

In the earlier tweet, in which he praised Xi as “a great leader”, Trump said that he had “ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?”

Trump’s tweets on Wednesday regarding China and semi-autonomous Hong Kong, where unrest has led to violent clashes between protesters and police and forced the cancellation of thousands of flights at the city’s international airport, covered a range of topics, appeared to link trade talks with China to US Federal Reserve monetary policy and to the Hong Kong protests.

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When discussing trade talks with reporters on Thursday, Trump said recent talks between US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He were “very productive” and that Beijing wanted “to follow through very quickly” on purchases of US agricultural products”, without offering more details.

The Chinese government has not responded to any interpretation of Trump’s tweets on Wednesday or Thursday relating to Xi meeting anyone, instead referring to comments the US president made earlier this month, in which he emphasised that Hong Kong is part of China.

“That’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is part of China,” Trump said in the August 2 remarks to reporters in Washington.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement on Thursday that “I hope the US can really do what it has said”, referring to the August 2 remark.

However, Trump’s comments on Hong Kong are increasingly divergent from the ones that Hua supports, and “less damaging” to the interests of the protesters in the city, said Victoria Tin-bor Hui, an associate professor in political science at the University of Notre Dame.

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“Trump is realising that he’s not the only one calling the shots on Hong Kong. There are so many voices calling for restraint by China in Hong Kong, so he wants to show that he can rely on his friendship with Xi Jinping to sort out the matter,” Hui said.

US lawmakers including Senators Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Ben Cardin, a Democrat, reintroduced legislation in June requiring the US secretary of state to issue an annual certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy from mainland China for the city to continue enjoying its special trade and economic status.

US Senator Marco Rubio. Photo: Getty Images via AFP

On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a start to political dialogue between Hong Kong’s protesters and their government while French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian highlighted the respect for fundamental liberties under “one country, two systems”.

While Trump’s messaging has become more aligned with others, domestically and internationally, on China’s treatment of Hong Kong, Hui said that his attempt to connect the unrest to the bilateral trade war he started last year shows that the US president is only trying to use the stand-off between protesters and the city’s government as a bargaining chip in the trade conflict.

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Trump “doesn’t understand that Hong Kong is supposed to have autonomy,” she added.

“He should be telling [Hong Kong Chief Executive] Carrie Lam to insist that she is in charge and should be telling Beijing to take its heavy hand off of Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong’s Basic Law was drafted as part of the Sino-British Joint Declaration covering the territory after its handover to China on July 1, 1997.

The declaration stated that Hong Kong would be governed under a “one country, two systems” principle that guarantees the territory a capitalist system and individual freedoms for 50 years after the handover.

The “two systems” side of the formula is what Trump appears to be overlooking, analysts said.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam meets petitioners outside her office on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

“The thing that Trump is imagining, where Xi Jinping shows up [in Hong Kong to talk directly to protesters] is simply not going to happen,” according to Eli Friedman, director of international programmes for Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“The issue that Trump is getting at from a somewhat distorted perspective is that China’s central government is playing a key role in how things are unfolding there,” Friedman said. “Any kind of compromise would have to be presented as a process of negotiation by the Hong Kong government.”

Even if international pressure brings Hong Kong’s largely leaderless protest movement together with government officials, the prospects for a long-term resolution remain dim because the structure of Hong Kong’s economy has been shaped by a business community aligned with Beijing, Friedman added.

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In mainland China, “you exchange your democratic rights for improving livelihoods”, he said. “That is effective there because they’ve seen 40 years of uninterrupted economic growth.

“What we’ve seen in the past 22 years [in Hong Kong] is rapidly increasing economic inequality.”

Hong Kong is ranked ninth highest out of 157 jurisdictions in terms of family income inequality, according to the most recent data compiled by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Hong Kong received a score of 53.9, where zero is perfect equality and 100 is the most unequal. At 46.5, China is ranked 29th.

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