With trade negotiations set to restart this week, a report by the Financial Times says President Donald Trump promised to mute the United States’ support for anti-China protests in Hong Kong in exchange for reopening the talks with Beijing.
The White House and State Department declined to comment, but Trump reportedly told Chinese President Xi Jinping on two occasions — before and during the G-20 summit — that the U.S. would stand down its criticism of how China is handling the protests.
Hong Kong has been ruled under a so-called “one country, two systems” formula since the U.K. handed control of the territory over to China in 1997, though, critics say Beijing has been much more forceful on Hong Kong in recent years.
Millions of people have taken to the streets to protest an extradition bill that would have allowed suspected criminals to be sent from Hong Kong to mainland China. Hong Kong’s chief executive suspended the proposed law but has not backed down on withdrawing it completely.
The U.S. has supported the protesters but Trump has received criticism over not taking a stand himself. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied last month that Trump was taking a soft stance on human rights to facilitate a trade deal, telling Fox News the U.S. president is a “vigorous defender of human rights” and that Hong Kong will likely be an issue of discussion at the G-20.
Trump said at a G-20 news conference that the U.S. and China agreed to restart trade talks after an “excellent” meeting with Xi, and that the two sides had “briefly” discussed Hong Kong. When asked about the territory, Trump said “they’re looking for democracy. And I think most people want democracy.
“Unfortunately, some governments don’t want democracy,” he added without naming China.
Former White House Asia official Dennis Wilder said Trump‘s willingness not to criticize China over the Hong Kong situation was “consistent with his singular focus on the economic issues in bilateral relations with China.”
The U.S. allows Hong Kong to be treated as a non-sovereign entity on trade and domestic matters under the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act.
Former head of Hong Kong’s civil service said the city expects the U.S. to hold China accountable for its treaty obligations, adding this should be of equal interest to Washington.
“Hong Kong remains the beacon of hope for a more liberal, open and tolerant China and if full democracy, including one man one vote, takes root in Hong Kong, then this place will serve as a useful testing ground for the introduction of democracy in the mainland,” she said, according to Financial Times.