President Donald Trump on Tuesday appeared to dismiss Chinese allegations that the U.S. is behind escalating tensions in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protesters challenging Beijing’s control have clashed with riot police.
Trump also said he hopes “nobody gets killed” while noting that U.S. intelligence has spotted Chinese troops moving close to the border with Hong Kong.
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To date, Trump has said little on the Hong Kong crisis, sparking criticism that he is more worried about getting a trade deal with China than backing the spread of democracy. Still, his laconic approach hasn’t stopped China from linking America to the chaos.
“Many are blaming me, and the United States, for the problems going on in Hong Kong. I can’t imagine why?” Trump tweeted Tuesday. He added: “Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!”
In separate remarks to reporters, Trump said: “The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation. I hope it works out peacefully. I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.”
In Hong Kong, protesters continued to face off with riot police, including at the Hong Kong airport, one of the busiest in the world. The protests there have grown so large that officials canceled all incoming and outgoing flights on Monday and dozens more on Tuesday.
China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday once again leveled accusations that American officials are encouraging the “rabble-rousers in Hong Kong.” Beijing had earlier claimed that the “black hand” of the CIA was involved.
“We urge the U.S. to observe international law and the basic norms governing international relations, and to stop interfering in China’s internal affairs at once,” Hua Chunying, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has dismissed such Chinese assertions as “ludicrous.” He and the State Department as a whole have taken a sharper approach to the topic of Hong Kong, although Pompeo — as always — is careful not to get too far ahead of Trump.
On Tuesday, Pompeo met with Yang Jiechi, a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official who deals with foreign affairs. The State Department readout of the meeting was a terse single sentence that said the pair “had an extended exchange of views on U.S.-China relations.”
Last week, a State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, sharply rebuked Beijing after its state-run media revealed personal details about a U.S. diplomat reported to have met with some of the pro-democracy movement’s activists.
“Official Chinese media reports on our diplomat in Hong Kong have gone from irresponsible to dangerous,” Ortagus tweeted. “This must stop. Chinese authorities know full well, our accredited consular personnel are just doing their jobs, just like diplomats from every other country.”
Trump and other aides have been more circumspect. While on a visit to Mongolia in early July, for instance, national security adviser John Bolton said simply that China should “adhere to its international obligations.”
Hong Kong is a former British colony handed back to China in 1997 under an agreement that was supposed to follow a “one country, two systems” model. That effectively meant that people in Hong Kong would have more freedoms than Chinese living on the mainland.
The protests in Hong Kong began in the spring, but have intensified since June. They were sparked by a proposal that would have let some suspected criminals be extradited to the mainland, leading to fears that Beijing is trying to gain more control over the lives of Hong Kong residents.
The protesters’ demands have evolved to include calls for reforms that allow for a more democratic environment in Hong Kong. As the demonstrations have continued, China has escalated its threats and started using terms like “terrorism” to describe the demonstrations.
Videos posted this week by Chinese propaganda outlets are said to show security forces amassing in Shenzhen, a city bordering Hong Kong. While the forces may be there to conduct exercises, the implied threat to the protesters was obvious. It was not clear whether the intelligence Trump referred to was the same as what was shown on the video.
The president’s comments on Tuesday were relatively mild compared with how harsh he has been on the Chinese when it comes to striking a trade deal. Trump has claimed that Beijing is ripping off the United States, and he has imposed tariffs on China to force it to negotiate a new deal.
But the Chinese have indicated that they are willing to bear the pain, at least for now.
In a potential effort at defusing those tensions, the Trump administration announced earlier Tuesday that it would delay import duties on cellphones, laptops, video game consoles, toys, and certain footwear and clothing made in China. The duties will take effect in mid-December, not Sept. 1 as Trump had originally wanted.
Democrats in the U.S., meanwhile, have begun to speak out more on Hong Kong, although many are on vacation because of the congressional recess.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is running for president, tweeted on Monday: “The people of Hong Kong are making clear that they will not tolerate repression, and their movement affirms: The power is with the people. They deserve our support and the support of the world.”
At least one other Democratic presidential contender, former Vice President Joe Biden, has expressed support for the protesters, saying in June, “All of us must stand in support of democratic principles and freedom.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has recently promised to push forward legislation that would penalize Chinese officials who infringe on Hong Kong’s autonomy. It remains unclear whether Trump will support the legislation.
“The extraordinary outpouring of courage from the people of Hong Kong stands in stark contrast to a cowardly government that refuses to respect the rule of law or live up to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework which was guaranteed more than two decades ago,” Pelosi, a California Democrat, said in a statement.
Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.