Once reluctant to hit China on human rights, Trump moves to use the issue as a cudgel amid growing tensions
The latest move came Friday when the Treasury Department sanctioned Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 other officials over Beijing’s declaration of a new national security law that, U.S. officials said, seeks to curb “freedom of expression and assembly, and democratic processes” in the semiautonomous territory.
Trump aides said the penalties were prompted by the president’s executive order, which he announced last month in a Rose Garden event, that declared a national emergency over China’s efforts to exert greater control. In late July, the administration sanctioned a paramilitary group in Xinjiang, a region in western China where authorities have jailed an estimated 1 million or more Uighur Muslims in detention camps.
And this week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will become the highest-level government official to visit Taiwan since 1979, prompting a warning from Beijing. U.S. officials said Azar will celebrate shared democratic values “in contrast to authoritarian systems.”
Taken together, the moves have provided the administration another set of tools with which to try to outflank Beijing amid rapidly rising tensions over fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which Trump has tried to blame on the Communist Party, and the collapse of bilateral trade negotiations.
Human rights advocates welcomed the administration’s more forceful tone and applauded the sanctions on Hong Kong officials. But they cautioned that Trump’s inconsistent and opportunistic application of human rights policy could impede the effectiveness of its efforts to punish and rein in Beijing.
“He’s come around belatedly to a strong human rights policy on China, but it would have been seen as stronger if it was part of a consistent policy toward China,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who was denied entry to Hong Kong in January.
Roth said the Trump administration’s credibility is “weak because it comments almost always on perceived adversaries rather than as a matter of principle wherever the most severe abuses occur.”
In this regard, Trump has been perhaps the most unreliable champion of democratic values within his own administration. He avoided direct criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping as the two sides spent more than 18 months in trade negotiations, refraining from publicly mentioning sensitive issues for Beijing, such as the repression of the Uighurs.
The president went so far as to reportedly promise Xi — in a phone call in June 2019 ahead of their meeting at the Group of 20 Summit in Japan — that he would not talk about mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in a bid to rekindle the trade talks. Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton wrote in his memoir that Trump told Xi that China was justified in building the detention camps for the Uighurs.
In recent months, however, with trade talks on hold and the election looming, China hawks in the administration have been given greater leeway from the White House.
Top Trump aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William P. Barr, delivered speeches last month on China policy that emphasized themes of democracy and free speech. Pompeo also has made a belated effort to rally European nations to collaborate against Beijing, after years in which the president has attacked the allies over defense spending and other issues.
In his Rose Garden announcement last month, Trump — who had been muted during months of protests in Hong Kong — said of the residents in the territory: “Their freedom has been taken away. Their rights have been taken away.”
The about-face has fanned a perception that Trump is willing to employ the cudgel of human rights only when it is expedient — which Trump has concluded is the case now, in an election year, as he seeks to shift blame over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and paint presumptive Democrat nominee Joe Biden as soft on China.
“If these human-rights designations are seen as transactional and a cudgel, and not really about our values and the rule of law, over time it has a corrosive effect on our ability to curb Chinese behavior and the ability to rally others,” said a Democratic aide on Capitol Hill who has been involved in legislative efforts on China policy and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.
Samuel Chu, managing director of the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, acknowledged that the administration’s moves on Hong Kong are tied, to a degree, to Trump’s reelection strategy. But he noted that a growing bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill has also pushed the president to take stronger actions, even when he has been reluctant.
In June, Trump signed the legislation authorizing sanctions on China over its mistreatment of the Uighurs, which had passed Congress with only one “no” vote. The president signed the bill in private, rather than hold a public announcement as he did with his executive order on Hong Kong.
“Everybody has their interests in mind, but at the end of the day it’s pretty clear both chambers of Congress, both parties, and a number of key officials see this to be aligned with what they want to see happen,” Chu said of the administration’s actions.
Chinese officials and its state media have responded to the U.S. sanctions and rhetoric by calling Trump and his aides hypocritical and duplicitous, pointing to the administration’s attempts to use federal authority to tamp down protests over racial justice in American cities and Trump’s denunciations of some protesters as “terrorists.”
Beijing has said its new national security law in Hong Kong is aimed at restoring order after months of street protests, although critics have said the sweeping language lays the groundwork to for authorities to jail protesters and censor political dissidents.
In a tweet Saturday, Pompeo wrote: “The world has witnessed more examples of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to coerce and control its citizens including the arrests of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and the control Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. These actions aren’t one-offs.”
Some analysts have noted that the language used by Pompeo and other China hawks within the administration has edged closer to a call for political upheaval in Beijing, which U.S. officials have denied is part of the Trump administration’s policy.
In an essay for The National Interest, Gordon Chang, a foreign affairs analyst who appears on Fox News, cited Pompeo’s speech on China last month at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in which he said the United States “must engage and empower the Chinese people — a dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party.”
The remarks, Chang wrote, amounted to a new policy of “regime change.”
Bonnie S. Glaser, a China security expert at the Center for International Studies, said that Trump aides “talk more explicitly about empowering the Chinese people to challenge or overthrow the Party, although they do not use those words. Maybe there’s a camp in the White House driven by the election, but there are others who are driven by different motivations.”