By Anna Fifield
The Washington Post
Trump on Friday ordered the United States to begin the process of revoking Hong Kong's special status under U.S. law in response to Beijing's plans to exert greater controls over the territory.
Trump also vowed to bar an unspecified number of Chinese nationals from entering the United States for graduate study. And he unleashed another round of accusations about China "ripping off" the United States, unlawfully claiming territory and unleashing the "Wuhan virus."
As expansive as those accusations were, Trump's actions could have been much worse. The president did not outline a time frame or other specifics about the actions he wanted taken. Nor did he announce financial sanctions or threaten to back out of the first-phase trade deal the two countries signed in January.
"When you look at what Trump announced, China must be relieved because there is not much substance in there," said Minxin Pei, an expert on U.S.-China relations at Claremont McKenna College. "The dilemma for Washington is that the things that they are going to do will punish Hong Kong rather than China directly."
Chinese officials had expected as much. And their propagandists had a convenient counterpoint for the root of the latest battle: China's move to impose a national security law on Hong Kong, effectively bringing about an end to the "one country, two systems" framework that was supposed to continue until 2047.
They seized on the protests in Minneapolis and other U.S. cities to portray the United States as a hotbed of hypocrisy.
"Hong Kong's rioters and police should carefully watch how the 'democratic U.S.' deals with the chaos in Minnesota," wrote Hu Xijin, the nationalist editor of the Global Times, a state-affiliated newspaper that often reflects the foreign policy views of the Chinese Communist Party. He called out the United States for its "double standards."
CCTV, the state broadcaster, ran a commentary saying that the use of force by police in the United States "shows the deep social contradictions" in the United States
Across the internet in China, commentators and ordinarily people alike co-opted a phrase House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., used to describe the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong last year: that the protests were "a beautiful sight to behold."
Posting photos of buildings on fire and looters smashing up a Target store, the Central Committee of the Communist Young League asked: "A beautiful . . . a beautiful sight to behold?"
The character for "beautiful" and the first character of "United States" are the same in Chinese, making the phrase a play on words. The post was trending on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, on Saturday.
Chinese state media likes to play up social and economic divisions within the United States as a way to make its system look better in comparison.
It has adopted the same approach with the coronavirus outbreak, emphasizing the confusion and high death toll in the United States to diminish the Chinese Communist Party's shortcomings.
But the timing of the current unrest in the United States could not be better for China's purposes: It is not China's rise that is scary, the authorities are saying between the lines, but the United States' decline.
It also feeds into the prevailing view in Beijing that all of the Trump administration's actions are designed to stop China's rejuvenation and its elevation to what it sees as its rightful place at the top of the global hierarchy.
"Chinese leaders would likely recognize that President Trump is using China as a scapegoat in a bid for reelection, but that doesn't change the mind-set for many in Beijing that the United States is intent on constraining its rise," said Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat and China expert at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
The Trump administration has given repeated warnings since Beijing announced its plan earlier this month to bypass Hong Kong's legislature and impose a national security law on the city, so Trump's vow to act would not have come as a surprise to the Chinese Communist Party.
"Beijing would likely have factored in the loss of Hong Kong's special status in its decision-making process; this is unlikely to come as a surprise and won't change the CCP's plans," Kassam said. "Ultimately for China, quelling dissent in Hong Kong is more important than retaining the special privileges offered from the United States," she said.
Bill Bishop, a respected China-watcher who publishes the Sinocism newsletter, agreed that China's leaders had decided that Hong Kong's political security and the territory's "place in the Motherland" were more important than whatever increase in U.S.-China friction may come.
But the weak response from Washington now "will add to the view already held by more than a few in Beijing that Trump and the U.S. are paper tigers, as Mao liked to say, and Beijing can increasingly act with impunity," Bishop wrote. "It is a toxic dynamic."
The immediate loser in this process, analysts say, is Hong Kong, whose people and companies will be treated the same as Chinese ones if the United States goes ahead with its plan to stop recognizing the differences between the territory and the mainland. This will hit visas, customs and trade.
What's more, Trump handed China another gift by pledging to "terminate" the United States' relationship with the World Health Organization, which he has accused of being effectively controlled by Beijing. His administration would be diverting the $400 million it gave to the WHO each year to other groups, Trump said.
On a previous occasion when Trump suspended some contributions to the WHO, China stepped in to give an additional $30 billion to the organization - portraying itself as a magnanimous and responsible global leader in the process.
"China will see Trump's withdrawal from the WHO as another opportunity," said Kassam. "President Trump is diminishing the appeal of the United States' model by mishandling the virus outbreak and then abandoning the key global institution during the pandemic - this will increase skepticism of U.S. leadership, undermine alliances and alienate prospective partners globally."
While the details of the Trump administration's action remain to be seen, one thing is already clear. Relations between the world's two biggest economies are at their worst since President Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, paving the way for the normalization of relations later in the decade.
"Then, China was viewed as a potential partner. Now it's an enemy," said Pei of Claremont McKenna College. "Now, the relationship is completely adversarial, there is nothing cooperative about it. And the sad thing is, that it's only going to get worse."
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Wang Yuan in Beijing contributed to this report.