Amid one of the most turbulent days of his presidency, President Donald Trump on Friday announced that he will begin “eliminating” U.S. policies that treat Hong Kong differently from mainland China and threatened sanctions on officials who “erode” the territory’s autonomy from Beijing.
The announcement was part of a raft of measures intended to penalize China, which the Trump administration has sought to blame for the coronavirus pandemic that this week killed its 100,000th American. Trump also announced that the United States is withdrawing from the World Health Organization and revoking some Chinese student visas.
“I am directing my administration to begin the process of eliminating policy exemptions that give Hong Kong different and special treatment,” Trump said during a brief speech in the Rose Garden.
“My announcement today will affect the full range of agreements that we have with Hong Kong, from our extradition treaty, to our export controls and technologies,” he said. “We will take action to revoke Hong Kong’s preferential treatment as a separate customs and travel territory from the rest of China.”
The move is in response to a new Chinese national security law that is expected to criminalize most forms of political protest in Hong Kong, threatening the independence of the former British colony from Beijing’s increasingly autocratic reach.
The White House provided no further details on the decision, and Trump took no questions. His speech, announced on Thursday, took place on the fourth day of riots in Minneapolis, Minnesota, over the killing of a black man by a police officer. The officer in question was arrested shortly before the president’s press conference. Just moments before taking the podium, Trump on Twitter sought to walk back another tweet he sent early Friday morning threatening to involve “the Military” in the protests and warning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He did not address either matter during his brief remarks.
The COVID-19 pandemic — and the diplomatic tit-for-tat between the United States and China over who is responsible for it — has exacerbated a deeply tense relationship between the two economic giants. Republicans and the Trump administration have seized on the virus’s origins in Wuhan province to deflect from a chaotic domestic response to its spread, seen by critics as an unmitigated disaster that has caused thousands of needless deaths.
Then, on Thursday, China’s legislative body rubber-stamped the new national security law. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this week delivered a report to Congress declaring that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China.
Supporters of the moves see a long-awaited crackdown on Beijing, which both Republicans and Democrats agree poses an increasingly grave threat to U.S. interests on the world stage. Critics say Trump is ceding the field to Beijing, arguing that his actions on Friday will only serve to embolden China further.
“That was all code for: Hong Kong belongs to you China,” tweeted John Weaver, a GOP strategist and former advisor to former Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and 2016 presidential candidate John Kasich.
Trump has repeatedly lambasted Beijing for “ripping off” the United States through unfair trade practices, intellectual property theft and what he believes is an unfair advantage afforded to Beijing in international institutions like the World Trade Organization and the WHO. He launched an expensive trade war with Beijing in 2019.
In particular, Trump has taken aim at China’s WTO status as a “developing nation,” arguing Friday that it is “getting all sorts of benefits the United States is not entitled to.” He asserted Friday that China “has a total hold over the World Health Organization.” (Republicans argue that the WHO was too deferential to China in the early days of the pandemic, taking its claims about the virus at face value; defenders of the WHO note that WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has given near-daily press conferences about the virus since late January.)
But despite a high-friction relationship between the two nations, Trump has stopped short of pushing the relationship into open conflict. Some analysts saw Friday as a watershed moment.
“President Trump has today declared unequivocally that China is an enemy of the United States—an enemy he plans to push back against using not only strong words but clearly tough actions,” tweeted security analyst Harry Kazianis.
“From quitting the #WTO, blaming #China for the #Coronavirus to now trying to take Beijing to task for its actions in Hong Kong, a dangerous superpower showdown is brewing that could set the direction of U.S. foreign policy for the next decade or more.”