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We can already predict where Trump really stands on Hong Kong for one very depressing reason

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David Cay Johnston
David Cay Johnston

As China masses troops outside Hong Kong to put down popular protests seeking freedom, Donald Trump made clear that he has no idea what to do, an admission of utter incompetence. But from his past comments and behavior we know what to expect—Trump will side with mass murder over freedom seekers.

“The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation—very tough. We’ll see what happens,” Trump said Tuesday in Morristown, N.J.

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“It’s a very tricky situation. I think it will work out and I hope it works out, for liberty,” he said. “I hope it works out for everybody, including China. I hope it works out peacefully. I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.”

There can be little doubt that if the Chinese massacre Hongkongers that Trump will side with the communist dictators in Beijing.

Hope in the face of military gun barrels is for preachers and philosophers. What Hong Kong and human liberty need is a president who can marshal the rest of the world against Beijing, making it clear that short of a shooting war China will pay a terrible price for oppressing Hong Kong. But, sadly, Trump has no idea how to do that and his own instincts are not toward diplomacy, even hard-line diplomacy, but to the adoration for those who use violence and cruelty to advance their interests.

But there can be little doubt that if the Chinese massacre Hongkongers that Trump will side with the communist dictators in Beijing. After all, for more than a quarter-century he has praised them for using a “firm hand” to put down peaceful protests by those seeking liberty at Tiananmen Square in 1989. That massacre proved Mao’s vicious dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

Opposed Tiananmen Protests

In 1990 and again in 2016 Trump called the peaceful pro-freedom protest a “riot”.

Trump was parroting the official Chinese Communist Party line on the months-long demonstration. It ended with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army opening fire, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of people. The number slain is unknown because, being a dictatorship, the Chinese government is a power onto itself, unlike the United States of America where government derives its legitimacy and power from the consent of its peoples.

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The Beijing government, in an official report it has since taken off the internet, called the peaceful protests “fangeming baoluan” (反革命暴乱) which means “counter-revolutionary riot” or “counter-revolutionary rebellion.”

In 1990 Trump told Playboy Magazine that “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. They were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak … as being spit on by the rest of the world.”

Strong Is What Matters

In typical Trump fashion, his remarks played multiple sides, took no moral position and then went off on a tangent, denouncing American elected leaders. Trump’s jumbled points boil down to this: China was weak, then it was “horrible” but then it showed it was strong—and strong is what matters.

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During the 2016 campaign, Trump drew criticism for hewing to the Chinese Communist Party line that Tiananmen Square was a riot. When CNN’s Jake Tapper pressed Trump on the use of military force against civilians, Trump doubled down.

“I was not endorsing it,” Trump replied. “I said that is a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength. And then they kept down the riot. It was a horrible thing. It doesn’t mean at all I was endorsing it.”

This prompted more condemnations of Trump for loyally repeating the Beijing government’s description of the Tiananmen Square protests.

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No one ever asked Trump what he thought about the fact that the Beijing government did not use troops drawn from the Federal District around Beijing to do its dirty work, but instead brought in troops from distant rural locations to reduce any risk that soldiers would not follow orders to murder en masse their neighbors. That unasked question will be important if Trump ever orders American soldiers to kill some of us for exercising our Constitutional rights of assembly and free speech.

Trump’s 1990 remarks to Playboy came moments after he denounced as weak the glasnost era Russian government of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Opposed Gorbachev in the Soviet Union

Asked his impression of the Soviet Union, Trump said he “was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster. What you will see there soon is a revolution; the signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.”

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Again, Trump showed that in his mind peaceful protests are a threat that must be put down by government and that failure to stop protests and strikes is a sign of weakness. The idea that dissent is a sign of a vibrant society—and is crucial to a democratically elected government—is never even pondered by Trump. Instead as president, he talks constantly of “unity” and denounces anyone who disagrees with him, leading chants urging jail or deportation for those he dislikes.

Pressed by Playboy interviewer Glenn Plaskin about Gorbachev not using a “firm enough hand,” Trump said:

I predict he will be overthrown because he has shown extraordinary weakness. Suddenly, for the first time ever, there are coal-miner strikes and brush fires everywhere—which will all ultimately lead to a violent revolution. Yet Gorbachev is getting credit for being a wonderful leader—and we should continue giving him credit because he’s destroying the Soviet Union. But his giving an inch is going to end up costing him and all his friends what they most cherish—their jobs.”

Trump got that all wrong. Gorbachev signed the papers peacefully ending the Soviet Union in December 1991. A half-baked coup attempt failed. There was no violent revolution. Gorbachev received the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize.

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Trump’s fear of striking Russian coal miners was something he never mentioned when he campaigned in 2016 promising to bring back jobs mining “beautiful coal.”

All this helps explain why Trump does nothing to halt or reduce the likely violence coming to Hong Kong, where a modest light of liberty will be snuffed out on Chinese Community Party orders for unity.

Organizing leaders of other countries, especially those China needs as trading partners, would never occur to Trump. Nor would getting business leaders to stand up for freedom.

Few Options

Trump can’t threaten tariffs to press China to back down and keep its promise to allow freedom in Hong Kong until 2097 at least because he already pulled those triggers.

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And he has so thoroughly insulted other world leaders—denouncing them as weak or dumb or worse—that there is no reason for others to rally to this cause, however much it matters to the whole world.

The thousands in Hong Kong who want to maintain their limited freedom—and not be subject to the arbitrary, cruel and murderous rulers in Beijing—know they will probably lose. Many of them have told journalists that they know they may die and if they survive may spend the rest of their days in remote Chinese prisons, where life is cheap and short.

Contrast their bravery and resolve with Trump, who feels threatened by protest, loves “strong” approaches like massacres and has no idea that a competent American president could do much good in this awful situation.

Featured image: Hong Kong protesters on Aug. 2 (Studio Incendo/Flickr Creative Commons)

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