Trump says Hong Kong ‘riots’ are a matter for China
Donald Trump has said anti-government protests in Hong Kong are “riots” and a matter for China, in contrast to a fresh bipartisan call from Washington lawmakers urging the US president to take Beijing to task over threats to demonstrators.
The discord comes as Hong Kong’s leaders attempt to halt a growing internal rebellion within the self-governing territory’s civil service this week with government employees planning a protest against the administration’s policies on Friday.
On Thursday, Mr Trump said the “riots” had gone on for a “long time” and China would have to “deal with that themselves” in a reference to the anti-government protests that have swept the territory over the past two months, plunging it into its worst political crisis in more than two decades.
The comments contrast with an open letter from Republican and Democrat lawmakers, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, to Mr Trump saying that “Hong Kong’s governance is not China’s internal affair” and urging the president to condemn China’s indirect threat to send in the military to deal with protesters.
“Failure to respond to Beijing’s threats will only encourage Chinese leaders to act with impunity,” the lawmakers said.
The protests began with opposition to a proposed law, now suspended, that would have allowed suspected criminals to be extradited to mainland China. The movement has since widened to encompass grievances ranging from Beijing’s increased control over the territory to allegations of police heavy-handedness in quelling the demonstrations.
Any characterisation of the protests as “riots” is controversial in Hong Kong, where those convicted of the crime can be jailed for up to 10 years.
Mr Trump’s hands-off approach comes after the US president told Chinese president Xi Jinping last month that Washington would tone down criticism of Beijing’s handling of Hong Kong to revive trade talks with China.
In a sign of the severity of the political crisis engulfing Hong Kong, the secretary for the civil service, Joshua Law, warned on Thursday night that a protest planned by government workers on Friday evening would damage public confidence in their neutrality and create “division and conflict” within the government.
Public servants were among the first to participate in a popular social media movement unique to the anti-government protests in Hong Kong in which a growing number of lawyers, bankers, police and mainland Chinese citizens are posting photos of their official identification card with a message of support. Their personal details are obscured to protect their identity.
If civil servants take to the streets in large numbers in central Hong Kong as planned, it will present another significant challenge to the leadership of the city’s chief executive Carrie Lam and illustrate how local government institutions are suffering from lower levels of public trust.
One 33-year-old civil servant, who plans to attend Friday evening’s rally and did not wish to be named, told the Financial Times that “distrust is so strong” between the top officials of the Hong Kong government, the police force and the civil service.
While Ms Lam did initially back down by suspending the law, she stopped short of withdrawing the legislation completely. Meanwhile, police have begun to speed up their arrests of protesters after weekly clashes with demonstrators.
On Thursday night, police arrested eight people including the founder of the outlawed pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, Andy Chan Ho-tin, at an industrial building in Fo Tan, an outer district of Hong Kong.
Authorities accused the people of illegally possessing “explosives” and “offensive weapons”, and Superintendent Chan Yan said police suspected some of the equipment they seized was related to the recent protests.
Wilson Wong, a public policy expert from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said it was extremely rare for civil servants to speak out on public issues. “There is a huge governance crisis . . . also the [government’s] internal communication system has failed,” he said.
The internal disquiet is not limited to the civil service. The territory’s police chief issued an internal memo urging the force to unite after senior government officials said officers were suffering low morale because of the weekly protests.
Protesters are planning more demonstrations this weekend and are also calling for a citywide strike on Monday, August 5.