November 28, 2019 / 4:38 AM / in 6 months

Breakingviews - U.S.-China fault line runs right through Hong Kong

Members of a safety team established by police and local authorities arrive on campus to assess and clear unsafe items, at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong, China, November 28, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - The future of Hong Kong is fuzzy these days, but the city’s violent demonstrations have helped bring a broader issue into clear focus: antagonism between Washington and Beijing will be here for some time.

On the eve of America’s Thanksgiving holiday, President Donald Trump signed a law effectively backing Hong Kong protesters, who have been railing against the government for six months by marching peacefully, disrupting transport networks and hurling petrol bombs at police using tear gas and other munitions. Beyond the symbolic show of support, the legislation requires the U.S. Department of State to certify each year that the territory is “sufficiently autonomous” from the rest of China to justify special trade treatment. It also allows the United States to slap sanctions on anyone violating the human rights of Hongkongers.

Trump only endorsed the legislation begrudgingly. As Congress nailed down the final language in recent weeks, he prevaricated over backing it. And in cryptic and unexplained statements on Wednesday, the president said he ultimately agreed “out of respect” for his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, while suggesting he might not be able to follow through on some provisions.

The comments seemed designed to mollify Xi, whose government has challenged what it considers U.S. meddling in domestic affairs and threatened retaliation if the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act were to pass. Facing an intense re-election campaign, Trump is eager to tout even a limited trade deal with China. He will have been reluctant to irk Xi given the precarious state of negotiations.

Anti-China sentiment was too powerful, however. The Hong Kong bill would have easily met the two-thirds majority needed in each chamber of Congress to override a presidential veto. The issue has united Democrats and Republicans despite their bitter divisions over impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives.

Other Chinese concerns also have secured bipartisan support. For example, Democrat Chuck Schumer and conservative Republican Tom Cotton recently wrote a joint letter to intelligence officials asking for a national security probe of video app TikTok, which is owned by China’s ByteDance. The rare consensus signals that American friction with China will outlast any agreement on tariffs – regardless of whether Trump stays in the White House.


Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.

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