Protests in Hong Kong are just the tip of the iceberg amid U.S.-China trade war
Protesters have been taking to the streets of Hong Kong in recent weeks to call for democracy amid their concerns that China has been overreaching. (Photo: iStock.)

Protests in Hong Kong are just the tip of the iceberg amid U.S.-China trade war

China tries to counter news about the protests with its own state-run media. [5 min read]
ByEmily Gersema

Protests in Hong Kong against the Chinese government are now entering their 12th week against the backdrop of a trade war between the United States and China.

The protests began when Hong Kong leaders announced they were considering a bill to allow Beijing to extradite criminal suspects to China for trial. Although Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor weeks ago back-pedaled and declared the bill “dead,” Hong Kong residents remain unsettled. Public demonstrations against the extradition proposal have morphed into a wider anti-government campaign, with protesters calling for democracy.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has escalated the trade war with China by raising tariffs on Chinese goods. In a counter move, China resumed auto tariffs and expanded duties on billions of dollars of U.S. goods. The trade war has sent tremors through the stock market.

News outlets such as Politico have reported that Trump’s aides have been encouraging him to take a stand and back the Hong Kong protesters amid the trade war, but so far, Trump has not.

Mixing trade and human rights

The issue of mixing China trade discussions with human rights concerns “has dogged American administrations for decades,” said Brett Sheehan, professor of history and East Asian languages and cultures at USC Dornsife.

“Back in the 1990s, renewal of China’s most favored nation status was often linked to human rights concerns until President Clinton decoupled them in 1994,” said Sheehan, director of the East Asian Studies Center. “Still, concern about one often affects concern about the other. In his public statements, President Trump has mentioned the situation in Hong Kong, though there is very little evidence that he is truly concerned about human rights in Hong Kong, China or elsewhere. Instead, the Hong Kong situation seems to just be another way of increasing leverage on China.”

Sheehan said for China, Hong Kong presents a difficult issue linked to trade and the world, though not necessarily directly to U.S.-Chinese trade relations.

“Hong Kong is home to many foreign companies partly because its legal system seems to offer guarantees that the Chinese system does not,” Sheehan said. “Any dramatic intervention by China to suppress the Hong Kong demonstrations could be taken as a signal that Hong Kong’s special place in China’s economic relations with the world may be threatened. That being said, chaos in Hong Kong does not appeal to the international business community either.”

China has been, through state-run media, generating a series of messages to counter any criticism. Through various outlets, including social media, China has cast the protests as a conspiracy by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as well as an example of spoiled-brat behavior by Hong Kong, which China took over in 1997.

The CIA denies allegations it is involved in the protests.

“China has taken a leaf from the Russian playbook, and used not just its national media, but Twitter and Facebook to spread disinformation about the Hong Kong protests — specifically that they are being fomented by the CIA,” said Gregory Treverton, USC Dornsife professor of the practice of international relations and spatial sciences.

“Just as Russia used similar tactics in our 2016 election to try to discredit American democracy, so China is doing the same to try to discredit the protest as a foreign conspiracy,” said Treverton, who served as chair of the National Intelligence Council from September 2014 to January 2017.

“What is striking is how cheap such campaigns are. During the Cold War, planting an article in a foreign country’s newspaper was difficult and expensive. Now, all it takes is trolls to post and, often, automated bots to follow,” Treverton added.

Treverton noted that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have, though belatedly, shut down some of the state-run pages and accounts that were generating the conspiratorial messages.

China unlikely to deploy military

Earlier this month, the Trump administration told reporters that China appeared to be getting ready to take military action against the Hong Kong protesters. Experts, however, believe it will resort to other methods to control the situation or risk aggravating tensions beyond Hong Kong.

In 1997, the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong over to China to govern as a “special administrative region,” which allowed Hong Kong to retain its own legislative system, rights and freedoms but without full sovereignty. This approach, known as “One Country, Two Systems,” was meant to serve as a model for Taiwan, too. But China faces serious problems with both Hong Kong and Taiwan, said Stanley Rosen, professor of political science at USC Dornsife and a faculty member at the USC US-China Institute at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Rosen said that a turn to military force would mean that China would lose even more support from Hong Kong citizens, especially the youth who have fueled the protests.

“You would have to govern Hong Kong through martial law since the local government would no longer have any credibility,” Rosen said. “They will therefore rely on the local government, the police and the courts to handle this problem and hope it dies down over time, particularly after the courts sentence some of the protestors.”

A generation protecting its way of life

Many of the protesters were not even alive when Hong Kong was handed over to China, but that doesn’t mean they don’t long for democracy. 

“In that sense there might be some nostalgia for an era they didn’t directly experience,” Rosen said. “At the same time, the legal system and many other aspects of British rule are still in place, and the fear is that these freedoms established by the British are being steadily eroded by the local government, which answers to Beijing, not to the Hong Kong public.”

The agreement to maintain Hong Kong as a special administrative region is supposed to last 50 years, until 2047. But, Rosen said, some people in Hong Kong may view Beijing as increasingly encroaching on their lives. The extradition bill was just the tip of the iceberg. Hong Kong residents have even been concerned by China’s restricted availability of certain products, such as baby formula, as well as mainland investment in the housing market, which has made housing less affordable.

“Since the mainland legal system is subject to politics and, unlike Hong Kong, lacks a basis in the rule of law, this is particularly worrying for many people,” Rosen said.