Donald Trump, George HW Bush, and China

On November 22, in a long interview with Fox News, President Donald Trump claimed credit for keeping Chinese forces at bay in Hong Kong. He said that he warned President Xi Jinping that if there was a violent crackdown against the pro-democracy demonstrators, it would have a negative impact on trade talks. China is losing the "trade war" with the U.S. It is vulnerable because it needs exports to keep its factories open and imports of technology, food and capital to expand its capabilities.

Critics derided Trump's claim, but the logic is unimpeachable. There is nothing in Xi's background or character that would hold him back from crushing the Hong Kong uprising that has disrupted the city for six months. Xi is a hard-liner with delusions of grandeur. His "China Dream" and the mandatory propagation of his "thought" in the manner of Mao's infamous "Little Red Book" mark him as a dictator with dangerous ambitions. His virulent campaign against "separatism" hat stretches from the brutal occupation of Tibet to Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang to increasing military threats against Taiwan also applies to the former British colony of Hong Kong. That protesters often wave British and American flags raise the specter in Beijing that what is desired is not just autonomy for the marvelous city, but independence.

Major units of the People's Armed Police moved to the Hong Kong border weeks ago.  The PAP was greatly expanded after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 to handle future unrest and was placed directly under Xi's Central Military Commission last year. It is suspected that some have donned HK police uniforms and are active in the city. There is also a military garrison in Hong Kong. So what is holding them back except the threat of foreign reaction?

President Trump's signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act should remind us of how things have changed in 30 years; and the negative consequences that can follow when a President does not look reality in the face and act accordingly. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush vetoed a bill which tied trade to China’s human rights and economic and proliferation policies. The House overrode the veto (the bill was sponsored by Nancy Pelosi), but the Senate did not.

The bill was in reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre where thousands of pro-democracy protesters were killed by the People's Liberation Army. The troops had been ordered into action by Deng Xiaoping, who had been hailed as a reformer. President Bush had agreed to an earlier bill banning the sale of equipment to the PLA and Chinese police and placing controls on "dual use" products, but jeopardizing overall trade went too far in his mind. He had already sent a long letter to Deng apologizing for any reaction to the massacre that could undermine U.S.-China relations. "I will leave what followed [the protests] to the history books....the actions that I took as President of the United States could not be avoided. As you know the clamor for stronger action remains intense. I resisted that clamor."

Despite his experience as ambassador to China and as Director of the CIA, Bush was a victim of the post-Cold War euphoria. Jeffrey A. Engel titled his book on this period When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War. It was a time of hope overcoming history; indeed history was supposedly at an end. It was better to believe Deng was a reformer whose "opening up" would move beyond economics and eventually extend into political reform. That the intelligence community saw Deng as the hardliner he revealed himself to be in Tiananmen was dismissed as an obsolete idea. Yet, keeping the door open to "trade" with a regime that was not going to reform in its most fundamental ways was a strategic blunder of unprecedented scope. President Bush reaction sent a message to American firms that it was not only permitted to transfer capital, jobs, and technology to China, but it was to be encouraged as the way to build a progressive Chinese society and tame the communist regime. Three decades later, we know this was nonsense; but it should have been seen as such at the time, as the bloody evidence was broadcast across the world.

Jon Meacham in his biography Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush cites Secretary of State James Baker as saying "The Chinese leadership was clearly in an embattled frame of mind. It was important not to respond in a way that played into the hands of the hardliners." But what could better strengthen the hands of Deng and his cadre than to appease them? To tell them there would be no meaningful consequences for their bad behavior? The way to discredit a regime it to prove its policies will fail and bring ruin; not to empower it. Yet this illogical argument that resolve only encourages adversaries continues to be heard. Also foolish is a quote Meacham provides from Bush "The big point is, we cannot foment revolution, it could make things worse." And this from the man who served as vice president to Ronald Reagan who had brought down the Soviet Union by fomenting revolution using economic pressure as a major policy tool. 

The Beijing regime knows that President Trump is not another Bush. The day after Trump signed the Hong Kong bill, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared "Such an act is abominable in nature and reveals vicious intentions of the US to sabotage the stability and prosperity of HK and disrupt the progress in China’s national rejuvenation." Indeed, if there is a bloody crackdown, it will give President Trump just what he needs to take further action to decouple the U.S. and Chinese economies; the aim being to rebuild American industry and hobble China's before the gap in capabilities closes any further. Talk of "trade deals" implies commercial objectives when the basis for Trump's placement of tariffs on a broad range of Chinese goods has been explicitly based on national security concerns. The clear message to business has been the opposite of that sent thirty years ago by President Bush: stop helping Beijing "rise" and get back to work making America great again. 

The stock market continues to reflect how deeply into the muck business has dug itself in China, unwilling to consider the larger geopolitical environment and what it portents. The Dow Jones dropped steadily in the days after Trump signed the Hong Kong bill. We should recall that the London Stock Exchange sent a congratulatory message to Neville Chamberlain after the 1938 Munich conference which marked the peak of appeasement towards Nazi Germany. Business must adjust to national strategy, it cannot be trusted to make it. President Bush was fundamentally wrong about China, but it is not too late for President Trump to set things right.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former Republican staff member on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.

On November 22, in a long interview with Fox News, President Donald Trump claimed credit for keeping Chinese forces at bay in Hong Kong. He said that he warned President Xi Jinping that if there was a violent crackdown against the pro-democracy demonstrators, it would have a negative impact on trade talks. China is losing the "trade war" with the U.S. It is vulnerable because it needs exports to keep its factories open and imports of technology, food and capital to expand its capabilities.

Critics derided Trump's claim, but the logic is unimpeachable. There is nothing in Xi's background or character that would hold him back from crushing the Hong Kong uprising that has disrupted the city for six months. Xi is a hard-liner with delusions of grandeur. His "China Dream" and the mandatory propagation of his "thought" in the manner of Mao's infamous "Little Red Book" mark him as a dictator with dangerous ambitions. His virulent campaign against "separatism" hat stretches from the brutal occupation of Tibet to Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang to increasing military threats against Taiwan also applies to the former British colony of Hong Kong. That protesters often wave British and American flags raise the specter in Beijing that what is desired is not just autonomy for the marvelous city, but independence.

Major units of the People's Armed Police moved to the Hong Kong border weeks ago.  The PAP was greatly expanded after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 to handle future unrest and was placed directly under Xi's Central Military Commission last year. It is suspected that some have donned HK police uniforms and are active in the city. There is also a military garrison in Hong Kong. So what is holding them back except the threat of foreign reaction?

President Trump's signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act should remind us of how things have changed in 30 years; and the negative consequences that can follow when a President does not look reality in the face and act accordingly. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush vetoed a bill which tied trade to China’s human rights and economic and proliferation policies. The House overrode the veto (the bill was sponsored by Nancy Pelosi), but the Senate did not.

The bill was in reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre where thousands of pro-democracy protesters were killed by the People's Liberation Army. The troops had been ordered into action by Deng Xiaoping, who had been hailed as a reformer. President Bush had agreed to an earlier bill banning the sale of equipment to the PLA and Chinese police and placing controls on "dual use" products, but jeopardizing overall trade went too far in his mind. He had already sent a long letter to Deng apologizing for any reaction to the massacre that could undermine U.S.-China relations. "I will leave what followed [the protests] to the history books....the actions that I took as President of the United States could not be avoided. As you know the clamor for stronger action remains intense. I resisted that clamor."

Despite his experience as ambassador to China and as Director of the CIA, Bush was a victim of the post-Cold War euphoria. Jeffrey A. Engel titled his book on this period When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War. It was a time of hope overcoming history; indeed history was supposedly at an end. It was better to believe Deng was a reformer whose "opening up" would move beyond economics and eventually extend into political reform. That the intelligence community saw Deng as the hardliner he revealed himself to be in Tiananmen was dismissed as an obsolete idea. Yet, keeping the door open to "trade" with a regime that was not going to reform in its most fundamental ways was a strategic blunder of unprecedented scope. President Bush reaction sent a message to American firms that it was not only permitted to transfer capital, jobs, and technology to China, but it was to be encouraged as the way to build a progressive Chinese society and tame the communist regime. Three decades later, we know this was nonsense; but it should have been seen as such at the time, as the bloody evidence was broadcast across the world.

Jon Meacham in his biography Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush cites Secretary of State James Baker as saying "The Chinese leadership was clearly in an embattled frame of mind. It was important not to respond in a way that played into the hands of the hardliners." But what could better strengthen the hands of Deng and his cadre than to appease them? To tell them there would be no meaningful consequences for their bad behavior? The way to discredit a regime it to prove its policies will fail and bring ruin; not to empower it. Yet this illogical argument that resolve only encourages adversaries continues to be heard. Also foolish is a quote Meacham provides from Bush "The big point is, we cannot foment revolution, it could make things worse." And this from the man who served as vice president to Ronald Reagan who had brought down the Soviet Union by fomenting revolution using economic pressure as a major policy tool. 

The Beijing regime knows that President Trump is not another Bush. The day after Trump signed the Hong Kong bill, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared "Such an act is abominable in nature and reveals vicious intentions of the US to sabotage the stability and prosperity of HK and disrupt the progress in China’s national rejuvenation." Indeed, if there is a bloody crackdown, it will give President Trump just what he needs to take further action to decouple the U.S. and Chinese economies; the aim being to rebuild American industry and hobble China's before the gap in capabilities closes any further. Talk of "trade deals" implies commercial objectives when the basis for Trump's placement of tariffs on a broad range of Chinese goods has been explicitly based on national security concerns. The clear message to business has been the opposite of that sent thirty years ago by President Bush: stop helping Beijing "rise" and get back to work making America great again. 

The stock market continues to reflect how deeply into the muck business has dug itself in China, unwilling to consider the larger geopolitical environment and what it portents. The Dow Jones dropped steadily in the days after Trump signed the Hong Kong bill. We should recall that the London Stock Exchange sent a congratulatory message to Neville Chamberlain after the 1938 Munich conference which marked the peak of appeasement towards Nazi Germany. Business must adjust to national strategy, it cannot be trusted to make it. President Bush was fundamentally wrong about China, but it is not too late for President Trump to set things right.

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former Republican staff member on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.