Donald Trump has warned China that carrying out a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown on Hong Kong pro-democracy protests would harm trade talks between the two countries, in comments that followed a huge, defiant march through the streets of the global finance hub.
Hong Kong has been rocked by more than two months of protests and clashes between police and hardcore activists who fear the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms are under threat from Beijing.
Pro-democracy activists are gearing up for further protests this week after hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators braved heavy rain to rally peacefully on Sunday, marking a change to what have often been violent clashes.
Sunday’s massive turnout, which organisers put at 1.7 million, showed that the movement still has widespread support despite chaotic scenes last week when protesters occupied the Chinese-ruled city’s airport.
The American president cautioned that any violent effort by China to quell the unprecedented protests would damage trade negotiations.
“I think it’d be very hard to deal if they do violence, I mean, if it’s another Tiananmen Square,” Trump told reporters in New Jersey on Sunday. “I think it’s a very hard thing to do if there’s violence.”
Trump’s comments came as Washington and Beijing look to revive pivotal high-level talks aimed at ending their trade war.
The trade dispute between the US and China has been blamed for setting world financial markets on edge amid signs of a possible global economic slowdown.
Phone calls between the deputies from two sides are planned for the next 10 days and, if those are successful, negotiations between more senior officials could resume, Trump’s chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow said on Sunday.
The demonstrations in Hong Kong have tipped into violence, with protesters paralyzing the city’s airport last week and tarnishing a campaign that took pride in its peaceful intent.
Communist Party-ruled mainland China has in turn sharpened its tone towards the dissidents, decrying the “terrorist-like” actions of a violent minority.
State media has broadcast images of military personnel and armoured personnel carriers in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, propaganda read across Hong Kong as intimidation.
China deployed tanks to end student-led protests in the bloody 1989 crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, resulting in an estimated death toll between several hundred to over a thousand.
If such a situation was repeated in Hong Kong, “I think there’d be... tremendous political sentiment not to do something,” Trump said, referring to the trade negotiations with China.
Under a deal signed with Britain, China agreed to allow Hong Kong to keep its unique freedoms when the former crown colony was handed back in 1997.
But many Hong Kongers feel those freedoms are being hacked away, especially since China’s hardline President Xi Jinping came to power.
Trump stopped short of endorsing the protesters, saying, “I’d love to see it worked out in a humane fashion,” and calling on Xi to negotiate with the dissidents.
Last week, China’s state-run daily the Global Times said there “won’t be a repeat” of Tiananmen Square in a rare reference to the crackdown.
“China is much stronger and more mature, and its ability to manage complex situations has been greatly enhanced,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial.
Analysts say any intervention in Hong Kong by Chinese security forces would be a disaster for China’s reputation and economy.
The political turmoil was sparked by widespread opposition to a plan for allowing extraditions to the Chinese mainland, but has since morphed into a broader movement for democratic rights in the semi-autonomous city.
Sunday’s march, billed as a return to the peaceful origins of the leaderless protest movement, was one of the largest rallies since the protests began about three months ago, according to organizers the Civil Human Rights Front.