By Vivian Salama and Alex Leary
WASHINGTON -- President Trump suggested a "personal meeting" with China's President Xi Jinping to discuss the escalating crisis in Hong Kong and warned China it must respond "humanely" to the protests if it wants to strike a trade deal.
Mr. Trump's statement via Twitter marked a shift in tone in his public statements regarding the situation in Hong Kong and for the first time linked the administration's fragile trade talks with Beijing to the protests. The Wednesday evening tweets came amid growing concern within the administration that China would respond with military force to the antigovernment protests that have shut down Hong Kong's major international airport for the past two days.
Fears over a potentially violent crackdown have prompted concern among lawmakers from both parties, some of whom have been unequivocal in their support for the protesters.
"I know President Xi of China very well," Mr. Trump said. "He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people. He is also a good man in a 'tough business.' I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it."
The president concluded, "Personal meeting?"
In recent weeks, the administration has quietly urged U.S. officials to maintain a measured response on Hong Kong over fears that public criticism of Beijing could derail U.S.-China trade talks, two senior administration officials have said. Mr. Trump himself has called for a restrained response to the protests to avoid rousing tensions with Beijing, the officials said.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump described the Hong Kong crisis only as a "tricky situation." Then on Wednesday morning, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross denied that trade negotiations with Beijing were tempering the administration's response to Hong Kong.
"I don't know if we would have done anything different in the past. What would we do? Invade Hong Kong?" Mr. Ross said on CNBC. "The president has made clear that he is watching very carefully what's happening...This is an internal matter."
Then later Wednesday, Mr. Trump began a series of tweets with reassurances to U.S. consumers that his trade war with China wouldn't affect them adversely. He then made a rare unsolicited mention of Hong Kong.
"It actually helps China more than us, but will be reciprocated," he wrote. "Millions of jobs are being lost in China to other non-Tariffed countries. Thousands of companies are leaving. Of course China wants to make a deal. Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!"
Hong Kong is facing its worst political turmoil since the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, with marches drawing massive crowds initially demanding a full withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill. Activists had begun targeting other symbols of China's presence in Hong Kong -- including a high-speed rail station that links the city to the mainland. In recent days, they occupied the city's major airport, prompting its shutdown.
The U.S.-China trade fight and the Hong Kong crisis are overlapping in Washington as more American lawmakers voice concerns over Beijing's policy toward Hong Kong.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), in a tweet Wednesday, described Beijing's stance on Hong Kong as "a cautionary lesson for anyone thinking about any deal with them."
Mr. Rubio has introduced a bipartisan bill that threatens to revoke Hong Kong's special trade status with the U.S. if Beijing intervenes in the city, which is a vital trade gateway with the West for China.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), in a tweet of support for the protests on Tuesday, referenced the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, where soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed protesters.
"30 years after Tiananmen Square all Americans stand with the peaceful protesters in Hong Kong," Mr. Graham wrote. Tiananmen Square remains a sensitive issue in China, where any mention or remembrances of the crackdown are censored.
"These protests highlight the moral authority of their demands for Freedom and Democracy. This is becoming a defining moment for US-China relations," Mr. Graham wrote.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) described the protests as a fight to preserve Hong Kong's freedom and warned Beijing against any military action in the city. "Any violent crackdown would be completely unacceptable," Mr. McConnell wrote on Twitter. "As I have said on the Senate floor: The world is watching."
Several Democrats had criticized Mr. Trump for not taking a more forceful stance in support of the pro-democracy protesters.
"If America does not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out elsewhere, " House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said Tuesday night.
Beijing has reacted angrily to U.S. lawmakers' comments, citing them as further evidence of American involvement in China's internal affairs and saying that the lawmakers "whitewashed violent crimes as a struggle for human rights and freedom."
"Hong Kong affairs are entirely China's internal affairs, and you are neither entitled nor qualified to wantonly comment on them," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters this week during a regularly scheduled news conference. "Mind your own business."
The State Department on Wednesday reiterated its call for Beijing to adhere to its commitment to respect Hong Kong's autonomy.
"We condemn violence and urge all sides to exercise restraint, but remain staunch in our support for freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Hong Kong," a department spokesperson said in a statement.
As the conflict in Hong Kong has escalated, other Western countries have also struggled over how best to respond.
The British government -- as the city's former colonial power -- has faced a particular dilemma. The U.K. has regularly referred to the handover treaty it signed with China that was designed to preserve Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms. China has dismissed the agreement as a historical document.
Dominic Raab, the new British foreign secretary, called Hong Kong's chief executive last Friday and emphasized the right to peaceful protest, a foreign office spokesman said. China reacted by telling the U.K. to stay out of China's internal affairs.
The European Union issued a statement Tuesday calling for "broad-based and inclusive dialogue."
"It is crucial that all sides exercise restraint, reject all kinds of violence, and take urgent steps to de-escalate the situation," the statement said.
--Stephen Fidler, Courtney McBride and Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.
Write to Vivian Salama at email@example.com and Alex Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 14, 2019 20:49 ET (00:49 GMT)
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