Donald Trump has a nuclear-grade weapon that he operates with a special phone: his Twitter account. And it’s time he used it against Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Trump has reportedly promised Xi that he would not make critical comments about internal Chinese issues. By “issues” we mean concentration camps for Muslims in Xinjiang Province and the subversion of liberty in Hong Kong. There are some arguments for Trump’s policy of discretion. America has a rather limited willingness and ability to intervene in favor of human rights in Xinjiang (where China is interning hundreds of thousands of Muslims) and Hong Kong (where China is progressively undermining the rule of law). Raising expectations of moral, material, or military support for people-powered protests can be dangerous to the people you’re trying to help. It also opens you up to the charge of hypocrisy. We are, after all, partnered with a Sunni mafia state in the Middle East.
More important, because Trump is in the midst of a massive trade dispute with China, mixing in humanitarian concerns increases the risk that China will push America to make the Faustian choice between a materially good outcome for American constituents and interests and a morally squalid one for those subjected to Chinese authoritarianism. No American president can afford to look like he is actively trading concern for human rights away in favor of a few points on beef futures. The problem for Trump is that he appears to have done this already. He’s been reduced to coyly expressing his confidence that Xi could meet with representatives of Hong Kong’s protest movement and work things out in 15 minutes.
But what is typical of commercial deals that involve the Chinese government obtains in political deals as well; there is no reciprocity. Trump has refrained from overt criticism of the Communist Party’s actions in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Meanwhile the Chinese government is constantly propagandizing against the United States within China and beyond its borders. Beijing has blamed the U.S. State Department for instigating, funding, or even leading the “terrorist” unrest in Hong Kong. The idea that American diplomats are both omnipotent and omnicompetent has become a staple of conspiratorial thinking across the world in recent years, and China is deliberately feeding into it.
Just as Trump saw an opportunity when China recently let its currency float downward, and had his administration label the Chinese government currency manipulators, he should let his opportunistic troll side out to speak on “internal” matters in China. Xi is conducting his conflicts with America in an ungentlemanly spirit. Why shouldn’t Trump respond in kind?
There is plenty of material to work with. What could Trump at his trolliest make of the Chinese government’s putting hundreds of thousands of Uighurs into camps and making them dance and sing show-tune-like patriotic songs? What could he do with the fake news being put out about Hong Kong? Just imagine it: “I’ve always been respectful of Xi Jinping as a great leader of a great nation. But what great leader hires Chinese triads to beat up kids and women in the street?”
Trump should affirm American power and prestige in the face of Chinese accusations of conspiracy. He should do so by pressing our State Department to publicly make China’s political backsliding and oppression a greater issue in the United Kingdom, and to pressure the new Johnson government to ditch planned deals with Huwaei.
Our president has achieved what he has in life thanks to a few savant-like skills. One of them is his gift for the art of disrespect. And if anything deserves disrespect now, it’s Xi’s China.