It seems like a distant memory, but it was actually only a few years ago that an American president might lead the “free world” in condemning a blatant attack on democracy and human rights. But when the Chinese government moved last week to strip Hong Kong of key aspects of its political autonomy, putting it more directly under the control of Beijing’s communist leaders, President Trump responded by . . . accusing a domestic political critic of murder, playing golf, and stoking resistance to public health officials in the United States. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the president did allow that he was “displeased” with China’s actions.
In the absence of anything resembling presidential leadership, it was left to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to object; in a strongly worded statement, he urged Beijing to respect Hong Kong’s “autonomy, democratic institutions, and civil liberties.” Pompeo added a veiled threat, pointing out that Hong Kong enjoys special trade status with the United States, and that the continued existence of those political freedoms “are key to preserving its special status.”
Indeed, Hong Kong is an oasis of freedoms that an American administration ought to be proud to defend. Its residents have free-speech rights, and the territory has an independent judiciary to ensure the rule of law — two things that are absent on the mainland. The secretary of state was right to speak out.
But why would Beijing care what Pompeo says? It would take action by Trump himself to actually revoke the preferential trade protections that Pompeo mentioned, which exempt exports from Hong Kong from some tariffs imposed on goods from mainland China. And if the president has demonstrated anything over the last four years, it’s that he has no interest in promoting democracy overseas and is besotted with foreign authoritarians like Vladmir Putin and Kim Jong Un. He betrays no inclination to take on President Xi Jinping of China, the driving force behind the crackdown, for violating human rights.
The Chinese proposal, which is likely to be formalized by its pro forma legislature soon, would allow Beijing to pass security laws for the city and would also allow Chinese security forces to operate in Hong Kong. The proposal came after months of public protests against efforts to subject Hong Kong residents to the Chinese justice system, which China has portrayed as foreign-instigated unrest. It appears to violate the agreement that China made with the United Kingdom to maintain the legal system of the former British colony for 50 years after its reversion to Chinese control in 1997.
Unless the White House follows through to demote Hong Kong from preferred trade status owed to its autonomy, it falls to Congress to nudge the administration to do what past presidents considered part of the job. Congress is considering legislation that would sanction individual Chinese officials who participate in security measures in Hong Kong, which would provide an additional tool to hold China accountable. The president had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the last piece of Hong Kong legislation, but that shouldn’t stop lawmakers on Capitol Hill from acting.
The president’s failure to stand up for democracy has repercussions beyond Hong Kong. As poor an example as it has sometimes set, the United States still has the ability to deter foreign dictators. But when an American president is silent about human rights abuses, the silence itself speaks volumes. And without American leadership, the rest of the world is staying quiet too; Britain, the other party to the agreement that China is trashing, has stayed on the sidelines.
The worst-case scenario in Hong Kong would be a sort of slow-motion Tiananmen Square crackdown, with Chinese security forces snuffing out the territory’s protest movements the same way they cracked down on the 1989 democracy movement on the mainland. After Tiananmen, the world was virtually united in condemning the violent crackdown and sanctioning China in response. But waiting until Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms are in tatters to act would be a tragedy.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.