BEIJING — Step by step, the United States under President Trump has sought to intensify pressure on Beijing in hopes of making China change its ways. Each move has instead hardened the resolve of China’s leadership to resist, plunging relations to their current nadir.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that Washington would no longer consider Hong Kong to have significant autonomy, clearing the way for Trump to end the special trade and economic relations the territory now enjoys. On Thursday, China’s top legislative body voted to strip another layer of autonomy anyway, with prominent Chinese commentators taunting the United States for interfering.
On Wednesday, the United States won an initial victory in a Canadian court in its long effort to bring criminal charges against a senior executive of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant. On Thursday, China vowed to retaliate against both countries, having already blocked some Canadian exports and held two Canadian citizens for more than 500 days.
Trump administration officials argue that they have brought China to the table on trade by imposing tariffs. But they have failed so far to achieve their goal of fundamentally shifting China’s behavior — on trade or any other issue.
From Beijing’s perspective, the punitive measures have simply revealed the core of US hostility toward China.
“When China was rising as an economic power, the United States tolerated it,” Shen Dingli, a specialist on relations with the United States at Fudan University in Shanghai, said in a telephone interview. “Now that China is strong, it cannot tolerate it anymore.”
China does not want to incinerate the relationship with the United States, given the economic benefits. Nor is it willing to back down, creating a constant push and pull in Beijing between the hawks and the more moderating forces.
China’s premier, Li Keqiang, struck a conciliatory tone Thursday at the close of the legislative session, the National People’s Congress. He called for close trade relations without offering any concessions. He said the two countries “could and should cooperate in many ways in facing both conventional and unconventional challenges,” while pointedly refraining from accusing the United States of any interference in Hong Kong.
Yet even as Li was speaking, the Hong Kong office of China’s foreign ministry issued a strong denunciation. “It is utterly imperious, unreasonable, and shameless for American politicians to obstruct the national security legislation for Hong Kong with threats of sanctions based on United States domestic law,” the ministry declared.
With both countries blaming each other, the result has been a downward spiral of tit-for-tat actions that may not let up before Trump’s reelection campaign ends in November.
When the Trump administration announced new restrictions to block companies around the world from using American-made machinery and software to help Huawei, Beijing promised to target American tech companies operating in China. When the administration capped the number of Chinese journalists in the United States, China kicked out most of the American correspondents from three major US news organizations, including The New York Times.
Both leaders, Trump and Xi Jinping, feel compelled to appear strong. The American president views blaming China for the coronavirus crisis in the United States as a path to reelection. The Chinese leader faces enormous economic and diplomatic challenges that could stir domestic opposition to his grip on power.
“Anything the US says or does or will do, China will refuse,” Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said in a telephone interview.
What the American moves have not done is chasten Xi’s government, which appears to feel simultaneously embattled and defiant.
Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, all but dared the Trump administration to carry out its threat to end Hong Kong’s favored trade status. He noted that there were 85,000 Americans there and scores of companies that would reap “the bitter fruits” of the American decision.
“Washington is too narcissistic,” he wrote in Chinese on Weibo on Thursday. “American politicians like Pompeo arrogantly think that the fate of Hong Kong is in their hands.”
The National People’s Congress, the top legislative body, on Thursday dutifully adopted the government’s proposals to impose new laws on Hong Kong to suppress subversion, secession, terrorism, and other acts that might threaten China’s national security — as authorities in Beijing define it. The vote was nearly unanimous, with only one delegate voting against and six abstaining.
Lau Siu-kai, a former senior Hong Kong government official who advises Beijing, said that US pressure had failed to prompt a reconsideration in the Hong Kong issue in part because China’s leadership has anticipated American opposition on many fronts.
“Beijing will stick with its new policy toward Hong Kong regardless of US reactions and is prepared to take countermeasures in a tit-for-tat manner,” he said.