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Editorial

This is no time for the US president to go wobbly on democracy

Protesters take part in a demonstration on Hungry Ghost Festival day in Sham Shui Po district, Wednesday, in Hong Kong.
Protesters take part in a demonstration on Hungry Ghost Festival day in Sham Shui Po district, Wednesday, in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

China may be on the verge of making a historic mistake in Hong Kong, on par with its disastrous crackdown on peaceful Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Americans, starting with the president, should be using every tool to urge China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to avoid bloodshed.

Citing US intelligence, President Trump said Tuesday that Chinese troops are gathering near the border with the semi-autonomous territory, which has experienced weeks of pro-democracy protests.

Now, maybe the troops are just there as a show of force to scare the protesters, who recently shut down an airport terminal. But Beijing has hinted that it views the protests as a direct challenge to its power, and would be willing to use force to stop them. Some protesters have been seen waving US flags, a tactic seemingly designed to taunt Beijing.

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The protests began months ago as an outcry against a proposed Hong Kong law that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China and its repressive legal system. The law was postponed, but the protests have continued, transforming into a more diffuse movement to protect Hong Kong’s embattled political autonomy and to protest heavy-handed police tactics.

To the extent that the protests have become disorderly, that’s a problem for the Hong Kong police — not Chinese troops. If Beijing sends in the military, it would mark a huge escalation and, potentially, the end of Hong Kong as an oasis of civil liberties.

The president of the United States — the leader of the free world, as the now-quaint phrase goes — ought to be out front warning against any crackdown.

Instead, the president’s words have been oddly muted. “Everyone should be calm and safe!’’ he tweeted Tuesday, like he was issuing a warning to hunker down for a hurricane.

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Here’s what he could be telling China: Using the military to squelch Hong Kong’s protests would cost Beijing all the work it’s done to repair its international reputation since 1989. Far from showing strength, it would demonstrate weakness, showing that the government of the world’s largest country is afraid of unarmed protestors. And it would show, in especially unforgettable fashion, just what a promise from China is worth. (Beijing had promised to respect Hong Kong’s legal system and system of government for 50 years after the 1997 turnover from the United Kingdom.)

American business leaders should also make clear that Hong Kong’s attractiveness for foreign investment stems from its independent legal system, and that a Chinese crackdown against the protests would call that independence into question. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s business elite, who tend to sympathize with Beijing and have the ear of the Communist Party’s leadership, need to get the message that they can’t have it both ways. The same independent legal system that protects the private-property rights of business tycoons also protects the rights of protesters, and they should be using their influence to convince China to back off. Several US senators warned that a Chinese crackdown could lead the United States to withdraw preferable trade treatment for Hong Kong, which ought to underscore the potential consequences for the Hong Kong economy.

Trump clearly has non-interventionist instincts, and Beijing loves nothing more than pretending to be the victim of Western bullying. But that shouldn’t stop Trump from doing what past presidents considered a basic job requirement: speaking up for democracy.