Trump Promised Xi That The U.S. Would Remain Silent About Hong Kong

President Trump has reportedly pledged to Chinese President Xi Jinping that the United States would not speak out against Chinese actions in Hong Kong.

As the protests in Hong Kong continue and the government’s response becomes increasingly violent and confrontational, CNN is reporting that President Trump promised President Xi Jinping that the United States would not speak out about human rights abuses with respect to the protests:

During a private phone call in June, President Donald Trump promised Chinese President Xi Jinping that the US would remain quiet on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong while trade talks continued, two sources familiar with the call tell CNN.

The remarkable pledge to the Chinese leader is a dramatic departure from decades of US support for human rights in China and shows just how eager Trump is to strike a deal with Beijing as the trade war weighs on the US economy.

And like other calls with the leaders of Ukraine, Russia and Saudi Arabia, records of Trump’s call with Xi were moved to a highly-classified, codeword-protected system, greatly limiting the number of administration officials who were aware of the conversation.

Trump’s commitment to China had immediate and far-reaching effects throughout the US government as the President’s message was sent far and wide.In June, the State Department told then-US general counsel in Hong Kong, Kurt Tong, to cancel a planned speech on the protests in Washington because the President had promised Xi no one from the administration would talk about the issue.

Tong was also slated to speak at a Washington-based think tank in early July but the State Department asked for that event to be canceled as well. That speech was ultimately rescheduled for after Tong’s scheduled retirement later that month meaning he eventually had the opportunity to speak about Hong Kong but as a former official.

The Financial Times first reported some details of the President’s commitment.

At the time, reporters asked State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus if Tong was barred from making a tough speech after Trump and Xi’s trade truce during the G20 summit.”I believe that that was based off of anonymous reports, and that’s not something that we ever validate here at the State Department. I don’t see much truth to that,” she responded.

Trump has deferred to China on the situation in Hong Kong when asked about it publicly in recent months.”Well, something is probably happening with Hong Kong because when you look at, you know, what’s going on, they’ve had riots for a long period of time. And I don’t know what China’s attitude is,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on August 1.

“Somebody said that at some point they’re going to want to stop that. But that’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China. They’ll have to deal with that themselves. They don’t need advice,” he added.

Trump has also defended the Chinese government’s increasingly violent response to the pro-democracy protests on Twitter:

Practically speaking, of course, there is next to nothing that the United States can do about the situation in Hong Kong. In the end, the city is Chinese territory and any effort on our part to intervene would obviously be unwise and foolish. Additionally, there are issues far more important than Hong Kong between our two countries, including not just the ongoing trade war, but also the issue of the status of matters on the Korean peninsula, where Chinese influence over Pyongyang plays a crucial role in both keeping the peace, such as it is, and in trying to advance toward some kind of normalization of relations between the two Koreas and between the four parties — the United States, South Korea, North Korea, and China — that were involved in the Korean War.

That being said, that doesn’t mean that the United States should sit on the sidelines and say nothing while the Chinese authorities become ever more violent in dealing with democratic protests on the part of the people of Hong Kong. There were arguably far more important issues on the table during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, for example, but that did not stop American Presidents from Eisenhower through Reagan from speaking out against internal repression by the Soviet Union. This was especially true in regard to its treatment of dissidents and Soviet Jews as well as others, and the manner in which the Soviet and their client states reacted to pro-democracy movements in nations such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Indeed, it was the fact that the United States stood out as a moral voice for human rights all those years that was, in my respects, the defining message of the Cold War and the forces, both internal and external, that brought it to an end.

All of that has come to an end with the Trump Administration, which has effectively abandoned even the pretense of caring about human rights around the world. With the exception of Iran and Venezuela, the Administration has been remarkably quiet in the face of rampant human rights violations by some of the most repressive regimes in the world. Russia’s Vladimir Putin arrests and murders dissidents and reporters and the Trump Administration says nothing while Trump dismisses the charges as irrelevant. Egypt’s Mohammed al-Sisi does the same and the Trump Administration says nothing. Saudi Arabia conducts genocide in Yemen and murders a Permanent Resident American reporter and Saudi dissident in its consulate in Istanbul and the Trump Administration says nothing. China represses the Uyghur Muslims and the Trump Administration says nothing. North Korea Kim Jong Un represses a nation of tens of millions, murders political opponents in the most gruesome ways possible, and tortures an American citizen to the point where he ends up in an irreversible coma before inevitably dying and the Trump Administration says nothing while the President himself dismisses any talk of Kim’s human rights abuses. Now we have the Chinese violently putting down otherwise peaceful protests and the President and his Administration are looking at the situation and not only saying nothing but preventing others from speaking out about it as well.

This is a marked deterioration from previous American foreign policy which placed as much importance on human rights issues as it did on advancing and protecting American national interests. Granted, we weren’t always consistent in this regard, especially during the Cold War when the competition with the Soviet Union all too often overshadowed human rights concerns and caused us to look the other way while leaders in places like Central America, Iran, and elsewhere repressed their citizens. By and large, though, the American commitment to human rights and the Rule of Law gave us a moral authority that allowed us to call the Soviets out for their mistreatment of dissidents and Soviet Jews and to criticize other nations around the world when they deserve to be criticized.

Over the course of fewer than three years, the Trump Administration has effectively destroyed that credibility. The main reason for that is that it is clear that the President himself largely doesn’t care about human rights issues except to the extent that it works to target regimes that the President doesn’t like. If you aren’t on that list, something that is largely true of the nations that happen to be among the worst human rights violators in the world, then the President and his Administration are more than happy to give you a pass. The next President, whether they take office in 2021 or 2025, is going to have their work cut out for them if they want to restore American credibility in this area and it’s unclear if they’ll be able to repair all of the damage that this President has done to American credibility in this area.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Moosebreath says:

    “During a private phone call in June, President Donald Trump promised Chinese President Xi Jinping that the US would remain quiet on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong while trade talks continued, two sources familiar with the call tell CNN.”

    So, in exchange for not speaking up when China attacks its own citizens for demonstrating in support of democracy, China agrees to keep talking (but not make any concessions) on trade.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, the Art of the Deal.

  2. Kathy says:

    Much as one might despise Xi, I think he’s smart enough not to make concessions in exchange for Trump doing what Trump actually wants to do.

  3. CSK says:

    @Moosebreath: Yeah, he’s a world class dealmaker, all right. “I alone can fix it.” Sure.

  4. Moosebreath says:


    “I alone can fix it.”

    Well, as Trump himself noted today, he does have “great and unmatched wisdom”.

  5. CSK says:

    @Moosebreath: If he had any kind of a sense if humor, I’d assume he was being self-satirizing. But no.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    Trump has now given the green light to two thugs to commit mass murder.

  7. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds: now, now, let’s not be unfair.

    Trump is also very fond of Duterte and MBS. And Putin. And Kim.

    He may well have given a lot more thugs the green light to commit mass murder.

  8. Nickel Front says:

    @michael reynolds:

    See also: following post on civil discourse.

    Treating another leak as absolute fact, but ok.

    Meanwhile, Trump is stopping shipments to the US because of Chinese treatment of Muslims.

    Hardly bowing down to them.

    But maybe we should drop all those tariffs so we can continue to get Cheap Stuff. THAT’LL show those Chinese bruts. THAT’S how you make a stand against tyranny!