By Lisa Lambert and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday the United States was in the “final throes” in its attempt to reach a trade deal with China, but that at the same time Washington stands with protesters in Hong Kong, where it wants to see democracy.
At an Oval Office event to sign an executive order to address violence against Native American women, Trump was asked by a reporter if he had a message for the people of Hong Kong after their recent local election, in which pro-democracy parties scored a resounding victory.
“We’re with them,” Trump said. “I have a very good relationship, as you know, with President Xi. We’re in the final throes of a very important deal, I guess you could say one of the most important deals in trade ever. It’s going very well but at the same time we want to see it go well in Hong Kong.
“And I think it will. I think that President Xi can make that happen. I know him and I know he’d like to make it happen.”
Trump was not specifically asked about congressional legislation to back protesters in Hong Kong that is sitting on his desk after being passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives last week.
The legislation has greatly angered Beijing and Trump has been vague about whether he would sign or veto it as he tries to strike a deal with China to end a damaging 16-month trade war.
On Friday, Trump boasted that he alone had prevented Beijing from crushing the demonstrations with a million soldiers, while adding that he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping that doing so would have “a tremendous negative impact” on trade talks.
Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to its mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.
Trump again referred to “riots” on Friday, but he has also called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning repeatedly of the impact on trade talks.
The new legislation, approved unanimously by the Senate and by all but one House lawmaker, requires the State Department to certify, at least annually, that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify favourable U.S. trading terms that have helped it maintain its position as a world financial centre. It also threatens sanctions for human rights violations.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked at a news conference whether he expected Trump to approve the legislation and said he did not want to “get out in front of what he will do before too long,” but the department would comply with whatever it was required to do by statute.
“The United States continues to support democratic values, fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong as guaranteed by the one country, two systems framework and aspirations of the Hong Kong people,” Pompeo said.
Any veto by the president can be overridden by two-thirds votes in both the Senate and the House. The legislation will automatically become law on Dec. 3 if Trump opts to do nothing.
At his briefing, Pompeo took aim at China’s human rights record in its western region of Xinjiang, saying that recently leaked documents confirmed it was committing “very significant” abuses against Uighur Muslims and other minority groups in mass detention there.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Tim Ahmann; editing by Susan Heavey, Sandra Maler and Jonathan Oatis)