Last autumn, protesters in Hong Kong rallied in front of the U.S. Consulate, urging passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act – a law that would require an annual review of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status, and impose sanctions on individuals who have committed “gross human rights violations in Hong Kong.”

During this rally and other large-scale demonstrations, protesters held up posters that celebrated Trump’s military prowess, urging him to help liberate Hong Kong.

Some Hongkongers adapted Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” and turned it into banners and hats. For Hong Kong protesters, the US as a country has long been the exemplar of electoral democracy. Hence, an appeal to the American president was seen as a political efficacious act in garnering international support for the movement.

september 22 Tuen Mun march china extradition protest
Photo: Studio Incendo.

What Trump-supporting protesters might not realise, however, was that Trump has been violating civil and human rights in America and abroad since he was elected to office.

By upholding Trump as a figure of liberation, Hong Kong democratic activists risked alienating many progressive allies in the US who share more similar political values with them than with the Trump Administration.

As Hong Kong pro-democracy activists gear up for another wave of post-pandemic anti-authoritarian protests, we need to be more critical and conscious of the alliances the movement builds and the political figures we support on the international stage.

Domestically and globally, Trump and his administration have been widely criticised for corruption, a lack of transparency and accountability, and suppression of dissent. Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have accused the Chinese and Hong Kong governments of similar political flaws, albeit in different contexts.

Trump’s responses to the pandemic have only further illuminated how his administration runs against the democratic values Hong Kong protesters have risked their lives to uphold and protect.

Accountability and responsibility

Two of the protesters’ five demands—universal suffrage and the establishment of an independent commission on police misconduct—are demands for increased transparency, accountability, and responsibility from the government. During the coronavirus outbreak in the US, the Trump administration has demonstrated a serious lack of these political qualities.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump. Photo: GovUS.

Rather than relying on accurate statistics and policies based on professional medical opinions, Trump’s White House briefings are largely self-aggrandising and have contributed to public frustration, confusion, and partisan tension.

After repeatedly spewing scientific misinformation on possible Covid cures, Trump has taken no responsibility for misleading the American public when that has resulted in deaths and injuries.

For instance, Trump touted chloroquine as a miracle cure for Covid despite the lack of scientific evidence. This misinformation has led to at least one death when a man ingested fish tank solvent that contained this chemical.

More recently, Trump publicly speculated that ingesting disinfectants could help treat Covid. Calls to local poison control centres spiked as people heeded this dangerous and scientifically unsound advice.

The New York Times recently analysed 260,000 words from Trump’s news briefing and presidential remarks: the data show that Trump has complimented himself 600 times, mostly based on exaggerations or outright falsehoods—for instance, exaggerating and lying about the US’s testing capacity.

Rather than taking responsibility and holding his administration accountable for the lack of swift and effective containment strategies at the beginning of the outbreak, in his public remarks Trump repeatedly blames others, including the Obama administration and current state governors, for the rampant outbreak in the U.S.

When Dr. Anthony Fauci, leader of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, remarked that the US government could have implemented more effective policies earlier on to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Trump promptly retweeted “#FireFauci” in retaliation, alongside compliments for his efforts in containing the virus.

Anthony Fauci
Anthony Fauci, leader of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. File photo: The White House, via Flickr.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement demands a transparent and responsible government that can be held accountable by the public. These examples highlight Trump’s tendencies to deflect blame and suppress criticism. His administration is far from what Hong Kong democracy supporters truly seek in a government.

Political interests over public safety

Hongkongers’ dissatisfaction with Chief Executive Carrie Lam stems from her political agenda of appeasing Beijing over protecting the interests and safety of the Hong Kong people.

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in China – against public opinion and the advice of transportation and policy experts – Lam refused to completely close the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. Many suspected that her decision was politically motivated.

Later in February, Apple Daily revealed that Lam had communicated to Beijing that she hoped to make use of the coronavirus outbreak to help pro-Beijing politicians win seats in the upcoming Legislative Council election. Hongkongers and pan-democratic legislators then were rightfully outraged that the Chief Executive would attempt to benefit politically from a deadly public health crisis.

During the pandemic, the Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated tendencies to prioritise political interest over public health and safety. Since the US has been slow to contain the pandemic, public health experts warned that another wave of outbreaks and more deaths are possible if states reopen their economies too soon.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam at a press conference on March 3. Photo:

As numbers of deaths and confirmed cases continue to rise in most of the US, several Democratic governors have chosen not to prematurely lift the stay-at-home restrictions in their states. In some of these states, conservative white people—many of them Trump supporters and some of them heavily armed—stormed state capitols in protest at ongoing social distancing policies. Rather than adhering to the opinions of medical experts, Trump was quick to appeal to his voter base.

US President Donald Trump’s tweet calling for the state of Virginia to be “liberated.”

He encouraged these right-wing protests by calling out on Twitter states with Democratic governors who, for public health reasons, had not reopened their economy: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”, and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

Trump’s tweets and evocation of the Second Amendment emboldened right-wing protesters to bear arms as they defy social distancing measures, putting the health of their whole community at risk.

Sustainable coalitions

While Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement may want to align with Trump because of his bitter relationship with China, he has repeatedly demonstrated that his political decisions are not based on human rights concerns, but instead are motivated by self-interest.

The movement in Hong Kong is an anti-authoritarian struggle; hence, it should not appeal to a political leader who willingly puts his own country in harm’s way in exchange for the support of large corporations and his voter base. 

The Trump administration embodies ideologies and political practices that run counter to the overarching vision of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. While the movement needs international allies to maintain its momentum and political influence, appealing to the Trump administration is not the only option.

"December 1 2019" protest Donald Trump
Photo: Studio Incendo.

Within the US, Trump does not represent all Americans. Rather than appealing to an administration that has caused significant harm, especially to marginalised people, Hong Kong pro-democracy activists can garner more support from progressive Americans by building coalitions with human and civil rights advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and other smaller grassroots organisations, that share similar political values.

By cultivating transnational relationships based on shared anti-authoritarian struggles, Hong Kong’s movement can become more far-reaching and sustainable.

Shui-yin Sharon Yam

Shui-yin Sharon Yam

Shui-yin Sharon Yam is an Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Inconvenient Strangers: Transnational Subjects and the Politics of Citizenship.