As US President Donald Trump petulantly departs the White House this week, leaving a legacy of dishonour and disgrace, it is worth remembering that not so long ago this bloviating demagogue was seen as a hero and saviour by far too many Hongkongers.

Joe Biden. Photo: Joe Biden via Flickr.

That’s because Trump and his rabidly anti-China Secretary of State Mike Pompeo missed no opportunity to hurl insults and sanctions at Beijing and Hong Kong officials deemed responsible for smothering the city’s quest for democracy and muzzling its long-cherished reputation for free speech.

During the Trump administration’s mercurial four years, China quickly went from “strategic partner” to “strategic competitor” to, in Trump’s own words, “rival power.” It was the new cold war and Hong Kong was caught smack in the middle.

Donald Trump. Photo: The White House, via Flickr.

The city lost its special trading status with Washington, which also demanded that its exports to the US henceforth be given an ersatz “Made in China” label.

Meanwhile, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who receives an annual salary of HK$5.2 million (nearly US$671,000), well above the American president’s US$400,000, was forced to hoard stacks of cash at Government House. No bank wanted anything to do with Lam or her money following US sanctions placed on the chief executive and other Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials blamed for imposing Beijing’s harsh national security law on the city last summer.

Of course, Lam-haters, who are legion in this city, have delighted in both the inconvenience and opprobrium that the US government has gone out of its way to heap on her and other equally reviled Hong Kong officials. Those sanctioned others include the ministers for justice and security, Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah and John Lee Ka-chiu, respectively, as well as police chief Chris Tang Ping-keung. His force of nearly 34,000 men and women was repeatedly accused of using excessive force during the large-scale anti-government protests that raged in Hong Kong for months in 2019 and early 2020.

Carrie Lam, Eric Chan, John Lee, Teresa Cheng, Zhang Xiaoming, Zheng Yanxiong, Stephen Lo, Luo Huining, Chris Tang, Erick Tsang and Xia Baolong, were among those sanctioned by the US Treasury over issues in Hong Kong. File photo: HKFP compiled.

But that visceral abhorrence of their own incompetent leaders clouded the judgment of many Hong Kong politicians, activists and ordinary citizens about the virtues of the Trump administration, which they romanticised as a defender of democracy and a defender of Hong Kong.

How ironic then that on January 6, a president who slammed Beijing for its autocratic ways in Hong Kong incited an insurrection among his own nasty array of delusional supporters, who stormed the US Capitol in a violent but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent Congress from confirming the fair and free democratic election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States.

Defender of Hong Kong? Forget it. Trump (aided by Pompeo) used the turmoil in Hong Kong as part of his mendacious China-virus, China-blaming, China-bashing re-election strategy to cover up for his own gross mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis in the US, the country with the worst record in the world.

And what should Hong Kong expect from President Biden?

The good news: no more mendacity, no more political exploitation and no more false hope.

The bad news: not much else.

Biden is inheriting the biggest challenges seen by any incoming president since Herbert Hoover handed the Great Depression over to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Hong Kong will not be the last thing on his mind, but it will be well down the list.

Sino-US relations, however, will still figure large and, while those relations are unlikely to warm significantly any time soon, the inflammatory rhetoric and provocations of the Trump years should become a mutually buried thing of the past.

Perhaps a cold-war “rival power” can become at least a “strategic competitor” once again, if not a member of a broader global partnership that could make the world a better place for everyone, including all of us in Hong Kong.

This misguided romance with the Trump administration has taught us a humbling lesson: Hong Kong is a mere pawn in a much greater game.

We need to take care of ourselves when we can, as we can, as well as we can.


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Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.