US President Donald Trump was vague on Friday about whether he would sign or veto legislation to back protesters in Hong Kong as he tries to strike a trade deal with China, and boasted without evidence that he alone had prevented Beijing from crushing the demonstrations with a million soldiers.
The legislation “is being sent over. We’re going to take a very good look at it,” he told reporters on Friday taking a non-committal tone.
The US Congress gave overwhelming final approval on Wednesday to two bills that back the Hong Kong protesters and threaten China with possible sanctions on human rights.
If the bills become law, the State Department would be required to frequently certify that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify the favourable US trading terms that have helped it maintain its position as a world financial centre.
The legislation also bans the export of crowd-control munitions, including tear gas and rubber bullets to the Hong Kong police force.
The president has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign a bill passed by Congress, unless he opts to use his veto powers. Bills automatically become law if a president opts to do nothing.
A person familiar with the matter told Reuters on Wednesday that the president was likely to sign the bills into law. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the measure’s chief sponsor in the Senate, predicted on Thursday that Trump would approve the legislation.
It was not immediately known whether Trump, who has a history of sometimes abruptly changing his mind on major policy decisions, was reconsidering his position or else was undecided on his course of action. The White House did not provide any clarification of Trump’s latest pronouncements.
Trump was also vague about his decision on the bills when asked about them on Fox News Channel’s, Fox and Friends.
“Look, we have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine. He’s an incredible guy,” Trumps said, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“But I’d like to see them work it out. OK? We have to see them work it out. But I stand with Hong Kong, I stand with freedom, I stand with all of the things that we want to do,” Trump told Fox and Friends.
“But we also are in the process of making the largest trade deal in history and if we could do that, that would be great,” Trump added, referring to the efforts to reach an accord to end a 16-month trade war between the US and China.
For its part, China has called on Trump to veto the bills, warning it will retaliate if the legislation becomes law.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Thursday said the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act undermined Beijing’s interests in the semi-autonomous territory, which has been rocked by months of anti-government demonstrations.
“We urge the US to grasp the situation, stop its wrongdoing before it’s too late, prevent this act from becoming law [and] immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs,” Geng said at a daily news briefing.
“If the US continues to make the wrong moves, China will be taking strong countermeasures for sure,” he added.
In the Fox & Friends interview on Friday, Trump also said that he told Xi that crushing the Hong Kong protesters would have “a tremendous negative impact” on efforts to reach a trade deal.
“If it weren’t for me Hong Kong would have been obliterated in 14 minutes,” Trump said without offering any evidence. “If it weren’t for me thousands of people would have been killed in Hong Kong right now and you wouldn’t have any riots you’d have a police state.”
Months of increasingly violent street protests in Hong Kong have raised fears that China might send troops from the mainland to crush the unrest, but there has been no sign of the massive intervention to which Trump referred.
In August, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into Hong Kong in an operation state news agency Xinhua described at the time as a routine “rotation”, but the city’s government has said the mainland army is not part of Hong Kong police operations to quell the demonstrations.