White House condemns China for delaying Hong Kong election day after Trump imagined delaying U.S. election

I appreciate that McEnany read this statement instead of delivering an extemporaneous version of it. After yesterday, trying to make it sound sincere would have been pathetic. Better to check the box half-heartedly and recite from a script since we know now that the executive branch doesn’t actually oppose delaying elections in principle.

Even so, I’m surprised there’s so much as a perfunctory denunciation. Many times over the past few decades the president has made clear that he admires shows of authoritarian ruthlessness as examples of “strong” leadership. China looks awfully strong right now by showing Hong Kongers that their right to vote is really more of a privilege granted by the Chinese Communist Party, to be granted or withdrawn as political circumstances warrant. And with pro-democracy candidates poised to win and embarrass Beijing, that’s definitely a “withdraw” kind of moment.

China’s excuse, by the way, is that it’s too dangerous to public health to have people turning out to cast ballots in the middle of a pandemic. Which is superficially more convincing as a pretext for canceling an election will than Trump’s pretext that mail-in ballots will corrupt the results irretrievably.

Philip Klein raised a fascinating possibility about the Hong Kong news this morning. China would have found a reason to cancel the election no matter what, once it concluded that its puppet candidates were at risk of losing. But maybe China wouldn’t have announced the cancellation today if not for you-know-who’s “fascistic” tweet yesterday:

Unfortunately, thanks to President Trump’s reckless tweet Thursday floating the idea of the United States delaying its election over concerns about mail-in voting, the U.S. has much less moral authority to criticize China for the delay.

In fact, given how Beijing approaches public relations and diplomacy, it’s difficult to avoid wondering whether they purposely made the announcement now to take advantage of the cover provided by Trump’s tweet.

Makes sense. At any other moment, postponing Hong Kong’s vote would have drawn the world’s attention and a torrent of criticism from western powers, starting with the United States. Doing it today guarantees that most of the coverage of China’s illiberal gambit will mention the fact that the leader of the free world proposed doing something similar on social media just yesterday. It’s mitigation of bad PR via optimal timing, handed to them on a silver platter by the White House.

Delaying the election now also puts the U.S. in a no-win position of either condemning the Hong Kong election’s postponement and looking ridiculous in light of yesterday’s tweet or swallowing its embarrassment over what Trump said by declining to condemn China at all. The White House chose the better option among those two — better to formally disapprove and be left looking absurd than to keep quiet and further advance the idea that postponing elections is no big deal. But they do look absurd. The United States doesn’t often look silly when it stands up for civil liberties abroad, but darned if we didn’t pull it off today.

Needless to say, China has gone, and will go, further than Trump would in order to avoid an unfavorable outcome at the polls. Postponing the election is only their latest attempt to control the results there; recently they outright disqualified 12 candidates from the ballot for supporting democracy too strongly. One of them was Joshua Wong, a young activist who’s established a global profile for his courage in speaking out against Beijing. How courageous? He’s pictured in this Times story wearing a t-shirt that reads, “They Can’t Kill Us All.” I wish I were more confident that he’s right.