“He has some gut feelings that China doesn’t like, but he has gut feelings China does not really mind,” Minxin Pei, a specialist in Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College, told me. “He does not really see China as an ideological adversary. Trump can be persuaded if the price is right.”
For China, that’s key. Although Trump has sometimes acted on political and human-rights issues Beijing finds highly sensitive—most recently, signing legislation to impose sanctions for the Chinese government’s abusive treatment of minority Uighurs—he personally has often appeared disinterested, even dismissive. In a new book, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton claimed that Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping over dinner in Osaka that the detention camps Beijing was building to control the Uighur community were the right thing to do. Trump also recently admitted that he delayed sanctions on officials involved with the camps to smooth negotiations for his coveted trade deal with China.
Trump has shown similar ambivalence toward Beijing’s intensifying crackdown on prodemocracy protesters in Hong Kong. The president promised stiff penalties to counter Beijing’s latest move—imposing a national-security law on Hong Kong aimed at wiping out remaining resistance—and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has made bellicose statements and threats over the move. But Trump’s commitment to the Hong Kong cause has often seemed lukewarm.