Trump promised China US silence on Hong Kong protests during trade talks

  • US officials banned from supporting pro-democracy protests
  • CNN reports Trump gave Xi pledge in personal phone call

US officials have been banned from supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, after Donald Trump reportedly promised the US would stay quiet during trade negotiations.

Trump gave the undertaking to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in a phone call in June, according to CNN.

The report represents the latest revelation about Trump’s personal phone calls with foreign leaders, records of which were moved to a highly classified system, and have only started to emerge with the start of impeachment hearings in Congress.

As a result of the gag order, the US general counsel in Hong Kong, Kurt Tong, was told to cancel an appearance at a US thinktank and a planned speech on the protests that have shaken the territory for weeks.

Asked at the time whether Tong had been gagged because of trade talks, the state department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, dismissed the suggestion as being “based off anonymous reports”.

“I don’t see much truth to that,” she said.

Tong spoke at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies after he left his post in July and said it was incumbent on the US government to “be frank … and be truthful about how we view the situation on the ground in Hong Kong”.

Asked about the Hong Kong protests in August, Trump told reporters: “Somebody said that at some point they’re going to want to stop that. But that’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China. They’ll have to deal with that themselves. They don’t need advice.”

Trump has also refrained from commenting on China’s internment of over a million Uighur Muslims, despite the fact that his administration has made religious liberty one of its hallmark issues on the international stage.

At the United Nations general assembly last month, Trump organised a meeting on the subject in the UN headquarters building, clashing with a global summit on the climate emergency on the same day.

In the keynote speech on religious freedom, Trump did not mention China or the Uighurs at all, leaving it to his officials.

The assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, David Stilwell, organised an event at the UN on “the human rights crisis in Xinjiang”.

Asked whether it made it harder to convince other countries to care about the issue when the US president did not mention it, Stilwell said: “Clearly, I don’t speak for the president.”

He noted that Mike Pence and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, had mentioned it in their own remarks.

“I would take it as it was presented, that this Uighur issue is just – it’s out there with all the rest of the issues,” Stilwell said.

US-Chinese trade negotiations are due to resume next week in Washington. Trump referred to the talks this week, when he suggested that Beijing start investigations into the finances of his political opponent, Joe Biden, and the former vice-president’s son, Hunter.


Julian Borger in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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