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Rose Garden Rubbish

On July 14, Donald Trump held a press conference in the White House Rose Garden where he announced that he has signed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, as well as an executive order ending U.S. preferential treatment for Hong Kong, then he answered questions from reporters. The entire process took 63 minutes of which Trump’s monologue lasted nearly an hour, of which contents relating to Hong Kong took no more than 2 minutes in total. The New York Times wrote that “The Hong Kong Autonomy Act, the ostensible reason for his appearance, was treated as an afterthought.”

Ordinary Americans do not take the China issue much to heart. In his book, John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser, said: Trump likes to point to the tip of the pen on the oval office desk and say, “This is Taiwan,” then point to the big table and say, “This is China.” I do not know what Trump will find on his desk to represent Hong Kong but it certainly will not be larger than Taiwan. This is not encouraging news for Taiwanese and Hongkongers. In fact, even for Americans, the speech in the Rose Garden was not a good performance by a politician.

When I was a student more than 30 years ago, I was infatuated with American political jargons such as “dark horse,” “muckraker” and “lame duck.” My conversational English tutor even helped me make a copy of William Safire’s “The New Language of Politics” (later published as “Safire's Political Dictionary.” I have known long ago that “Rose Garden rubbish” is some ceremonial speeches delivered by the President at the Rose Garden that are neither important nor breaking news.

Trump’s press conference made me truly appreciate the meaning of “Rose Garden rubbish.” It is nothing unusual about Trump’s nonsense gibberish. This time, he mentioned the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s name more than 20 times such that the first question asked by a reporter was whether Trump saw himself as the “underdog” and “losing” in the election.

Trump has turned his re-election campaign into a hypermarket where the strategic, diplomatic, military, and economic interests of the US have become retail stalls embedded in it. Such a “transactional presidential system” has caused many problems. Understandably, the Chinese, Hong Kong people, Taiwanese, and the diaspora of Tibetans and Uyghurs in-exile have suffered a long time under the willful and unscrupulously totalitarian power ruled by Xi Jinping. They hope that the US, as the world’s largest democratic power, can do something and help the Chinese escape from the evil of tyranny. Trump’s trade war with China and his tough stance in signing the Hong Kong Autonomy Act have all shocked the Chinese Communist Party’s conventional governance and diplomacy.

The problem is that regardless of whether Trump turns the democratization of China or Hong Kong’s unique change as ammunition for his campaign, it will hurt the Chinese and Hong Kong residents. This is because American democracy has suffered unprecedented destruction three years into Trump’s presidency (Freedom House’s rating of American’s access to political rights and civil liberties dropped from 92 points in 2015 to 86 over three consecutive years.) If Trump loses the election at the end of the year, any democratization movement in China today (including Hong Kong) would fall into a political dead-end if relationships with the US democratic system and the incumbent president are not managed properly. If Trump creates another electoral surprise, as Bolton warned in his book, Trump’s second term would be perilous for a democratic republic. The regression of American democracy will only bring further decline to global democracy, and the future of democracy in China or Hong Kong will only be bleaker, not better.

The diplomatic actions of both Trump and Xi Jinping are closely related to their losses of political legitimacy at home. They both manipulate each other and the country governed by the other to fulfill their own personal desire for power. Unfortunately, Hong Kong, China, and even the world, will temporarily be overshadowed by the obscurity and crisis of bilateral relations they have created. In the face of the danger of playing with marginal policies, we should not underestimate the surreptitious compromises and concessions made. (Hasn't it been the case since Nixon?) However, in order to turn lemon into lemonade, the vulnerable citizens and small nations must find the fair Polaris, (in fact, the US constitutional system is playing a role in correcting Trump’s deviation from democracy), rather than trying to use trickery to profit by “tail wagging.” I’m afraid that it may prove insufficient to place unrequited hope on a president who advocates ‘America First’ and non-interventionism, as well as flirts with racism, to be the savior of the world.

The US is currently faced with four crises: the coronavirus pandemic, an economic depression, social turmoil, and political divisions or battles. From now to the end of the year, Americans will find a great political solution through democratic traditions, personal virtues, and political wisdom. For Americans, for world democracies and for the enslaved people who desire and pursue freedom and democracy, the following four months will be a difficult time to test their souls. Beautiful roses will prick your hands, perhaps the eternal revelation of the Rose Garden. Revisiting America’s excellent cultural tradition at this time may help boost our hope and confidence. As such, I hereby share a short poem by Emily Dickinson:

“His Heart was darker than the starless night For that there is a morn But in this black Receptacle Can be no Bode of Dawn.”

(Dr Ming Xia is a CUNY-GC/CSI political science professor, a columnist and a political activist)

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