As historic demonstrations roiled Hong Kong, the outgoing U.S. consul general prepared a speech critiquing their repression by the Beijing-backed local government. Then he was silenced. According to the Financial Times, President Trump had promised Chinese President Xi Jinping that the United States would restrain its already lukewarm criticism of Beijing’s attacks on Hong Kong’s limited freedoms to advance stalled trade talks. And so the July 2 farewell speech by Kurt Tong was reportedly neutered. (A State Department spokeswoman disparaged the report but stopped short of denying it.)
That was just the latest example of the Trump administration’s practice of inconsistently condemning China’s human rights violations. When it serves Mr. Trump’s other purposes, the administration speaks up about the concentration camps of Xinjiang and the jailing of Hong Kong students. When silence is deemed more convenient for soybean purchases, the speeches are spiked.
The cynicism of the administration’s approach would be inappropriate at any time, but it is particularly so in an era when the Xi regime is engaging in extraordinary repression. It has detained more than 1 million Muslim Uighurs in internment camps in an attempt to eradicate their language and culture, in what can be only called a campaign of cultural genocide. It is developing an Orwellian surveillance state driven by new technologies such as facial recognition and artificial intelligence, which it is offering for export to other autocracies. And it is moving aggressively to undermine the rights that were granted to Hong Kong when it was returned to Chinese sovereignty, including free speech and the rule of law.
The United States ought to be at the forefront of exposing and denouncing these abuses. Instead, the State Department and White House speak out only when convenient for Mr. Trump’s other priorities. As China and the United States stood at the brink of a cold war last October, Vice President Pence harshly condemned the oppression in Xinjiang, calling the crackdown “a deliberate attempt by Beijing to strangle Uighur culture and stamp out the Muslim faith.” Yet last month, in advance of the anticipated trade talks at the Group of 20 summit in Japan, Mr. Pence postponed his follow-up critique.
The Trump administration has pitted economic policy against human rights protections, and trade deals have won. But economic priorities and the defense of basic human freedoms should be regarded as independent issues — not opposing ends of tug of war. They should be leveraged at the same time.
Ultimately, the Chinese government is responsible for its human rights record. But the United States has an obligation as well as a critical interest in speaking out against gross abuses wherever they occur. In a joint statement in May, Mr. Pence seemed to reaffirm that commitment. Last October, he made the fiery promise that “this president will not back down.” Yet, when it comes to China, Mr. Trump has done just that.