U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet personally with the protesters in Hong Kong, saying it would lead to an end to tensions that have seized the territory for weeks.
"If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem. I have no doubt!" Trump tweeted.
Trump's tweet came a day after he tied a U.S. trade deal with China to a humane resolution of the weeks of protests wracking Hong Kong. He made that comment hours after the State Department said it was "deeply concerned" about reports of movement of Chinese paramilitary forces along the Hong Kong border.
Trump, who has been seeking a major deal to correct trade imbalances with China ahead of his 2020 re-election bid, has faced criticism from Congress and elsewhere for not taking a stronger public line on Hong Kong and for his characterization of the protests earlier this month as "riots" that were a matter for China to deal with.
His apparently tougher stance on Wednesday followed an internal debate within the White House and State Department over whether the United States was looking too compliant as the Chinese appeared to be preparing for a crackdown.
A source familiar with the deliberations, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while an even-handed approach was smart, it was not the right signal to send in this case.
A statement from China's foreign ministry on Thursday said Beijing had noted Trump's comment that Beijing needs to resolve the crisis in Hong Kong on its own.
Trump said last month that Xi had acted "very responsibly" in dealing with the protests. The Financial Times newspaper reported earlier in July that the U.S. president had agreed with Xi at the Group of 20 summit in June to tone down criticism of China's handling of the crisis.
On Wednesday, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross appeared to back this approach in a CNBC interview.
"The president has made clear that he is watching very carefully what’s happening," Ross said. "The question of it is what role is there for the U.S. in that manner? This is an internal matter."
White House national security adviser John Bolton told the Voice of America later on Wednesday he understood the mood in Congress was "very volatile" with regard to the Hong Kong issue, and warned that "a misstep by the Chinese government, I think, would cause an explosion on Capitol Hill.”
The State Department warned on Wednesday that continued erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy put at risk the preferential economic status it enjoys under U.S. law.
Bolton said around 60 percent of investment into mainland China went through Hong Kong, because of the former British colony's trustworthy judicial system.
"If Hong Kong loses that reputation because of a bad decision by the Chinese government, they'll have significant economic consequences in China this time," he said, adding that Americans still remembered Tiananmen Square in 1989.
"They remember the picture of the man standing in front of the line of tanks, they remember the statue of Lady Liberty, they remember voices of the Chinese people asking for freedom and democracy, and they remember the repression of the Chinese government in 1989," he said.
"It would be a big mistake to create a new memory like that in Hong Kong."