At Davos: The growing gap between Trump and Europe, and Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam speaks

Europe

“They have trade barriers where you can’t trade. They have tariffs all over the place,” he said. “They are, frankly, more difficult to do business with than China.”

Trump’s grumbling came after a heated exchange on a Wednesday morning panel between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Sajid Javid, Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer. When Javid insisted Britain would still go ahead with a digital tax that would affect major U.S. tech companies, Mnuchin said the Trump administration would consider retaliatory measures.

“If people want to just arbitrarily put taxes on our digital companies we will consider arbitrarily putting taxes on car companies,” Mnuchin said.

Meanwhile, the United States and France appeared to reach a temporary truce over a similar spat on Monday. European governments have grown frustrated with the loopholes used by major U.S. tech firms to minimize their tax exposure on the continent. “The key purpose is to have a solid, fair, efficient, international taxation system for the 21st century,” Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, told reporters in Davos. “We need to address fiscal evasion.”

But the Trump administration sees France’s approved legislation initiating a tax as an unfair attack on U.S. goods and vowed to raise new tariffs on French products, including wine and champagne.

“The threatened tariffs were evidence of the growing rift between the United States and Europe, on clear display as leaders from the two continents appeared to be talking from different scripts,” wrote my colleague Heather Long. “Trump insisted on discussing a new trade deal, while European leaders kept emphasizing action on climate change and cooperation.”

That theme carried over to proceedings elsewhere. Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the European Commission, took a veiled jab at Trump’s bullying style and illiberal politics. “You can either move forward at the exclusion of others … fueling nationalism, building the narrative of ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ or take an inclusive approach,” she said.

Other European leaders turned to the subject Trump explicitly ignored. “The climate emergency is a disaster that knows no borders,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said in a speech. “We’re the last generation that will be able to effectively address it.”

“We need to listen to the scientists,” Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin told a small group of Washington Post journalists. “We don’t have the luxury of time.”

Carrie Lam speaks

At home, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is an embattled leader whose popularity ratings hover narrowly above single digits. In Davos, she was yet another politician accompanying a delegation of trade and business leaders from her territory, mingling with wealthy investors in the Swiss Alps while Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests continue to rage.

Lam, who has spoken little to foreign media since the protests flared last year, did a couple of interviews in Davos, including a special session with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria where Today’s WorldView was in attendance.

Lam showed little to no sympathy for the protesters’ demands for meaningful political change, including the implementation of universal suffrage in the city — as opposed to the current system, which is engineered to give Beijing domineering control over the local government. Lam also specifically rebuffed protesters’ calls for amnesty for those arrested in police crackdowns and said nothing of the numerous incidents of armed mobsters attacking protesters.

“For the government to provide a political response that the protesters or the rioters want to see … will not be a very prudent way of ensuring Hong Kong’s future and public interest,” she said, speaking in the wooden tone of a Hong Kong bureaucrat.

The looming factor that drives much of the protest movement is fear over Beijing’s steady erosion of Hong Kong’s unique political freedoms. In Davos, Lam insisted that Chinese President Xi Jinping believes Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” model is “sacrosanct.”

She also congratulated herself for not repressing press reporting of the protests as much as she could. “I face a lot of pressure, not only from the protesters, but also from the anti-protest camp that I should control the journalists,” she said. “I would rather not. Because that will undermine freedom of media.”

It’s unclear whether she convinced many onlookers in the room in Davos. “Carrie Lam’s fundamental position has always been to deny the protesters any legitimacy,” said Arun Sudhaman, the Hong Kong-based editor in chief of the Holmes Report, a publication that monitors the global public relations industry and that first revealed in September how Lam’s government had been rebuffed by a number of major PR firms in a quest to dress up Hong Kong’s image.

“She’s trying to reinforce this message that Hong Kong is still open for business, that everything is fine,” Sudhaman told Today’s WorldView. “It’s a charm offensive, but you have to actually have charm for that.”

For Lam “to fly off to a super elite enclave in a Swiss mountain to tell the super rich that Hong Kong is doing just fine is tone-deaf,” Sudhaman added.

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