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Mike Pence says US 'stands with' Hong Kong protesters and calls out Nike and NBA for hypocrisy

Owen Churchill and Mark Magnier

The United States government "stands with" pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, US Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday in a wide-ranging speech that criticised Beijing, as well as Nike and the NBA for bowing to the "authoritarian regime".

Hong Kong is a living example of what can happen "when China embraces liberty", Pence said, amid continuing pro-democracy protests there against the city's government and Beijing.

"To the millions in Hong Kong who have been peacefully demonstrating to protect your rights these past months, we stand with you," he said in a speech hosted by the Wilson Centre in Washington. He did not mention the increasingly violent nature of clashes between protesters and the police, but urged demonstrators "to stay on the path of non-violent protest".

Weighing into an international spat over an NBA team general manager's expression of support for the protesters, Pence condemned players and executives of the basketball league who have sided with the Chinese government's criticism of the sports executive.

The league was "acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime", said Pence, who also condemned Nike for pulling Houston Rockets merchandise from Chinese stores in the wake of the comments from the team's general manager, Daryl Morey.

"Nike promotes itself as a so-called social justice champion," Pence said, "but when it comes to Hong Kong, it prefers checking its social conscience at the door."

In a speech that criticised China on multiple fronts, including its human rights record, its actions in the South China Sea and its trade and economic practices, Pence said the US government sought neither to "decouple" with the country nor contain its economic development.

His comments came a year after he delivered an address on US policy towards China that came to be known as his "iron-curtain speech" for its articulation of the administration's hardening position on economic and diplomatic relations with the country.

In the year since, said Pence, Beijing has failed to take significant action to improve the bilateral economic relationship, while its behaviour has become increasingly "aggressive and destabilising" on a number of other issues.

Nike and NBA players "lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights of other peoples", Mike Pence said in his speech. Photo: Getty Images/AFP alt=Nike and NBA players "lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights of other peoples", Mike Pence said in his speech. Photo: Getty Images/AFP

But his references to cooperation were numerous, and a sharp break with last year's speech. The US government treated China's leaders with "respect", he said, while the administration intended to "negotiate in good faith" in a "spirit of engagement" building on a relationship anchored by President Donald Trump's "strong personal relationship with President Xi" for a "peaceful and prosperous future".

"It was a strange speech," said Joseph Fewsmith, professor of international relations and political science at Boston University and author of several books on Chinese leadership and reform.

"A lot of it was recycled from last year, but it did end on the positive note of saying the US was not seeking confrontation and would hold out a hand to China."

Pence's speech came months after it was postponed in June by the White House, which cited "progress in conversations" between the two countries' leaders aimed at resolving the trade war, which is approaching its 16th month.

The trade talks that convened in Shanghai in July produced no substantial results, but an interim agreement on what Trump called a "substantial phase-one deal" was reached this month.

Negotiators are now working on the text of a deal that Trump and Xi Jinping can sign in mid-November when they meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Chile.

Thursday's speech came amid rising pressure from US lawmakers seeking action from the Trump administration on a number of China-related fronts, including pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, religious freedom in Tibet and the internment of Muslims in the country's northwest.

Just days ahead of the most recent round of high-level talks in Washington this month, the administration announced a batch of sanctions on Chinese government entities, officials and private companies over their involvement in the mass detention of Uygurs and other largely Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

One of the objectives in giving the speech now, and why it walked such a careful line between hardline statements and accommodative language, analysts said, was a bid by the administration to ward off Senate approval of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

That bill, passed by the House last week, would mandate an annual review of Hong Kong's autonomy and subject Chinese officials to sanctions for any crackdown on protesters.

Protesters holding US flags march in Hong Kong's Central district on October 14 in support of a pro-democracy bill being debated in the US Congress. Photo: EPA-EFE alt=Protesters holding US flags march in Hong Kong's Central district on October 14 in support of a pro-democracy bill being debated in the US Congress. Photo: EPA-EFE

Trump is worried that passage of the legislation could further anger Beijing, undercutting hopes for a trade deal, they added. Some sort of agreement would allow him to claim a victory, which he badly needs amid impeachment pressure and growing criticism over his Syria policy as campaigning for the 2020 election heats up.

On this count, the speech hit the mark, said Henrietta Treyz, managing partner of the investment advisement firm Veda Partners. "Pence was broad enough but not specific enough to quell the need for a Senate vote on the Hong Kong bill," she said.

His statement of support for Hong Kong protesters and for corporate America to stand up for free speech and democracy gives Republican senators political cover, Treyz added. "Now they no longer need to put themselves on the record because they can say that Pence speaks for the party," she added. "Now they don't need to have a vote."

Treyz, a former congressional staffer, also said there was little prospect of an end to the trade war any time soon. But Pence's speech will at least help keep it under administration control, rather than seeing the conflict intensify through the actions of a "rambunctious" Congress.

Others said they expected Beijing to take in stride Pence's hardline messages on issues ranging from democracy and repression in Xinjiang to Hong Kong and religious freedom.

"It's entirely up to the Chinese how offended to pretend to be," said Derek Scissors, resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. "I suspect they will go with only temporarily offended."

In the weeks after the postponement of his June speech, Pence vowed that the American people would "always stand in solidarity with the people of all faiths in the People's Republic of China", regardless of the outcomes of the trade dispute.

But on Thursday, he suggested that progress on other sticking points in the bilateral relationship would be contingent on first reaching consensus in the economic arena.

"We truly believe that if we can get this economic relationship right, that it may well lay a foundation for also addressing these other issues," he said.

Although Washington has hardened in its policies and views toward China, the shift is less marked outside the capital.

A nationwide survey in June by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 58 per cent of Americans do not see China as a critical global threat, a modest change from the 60 per cent recorded a year earlier.

The survey also found bipartisan support for engaging with China on trade at 74 per cent. But both responses saw a record divergence between Republicans and Democrats on their views toward China, with Republicans notably more hardline.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.