China fired back at Vice President Mike Pence’s criticism on human rights, calling his speech “lies” and chiding him for ignoring U.S. problems like racism and wealth disparity.
Pence on Thursday gave a long-anticipated speech in which he criticized China’s actions against protesters in Hong Kong while calling for greater engagement between the world’s two biggest economies. He said the U.S. stands with demonstrators in Hong Kong and accused Beijing of curtailing the rights and liberties of the city’s residents.
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, blasted Pence’s “arrogance” and said no force would stop the country’s progress. She accused him of seeking “to disrupt China’s unity or internal stability” and called Hong Kong, Taiwan and the far west region of Xinjiang “internal affairs.”
“The U.S. has already abandoned and cast aside its morality and credibility,” Hua said. “We hope these Americans can look at themselves in the mirror to fix their own problems and get their own house in order.”
Pence’s speech comes at a crucial time in the U.S.-China relationship as the two countries remain locked in a trade war and jostle for military and commercial dominance in the Pacific. White House officials have debated for weeks how critical Pence should be, underscoring the stakes of his remarks, which come just a day before negotiators talk about progress toward agreeing on a phase one agreement over trade.
The vice president was careful to balance his criticism with an olive branch. Rather than “decoupling” the two countries, the U.S. “seeks engagement with China and China’s engagement with the wider world,” he said. “Despite the great power competition that is underway and America’s growing strength, we want better for China.”
China also left the door open to cooperation, with Hua saying both countries have more to gain from cooperation than confrontation. The Communist Party’s Global Times said in an editorial that Pence offered a “positive attitude” toward getting a trade deal done even as he “slandered” China over Hong Kong, Taiwan and the treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
“China and the U.S. have different political systems. It means that it is impossible to change the political foundation of China,” the Global Times wrote in English. “However, China and the U.S. have many reasons to stick with peaceful co-existence and win-win cooperation.”
Pence’s most stinging criticism of China was indirect, in remarks targeting Nike Inc. and the NBA.
“Nike promotes itself as a so-called ‘social-justice champion,’ but when it comes to Hong Kong, it prefers checking its social conscience at the door,” Pence said.
Representatives for Nike didn’t respond to requests for comment.
He accused the NBA of “siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech.” The league apologized after an executive of the Houston Rockets issued a tweet supportive of Hong Kong protesters, outraging Chinese authorities and many NBA fans in the country.
“The NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime,” Pence said.
In an “Inside the NBA” segment Thursday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver responded to a video clip of Pence’s comments without referring specifically to the vice president.
“We’re gonna double down on engaging with the people of China and India and throughout Africa — around the world, regardless of their governments,” he said. “Certainly, if we get to a point where the U.S. government tells us we shouldn’t be doing business in a certain territories or countries, we won’t.”
Charles Barkley, a former NBA All-Star and an “Inside the NBA” analyst criticized Pence more directly. “Vice President Pence needs to shut the hell up,” he said. “All American companies are doing business in China.”
Pence was originally supposed to deliver the speech on June 4, which marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The administration ultimately delayed the speech in the hopes that President Donald Trump would land a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 leaders’ summit in Osaka later that month.
Trump is aiming to sign a limited trade deal with Xi next month, and a weakening American economy is chipping away at the U.S.’s leverage.
Meanwhile, pressure is building from Capitol Hill to stay firm, highlighting White House moves this month to sanction Chinese entities accused of connections to the surveillance and imprisonment of Muslim Uighurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Unrest in Hong Kong has underscored the heated tensions as many U.S. lawmakers are pressing for legislation to support pro-democracy protesters despite a threat of retaliation from China.
Leland Miller, chief executive officer of China Beige Book, said the administration is engaged in somewhat of a good-cop, bad-cop approach to China.
“Markets tend to assume the administration’s China policy is monolithic, swinging either hawkish or dovish based on the president’s moods, but that’s not really the case,” Miller said. “Since late August the White House has certainly turned more dovish on trade, but on the national security side, hawks continue to run the show.”
Analysts say it’s hard to predict how the Chinese will react but caution it’s unlikely that Beijing will hit back at the vice president directly, if they don’t agree with elements of the speech.
Under the terms of the partial trade arrangement reached earlier this month, Chinese spending on U.S. farm goods will scale to an annual figure of $40 billion to $50 billion over two years, according to the White House. China would also agree to certain intellectual-property measures and concessions related to financial services and currency.
In exchange, the U.S. delayed a tariff increase scheduled for Oct. 15 — to 30% from 25% on about $250 billion of Chinese imports. More duties on Chinese products, targeted for Dec. 15, haven’t yet been called off.
While the limited agreement may resolve some short-term issues, several of the thorniest disputes remain outstanding. U.S. goals in the trade war center around accusations of intellectual-property theft, forced technology transfer and complaints about Chinese industrial subsidies.
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