John Lee’s election signals heightened risks to the foreign business community.
John Lee Ka-chiu, the territory’s former secretary of security, won an uncontested vote Sunday as the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s candidate of choice. | Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
By Phelim Kine
John Lee Ka-chiu’s election as Hong Kong’s new chief executive signals a decisive turn in the territory’s lurch toward Beijing-style authoritarian rule.
Lee, the territory’s former secretary of security, won an uncontested vote Sunday as the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s candidate of choice.
Lee’s victory underscores Chinese President Xi Jinping’s determination to eradicate rule of law in the former British colony — but it also risks its viability as a regional business center as foreign businesses rethink the dangers of operating in Hong Kong.
“[Beijing] chose the guy who could crush people and use the judicial system for national security purposes. … The people the Party trusts are the people who can go for the jugular and erase protests and any kind of dissent,” said Samuel Chu, president of the nonprofit The Campaign for Hong Kong. “[Lee] isn’t addressing pocketbook or livelihood issues. He’s checked the boxes to say, ‘I am going to be Beijing’s enforcer here.’”
Lee’s record of zero-tolerance for peaceful dissent made him Beijing’s natural preferred candidate to replace the widely reviled chief executive, Carrie Lam. Not that Lee looks to be any more popular with the locals.
As security chief, Lee oversaw brutal police responses to pro-democracy protests. And his implementation of the draconian National Security Law introduced in June 2020 prompted the U.S. Treasury Department to place him and Lam on a sanctions list.
Police enforcement of the National Security Law has led to the arrests of more than 160 people since June 2020 — for crimes including organizing informal public opinion polls — and the closure of over 150 civil society organizations. Lee’s election signals Beijing’s endorsement of his role in gutting rights and freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong for 50 years under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law that govern the post-1997 British handover of the territory to China.
Lee’s election constitutes “a continued assault on political pluralism and fundamental freedoms” in the territory, the G-7 foreign ministers said Monday in a statement.
Beijing dismissed such concerns. “Certain Western countries should face squarely the fact that Hong Kong returned to its motherland 25 years ago … and immediately stop all forms of attempts to disrupt Hong Kong and contain China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday.
The U.S. government is under no illusions about Hong Kong’s direction under Lee. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month accused the Chinese government of seeking to “dismantle Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, placed unprecedented pressure on the judiciary, and stifled academic, cultural, and press freedoms,” during the release of this year’s Hong Kong Policy Act Report.
By Phelim Kine and Gavin Bade
GOP lawmakers are demanding the Biden administration widen its sanctions of Hong Kong officials deemed complicit in those abuses.
“We believe that the Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, National Security Law designated judges, and prosecutors should be subject to sanctions,” a group of seven lawmakers, including Reps. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), John Curtis (R-Utah) and Young Kim (R-Calif.) said in a letter to Biden last week.
Hong Kong pro-democracy activists say the Biden administration’s combination of sanctions and stern rhetoric are toothless deterrents to Beijing’s tightening stranglehold on the city. “Beijing basically made a calculation that if they do this to Hong Kong, the international community and the U.S. government will condemn them, but essentially will roll over which is what they’re doing,” said Dennis Kwok, former Civic Party member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
The ordeal of former Hong Kong-based American lawyer Samuel Bickett illustrates that foreign expatriates working in the city’s financial sector aren’t immune to the Lee-supervised roll back of rule of law.
Bickett, who was a financial compliance director at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, intervened to stop a vicious assault by a baton wielding assailant on a teenager in December 2019. Police responded by charging Bickett with assaulting a police officer even though the assailant was officially retired at the time of the incident. Despite inconsistencies, eyewitnesses and surveillance camera footage supporting Bickett’s account of the incident, a Hong Kong court sentenced him to a four-month, two-week prison term then deported him in March after he served two-thirds of that sentence.
“It was just shocking how blatant the judicial misconduct was,” Bickett told POLITICO. “My case was one of the early ones where you saw this dive into the abyss by the judiciary from a legal [integrity] standpoint.”
Observers see Bickett’s case as a sinister bellwether for the foreign business community’s vulnerability to unlawful attack from Hong Kong’s security forces and judiciary.
“[Bicketts case] shows that Hong Kong has changed immeasurably and there’s a lot of uncertainties that did not used to exist — nobody knows what the rules are anymore,” said Tara Joseph, who stepped down as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong in November.
One metric of the growing insecurity felt by foreign citizens in Hong Kong who long took the city’s freedoms and rule of law for granted was the decision last month by Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club to suspend its annual Human Rights Press Awards. “Over the last two years, journalists in Hong Kong have been operating under new ‘red lines’ on what is and is not permissible, but there remain significant areas of uncertainty and we do not wish unintentionally to violate the law,” Keith Richburg, the club’s president, said in a statement.
The fate of Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai underscores the vulnerability of the city’s corporate sector to Beijing’s hostility to dissent.
Lai is currently serving a 20-month prison term for his alleged role in organizing what the Hong Kong government calls illegal protests. Lai also faces prosecution for allegedly masterminding an “international propaganda campaign” aimed to bring foreign sanctions against China. The Hong Kong authorities have frozen Lai’s assets, arrested top editorial staff at his flagship newspaper Apple Daily then forced it to close in June. Officials then capped it off by ordering the liquidation of Apple Daily’s company, Next Digital Ltd., in December.
“The message to the business community is they can shut you down overnight and no matter how much assets or the global worth of your company, you will not have legal rights either as an entity or as an individual,” Chu said.
Observers say that the city’s foreign business community is passively complicit in the government’s attack on rule of law by failing to criticize those abuses. Even worse, international business executives in the city have attacked the media for reporting on those violations, reflecting a longtime corporate alignment with a government whose approval is essential to access the Chinese market.
By Phelim Kine
“When I introduced the Hong Kong Universal Democracy Act back in 2014, I had the business community beat down my door with phone calls saying, ‘What are you doing!’” Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) told POLITICO.
That mindset persists.
“People in business and finance still have their blinders on as to the risks that they can face, which is stunning,” Joseph said. “Companies will really think twice before they pull the plug there, but what some of them are doing is moving departments or executives to other [places] with Singapore being the prime example.”
U.S. lawmakers are serving notice that they won’t tolerate corporate complicity with Hong Kong authorities’ efforts to undermine rights and freedoms. The bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China in March warned the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Ltd., a British multinational financial services and investment bank, that any moves to freeze Hong Kong media and civil society groups’ access to their bank accounts may violate the terms of the Hong Kong Autonomy Act.
HSBC is unfazed. “Like every bank, we are required to operate within the law and legal frameworks of all the countries and territories in which we operate,” Matt Ward, head of communications at HSBC Bank USA, said in a statement.
Imposing financial penalties on foreign firms facilitating Hong Kong authorities’ assault on rule of law may be the only meaningful tactic left to activists and concerned foreign governments.
“Shaming them from an ethical standpoint … is not going to get them to lose money,” Bickett said. “Two years of protests and unethical and downright criminal behavior by the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government in Hong Kong did very little to move Western corporations and money [out of Hong Kong], but what seems to be doing it now is COVID … because ultimately, they’re not making money there.”
© 2022 POLITICO LLC
China says Biden comments likening leader Xi to a dictator ‘extremely absurd and irresponsible’
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s remarks calling Chinese leader Xi Jinping a “dictator” and China a country with “real economic difficulties” drew fast condemnation from China on Wednesday, cracking open a new rift just after the two countries agreed to tentative steps to stabilize the relationship.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning condemned Biden’s unusually pointed comments as “extremely absurd and irresponsible.”
The clash of words comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded a visit to Beijing on Monday that sought to break the ice in a relationship that has hit a historical low. While both sides saw those talks as productive, they did not result in any significant breakthroughs beyond an agreement to return to a broad agenda for cooperation and competition.
China’s quick response to Biden, a president known for seemingly off-script remarks that venture beyond his administration’s policies, raises questions whether his remarks would undo the limited progress that had been made in Blinken’s carefully engineered trip or whether the two sides would move on.
Biden’s characterization of China comes as the campaign for next year’s presidential election is already taking off, with Republicans accusing him of being weak on China.
Biden also was preparing to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington on Wednesday evening for a lavish state visit where a central theme will be a shared wariness of China.
Biden, at a fundraiser in California on Tuesday night, referred back to January and February’s two-week overflight of what the U.S. says was a Chinese spy balloon. The balloon’s surprise appearance over U.S. skies roiled relations and transfixed the American public.
Speaking to wealthy donors at the event for his 2024 reelection campaign, Biden depicted Xi as out-of-touch and embarrassed by the incident, which ended with the Air Force shooting down the balloon just off the East Coast.
“The reason why Xi Jinping got very upset in terms of when I shot that balloon down with two box cars full of spy equipment is he didn’t know it was there,” Biden told the crowd.
“No, I’m serious,” he added. “That was the great embarrassment for dictators, when they didn’t know what happened.“
Biden also played down trade competition from China, which is the world’s second-biggest economy after the United States but struggling to emerge from COVID-era financial troubles.
“By the way, I promise you, don’t worry about China. Worry about China but don’t worry about China,” Biden said. “I really mean it. China has real economic difficulties.”
Biden’s remarks came hours after his secretary of state, in an interview with MSNBC, had called for the two countries to put the balloon incident behind them, saying it was a chapter that “should be closed.”
In Beijing on Wednesday, Mao told reporters that Biden’s remarks “go totally against facts and seriously violate diplomatic protocol, and severely infringe on China’s political dignity.”
“It is a blatant political provocation,” Mao said.
Mao also reiterated China’s version of the balloon episode, saying the balloon was for meteorological research and had been accidentally blown off course.
Administration officials signaled Wednesday that Biden had no intention of walking back his comments.
Biden and Blinken have made clear “we will continue to responsibly manage this relationship, maintain open lines of communication with the PRC,” Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, told reporters, using an abbreviation for the People’s Republic of China.
“But that, of course, does not mean we will not be blunt and forthright about our differences,” including differences on the global competition between democracies and autocracies, Patel said.
U.S.-China tensions have mounted for years as rivalry builds over trade and global influence. Repeated flare-ups have helped escalate the tensions, including over the balloon, U.S. tariffs, sanctions on China, and self-ruled Taiwan.
The U.S. is pressing China to embrace direct communications between Biden, Xi and other senior U.S. and Chinese military and civilian leaders, as a channel to defuse tensions and keep incidents from escalating into open hostilities.
Despite the administration’s diplomatic efforts to soothe relations, analysts point to the Republican political pressure, and note Biden regularly seems to go off-script to criticize Xi.
Bonnie Glaser, Asia director of the George Marshall Fund of the United States, pointed Wednesday to Biden’s state of the union address in February, soon after the balloon flight, as Republican lawmakers in the audience heckled him over China and other issues. Waving a finger in the air, Biden cried out, “Name me a world leader who’d change places with Xi Jinping! Name me one! Name me one!”
For Biden, “he’s under a lot of criticism from the right. He doesn’t want to be seen as soft on China. He views Xi Jinping as a dictator,” Glaser said.
“And he’s not very good … at differentiating what should be said in public and what should be said in private,” Glaser said. “And the relationship pays a price for it. There’s no doubt about it.”
Xi was likely upset by the claim that he hadn’t been fully informed about the balloon incident, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies and a longtime observer of Chinese politics.
“My sense is that Xi may not want to overreact and put the relationship back on ice again,” Tsang said in an email.
The initial Republican response to Biden’s remarks was approving. “It’s an appropriate description of their system of government,” Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said.
While Xi heads a country formally named the People’s Republic of China, he faces no limits on his terms as head of state, commander of the military and leader of the ruling Communist Party, which brooks no challenges to its authority.
In California, Biden had told donors that Xi “wants to have a relationship again.”
Blinken “went over there … did a good job, and it’s going to take time,” he said.
Associated Press writer Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.
Macron appeals to China’s Xi to ‘bring Russia to its senses’
BEIJING (AP) — Chinese leader Xi Jinping called Thursday for peace talks over Ukraine after French President Emmanuel Macron appealed to him to “bring Russia to its senses,” but Xi gave no indication Beijing would use its leverage as Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic partner to press for a settlement.
Xi gave no sign China, which declared it had a “no limits friendship” with Moscow before last year’s invasion, had changed its stance since calling for peace talks in February.
“Peace talks should resume as soon as possible,” Xi said. He called on other governments to avoid doing anything that might “make the crisis deteriorate or even get out of control.”
Beijing, which sees Moscow as a partner in opposing U.S. domination of global affairs, has tried to appear neutral in the conflict but has given Putin diplomatic support and repeated Russian justifications for the February 2022 attack. Xi received an effusive welcome from Putin when he visited Moscow last month, giving the isolated Russian president a political boost.
The Chinese leader said “legitimate security concerns of all parties” should be considered, a reference to Moscow’s argument that it attacked Ukraine because of the eastward expansion of NATO, the U.S.-European military alliance.
During talks earlier, Macron appealed to Xi to “bring Russia to its senses and bring everyone back to the negotiating table.”
Macron pointed to Chinese support for the United Nations Charter, which calls for respect of a country’s territorial integrity. He said Putin’s announcement of plans to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus violated international agreements and commitments to Xi’s government.
“We need to find a lasting peace,” the French president said. “I believe that this is also an important issue for China.”
Macron was accompanied to Beijing by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a show of European unity.
Von der Leyen said she encouraged Xi to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the Chinese leader “reiterated his willingness to speak when conditions and time are right.”
“I think this is a positive element,” von der Leyen said.
Von der Leyen warned China against sending military equipment to Russia, echoing a warning Wednesday by NATO’s 31 member governments of “severe consequences” for shipments of weapons or ammunition.
“Arming the aggressor is a clear violation of international law,” von der Leyen said. “This would indeed significantly harm the relationship between the European Union and China.”
China is the biggest buyer of Russian oil and gas, which helps prop up the Kremlin’s revenue in the face of Western sanctions. That increases Chinese influence, but Xi appears reluctant to jeopardize that partnership by pressuring Putin.
“China has always adhered to an objective and fair position on the issue of the Ukraine crisis,” said a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning. “We have been an advocate of a political solution to the crisis and a promoter of peace talks.”
Also Wednesday, the French and Chinese governments announced agreements including the purchase of 160 Airbus aircraft by a Chinese leasing company and for their companies to collaborate on nuclear, solar, wind power and biofuel development.
ITF resumes tennis in China with no word on Peng Shuai
TOKYO (AP) — The International Tennis Federation will play tournaments this year in China with no word of a resolution to the case of Chinese doubles player Peng Shuai.
Peng disappeared from public view shortly after accusing a former high-ranking Communist Party official — in a web posting in November of 2021 — of sexual assault.
The ITF, which conducts tournaments below the elite level in its World Tennis Tour, lists its first tournament in China on June 5-11 at Luzhou. The ITF’s last full season in China was 2019, prior to COVID-19.
“The ITF anticipates a resumption of tournament activity within China for each of the ITF Tours later this year,” the ITF said in a statement.
The WTA, which runs the sport’s top-tier women’s events, hasn’t announced if it will resume staging tournaments in China.
In late 2021, WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon announced that the WTA would be suspending all of its tournaments — including the season-ending WTA Finals — that were held in China because of concerns over Peng, costing the tour millions.
The men’s ATP has scheduled several event for later this year in China. It canceled 2022 events because of COVID-19 restrictions in China.
Peng gave a controlled interview a year ago during the Winter Olympics in Beijing and had dinner at the event with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. She left many questions unanswered and has largely been out of public view since then.
Simon has repeatedly called for a “formal investigation” into the allegations made by Peng, and has asked to meet privately with Peng. It’s not clear those conditions have been met.
In a statement announcing the ITF men’s and women’s tournaments returning to China, ITF President David Haggerty said the sport’s world governing body had to invest in the professional events that worked as “the main artery for the top level of the game.”
“As the global guardians of the game, we are passionate about providing a pathway for up and coming talent in all countries, and providing more opportunities for players to play closer to home,” Haggerty said, adding that the ITF was pleased to be returning to countries such as China, Burundi, Cyprus, Trinidad & Tobago and Taiwan.
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