America’s top diplomat launched a verbal salvo against China on Wednesday that was anything but diplomatic, attacking Beijing for its policies on health, defence, Taiwan and 5G and its “brutal” regime as he expressed US concern over certifying Hong Kong’s autonomy.
During a regular press briefing in Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited US worries that pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong were “manhandled” this week while trying to stop an irregular legislative procedure by pro-Beijing legislators.
Pompeo, also a former CIA director, also called out the move to have leading Hong Kong activists like United Democrats founder Martin Lee and entrepreneur and media owner Jimmy Lai “hauled into court”.
“Actions like these make it more difficult to assess that Hong Kong remains highly autonomous from mainland China,” Pompeo said. “We’re closely watching what is going on there.”
Under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, the US has until the end of this month to assess whether Hong Kong remains suitably autonomous from China, a prerequisite for extending the city’s preferential US trading and investment privileges.
Comments by Pompeo, who is sometimes referred to in Washington as President Donald Trump’s “attack dog” on China, come as the administration ratchets up blame on Beijing and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
This dovetails with an effort to deflect attention over its own delayed response to the coronavirus as Trump’s poll numbers wobble and his re-election campaign ramps up.
Earlier on Wednesday, Trump lashed out on Twitter at “some wacko in China” for “blaming everybody other than China for the Virus which has now killed hundreds of thousands of people”, he wrote.
“Please explain to this dope that it was the ‘incompetence of China’, and nothing else, that did this mass Worldwide killing!”
It was not immediately clear whom Trump was referring to. The White House did not comment on the object of Trump’s ire. But it came a day after Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian issued a lengthy defence of China’s role during the pandemic.
During a media briefing, Zhao said the US was targeting the WHO in a bid to “shift the blame” from its own “incompetent response” to the coronavirus pandemic.
Within minutes of taking the podium on Wednesday, Pompeo cited a laundry list of US concerns ranging from China’s domestic and foreign policies to its overall governance approach.
“China’s been ruled by a brutal, authoritarian regime, a communist regime, since 1949,” he said, citing the challenge of getting “the Chinese Communist Party and China to behave in a way that’s consistent with how we ask every nation to behave”.
The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Pompeo devoted considerable time to a critique of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, adding that the media was “missing the bigger picture” by focusing on the disease rather than China’s role.
The secretary of state, a close confidant of the president, may have his own reasons for shifting the focus. In recent days, after the firing of a State Department inspector general, he has faced growing questions over allegations that he misused taxpayer money and government aircraft and had diplomatic security agents walk his dog and pick up restaurant takeout food.
An agency whistle-blower cited agent complaints last year that serving Pompeo was turning them into “UberEats with guns”, referring to a popular food delivery service. Pompeo has denied wrongdoing.
Pompeo said on Wednesday that Beijing destroyed live virus samples rather than sharing them, denied investigators access to its labs, censored discussion within China about the virus and resisted calls for an independent investigation into the origin of the disease.
He directly faulted China for the loss of more than 92,000 American lives, 36 million lost US jobs, 300,000 deaths globally and US$9 trillion in economic damage worldwide, calling out President Xi Jinping by name.
“President Xi claimed this week that China has acted ‘with openness, transparency and responsibility’ – I wish it were so,” Pompeo said. “If the Chinese Communist Party wants to demonstrate real openness, real transparency, it could easily hold press conferences, like this very press conference, and allow reporters to ask him anything that they would like.”
Turning to other thorny bilateral issues, Pompeo slammed Beijing’s island building activities in the South China Sea, its sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat, threats to a Malaysian energy prospector and unilateral fishing ban in the region.
He also vowed to redouble efforts to keep Huawei Technologies out of the US 5G telecommunications system and condemned China’s effort to threaten Australia with economic retribution “for the simple act of asking for an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus”, Pompeo said. “It’s not right.”
Additional reporting by Owen Churchill
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This article Mike Pompeo rips into Beijing with a litany of US grievances first appeared on South China Morning Post