China hardens resolve to defy US, even as it speaks of cooperation; Li Keqiang calls for close trade relations


Beijing: Ignoring threats from Washington, China stripped another layer of autonomy from Hong Kong on Thursday, ploughing ahead with a plan that would ban any form of dissent deemed subversive in the territory reclaimed from Britain more than two decades ago.

But even as the plan was approved by China’s top legislative body, and Chinese officials taunted the United States as an imperious meddler, Premier Li Keqiang struck a conciliatory tone. While offering no concessions to US demands, he called for close trade relations between the two countries.

The clash over Hong Kong and other issues points to the quandary facing China as it grows in power and contends with an increasingly aggressive Trump administration. The Chinese leadership does not want to incinerate the relationship with the US, given the enormous economic benefits. Nor is it willing to back down, reflecting divisions in Beijing between hawks and more moderating forces.

“Anything the US says or does or will do, China will refuse,” Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said in a telephone interview.

With both countries blaming each other for the coronavirus pandemic, trade disputes and now the crisis roiling Hong Kong, the result has been a downward spiral of actions and responses that may not let up before President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign ends in November.

The back-and-forth between Washington and Beijing intensified in the past two days.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Wednesday that Washington would no longer consider Hong Kong to have significant autonomy, clearing the way for Trump to end the special trade and economic relations the territory now enjoys. Less than 24 hours later, the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, did precisely what Pompeo had railed against: Authorising new security laws in Hong Kong.

After the US won an initial victory in a Canadian court Wednesday in its long effort to bring criminal charges against a senior executive of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, China swiftly vowed to retaliate against both Canada and the US. China already had blocked some Canadian exports and detained two Canadian citizens for more than 500 days.

File image of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping holding talks. By Erin Schaff © 2020 The New York Times

Trump administration officials argue that they have brought China to the table on trade by imposing tariffs. But they have failed so far to achieve their goal of fundamentally shifting China’s behaviour — on trade or any other issue.

From Beijing’s perspective, the punitive measures have simply revealed the core of US hostility toward China.

“When China was rising as an economic power, the United States tolerated it,” Shen Dingli, an expert on relations with the US at Fudan University in Shanghai, said in a telephone interview. “Now that China is strong, it cannot tolerate it anymore.”

When the Trump administration announced new restrictions to block companies around the world from using American-made machinery and software to help Huawei, Beijing promised to target American technology companies operating in China.

When the administration capped the number of Chinese journalists in the US, China kicked out most of the American correspondents from three major news organisations in the US, including The New York Times.

Both Trump and President Xi Jinping of China feel compelled to appear strong. The US president views blaming China for the coronavirus crisis in the US as a path to reelection. The Chinese leader faces enormous economic and diplomatic challenges that could stir domestic opposition to his grip on power.

What the American moves have not done is chasten Xi’s government, which appears to feel simultaneously embattled and defiant.

Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, all but dared the Trump administration to carry out its threat to end Hong Kong’s favoured trade status. He noted that there were 85,000 Americans there and scores of companies that would reap “the bitter fruits” of the US decision.

“Washington is too narcissistic,” he wrote in Chinese on Weibo on Thursday. “American politicians like Pompeo arrogantly think that the fate of Hong Kong is in their hands.”

The National People’s Congress on Thursday dutifully adopted the government’s proposals to impose new laws on Hong Kong to suppress subversion, secession, terrorism and other acts that might threaten China’s national security — as authorities in Beijing define it. The vote was nearly unanimous, with only one delegate voting against and six abstaining.

China’s authoritarian system and state-run media give Xi enormous power to control the message in the face of US hostility — exploiting it to rally popular outrage and tempering it to play the role of magnanimous global partner.

At his ritual news conference wrapping up the National People’s Congress on Thursday, Li, the premier, singled out for praise an American company, Honeywell, that Tuesday announced an investment in Wuhan — the city from which the pandemic spread. A month before, the Pentagon had awarded Honeywell a contract to supply protective masks.

Li twice called for “peaceful” relations with Taiwan, after conspicuously dropping the word when he discussed Taiwan at the start of the week-long legislative session. And he underlined China’s willingness to look further for the origins of the coronavirus.

China, though, has shown little inclination for compromise.

Beijing reacted harshly to a Canadian court’s ruling that cleared an initial hurdle for the extradition of Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive of Huawei charged by the US with bank fraud related to US sanctions against Iran.

The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa, Ontario, accused the US and Canada of abusing their bilateral extradition treaty and “arbitrarily taking forceful measures” against Meng.

“The purpose of the United States is to bring down Huawei and other Chinese high-tech companies, and Canada has been acting in the process as an accomplice of the United States,” the embassy said on Twitter, which is banned inside China. “The whole case is entirely a grave political incident.”

China has already retaliated against Canadian exports of pork, canola oil and other products, and in recent days it has hinted that it will target still more. It has also held two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in secret detention on state security charges widely viewed as retaliatory.

Neither has appeared in a public court hearing or been afforded access to lawyers during court proceedings. That has hardened anti-Chinese sentiment in Canada, which had not historically been as suspicious of Beijing as, say, the US has.

The International Crisis Group, where Kovrig, a former diplomat, worked, posted a message on Twitter noting that Thursday was his 535th day in detention. “Each passing day is a stain on China’s reputation,” the group said.

Xi, who has ruled with an increasingly authoritarian grip since 2012, seems impervious to worries about China’s reputation. He has emerged from the pandemic newly emboldened, seizing on nationalist themes to deflect from the government’s early failures in stopping the coronavirus’ spread.

He has described the pandemic and its still-unfolding economic challenge as a crucible that will forge a stronger government and a stronger party. China has also showed it will not be distracted from its defence of territorial claims along its land and sea borders — from the South China Sea to the Himalayas. The commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s garrison in Hong Kong delivered a pointed reminder of its duty to keep the peace there on the sidelines of the congress in Beijing this week.

The bravado has weakened what leverage the US might once have wielded: the threat of international condemnation, restrictions on trade, even the prospect of decoupling the world’s two largest economies. Beijing now seems willing to bear any cost.

Lau Siu-kai, a former senior Hong Kong government official who advises Beijing, said that US pressure had failed to prompt a reconsideration in the Hong Kong issue in part because China’s leadership has anticipated US opposition on many fronts.

“Beijing will stick with its new policy toward Hong Kong regardless of US reactions and is prepared to take countermeasures in a tit-for-tat manner,” he said.

Keith Bradsher and Steven Lee Myers c.2020 The New York Times Company