Trump team sends defiant signal to Beijing by meeting HK activist

Since US President Donald Trump took office, he has torn up the diplomatic rulebook and upended standing alliances. Britain, the United States' most enduring partner, is caught up in Washington's spat with Iran, and its ambassador in Washington resigned following disparaging comments from Mr Trump. Long-time ally France has passed new laws that would tax technology giants, and Mr Trump has threatened to retaliate with tariffs. Meanwhile, Washington and Beijing are still locked in a bruising trade and technology war which shows little sign of abating, and other issues involving Taiwan and Hong Kong have also cropped up.

While the Trump administration officials didn't appear publicly alongside Mr Jimmy Lai, they posed for photos with him. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON • Officials from the Trump administration signalled support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong - and defiance towards the Chinese government - by granting a series of high-level meetings this week to a Hong Kong bookseller who has drawn Beijing's ire.

Mr Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong publisher and democracy advocate, met National Security Adviser John Bolton on Wednesday, after meetings earlier this week with Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Republican senators Ted Cruz, Cory Gardner and Rick Scott.

United States administrations rarely offer such a warm welcome to any but the most senior visiting dignitaries, and Mr Lai's meetings with an array of top officials were even more unusual as he holds no government position.

While the administration officials did not appear publicly alongside Mr Lai, all three posed for photos with him. The succession of meetings appeared calculated to send a message of support from the administration for protests that have wracked Hong Kong in recent weeks, with hundreds of thousands of people hitting the streets to oppose an extradition Bill.

The meetings come just as the US and China are working to get stalled trade talks back on track.

Mr Lai controls the Next Digital media company, which publishes newspapers including Hong Kong's Apple Daily.

Asked about Mr Lai's meeting with Mr Pompeo, State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said the two discussed developments linked to the proposed Bill that would, for the first time, allow extraditions to the mainland. Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam has since said that the Bill is "dead", though she has not withdrawn it.

Mr Lai and Mr Pompeo also discussed Hong Kong's autonomy under China's "one country, two systems" framework, Ms Ortagus said.

Said Mr Christian Whiton, a former State Department official who represents Next Digital: "In each of his meetings with senior administration officials and on Capitol Hill, Mr Lai asked for continued attention to the fight in Hong Kong and support for those resisting Beijing's efforts to erode freedom."

The meetings got the attention of senior Chinese officials in Hong Kong and Beijing. In Hong Kong, the Chinese government made a formal protest to the US consulate to demand the US stop going down what it called the "wrong path".

"By repeatedly interfering in Hong Kong affairs, the US has sent seriously wrong signals to the world," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a briefing on Tuesday. "We deplore and firmly oppose that."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2019, with the headline Trump team sends defiant signal to Beijing by meeting HK activist. Subscribe