US calls China’s Hong Kong moves an assault on democracy, sees ‘difficult talks’ next week

Police officers gesture at a China and Hong Kong flag-raising ceremony at Golden Bauhinia Square in Hong Kong, March 11, 2021.
Police officers gesture at a China and Hong Kong flag-raising ceremony at Golden Bauhinia Square in Hong Kong, March 11, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – The United States on Thursday (March 11) condemned China’s moves to change Hong Kong’s electoral system, calling it a continuing assault on democracy in the territory.

It forecast “difficult” talks with China’s top diplomats next week, when the genocide Washington says China is committing against minority Muslims will be an issue the US side plans to raise.

White House spokesman Jen Psaki said Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan would not hold back when they meet the Chinese diplomats in Alaska on March 18 and 19, “whether it’s on Taiwan, or...  efforts to push back democracy in Hong Kong, or on concerns we have about the economic relationship”.

“Addressing the genocide against Uighur Muslims is something that will be a topic of discussion with the Chinese directly next week,” she added.  

China rejects US charges that it has committed genocide against Uighurs and other Muslims in its Xinjiang region, and calls criticism of its behaviour towards Hong Kong and self-ruled Taiwan unwarranted interference in its internal affairs.

“The changes approved by the National People’s Congress today on March 11 are a direct attack on Hong Kong’s autonomy, its freedoms and democratic processes, limiting political participation, reducing democratic representation and stifling political debate,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told a news briefing.

China’s parliament on Thursday approved a draft decision to change Hong Kong’s electoral system, further reducing democratic representation in the city’s institutions and introducing a mechanism to vet politicians’ loyalty to Beijing.

Mr Price said the US would be frank in telling China how its actions challenge US values when Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets top Chinese officials on March 18 in Alaska, the first high-level in-person contacts between the two sparring countries under the Biden administration.

“There will be some difficult conversations I would expect,” he said.

“We will certainly not pull any punches in discussing our areas of disagreement,” Mr Price said, urging Beijing to play its part in improving the frayed relationship.

“We are looking for Beijing... to demonstrate that seriousness of purpose, to demonstrate that it seeks to live up to its own oft-stated desire to change the tone of the bilateral relationship.”

President Joe Biden’s administration has committed to reviewing elements of US policies towards China, as the world’s two largest economies navigate relations that sank to their lowest depths in decades during the Donald Trump presidency.

Mr Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Mr Xi Jinping, held their first phone call as leaders last month and appeared at odds on most issues, even as Mr Xi warned that confrontation would be a “disaster” for both nations.

Mr Price mentioned a long list of “difficult issues” with Beijing that he said would come up in talks, including Hong Kong, China’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, its position on Taiwan and the South China Sea.

He added that Washington would explore areas for cooperation with China where it was in the US interest, including climate change.

“The point remains that we’re not looking to engage in talks for the sake of talks,” he said.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on Thursday that China and the US had common interests and many areas for cooperation, and that Beijing hoped ties could develop in a healthy way based on respecting each other’s core interests, win-win cooperation and non-interference in internal affairs.