Trump team sends defiant signal to Beijing by meeting Hong Kong activist

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

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Trump administration officials 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 (July 10), after meetings earlier this week with Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Republican Senators Ted Cruz, Cory Gardner and Rick Scott.

US 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 was even more unusual, given that he holds no government position.

While the administration officials didn't 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 demanding protection for personal freedoms and opposition to an extradition proposal in the former British colony.

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 legislation that would for the first time allow extraditions to the mainland.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has since said that the Bill is "dead", though she hasn't withdrawn it.

Mr Lai and Mr Pompeo also discussed Hong Kong's autonomy under China's "One Country, Two Systems" framework, Ms Ortagus said.

"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," said Mr Christian Whiton, a former State Department official who represents Next Digital.

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."

The meetings seem to be in line with the administration's more confrontational approach toward China in the months since Mr Pence gave a speech in October that signalled the US would view the country much more as a strategic rival.

In that speech, Mr Pence said China's goal was "nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies".

There had been suggestions that US President Donald Trump wanted to moderate that approach after Mr Pence postponed another speech, set for late June, in which he was going to criticise China's human rights record.

Mr Trump and Mr Pence decided the speech should be delivered after the US President and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke on the sidelines of a Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, in late June. But the event still hasn't been rescheduled.

Tensions have only increased since then.

On Tuesday, the State Department gave approval for a proposed US$2 billion (S$2.71 billion) weapons package including tanks and missiles for Taiwan, a decision that Mr Geng, the foreign ministry spokesman, called a "gross interference in China's internal affairs".

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