WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday accused China of curtailing “rights and liberties” in Hong Kong and criticized U.S. company Nike and the National Basketball Association for falling in line with Beijing in a disagreement over free speech.
In a major policy speech on China ahead of talks with Beijing aimed at easing a trade war, Pence said the United States does not seek confrontation or to “de-couple” from its main economic rival.
But he took China to task for its handling of pro-democracy protests that have rocked Hong Kong for more than four months.
“Hong Kong is a living example of what can happen when China embraces liberty,” he said. “And yet, for the last few years, Beijing has increased its interventions in Hong Kong and engaged in actions that curtail the rights and liberties that Hong Kong’s people were guaranteed through a binding international agreement.”
He said the United States stands with the protesters in Hong Kong, millions of whom have taken to the streets in sometimes violent clashes over what they see as China’s tightening grip.
“We stand with you, we are inspired by you. We urge you to stay on the path of non-violent protest,” Pence said in his address at a Washington think tank.
He sharply criticized China for its treatment of Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang region. Earlier this month, the United States imposed visa restrictions on Chinese government and Communist Party officials it believes responsible for the detention or abuse of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
U.S. authorities this month also included Chinese video surveillance firm Hikvision on a trade blacklist for its alleged role in the Uighur crackdown.
Pence directed some of his harshest words at sports apparel giant Nike and the NBA, which he accused of siding with China’s Communist Party over freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
Pence, who is often the face of the Trump’s administration’s tougher policies on China, said the NBA and Nike had failed to defend basketball team Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, after he tweeted support of Hong Kong protesters earlier this month.
“Some of the NBA’s biggest players and owners, who routinely exercise their freedom to criticize this country, lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights of other peoples,” he said.
By “siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime,” Pence said.
Nike stores in China removed Rockets merchandise after Beijing criticized Morey, Pence noted. “Nike promotes itself as a so-called social-justice champion, but when it comes to Hong Kong, it prefers checking its social conscience at the door,” he said.
His closely watched speech comes ahead of a new round of talks between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chinese officials on Friday to try to end a bruising trade dispute.
The United States launched a trade war with China 15 months ago, alleging unfair trading practices such as theft of U.S. intellectual property and generous industrial subsidies at the expense of foreign competitors.
Trump is due to attend a summit in Chile where he has said he hopes to close a “phase one” trade deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Fears of antagonizing Beijing prompted the White House in June to postpone a major speech by Pence on China ahead of a meeting between the leaders aimed at getting trade talks back on track.
Pence said on Thursday the United States is “not seeking to contain China’s development.” “We want a constructive relationship with China’s leaders,” he said, calling on Beijing to “seize this unique moment in history to start anew by ending the trade practices that have taken advantage of the American people for far too long.”
Reporting by Alexandra Alper; Additional reporting by David Lawder and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Alistair Bell