Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his department are stepping up attacks against China over the country’s human rights abuses and handling of the coronavirus, barbs that come as observers around the world are outraged at Beijing’s treatment of pro-democracy protesters and Uyghur Muslims.
They also come during an election year and as President Trump is struggling to defend his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The attacks are not new, but they represent a sharpened message on China from an administration whose messaging on the nation has run the gamut from harsh condemnation to effusive praise. They have ranged from knocks on China for withholding information about the coronavirus to warnings directed at American companies about working with Chinese brands due to their use of forced labor; from admonitions about China’s actions in Hong Kong to condemnation for committing “the stain of the century” of human rights violations.
There have also been more general attacks, like one ominous Sunday night tweet from the State Department’s official account.
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“@SecPompeo: We are watching the world unite to come to understand the threat from the Chinese Communist Party,” it reads.
Pompeo, in a recent pair of speeches, has also taken explicit shots at China.
“China, in particular, is aggressively promoting a very different concept in which national priorities of various sorts prevail over the basic rights of speech, assembly, religious freedom, and free elections,” Pompeo said Thursday at a speech about the State Department’s efforts on “unalienable rights.”
Pompeo made similar comments at the Family Leadership Summit the next day in Iowa.
“And inside China, just to give a single example, a few weeks back I read a report about the Chinese Communist Party forcing mass abortions and sterilization on Chinese Muslims in Western China,” he said. “These are some of the most gross human rights violations we have seen and I’ve referred to it as the stain of the century.”
He added: “We’ve called out China’s war on faith. Its mass detention of Uyghurs, its godless decisions to replace church displays of the Ten Commandments with words from General Secretary Xi have not gone without being called out.”
Despite the recent tough talk, the administration has seemed to take a hodgepodge of stances on criticizing China, oftentimes depending on the issue. Trump has railed against China for taking advantage of the United States on trade deals since the 2016 campaign. But he’s often praised Chinese President Xi Jinping himself.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has maintained a consistent message against China’s claims in the South China Sea during the Trump administration, regularly executing freedom of navigation operations with U.S. Navy vessels. But Trump himself roiled Republicans last fall when he congratulated Xi on his country’s 70th anniversary, refraining from any criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
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The Trump administration has sought to stymie the Chinese-controlled tech company Huawei from global 5G networks — something it just secured a major victory at with the United Kingdom recently deciding to freeze Huawei out of its 5G infrastructure. But Trump, according to a memoir by his former National Security Adviser John Bolton, had indicated he personally didn’t care about China’s repression of ethnic minorities, specifically the Uyghur Muslims.
“At the opening dinner of the Osaka G20 meeting, with only interpreters present, Xi explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our interpreter, Trump had said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which he thought was exactly the right thing to do,” Bolton said. “[Deputy National Security Advisor Matt] Pottinger told me Trump said something very similar during the 2017 trip to China, which meant we could cross repression of Uighurs off our list of possible reasons to sanction China, at least as long as trade negotiations continued.”
Trump and those in his administration have repeatedly condemned Bolton and his book, denying many of the allegations it contains.
Now, amid the continuing fallout from the president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with Trump angrily deflecting blame for the virus toward China — where it originated — Pompeo and the State Department are putting rhetorical pressure on China with renewed vigor.
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“Countries that want to be global powers, countries that want to participate on the global stage, have a corresponding obligation to comply to the promises they make. China made a promise to the World Health Organization. There’s a set of rules about disclosure, and when you have an incident in your country that could potentially lead to a pandemic, you have an obligation to report that and allow others co tome in and helo,” Pompeo said in a video tweeted last week that was originally on The Hill’s “Virtually Live.”
The United States has withdrawn from the World Health Organization over its alleged compliance with China in covering up the coronavirus in its initial stages.
Pompeo added: “The Chinese Communist Party chose differently, they co-opted the World Health Organization to achieve that coverup, and the result today is that we have hundreds of thousands of people who have died and trillions of dollars in global damage as a direct result.”
Trump got at a similar point in an interview with “Fox News Sunday.”
“It came from China. They should’ve never let it escape. They should’ve never let it out,” he said.
Trump later continued: “The World Health got a tremendous amount wrong. They basically did whatever China wanted them to. And we’ll save now almost $500 million a year, which is nice. But the World Health got a lot wrong.”
China, meanwhile, has shot back in the diplomatic war of words, accusing the United States of mishandling the coronavirus and even at one point falsely accusing the U.S. Army of introducing the virus into China.
“The #US politicizes #COVID19 response at home and uses ‘attacking China’ as a panacea for domestic problems. A real-life #HouseofCards is on in #Washington, with people’s lives at stake,” Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the country’s foreign ministry, said in a tweet last week.
It’s unclear where U.S.-China relations could go from this increasingly hostile juncture, with another grand trade deal, cooperation on North Korea or reconciliation on geopolitical claims in East Asia looking increasingly unlikely. But any kind of military conflict still appears far-fetched, and neither nation appears poised to institute new tariffs on the other — private businesses in both countries continue to work in the other, with American businesses like the NBA still reluctant to even acknowledge China’s human rights abuses, let alone take any action or make any statements on the matter.
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For now, tit-for-tat sanctions appear to be as far as either country will go, with Trump this month signing the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, a bill to sanctions Chinese entities that have contributed to eroding the freedoms once enjoyed in Hong Kong and financial institutions that do business with them. The executive branch also announced sanctions in relation to the oppression of the Uyghur Muslims.
Meanwhile, China sanctioned some U.S. individuals, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Cruz, a close ally of the administration, echoed the rhetoric from Pompeo in his response.
“Unfortunately for CCP leaders, I don’t have plans to travel to the authoritarian regime that covered up the coronavirus pandemic and endangered millions of lives worldwide,” Cruz said in a statement that also condemned the “horrific forced abortions and sterilizations” of the Uyghur Muslims.
Fox News’ Sam Dorman contributed to this report.