US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has raised his voice over China's moves to repress democracy and rights in Hong Kong. Image: Xinhua

HONG KONG – The United States and China have started debating the agenda for their meeting in Alaska on March 18, with both sides trading recriminations over human rights, trade and other rancorous issues.

On Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US condemns China’s continuing assault on democratic institutions in Hong Kong.

“The National People’s Congress (NPC) decision to unilaterally change Hong Kong’s electoral system is a direct attack on autonomy promised to people in Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” Blinken said.

“These actions deny Hong Kongers a voice in their own governance by limiting political participation, reducing democratic representation and stifling political debate.”

Beijing’s actions also run counter to the Basic Law’s clear acknowledgment that Hong Kong elections should progress towards universal suffrage, said Blinken, adding that China should uphold its international obligations and commitments and to act consistently with Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

Blinken said the Hong Kong government should release and drop charges against all individuals charged under the National Security Law and other laws merely for standing for elections or for their expression of dissenting views.

He said a stable, prosperous Hong Kong that respects human rights, freedoms, and pluralism serves the interests of Hong Kong, mainland China, and the broader international community. 

“The US stands united with our allies and partners in speaking out for the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong,” he said.

Pro-democracy activist Ben Chung leaves the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre in Hong Kong the day after appearing in court charged with conspiracy to commit subversion. Photo: Vernon Yuen/AFP

On Wednesday, Blinken announced on Twitter that he would meet Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18 to engage on a range of issues, “including those where we have deep disagreements.”

Blinken also told lawmakers on the same day that the US would discuss with China some intense disagreements over trade and human rights in Tibet, Hong Kong and the western Xinjiang region, as well as the coronavirus pandemic. Other items such as North Korea will also be discussed, according to the US media.

A senior US official was quoted as saying in a Wall Street Journal report that the US would raise issues about China’s stance on Hong Kong and pressure on Taiwan, and the economic embargoes China has placed on ally Australia.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will also attend the meeting, which will follow Blinken’s first overseas trip to Japan and South Korea and mark the first high-level in-person contact between China and the US under the Biden administration.

Ships with Australian coal stranded off China. The US plans to raise embargoes against Australia with the Chinese. Photo; AFP

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, said on his YouTube channel on Friday, “Anyone from the US who wants to use its alliance system to threaten China will not succeed. It is an intervention in China’s internal matter if the US wants China to change its policies about Xinjiang’s governance and Hong Kong’s stabilization.

“China and the US communicate on these topics. China will help the US understand the truth and reduce misunderstanding and misjudgment,” Hu wrote, adding that it would be a dangerous idea for the US to try to pressure China.

Hu also said he believed that US allies wanted to cooperate with China, rather than follow the US in suppressing China. He said allowing the US and China to compete peacefully under agreed rules would be the “highest common factor” for both countries.

“The US should give up its mindset of attending this meeting with a special advantage but have an attitude of mutual respect. It will help make achievements,” Hu said. “One side asks questions while the other side gives pre-determined answers. It should not be a scene in Sino-US relations now and in future.”

On Thursday, an article published by the Global Times criticized the US for being not sincere as it unilaterally announced the Alaska meeting one day earlier than China did.

Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University’s School of International Relations and Public Affairs, was quoted as saying that “the US wants to gain some advantage because if the meeting doesn’t take place or the result is not positive, the US could let the world blame China.”

An undated file photo of Uighurs being held at a ‘vocational training’ center in Xinjiang, China. Photo: Twitter

Hong Kong-based political commentator Yau Ching-yuen said it would be hard for the US and China to reach an agreement in Alaska as both sides had many differences, including Hong Kong and Taiwan related issues. The two powers had their own agenda and would probably not compromise with each other.

Other Hong Kong-based political commentators said sending their hawkish officials to meet far from Washington and Beijing showed that China and the US had a lot of disagreements that would not be resolved easily.

Meanwhile, Chinese media said Alaska is a good place to meet as it is located in the middle of the two countries, showing that both sides have taken the initiative to step forward. 

2019 protests

On Friday morning, Chinese officials held a media briefing in Beijing about the NPC’s latest decision to change Hong Kong’s election system.

“The elections in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region are China’s internal affairs in which foreign countries should not intervene,” said Zhang Xiaoming, deputy chief of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO). “The US has also changed its election rules recently. How come they oppose the electoral changes in Hong Kong?”

“The US said it was ‘a beautiful sight to behold’ when rioters occupied the Legislative Council in 2019. But in January, the US called the Capitol riot ‘domestic terrorism.’ Isn’t it double standard? How can US politicians be morally qualified to comment on Hong Kong’s electoral changes?” Zhang said.

US accused of double standards for praising the occupation of Hong Kong’s legislature but criticizing the Capitol rioters. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP

Zhang said it was shameful for the US to impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials. He said HKMAO chief Xia Baolong, deputy director Deng Zhonghua and he felt proud to be on the US sanction list.

Zhang said foreign investors had become more confident in investing in Hong Kong after the national security law was implemented last year, given that capital inflow, banking deposits and initial public offering activities continued to increase. He said the Chinese government would continue the “one country, two systems” principle in Hong Kong.

Deng said the proposed electoral changes should not be called a “regression of Hong Kong’s democratic development” but a good system to widen the voter base.

“Recovering the past system is not a regression. People should not assume that the number of seats of the general election must increase,” Deng said, referring to past existence of seats representing the Election Committee in LegCo.

The establishment of a committee to review and confirm the qualifications of election candidates would not reduce Hong Kong people’s rights to vote and be voted for but help kick out those who oppose China and disrupt Hong Kong, Deng said.

On Friday, former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou said Beijing’s latest decision to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system spells the death of “one country, two systems.” Ma said it is “extremely regrettable” that “one country, two systems” has officially become history.

Ma’s comments came after the NPC decided on Thursday to add 300 seats to the 1,200-strong Election Committee and 20 seats in the 90-seat LegCo. The move will increase Beijing’s influence in the LegCo and chief executive elections.

Read: UK tensions grow as China tightens grip on HK polls