Pence says NBA censorship is ‘un-American,’ but denies decoupling with China

Domestic News

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech yesterday in Washington, D.C., on U.S.-China relations, following up on his China bash-fest from October 2018. This year’s speech, which was originally expected to be highly critical of China, was reportedly delayed from this summer because of hope for progress — later dashed — in trade talks.

The final speech was notably less a litany of complaints about China than the speech a year ago, and had a much more heavy focus on Trump love than China hate. In fact, some of Pence’s harshest words were reserved for the NBA and affiliated brands.

The speech began not that differently from last year. Here are excerpts from the full transcript per the White House:

  • Pence listed “Beijing’s policies most harmful to America’s interests and values” as “China’s debt diplomacy and military expansionism; its repression of people of faith; construction of a surveillance state; and, of course, to China’s arsenal of policies inconsistent with free and fair trade, including tariffs, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, and industrial subsidies.”
  • “As President Trump has said many times, we rebuilt China over the last 25 years. No truer words were spoken, but those days are over,” Pence said, blithely dismissing the roles of markets and trade with countries other than the U.S., and the efforts of Chinese people themselves.
  • “Millions of ethnic and religious minorities in China are struggling against the Party’s efforts to eradicate their religious and cultural identities. The Communist Party in China has arrested Christian pastors, banned the sale of Bibles, demolished churches, and imprisoned more than one million Muslim Uighurs.”
  • Pence cited complaints about intellectual property, fentanyl, and the export of surveillance equipment. He repeated complaints about China’s alleged “debt diplomacy,” despite a lack of evidence to back up those assertions. He also added the insinuation, “It is reported that Beijing is even eyeing locations on the Atlantic Ocean that could serve as naval facilities.”

But the most important part of the speech was the second half, which will also likely generate the most headlines.

On Hong Kong

  • “Hong Kong is a living example of what can happen when China embraces liberty.”
  • “I’m pleased to observe that Hong Kong authorities have withdrawn the extradition bill that sparked the protests in the first place, and Beijing has shown some restraint.”
  • But Pence also urged restraint from the protesters: “To the millions in Hong Kong who have been peacefully demonstrating to protect your rights these past months, we stand with you. We are inspired by you, and we urge you to stay on the path of nonviolent protest.”

On censorship and the NBA

  • China has been “trying to export censorship” lately, Pence said, as “far too many American multinational corporations have kowtowed to the lure of China’s money and markets by muzzling…criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.”
  • He then went directly after Nike: “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. Nike stores in China actually removed their Houston Rockets merchandise from their shelves to join the Chinese government in protest against the Rockets general manager.”
  • “In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime.”
  • “When American corporations, professional sports, pro athletes embrace censorship, it’s not just wrong; it’s un-American. American corporations should stand up for American values here at home and around the world.”
  • Pence then pulled out the same “either you’re with Trump or you’re with China” argument that his speech was criticized for last year: “Beijing’s economic and strategic actions, its attempts to shape American public opinion, prove out what I said a year ago and it’s just as true today: China wants a different American President, which is the ultimate proof that President Trump’s leadership is working.”

On “containment” and “decoupling”

  • “We are not seeking to contain China’s development,” Pence insisted. “We want a constructive relationship with China’s leaders, like we have enjoyed for generations with China’s people.”
  • Later in the speech, he also specifically denied that the Trump administration seeks to “decouple” from China, and said that the “United States seeks engagement with China, and China’s engagement with the wider world.”
  • “All that Beijing is doing today, from the Party’s great firewall in cyberspace or to that great wall of sand in the South China Sea, from their distrust of Hong Kong’s autonomy, or their repression of people of faith all demonstrate that it’s the Chinese Communist Party that has been ‘de-coupling’ from the wider world for decades.”

There are two good reasons why China hawks may be unconvinced that Pence’s words denying containment or decoupling are sincere.

  • One is that other top officials, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have recently made comments that their goal is “ensuring that China retains only its proper place in the world.”
  • Another is that Pence’s comments come right before an expected partial trade deal, so it may be seen as “merely the teaspoon of sugar that makes the medicine go down,” according to economist Patrick Chovanec.