WASHINGTON -- Trump administration officials signaled support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong -- and defiance toward the Chinese government -- by granting a series of high-level meetings this week to a Hong Kong bookseller who has drawn Beijing's ire.
Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong publisher and democracy advocate, met with National Security Adviser John Bolton on Wednesday, after meetings earlier this week with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Rick Scott of Florida.
U.S. administrations rarely offer such a warm welcome to any but the most senior visiting dignitaries, and 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 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 U.S. and China are working to get stalled trade talks back on track.
Lai controls the Next Digital media company, which publishes newspapers including Hong Kong's Apple Daily. Asked about Lai's meeting with Pompeo, State Department spokeswoman 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 Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, has since said that bill is "dead," though she hasn't withdrawn it.
Lai and Pompeo also discussed Hong Kong's autonomy under China's "One Country, Two Systems" framework, 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 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 U.S. consulate to demand the U.S. stop going down what it called the "wrong path."
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"By repeatedly interfering in Hong Kong affairs, the U.S. has sent seriously wrong signals to the world," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a briefing on July 9. "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 Pence gave a speech in October that signaled the U.S. would view the country much more as a strategic rival. In that speech, 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 President Donald Trump wanted to moderate that approach after Pence postponed another speech, set for late June, in which he was going to criticize China's human rights record. Trump and Pence decided the speech should be delivered after Trump and 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 $2 billion weapons package including tanks and missiles for Taiwan, a decision that Geng, the foreign ministry spokesman, called a "gross interference in China's internal affairs."
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