Biden says U.S. should lead world in condemning China over Hong Kong actions

DETROIT (Reuters) – The United States must lead the world in condemning China if it imposes new national security rules on Hong Kong, likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said on Friday after Beijing unveiled a law that could undermine the territory’s autonomy.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also rebuked this week’s move by China’s Communist Party-controlled parliament, calling it arbitrary and disastrous. On Thursday, Republican President Donald Trump warned that Washington would react “very strongly” against any attempt by Beijing to gain more control over the former British colony.

On CNBC, Biden said, “We should be calling the rest of the world to condemn their actions, criticizing Trump for a “silence” on human rights issues the former vice president said was “devastating for people around the world.”

“All it does is encourage thugs and dictators, which, in fact, I think the president has some kind of affinity for,” Biden said.

China has quickly become a focus in the U.S. presidential race, with both Trump and Biden spending millions of dollars on ad campaigns before Nov. 3’s election targeting each other’s record in dealing with the country.

Trump’s campaign, which has seized on Americans’ growing animosity toward China over the coronavirus outbreak to underpin his re-election pitch, contends Biden will not be as tough on Beijing as the president is.

But Biden argues Trump is helping China by undermining U.S. relations with allies and reducing the United States’ role and influence in international institutions.

China’s action could spark fresh protests in Hong Kong, which enjoys many freedoms not allowed on the mainland, after often-violent demonstrations last year plunged the city into its deepest turmoil since its return to Beijing’s rule in 1997.

Pro-democracy demonstrators have for years opposed the idea of national security laws, arguing they could erode the city’s high degree of autonomy, guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula in place for two decades.

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China’s parliament aims for show of strength

China’s National People’s Congress is a key date in Beijing’s choreography of politics and power.

It takes place this year as the country emerges from the virus crisis – and seeks to bolster its authority both on the domestic and the global stage.

It also follows months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that have angered China’s leaders. The congress has proposed a new national security law that looks set to limit freedoms in the territory.

The annual meeting is usually scheduled for early March but was postponed because of the pandemic.

And, as much as that delay highlighted the severity of the crisis, its rescheduling is a show of strength and confidence – a sign, Beijing hopes, that things are under control.

China is where the pandemic started but it’s also the country that brought a large outbreak under control – with lockdown measures emulated by many other countries hit by the virus.

The economic fallout, though, remains dramatic – in the first quarter, China’s GDP contracted for the first time in decades.

Added to those domestic challenges, Beijing is facing increasing scrutiny and criticism from abroad over what it did – and didn’t do – when the virus emerged.

What is the National People’s Congress?

The NPC is China’s parliament, the top legislative body, and it usually meets once a year in early March.

Although in theory the country’s most powerful institution, it is seen as largely a rubber-stamp assembly in Beijing’s theatrics of democracy.

It usually approves whatever has been decided beforehand by the top echelon of the Communist Party.

Why is the Hong Kong proposal controversial?

Usually, the NPC is about unveiling the country’s key economic targets, approving budgets, and passing legislation.

This year will also see the discussion of a proposal for a new security law in Hong Kong that could ban sedition, secession and treason.

The proposal is highly controversial – when the Hong Kong government tried to pass similar legislation in 2003, about 500,000 people took part in street protests against it, and the legislation was eventually shelved.

A spokesman for the NPC said on Thursday that that legislation was “highly necessary” and would “safeguard national security in Hong Kong”.

However, pro-democracy activists believe that Beijing is slowly eroding Hong Kong’s judicial independence and other freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China.

The proposal is also controversial because it is expected to circumvent Hong Kong’s own law-making processes – leading to criticism that Beijing is undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The draft motion is seen as response to months of pro-democracy street protests, that often ended in violent clashes, in Hong Kong.

What else is on the agenda?

According to state media, topping the agenda will also be: epidemic control, economic growth targets, poverty alleviation, employment policy, and drafting China’s first civil code.

Premier Li Keqiang – the number two in Chinese politics – is scheduled to speak on Friday, with his address possibly including the economic target for the year as well as fresh measures to stimulate the economy.

But after the depressing data from the first quarter, there’s doubt over whether there will a clear-cut growth target for 2020.

It’s also set to be a large affair. Nearly 3,000 delegates from around the country will gather in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for 10 days. They represent China’s provinces, autonomous regions, centrally-administered municipalities, the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, as well as the armed forces.

There will also be a meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the most powerful political advisory body in the country – which does not have any legislative power.

While the NPC will meet on Friday, the CPPCC already kicked off on Thursday.

The importance of projecting power and strength

Failure to handle the economic fallout from the pandemic could undermine Beijing’s domestic legitimacy – a real problem for a regime that promises growing prosperity in exchange for authoritarian rule.

At least as important as the actual policy, will therefore be the desire to project power and control. State media have already touted the event as being of “historic significance” and an “opportunity to gather national strength”.

To the outside world, China will seek to project itself as a transparent and responsible power – a model for the rest of the world.

Despite being accused of suppressing early warnings, China insists it alerted the world of the severity of the virus in time. Beijing says other countries simply neglected to heed those warnings.

What is the virus situation in China?

The novel coronavirus broke out in late 2019 in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province. The country was the epicentre of the virus before it spread around the world.

But wide-ranging lockdown and quarantine measures eventually slowed the number of new infections to a single-digit trickle.

Out of about 84,000 confirmed infections, almost 80,000 have recovered while more than 4,500 have died. There are currently only a handful of active cases.

Concern over a second wave though remains. New clusters near the Russian border have brought home the dangers of re-importing the virus.

Overall though, the lockdowns are being lifted, schools are gradually reopening and economic activity is resuming.

What about the economic fallout?

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to have a profound impact on economies around the globe.

For China, we already have a shocking data point: in the first three months of the year, the economy contracted by 6.8%, the first contraction in decades.

In the last two decades, China has seen average economic growth of around 9% a year – although experts have regularly questioned the accuracy of its economic data.

But when the virus struck and Beijing introduced large-scale shutdowns and quarantines in late January, the economy in many parts of China ground to a halt.

Although factory work is resuming, the economic and social consequences of a slowing economy will continue.

China has already unveiled a range of support measures to cushion the impact – though not on the same scale of some other major economies.

The NPC might give us more clues as to how Beijing plans to put its economy back on track.

But with an export-dependant economy, much of the recovery will depend not just on China – but on how the rest of the world recovers.

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Coronavirus: Parliament to shut down tonight over COVID-19 spread fears

Parliament is shutting down a week early because of fears over the spread of coronavirus.

MPs will be sent back to their constituencies for Easter recess tonight, as soon as new laws handing emergency lockdown powers to the government are passed.

Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg thanked them for “coming together” to unanimously back the Coronavirus Bill, which now only needs sign off by the House of Lords.

But some MPs have told Sky News they should be staying in parliament to scrutinise crucial details of Downing Street’s plan to battle COVID-19, which has so far killed 424 people in the UK.

The Commons was due to go into recess anyway on Tuesday 31 March 2020 for three weeks – until 21 April 2020.

Now the government has brought forward the departure because it says it wants to protect staff.

MPs have been told off recently for sitting too close together in the main chamber, which can only seat around 400 of the 650 of them anyway.

The government’s social distancing advice states that everyone should stay two metre away from each other to limit contact.

Staff members from across the political parties welcomed the news, with one telling Sky News “it’s about bloody time” and another complaining “it should have happened weeks ago”.

But several Labour MPs expressed fears they will even less time to press the government on vital questions raised by constituents about the coronavirus pandemic.

Wes Streeting said he was “really worried” as the promise of measures to help self-employed people during the lockdown has yet to materialise.

He also raised concerns about needing urgent answers on protective kit and testing for NHS staff, as well as the amount of non-essential work still taking place.

“Our ability to hold the government to account and push them in the right direction is seriously diminished when parliament is in recess. This doesn’t feel right,” he told Sky News.

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