Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 18 December 2020


Beijing Tests Joe Biden

Will the President-elect speak up about China’s jailing of Jimmy Lai?

A shackled Jimmy Lai leaving Lai Chi Kok correction center for court in Hong Kong, Dec. 12. PHOTO: APPLE DAILY
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No one should mistake what the jailing of Jimmy Lai and other Hong Kong champions of democracy signals: China is testing Joe Biden.

Mr. Lai is the founder of one of Hong Kong’s most popular newspapers, Apple Daily. Now he’s in jail facing several charges, including one from a new national security law that China bullied through. We know China was enraged when Mr. Lai met with American politicians on trips to Washington in 2019, including Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the basis of the national security charge is that he’s encouraged foreign governments to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Beijing.

Opinion: Potomac Watch

Mr. Lai has been denied bail and publicly exhibited in shackles. Ta Kung Pao, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece in Hong Kong, says he should be extradited to the mainland for trial. Friends worry that would be a death sentence for the 72-year-old publisher.

President Xi Jinping is hoping to intimidate Hong Kongers into silence and testing whether Mr. Biden and his aides will look the other way at these and other abuses. So far Mr. Xi must be pleased at the lack of response.


One of the Trump Administration’s achievements was to recognize that China has become America’s primary adversary. It steals U.S. technology, monitors and intimidates critics on American university campuses, engages in massive spying, claims new territory in the South China Sea, and threatens U.S. allies in Taiwan and Australia. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has pushed back, from condemning China’s incarceration of the Uighurs to sanctioning officials responsible for the crackdown in Hong Kong.

Beijing is hoping that Mr. Biden’s election marks a return to “normalcy”—i.e., the accommodationist approach that once made sense in U.S.-China relations but not in the era of Xi Jinping. “Publicly picking on Jimmy Lai may be Beijing’s way of seeing how that process is going,” says China scholar Perry Link. 

Mr. Biden is sending mixed messages. Jake Sullivan, who will be his national security adviser, last week tweeted his concern over “the continuing arrests and imprisonment of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.” But he cited no names—not Mr. Lai or other democratic prisoners of conscience in Hong Kong—and Mr. Biden has said nothing.

One bad signal is the choice of John Kerry as special envoy for climate. Mr. Kerry’s career has been marked by the appeasement of U.S. adversaries, and his overriding goal is getting China to agree to parchment promises on climate. China will gladly go along in return for U.S. silence on its regional aggression and mistreatment of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Mr. Xi will try to play Mr. Kerry the way Iran did on the 2015 nuclear deal.

Mr. Biden is also reportedly considering Bob Iger as ambassador to China. Mr. Iger was a highly successful CEO for Disney, but his public posture was always to see no evil in Beijing. Amid the Hong Kong protests and Chinese attempts to silence critics abroad in 2019, he said, “What we learned in the last week—we’ve learned how complicated this is. The biggest learning from that is that caution is imperative.”

Mr. Iger may feel he had to talk like that to protect Disney’s interests in China, but it means he’s exactly the wrong person to send as America’s emissary to Beijing.

Mr. Lai’s treatment raises particular issues for Hong Kong Chinese who hold American citizenship. Mr. Lai holds a U.K. passport but has been denied consular protections because China does not recognize dual nationality. This means that the thousands of Hong Kong people who are also U.S. citizens are now on notice that their passports are not the protection they thought. What happens when one of them is arrested?

China will continue bullying, stealing secrets and crushing dissent in Hong Kong and elsewhere as long as Mr. Xi thinks it will pay little price. More than Jimmy Lai’s fate is at stake here. If he intends to deal with Mr. Xi from a position of strength, the sooner Mr. Biden lets China know he is no pushover, the better off he will be.


WSJ Opinion: The Vatican’s Silence Over Jimmy Lai and China
Main Street: Hong Kong’s Jimmy Lai goes to jail—and Pope Francis says nothing. Images: Reuters/Zuma Press Composite: Mark Kelly

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