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Pence Ridicules Nike and the NBA in Support of Hong Kong Protesters

October 24, 2019, 6:30 PM UTC

Vice President Mike Pence is defending Hong Kong protesters and questioning Nike’s social justice bona fides, while urging stronger economic cooperation between the U.S. and China still locked in a trade war.

“Beijing has increased its interventions in Hong Kong and engaged in actions that curtail the rights and liberties that Hong Kong’s people were guaranteed through a binding international agreement,” Pence argues, according to his prepared comments delivered Thursday at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Rather than “decoupling” the two countries, the U.S. “seeks engagement with China and China’s engagement with the wider world,” he said.

Pence’s most stinging criticism of China was indirect, in remarks targeting Nike Inc. and the NBA.

“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,” Pence said.

He accused the NBA of “siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech.” The league apologized after an executive of the Houston Rockets, general manager Daryl Morey, issued a tweet supportive of Hong Kong protesters, outraging Chinese authorities and many NBA fans in the country. 

“The NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime,” Pence said.

Some of the NBA’s biggest stars, including LeBron James, have been chastised for appearing to take China’s side in the controversy. But the league itself has stuck up for Morey. Commissioner Adam Silver said last week he spurned Chinese demands for the general manager to be fired.

Hong Kong protesters using Lebron James pictures as masks during a demonstration, registering their anger about a James tweet appearing critical of their cause. They hold signs supporting general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, and Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, for defending freedom as a core value in the NBA.
Ivan Cheung—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Walking a fine line in U.S.-China relations

White House officials for weeks have debated how critical Pence’s remarks should be, people familiar with the matter said. It comes just a day before the chief trade negotiators from both sides hold a conference call to talk about progress toward locking down phase one of a trade deal.

Pence was originally supposed to deliver the speech on June 4, which marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The administration ultimately delayed the speech in the hopes that President Donald Trump would land a meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 leaders’ summit in Osaka.

Trump is aiming to sign a limited trade deal with Xi next month, and a weakening American economy is chipping away at the U.S.’s leverage.

Meanwhile, pressure is building from Capitol Hill to stay firm, highlighting White House moves this month to sanction Chinese entities accused of connections to the surveillance and imprisonment of Muslim Uighurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Trump’s good-cop, bad-cop China strategy

Unrest in Hong Kong has underscored the heated tensions as many U.S. lawmakers are pressing for legislation to support pro-democracy protesters despite a threat of retaliation from China.

Leland Miller, chief executive officer of China Beige Book, said the administration is engaged in somewhat of a good-cop, bad-cop approach to China.

“Markets tend to assume the administration’s China policy is monolithic, swinging either hawkish or dovish based on the president’s moods, but that’s not really the case,” Miller said. “Since late August the White House has certainly turned more dovish on trade, but on the national security side, hawks continue to run the show.”

Analysts say it’s hard to predict how the Chinese will react but caution it’s unlikely that Beijing will hit back at the vice president directly, if they don’t agree with elements of the speech.

The knotty issue of U.S. China trade

Under the terms of the partial trade arrangement reached earlier this month, Chinese spending on U.S. farm goods will scale to an annual figure of $40 billion to $50 billion over two years, according to the White House. China would also agree to certain intellectual-property measures and concessions related to financial services and currency.

In exchange, the U.S. delayed a tariff increase scheduled for Oct. 15—to 30% from 25% on about $250 billion of Chinese imports. More duties on Chinese products, targeted for Dec. 15, haven’t yet been called off.

While the limited agreement may resolve some short-term issues, several of the thorniest disputes remain outstanding. U.S. goals in the trade war center around accusations of intellectual-property theft, forced technology transfer and complaints about Chinese industrial subsidies.

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