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Gavin Newsom’s Hong Kong travel plan draws bipartisan fire

HONG KONG — California Gov. Gavin Newsom is starting his trip to China in perhaps the most politically incendiary Asian city possible.

He landed in Hong Kong on Sunday after a hastily scheduled side trip to Israel, where he met with victims of the Israel-Hamas war.

On China, even fellow Democrats are warning of the pitfalls he faces if he stays silent on Beijing’s crushing treatment of civil rights in Hong Kong.

Newsom should “speak very clearly against the repression of the Hong Kong people,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), co-chair of the Congressional Executive Commission on China, said in an interview. “Otherwise it does great damage because it looks like the Chinese repression is accepted and we cannot allow that to be the case.”

Newsom’s trip will focus on fostering closer climate ties in areas like air quality, offshore wind and cap-and-trade. Newsom is a key surrogate for President Joe Biden’s reelection and the White House has signed off on the trip.

“The climate crisis will not wait for geopolitical winds to shift, and we cannot achieve our shared goals without China,” Newsom spokesperson Erin Mellon said in a statement.

Newsom’s Hong Kong stop-over has infuriated U.S.-based pro-democracy and human rights organizations. A coalition of more than 50 such groups issued a joint statementon Friday that flayed Newsom for trying to sideline human rights during his visit. They argue that Newsom’s singular focus on climate issues “sets a problematic tone for future diplomatic engagement” that benefits the territory’s sanctioned leaders.

“I don’t see any huge gain that he or the state get from his going,” said James Cunningham, former consul-general to Hong Kong and Macau and chair of the nonprofit advocacy group the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong. Newsom’s visit will instead “fuel the impression that it is business as usual and they will exploit his visit for that,” he said.

Newsom will participate in a “fireside chat” at Hong Kong University before continuing on to Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai.

Hong Kong would have been an odd stop for a U.S. politician anytime in the past decade, as China tightened its grip on its former British territory. It is particularly puzzling now, especially after the U.S. placed many Hong Kong leaders under sanctions for their roles in suppressing the Asian financial center’s democracy movement in 2019 and 2020.

In recent months, Biden has indicated that Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu will not be allowed to enter the U.S. to attend Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering in San Francisco next month, “which is a break from past practice,” said Neil Thomas, a fellow for Chinese Politics at the Asia Society.

Newsom will have a hard time dodging references to the Hong Kong authorities’ tightening stranglehold on the territory. a trial of 47 pro-democracy community workers, activists and legislators prosecuted under Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law is ongoing.

The former media magnate and pro-democracy icon Jimmy Lai, victim of what the State Department calls “spurious” fraud charges, marked his 1000th day behind bars last month. And the Hong Kong government has issued warrants — complete with $128,000 arrest bounties — for eight self-exiled Hong Kong pro-democracy activists (several of whom are in the U.S.) for alleged “collusion with a foreign country.”

China experts say they’re not sure why Newsom would choose to risk the appearance of granting political cover to the special administrative region, which, while part of China, has a unique system of governance and is allowed to negotiate trade and investment as separate from Beijing.

“He’s walking into a political minefield,” said Samuel Chu, president of the pro-democracy group The Campaign for Hong Kong. “There’s no one in Hong Kong that is significant enough for him to meet that isn’t a target [of U.S. sanctions].”

His predecessor, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, went to Hong Kong but during less tumultuous times.

Newsom officials so far have emphasized his distance on the trip from any of the more hot-button issues between the U.S. and China.

“The trip is focused on what we can do as a state to build upon our progress of the last many years in pushing China to be more aggressive in their response to the climate crisis,” Mellon said in her statement. “Our federal partners are working with China on a host of issues, including concerning human rights violations — which are of immense concern to the state and the federal government.”

Besides the appearance with academics, Newsom’s schedule indicates he’ll attend a reception in Hong Kong with “climate and carbon neutrality leaders” co-hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Consulate.

Newsom’s office said he has no plans to meet with Hong Kong’s senior leadership. But if any show up unannounced at either of his events it will hand them a convenient propaganda victory in their efforts to shake the stigma of the territory’s more than 1,200 political prisoners and its criminalization of peaceful dissent. It will be particularly awkward if Newsom has an unplanned photo-op with Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Lee, who oversaw brutal police responses to pro-democracy protests as the territory’s former security chief. His implementation of the draconian National Security Law introduced in June 2020 prompted the U.S. Treasury Department to place him on a sanctions list.

Lawmakers and activists urged Newsom to strike a balance between his climate cooperation goals and calling out the Hong Kong authorities for their worsening crackdown.

Newsom should “push for release of political prisoners and raise the Hong Kong government’s practice of issuing bounties on dissidents living abroad,” said Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Follow along with us on the ground with Gov. Gavin Newsom this week in China. Sign up for our daily newsletter on how California’s response to climate change is shaping the future — across industry and government and across politics and policy.

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