Pence takes swipe at NBA, Nike in critical speech on China

National Sports

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Heritage Foundation Honors in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence took a swipe at Nike and the NBA on Thursday in a speech criticizing communist China’s record on trade and human rights, saying American corporations have been too willing to ignore censorship and repression in pursuit of profits.

Pence singled out the shoe company for removing Houston Rockets’ merchandise from stores in China after the team’s general manager angered the Chinese government with a tweet supporting anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.

The NBA was acting like a “wholly owned subsidiary” of China’s “authoritarian regime” for failing to stand up to the government’s criticism of Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, he said.

“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,” the vice president said in a speech laying out the Trump administration’s approach to China.

The speech was delivered as President Donald Trump seeks to close a new trade deal with China, with Pence cast in a hardline role. He criticized past administrations for tolerating unfair economic and trade practices and repression of Chinese citizens.

“The political establishment was not only silent in the faces of China’s economic aggression and human rights abuses, but enabled them,” he said.

Since Trump took office, his administration has escalated pressure on Chinese trade, foreign and economic policies, including a tit-for-tat exchange of trade tariffs on billions of products.

On Oct. 11, the United States and China reached a tentative cease-fire in their trade dispute. The Trump administration agreed to suspend plans to raise tariffs on $250 billion in Chinese imports from 25% to 30% on Oct. 15, and China agreed to buy more U.S. farm products.

Negotiators are still working out details of the modest “phase one” deal in time for Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to sign it at an Asia-Pacific summit next month in Santiago, Chile. But the big issues dividing the world’s two biggest economies — most involving China’s aggressive push to challenge U.S. technological dominance — remain unresolved.

Pence said the FBI has 1,000 active investigations into intellectual property theft, the majority involving China. In March, Tesla sued a former engineer accused of stealing 300,000 files related to an autopilot system it’s developing before bolting for a job at a Chinese self-driving car company, he said.

Last December, the Justice Department announced it had broken up a hacking operation in which Chinese officials stole the names and data of 100,000 U.S. Navy personnel as well as ship maintenance information “with grave implications for our national security,” Pence said.

At a separate cyber security event in Washington, John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official, said any progress in trade talks would have no bearing on future prosecutions involving Chinese espionage or intellectual property theft. Only a change in behavior by the Chinese would affect those decisions, he said.

The Justice Department has focused attention on the problem, creating a “China initiative” to devote resources to it. As part of that effort, the FBI has been reaching out to universities across the country to warn them that their research is vulnerable to being stolen by China.

“We’re going to stop doing cases about Chinese intellectual property theft when the Chinese stop doing intellectual property theft,” Demers said.

Pence also chided China for its repression of religious minorities and its aggressive territorial disputes with smaller neighbors. He said the U.S. stands with the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

China took control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997 under an agreement in which Beijing promised to let the city maintain its own legal and financial system and preserve civil liberties unseen on the mainland. The protesters fear Beijing is reneging on those promises.

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Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Paul Wiseman in Washington contributed to this report.

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