IN DEPTH: 5 key issues straining U.S. relations with China

China closes US consulate in Chengdu amidst escalating tensions

Strained relations appear to be worsening between the world’s two largest economies and have escalated this week as President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping find themselves increasingly withdrawn on several fronts, including the coronavirus pandemic, human rights, reciprocal sanctions on public officials, restrictions on diplomats and alleged meddling in the 2020 election.

Xi defies Trump, praises WHO

Xi on Tuesday praised his country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and defiantly expressed support for the World Health Organization, brushing aside criticism by Trump, who persistently blames Beijing for the growing health crisis in the United States.

In a televised assembly at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Xi sought to highlight China’s battle against COVID-19 and to separate himself from his American counterpart while touting the strength of the communist regime.

“We are willing to do whatever it takes to protect people’s lives!” Xi told the crowd. Most in the audience were shown wearing masks and were socially distanced.

China has not reported any COVID-19 illnesses from local transmission in more than three weeks, with all of the new cases detected in that time among travelers from abroad. China has reported a total of 4,634 deaths from 85,144 cases of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in the United States there have been more than 6.3 million cases reported, according to Johns Hopkins University, and there have been more than 189,000 deaths.

Xi continues to push back against the Trump administration’s unproven claims that the coronavirus, which was first detected in the central city of Wuhan late last year, originated inside a research laboratory and that Beijing withheld information about it, allowing the virus to spread out of control.

»FROM APRIL: U.S. investigates if virus originated in Chinese lab but can’t say for sure yet

While Xi maintains China acted swiftly and responsibly, he has rejected calls for an independent investigation into China’s handling of the outbreak.

» FROM MAY: China demands evidence as Trump, Pompeo ramp up unproven virus claims

Xi’s latest support for WHO puts him even more at odds with Trump, who has withdrawn U.S. support from the U.N. health agency.

Xi said China would continue to support the WHO in playing a “leading role in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“All selfishness, scapegoating and confusing right and wrong will not only hurt a country and its people but harm people of all countries,” Xi said.

New ban on Chinese imports

On Tuesday, the Trump administration took action to ban imports from three Chinese companies due to alleged human rights abuses including forced child labor and human trafficking.

The action, expected be announced at the White House, is meant to apply pressure on China over its treatment of the Uighur Muslim population, according to Reuters.

The United Nations reports that 1 million Uighurs are enslaved in Xinjiang work camps.

The move targets cotton, textiles, apparel and tomatoes produced by firms in the region, and also bans imports from the Chinese technology company Hefei and three other Chinese garment and hair firms.

“We have reasonable but not conclusive evidence that there is a risk of forced labor in supply chains related to cotton textiles and tomatoes coming out of Xinjiang,” Brenda Smith, the executive assistant commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told Reuters. “We will continue to work our investigations to fill in those gaps.”

China has maintained the camps are vocational training centers which are used to help the nation combat extremism.

China to sanction more U.S. officials

Chinese state media reported Tuesday that Beijing plans to sanction senior U.S. government officials who visit Taiwan along with any companies they have ties to, according to The Global Times. Reports say the officials are also banned from setting foot on the Chinese mainland.

The names of the officials have not yet been revealed.

Early last month, the U.S. sanctioned Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 other Chinese and Hong Kong officials due to the recent crackdowns in the region that suppress political freedoms.

In response, Beijing imposed sanctions on 11 Americans, including six U.S. lawmakers, for “behaving badly on Hong Kong-related issues.” Among them were Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey.

And the back-and-forth doesn’t end there.

A week ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced new restrictions on Chinese diplomats who work inside the U.S. and accused Beijing of “a system of opaque approval processes designed to prevent American diplomats from conducting regular business, attending events, securing meetings and connecting with the Chinese people.”

The new policy revokes “open access to American society,” requiring Chinese diplomats to receive prior approval from the State Department to visit college campuses or meet with government officials, Pompeo said. It also restricts the ability of Chinese diplomats to host cultural events in the United States.

Despite Trump’s previous affinity for Xi, the president has since 2019 consistently ratcheted up restrictions and sanctions on Chinese officials, government agencies and companies, beginning with travel limits imposed on diplomats and registration requirements for Chinese media outlets. The number of visas for Chinese journalists was also cut.

In June, the U.S. ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, which drew a reciprocal response from Beijing that forced the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Last month, the administration demanded that Chinese-funded language and culture programs in the U.S. register as foreign missions of the Chinese Communist Party.

Donald Trump alleges China helping Joe Biden

Trump says China is meddling in the U.S. election in an effort to help Democrat Joe Biden.

On Monday, Trump tweeted a story by the right-wing news outlet Breitbart, which quoted author and columnist Gordon Chang saying China was responsible for “fueling” violent Black Lives Matter protests, which made “life very difficult” for Trump.

“From what little evidence we have about China’s troll-farm activity, with its bots and with all of its others, they seem to be favoring Vice President Biden, trying to make life very difficult for President Trump — as well as fueling the protests, of course,” Chang said. “I think that Beijing has decided that it’s voting for the Democratic Party candidate.”

Chang’s claims, however, are not supported by the U.S. intelligence community, which so far has only publicly revealed Russian efforts to help Trump win again.

During the last month, Twitter and Facebook removed hundreds of fake accounts in a massive crackdown on pro-Trump foreign troll farms.

»FROM AUGUST: Facebook removes hundreds of fake pro-Trump accounts

The accounts falsely claimed to be Americans who proudly supported Trump along with hundreds of other dubious accounts that recently promoted several unproven-but-viral conspiracy theories including QAnon.

Just last week, Facebook was tipped off by the FBI that the shadowy Russian troll operation known as the Internet Research Agency — responsible for notorious election interference in 2016 — was using fake accounts to stir divisions just weeks away from the historic vote.

“We assess that China prefers that President Trump — whom Beijing sees as unpredictable — does not win reelection. China has been expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020 to shape the policy environment in the United States, pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests, and deflect and counter criticism of China,” Bill Evanina, the top U.S. intelligence official on election security, said in a statement last month, according to CNN.

China to expel U.S. journalists

China is delaying the renewal of press cards for at least five journalists working at four U.S. media outlets, an organization of foreign correspondents said Monday, making them vulnerable to expulsion in apparent retribution for Washington’s targeting of Chinese reporters working in the United States.

Atlanta-based CNN said its China correspondent was among those given a letter authorizing him to continue reporting for the next two months instead of the usual one-year press card.

He was told the move was unrelated to his reporting but was merely a reciprocal measure in response to the actions of the Trump administration toward Chinese media, making it the latest manifestation of the deteriorating state of U.S.-China relations that have fallen to their lowest level in decades.

Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accused the U.S. of being “arrogant and unreasonable” in talks about the matter and “not addressing China’s normal and reasonable concerns and demands at all.”

“If the U.S. government truly cares about American journalists, it should extend visas for all Chinese journalists as soon as possible, instead of taking journalists from the two countries as hostages for the certain politicians’ political interests,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing.

— Information provided by The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.

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