Kissinger’s ‘secret’ China trip recalled as Wall Street veteran meets key Chinese leaders, visits Xinjiang

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As official US-China exchanges slowed amid rising tensions, a Wall Street veteran visited Beijing for talks with a top leader – acting as a powerful backchannel for the two nations, the Post has learned.

John Thornton, executive chairman of Barrick Gold Corp and a former Goldman Sachs president, met Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng in Beijing in late August, according to a person familiar with the details of the meeting.

The key issues discussed included climate change, Xinjiang and conditions for resuming bilateral talks.

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Thornton, also co-chair of the China-US Financial Roundtable, acted as an unofficial channel for US-China exchanges during his six-week trip, which included a three-week stay in Shanghai before his meetings with senior Chinese officials in the capital in late August.

This was followed by a week-long trip to Xinjiang, the far-western region where the US accuses China of having committed genocide of the ethnic minority Uygur population.

Thornton was given unprecedented access at a time when China is still largely closed to most foreigners since the Covid-19 pandemic first broke out. He was among the very few foreigners able to hold meetings with Chinese officials in Beijing and hence relay messages and policy positions between top US and Chinese leaders, as official ties continued to worsen eight months into Joe Biden’s presidency.

“Thornton’s trip was similar in nature to [Henry] Kissinger’s secret trip to China [in 1971],” said the person familiar with the matter, requesting anonymity.

Then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai hosts US Special envoy Henry Kissinger in Beijing in July 1971. Photo: AFP
Then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai hosts US Special envoy Henry Kissinger in Beijing in July 1971. Photo: AFP

The White House has in recent months sought to arrange an in-person summit between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping with the hope of resolving some of the thorniest issues. Officials in Beijing have said this was unlikely before the end of the year, but have been open to reopening dialogue.

They have also insisted that Washington should first adjust its hard-line approach and address some of China’s top concerns, as laid out during US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s meeting with senior Chinese diplomats in Tianjin in late July.

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One of the concerns was withdrawing the US extradition request for Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei chief financial officer detained in Canada in December 2018. In a surprise development, Meng returned to China on Saturday after reaching a deal with US prosecutors that effectively resolved a US fraud case that had kept her in legal limbo in Vancouver for nearly three years.

“Han told Thornton China does not seek to challenge or replace the US. The two countries should resume cooperation, but only on the prerequisite of mutual respect, meaning the US should treat China as an equal partner,” said the person.

Han, who sits on the seven-member all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, also rebuffed the Biden administration’s two-pronged approach to China – which involves inheriting Donald Trump’s playbook of competing with Beijing on various fronts while seeking to open up avenues of cooperation on limited areas including climate. Continuing the former president’s hard-line approach will not work, he told Thornton.

Before heading for China, Thornton had discussed the trip with a White House official deeply involved in US-China relations. The official at least twice asked Thornton not to visit Xinjiang, for fear that it would be seen as an endorsement of what Washington says are China’s repressive policies in the Uygur autonomous region.

But Thornton’s Xinjiang visit was apparently welcomed by Han. “Han told Thornton he should tell the US lawmakers about his observations in Xinjiang, and the US should rethink its double standards – seeing its post-9/11 wars as counterterrorism efforts but criticising China’s counterterrorism efforts as human rights violations,” the person familiar with the meeting said.

While in Beijing, Thornton also met China’s chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua ahead of US climate envoy John Kerry’s official visit and mostly virtual talks with several top Chinese officials in Tianjin during August 31-September 3.

Thornton told Han he believes Kerry is America’s point man for not just climate talks but overall US-China relations.

Meanwhile, Kerry on Wednesday said he planned to visit China in the coming weeks, a day after Xi said his country would stop building coal-fired power plants abroad.

Addressing the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, President Xi said China would not build new coal-fired power projects overseas, in a significant addition to Chinese climate rescue pledges.

In his meeting with Han, Thornton provided a preview of what the Biden administration wanted from China on climate change, which included cuts in methane emissions.

Han in turn questioned the US’ climate commitments, citing the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, but said China would continue to do its part regardless of any change in US policy.

He also told Thornton that China would soon announce plans to stop subsidising overseas coal plants and would gradually close down existing coal plants in the country, two of the Biden administrations’ key demands for climate talks.

Thornton said he understood China would not bow to the US demand of bringing forward the 2030 deadline for peak carbon emissions, and suggested that China change the English expression from “by 2030” to “before 2030” – in order to placate the US without having to commit to a particular date.

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