South Korea rejects China’s version of President Moon’s Hong Kong remarks

Kinling Lo

Seoul has contradicted an attempt by Beijing to back South Korea into China’s official stance on Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in was quoted by the Chinese foreign ministry to have stated that the troubled regions were China’s internal affairs during meetings on Monday in Beijing with President Xi Jinping, who also met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

But the line was nowhere to be found in the official statement issued by the South Korean government and, on Tuesday, a spokesman from South Korea’s presidential office, also known as the Blue House, issued a clarification.

“President Xi explained that Hong Kong and Xinjiang issues were internal affairs. President Moon said ‘well noted’ in response,” the spokesman Ko Min-jung said.

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in, left, and China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing on December 23. Photo: AFP

Moon – who has stayed largely quiet on the protests which have rocked Hong Kong for more than six months – was the latest head of state to be quoted by Beijing in supportive terms of its policies.

Japan’s foreign ministry said Abe had told Xi in their meeting that Hong Kong should “continue to be free and open” and urged China to continue its “self restraint” over the city, while hoping “for an early resolution of the situation”. The Chinese foreign ministry did not refer to Abe’s comments in its statement.

Pang Zhongying, a Beijing-based professor in international relations, said it was obvious that Hong Kong and Xinjiang were deemed priority issues for Beijing in its exchanges with foreign leaders, as the official line was now being included in top level meetings.

He added it was no surprise that the issue was presented differently by Beijing and Seoul, as both governments needed to address their domestic audiences.

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“Beijing would like to explain to the Chinese people how its stance is being presented and received by overseas leaders,” Pang said. “Even when this is not covered in statements with certain countries, it does not mean the topic was not addressed.

“Often, Beijing is trying to present its closeness with another country through the diplomatic language it has adopted in official statements. In this case, Beijing obviously still feels more comfortable with Seoul than with Tokyo, as Japan is a much closer ally with the US on these issues than South Korea,” Pang said.

Since late November, similar lines on Hong Kong and Xinjiang – where an estimated 1 million Uygurs are detained – have been quoted in official Chinese statements following Xi’s meetings with leaders from the Pacific nation Micronesia and Suriname in northeastern South America.

China has faced mounting pressure from Western countries – including the US, Canada and the European Union – over human rights concerns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and was particularly offended by US legislation aimed at its policies there, introduced against a backdrop of already strained relations due to the trade war.

Beijing has repeatedly said that Hong Kong and Xinjiang are internal matters and has accused “foreign powers” of meddling in its affairs for political purposes.

On the same day that US President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law, Beijing quoted Suriname’s President Desi Bouterse as saying, during his meeting with Xi, that “Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs, and the Surinamese side resolutely opposes and interference in China’s internal affairs”.

Following the passage through the US House of Representatives of a bill condemning mass detentions in Xinjiang, the Chinese foreign ministry quoted Micronesia’s President David W. Panuelo as saying that Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet were China’s internal affairs.

Liu Weidong, a US affairs specialist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing was responding to the US moves. “After the US attempted to put issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang on the international level, China had no other choice but to follow up on an international level to ask for more supportive voices on Beijing’s stance.”

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Jorge Guajardo, who was Mexico’s ambassador to Beijing from 2007 to 2013, said the statements were a result of hard pressure from China for support from these countries, and a condition of any bilateral meeting.

“They negotiate every word prior to any visit and lobby hard, often uncompromisingly, on the issue. When they consider it a core issue (and these tend to change, not just limited to the official core issues) China negotiates with a heavy hand,” said Guajardo, who is now a director at McLarty Associates on Latin America and China affairs.

The only other foreign leader to have met with Xi in the same time period was President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, a tiny Central American country which last year switched diplomatic times from Taipei to Beijing.

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Bukele paid a state visit to Beijing on December 3 when the two sides published a communique in support of the one-China principle, which recognises that Taiwan as part of China.

Bukele and Abe were the only two foreign leaders to meet with Xi in the past month without being quoted on Hong Kong by China’s foreign ministry.

“My guess is that China was in damage control mode with El Salvador, fearing the new president would go back to recognising Taipei … They wanted to sweeten the pot, not put him in a position of upsetting the US, so I assume they did not insist on this point,” Guajardo said.

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