It’s hard to keep track of who loves freedom.
Take Donald Trump. Months into Hong Kong’s protests, pundits condemned the US president’s silence on the issue. CNN later reported that Trump promised Chinese leader Xi Jinping that, to push trade talks forward, he would not back the pro-democracy movement. He also asked Beijing to investigate two political rivals, senator Elizabeth Warren and former vice president Joe Biden.
Yet it seems that vice president Mike Pence read a recent call for a return to hypocrisy in public life. In an Oct. 24 speech, Pence said Trump “from early on” told the Chinese to back off, and credited him for the withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill at the heart of the conflict—a victory actually paid for in the blood, sweat, and tears of demonstrators.
Pence also righteously criticized the NBA and Nike for bending to Chinese demands. Those accusations fell flat with the knowledge that Trump essentially did the same thing weeks before.
The vice president offered similar rhetoric at a meeting of space agency leaders Monday, calling for cooperation with “freedom-loving nations.” The international crowd got a kick out of that, since Russia remains America’s biggest partner in space—not to mention Trump’s obvious preference for authoritarian leaders over democratically elected ones.
But China, a major space power, was largely excluded from the ostensibly apolitical conference due to wrangling over visas. Beijing said the US had “weaponized” visas, while US conference organizers blamed late applications. Whether this diplomatic gamesmanship is trade war posturing or part of the White House decision to recognize China as a “strategic and economic rival,” in Pence’s words, is hard to say.
China is stifling freedom at home and abroad, and abusing the international trade system. There is much work to be done defending the basic rights of people to live and speak freely. But can a White House unable to decide from week to week whether it supports ethnic cleansing in Syria, or if the brutal state-sponsored murder of a journalist is acceptable, make that case?
This essay was originally published in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief newsletter. Sign up for it here.