Debate: Booker gets a softball question on Hong Kong, weasels out of answering

Sen. Cory Booker got the easiest question of the evening at last night's Democratic debate in Atlanta, a whiff, a puff ball, an easy opportunity to sound grand in the invitation to say a nice thing about Hong Kong.  He blew it.

Here's the NBC transcript:

MADDOW: On the issue of China, Senator Booker, China is now using force against demonstrators in Hong Kong where millions have taken to the streets advocating for democratic reforms. Many of the demonstrators are asking the United States for help. If you were president, would the U.S. help their movement, and how?

BOOKER: Well, first of all, this is president who seems to want to go up against China in a trade war by pulling away from our allies and, in fact, attacking them, as well. We used a national security waiver to put tariffs on Canada. And so at the very time that China is breaking international rules, is practicing unfair practices, stealing technology, forcing technology transfer, and violating human rights, this nation is pulling away from critical allies we would need to show strength against China.

There's a larger battle going on, on the planet Earth right now between totalitarian, dictatorial countries and free democracies. And we see the scorecard under this president not looking so good, with China actually shifting more towards an authoritarian government, with its leader now getting rid of even his — getting rid of term limits.

And so I believe we need a much stronger policy, one that's not led, as President Trump seems to want to do, in a transactional way, but one that's led by American values. So, yes, we will call China out for its human rights violations.

But not only that, we will stop engaging in things that violate American rights. Because it is a human rights violation when people at our border, children are thrown in cages. It's a human right violations without coming to the United States Congress for an authorization for the use of military force for us to refuel Saudi jets to bomb Yemeni children. It is about time that this country is led by someone who will say the values of freedom and democracy are what we are going to lead with and begin to check China, check Putin, and the other folks that are trying to undermine American values and democratic values around the globe.

Yes or no, would he support Hong Kong?  Guy can't answer that question.  He can't even say the two words.  He only offers up a vague pile of palaver, dated trade relations dreck no one cares about, and an abnormally broad bromide about human rights in general.  No word on whether he'd stand with Hong Kong, and let's face it: to say such a thing to U.S. voters has a pretty small political capital cost.  And in striking contrast, Booker in his closing statement touted the U.S. Civil Rights movement as a sort of inspiration to himself, which he noted, brought out the attacks on protestors, which makes one wonder why he didn't make comparable praise for Hong Kong, which is now engaged in nonviolent resistance, same as the Civil Rights movement, and going through the same thing.

It all raises questions about whether he's in hock somehow to the ChiComs.

After all, how hard is it for anyone to say he or she wouldn't, in one way or another, stand with Hong Kong?  Most Democrats manage it, even if it's just lip service.  Andrew Yang did.  Joe Biden, who's got a need to squelch voter views that China's a profit center for his son, certainly did, too.  But Booker muffed it.

The entire world has watched in horror as China has nakedly broken its 1997 handover treaty with Britain, its agreement to keep Hong Kong free, and instead moved in to turn Hong Kong into the same kind of lawless communist hellhole Red China is.  And the ChiComs are getting violent and brutal with the tiny enclave as unarmed protestors attempt to resist the onslaught.  A statement of support for Hong Kong is absolutely un-controversial, a no-brainer for anyone, except possibly Bernie Sanders, who likes this sort of thing.  It's also worth noting that Booker has made specific statements in support of Hong Kong and human rights in the past, but didn't do it this time.

No support for Hong Kong from him.  Just some lip service tribute about global human rights and a euphemistic reference to China shifting "towards a more authoritarian government."  Notice that in his statement, he actually tried to change the subject, moving toward the topic to Yemen and Saudi Arabian human rights abuses.  Nothing for Hong Kong.

Yet as recently as last month, Booker was issuing condemnations to the NBA for its kowtowing to China.

In this June 2019 CBNC interview, he's pretty much all over the map, condemning Trump's China policy, claiming he needs allies to take China on, as if the South China Sea area weren't all aboard with the Great White Fleet, including Vietnam, and a complaint about U.S. tech companies selling out to the ChiComs. Not much, and a policy of weakness, mostly defined in terms of opposing Trump, but O.K.

In this Council on Foreign Relations interview, Booker delivers a Jimmy Carteresque promise to make China's human rights "a focus of the conversation" in U.S.-China relations.  He said he co-sponsored a stern warning piece of legislation to stand up for the Uighurs, (who've pretty well been shoved en masse into re-education camps), and he even made a statement then in support of Hong Kong:

As president I will also insist that China honor the commitments it has made for the autonomy of Hong Kong, and will be a voice for the people of Hong Kong and their ability to organize and express their opinions. 

Wouldn't that have been easy to repeat on the debate stage?

Yet Booker didn't utter a word about standing for Hong Kong. Which has a very weird sound, considering.

One thing we do know about Booker's campaign is that it's in dire financial straits. Booker made a plea to the televised audience to donate to him to ensure he gets a place on the debate stage next time.

Could Booker's refusal to say a single word about Hong Kong when specifically asked have something to do with his donors with Chinese interests? Is he feeling pressure? The miserable state of his campaign finances and the distinct possibility that he may have to drop out of the race might just signal he's subject to some manipulation. A look at his donor list raises that distinct possibility.

According to Open Secrets, the top donor base for Booker are rich lawyers, investment banks, hedge funds, and securities industry professionals. Might they have investment interests in China? A lot of them do, a Google search of Booker's second-largest donor, with $111,000 in donations to him, Eagle Capital Management, suggests at least some China positions on and off. Saying a bad word about China would not be in their interests to say the least. 

Meanwhile, the geographic concentration of Booker's donors suggest some China interests, too. Most of his donors, 26.1% are concentrated in California, with large donor groups from the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles/Long Beach corridor. Might some of them have trade interests with China? A distinct likelihood, given how the state's economy — tech, financial services and import-export — is structured. Booker's top zip code is 94107, which is San Francisco's white shoe Embarcadero area, its skyscrapers filled with lawyers and hedge fund managers.

It's also worth looking at Booker's Asian-American donor base, given that some of them may have Chinese business interests, too. Turns out, according to this April study by a researcher affiliated with U.C. Riverside, that Booker has the largest number of Asian-American donors of any Democratic candidate, taking in $394,923 in donations up until that point. Most were from Indian-Americans, which makes sense, given that Booker's home state of New Jersey has many Indian-Americans. Most Chinese-American donors to Democrats give their donations to Andrew Yang, who is Chinese-American, and Kamala Harris, who like them, has a base in the San Francisco Bay Area. But about 8% to 10% (depending on the chart) of Booker's donors were Chinese-American which is the third highest number. It could be higher than that, too: I estimate from the bar graph that about 5% were from Filipino and Vietnamese donors, who could include some Overseas Chinese in their ranks, too. Given the advantage that many have with language, it's not that far-fetched to think that some of these donors could have Chinese business interests and an interest in keeping relations good with China, which in turn might be pressuring Booker to kowtow to their interests.

More likely, it's the white shoe lawyers, tech elites and hedge fund managers of San Francisco, given the money involved. But the Asian-American component stands out too.

So now we have this undiscussed whiff from Booker, once strongly in favor of criticizing China, and now whiffing on the question and bringing up the Yemenis as a substitute. I smell something suspicious. Maybe all those ace investigative reporters at MSNBC who witnessed this strange shift from Booker could ask him what's going on. 

 Image credit: YouTube screen shot.

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