In an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS program, broadcast Sunday, China's Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai examined challenges in China-U.S. relations and weighed in on hot topics related to China's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong's National Security Law, tensions in the South China Sea, and the situation in Xinjiang. Here is the full text.
Zakaria: I'm joined now by China's Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai for an exclusive interview. Ambassador Cui, pleasure to have you on, sir.
Ambassador Cui: Good morning. So nice to talk to you again.
Zakaria: Let me ask you a broad question first, which is when I watched the debate that is taking place in Washington, what I noticed is that on both sides of the political spectrum, Republicans and Democrats, there is a feeling and they are making this argument that they face a new China under Xi Jinping, and particularly in recent years, a China that has become more assertive, more expansionist, and more aggressive. And this will require a very different American response than the previous policy of many decades. How do you react to that? Why do you think this has happened?
Ambassador Cui: Well you see, I think people have to fully recognize the realities of today's world. Actually, the Chinese civilization has been there for about 5,000 years, much longer than the United States. And there is strong continuity for the Chinese civilization and there are ongoing efforts by the Chinese people to modernize our own country. This has never changed, whether in the last 70 years or in the last seven years. This is a continuing process. We certainly have the legitimate right to build our country into a modernized, strong, prosperous country, like every other country in the world.
I think the fundamental question for the United States is very simple −− Is the United States ready or willing to live with another country with very different culture, very different political and economic systems, whether the United States is ready to live with it in peace and cooperate on so many and still growing global challenges. I think this is a real choice. This is a fundamental choice people have to make.
Zakaria: You know that a certain amount of the public confidence on China, not just in the United States but around the world, was shattered after COVID. There is a sense that the Chinese government, both at the local level and the national level, hid things from the world, from the WHO. Even now, China is now censoring academic articles on COVID-19, to make sure that they do not presumably express something inconvenient to the government. Is there not a case to be made that China should be much more transparent with the pandemic that is afterwards affecting the whole world?
Ambassador Cui: I think this is a gross misperception. Actually, the fact is, at the very early stage of the pandemic, almost nobody knew anything about this new virus, how serious it was and the routes of transmission. There was very little knowledge all over the world about this new pandemic. So it is a continuing process of discovering, learning more about the virus and trying to do better job in response to it. This is an ongoing process.
And actually, at the very early days, as early as the first few days in January, we reported to the World Health Organization about the few cases of what people at the time called "pneumonia with unknown cause". People still didn't know how to define this new virus, but we reported to the WHO. And within a few days when we learned more about it, we shared the genome sequences of this virus with the WHO and everybody else. As early as on January 4, the fourth day of this year, the two CDCs, Chinese CDC and U.S. CDC, had their communication about this new virus.
So this is an ongoing process to strengthen global cooperation, to build up our knowledge, to coordinate responses of various countries. The WHO sent their experts to China as early as in mid-February. During the WHA, the World Health Assembly in May, China together with more than 140 other countries, co-sponsored a resolution on strengthening global cooperation in response to the pandemic. And President Xi Jinping announced a significant increase in our financial support to the WHO. Of course, some other country may already consider withdrawing from the WHO, but we strengthened our support to it. This is still going on. We are working with the WHO for some scientific cooperation, scientific and technical work that can be done together between China and WHO and the scientists of other countries, to trace the origin of the virus, to learn more about its transmission, and how to contain it, how to treat people, how to cure people, how to save lives, how to develop vaccine. There's still a lot of work to do together. This is the fact. And the timeline is very clear.
Zakaria: But you know Ambassador, that there are these reports from the AP and other places, that in the middle of January in Beijing, the meeting determined that this was, in fact, an epidemic-like disease. But then it took a week before you informed the world about that. And that week was enormously a long time for the world to have to wait. You were taking measures to contain the disease in China, but not informing the world of the severity of what you already knew.
Ambassador Cui: I think our first communication to the World Health Organization was as early as on the 3rd of January, much earlier than the meeting you are referring to.
Zakaria: But that one, you did not say that you thought it was a virus, that was spreading, would be spreading through respiratory mechanisms, all those things.
Ambassador Cui: You see, it was a very early stage of the pandemic. As I said, almost nobody knew anything about this new virus. So we were trying very hard to learn more about it. As soon as we learned something we shared with the rest of the world. You could check with all these scientific publications, like The Lancet and others. They published many papers from Chinese scientists and public health workers as early as in January, maybe much earlier than everybody else.
Zakaria: Let me ask you about some other things. There's so much to talk to you about, Ambassador. In the South China Sea, you saw Mike Pompeo statement. But of course you also have had an international ruling that what China is doing in the South China Sea is a violation of international law. Will China change course and accept that it has, in fact, been violating international law in terms of its activities in the South China Sea?
Ambassador Cui: Let me tell you this. That ruling was a unilateral action. We rejected it from the very beginning. We don't think this is the right thing to do. But some people insisted on doing it. We have told them very clearly at the very beginning that this is not the right thing to do. We will not participate in such a ruling. So it's not based on very solid legal ground.
But at the same time, we have a very strong position on our sovereignty, on the territorial claim in the region. Our claims have very strong historical and legal foundation. But still we want to solve all the disputes with other countries, with other claimant countries, through diplomatic negotiation. You see I myself, some years ago, took part in the work on the Declaration of Conduct between China and the ASEAN countries. Now we are working on the Code of Conduct, and we are making good progress. Actually, without outside interference, the situation in the region was cooling down, was quite stable. Unfortunately, countries like the U.S., particularly the United States, are trying very hard to intervene, to send their military, to strengthen their military presence in the region. The intensity and frequency is so high. But ironically, the United States is not yet a contracting party to the Convention on the Law of the Sea. I don't know how many people are aware of this.
Zakaria: Let me ask you about Hong Kong. The Chinese government has essentially imposed mainland law on Hong Kong with the National Security Law. And the concern that I've heard from many Western businesses is that they are worried that if they would go to Hong Kong, they could be picked up under this law by the Chinese government, and held in very much the way the two Canadians have been picked up and are being held hostage. Will the Chinese government, will Beijing use this law to arrest people it regards as having defamed China, which is what the law allows it to do if they are in Hong Kong?
Ambassador Cui: You see, Fareed, let me say this to you. Our guiding policy for the governance of Hong Kong is still "One Country, Two Systems". This has not changed. This will not change in the future. Hong Kong is now part of China. We have to defend our own country's unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is what is meant by "One Country. And within the framework of "One Country", on the basis of secure and stable "One Country", "Two Systems" can prosper in parallel, can prosper together. That's what is meant by "One Country, Two Systems".
The new law is intended just for that purpose, to maintain and safeguard "One Country, Two Systems", to make Hong Kong more stable, more secure for everybody, for the Hong Kong residents as well as for foreign investors. People could have a more predictable, safer environment to do their business in Hong Kong. That's the real purpose of this law.
According to the Basic Law of Hong Kong, some of the national laws do apply to Hong Kong when they are concerning national sovereignty and territorial integrity, unity of the country. They have to apply; otherwise, there's no "One Country". But if people try to undermine or even destroy this very basis of "One Country", then there is no place for the "Two Systems". So if people try to undermine "One Country", they're actually undermining the "Two Systems" as well.
Zakaria:But Ambassador, the question remains, given the broad interpretation that law allows, I could have been defaming China right now and been in violation of the law because it applies to anyone anywhere in the world. I may be arrested by the Chinese government and be taken to Beijing.
Ambassador Cui: I think the National Security Law, if we read it carefully, has six chapters and 66 articles. If you read all of them very carefully, you can see there is a very clear definition about the criminal activities the law would ban. It's very clearly defined. There is no so-called broad interpretation. It's very clearly defined, the kind of actions, the kind of acts that will be banned by the law. So if people have no interest in getting themselves involved in such acts, they have nothing to worry about. But at the same time, to be very frank with you, people in China also worry if they travel to some other countries, for instance if they travel to Vancouver, they might be detained without any reasons. They would be arbitrarily detained for a long time. This is what happened.
Zakaria:Let me ask you about the situation in Xinjiang with the Uygurs. You know that Senator Elizabeth Warren has said that based on the reports, there have come credible reports that China is engaging in essentially forced population control, including sterilization and abortions, that China's actions in Xinjiang should constitute the legal definition of genocide. How do you respond to that?
Ambassador Cui: I think it's very unfortunate people are basing their perceptions or judgments on reports of questionable sources. I could give you a real number. The Uygur population in Xinjiang has more than doubled in the last 40 years. The growth is much bigger than the population growth all over the country, and much bigger than the growth of population of the Han ethnic group. I don't know how people got all these wrong numbers. The real number is the population has more than doubled in the last 40 year.
Zakaria: So do you categorically deny that there have been any mechanisms, such as sterilization, any attempts of forced population control of the Uighurs?
Ambassador Cui: I don't know how absurd all these fabrications can go.
Zakaria: But that means you deny it?
Ambassador Cui: Of course.
Zakaria: Let me ask you finally, Ambassador, you have been in many of the meetings with President Trump, with Xi Jinping. You have negotiated at very highest levels with this administration as with others. Do you think Donald Trump is a friend of China, or is he an adversary? Because he's certainly talking very tough now. But he was praising Xi Jinping to the skies in January and February. So who is the real Donald Trump as far as China is concerned?
Ambassador Cui: Well, for us, President Trump is President of the United States elected by the American people. So we are ready to work with him and his administration to build a more stable and stronger relation between our two great countries. Of course, any U.S. leaders, any U.S. administration would represent U.S. interests. The same is true for Chinese leaders and the Chinese government. But the key is to identify our growing common interests, areas where our two countries can really work together for the common interests of the two peoples and for the broader common interests of the international community. At the same time, we have to do a good job in managing any possible differences between us in a constructive way. That's been our approach all along.
Zakaria: Are you surprised by his recent change of rhetoric publicly?
Ambassador Cui: We are always ready and open to work together with the U.S. government, any administration. And especially, we still have confidence in the goodwill of the American people, and we have the same kind of goodwill towards the American people. So I think as great powers, big countries with heavy responsibilities not only for ourselves but also for the world, we really have to base our policies on a good perception of the common interests, on growing global challenges and how the international community would expect us to do, and not allow suspicion, fear, or even hatred to hijack our foreign policy.
Zakaria: Ambassador Cui, it's an honor to have you on. Really appreciate it coming on.
Ambassador Cui: We can continue our discussion anytime.