One day after he seemed to promise former Sen. Jim Sasser speedy confirmation as U.S. ambassador to China, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms on Friday called the nominee back for more questions about his views on Hong Kong.
In a statement on the Senate floor, Helms (R-N.C.) said he was disturbed by Sasser's comment during a hearing Thursday that China has the right to disband Hong Kong's recently elected legislative council after Beijing regains sovereignty over the British colony in 1997.
Helms said he was away from the hearing and tending to other business when Sasser made the comment. Helms brandished the front page of the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, which said Sasser "seemed to side with Beijing" on the issue.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Helms and the Hong Kong press apparently misinterpreted Sasser's remarks.
Sasser, in fact, said he would try to dissuade the Chinese from terminating the council.
Helms did not threaten to hold up Sasser's confirmation, but he said the Hong Kong issue "deserves a somewhat more detailed understanding by Americans of precisely what is at stake in Hong Kong."
Earlier this year, Helms held up most ambassadorial appointments for months in a dispute with the State Department.
But on Thursday, he exuded friendship for Sasser, a Tennessee Democrat defeated in last year's election.
When Sasser said he hoped to be confirmed in time to attend President Clinton's summit with China's president Oct. 24 in New York, Helms advised him to "start packing."
Burns, the State Department spokesman, said China may have the technical right to disband Hong Kong's legislative council "but it certainly is not consistent with the expectations that the international community has about China's role in Hong Kong once 1997 does come."
And he stressed that Sasser made his views on the matter clear during Thursday's hearing, quoting the nominee as saying, "I would urge the Chinese authorities, when 1997 rolls around, to respect the freely elected legislative council in Hong Kong."