Beijing slammed the US on Saturday for enacting visa restrictions on Chinese officials deemed responsible for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms, warning of consequences if Washington did not stop “interfering” ahead of controversial national security legislation for the city.
China’s foreign ministry office in Hong Kong demanded the United States suspend its “bullying actions” on the Hong Kong issue and described US claims that Beijing was undercutting the city’s semi-autonomous status as a “slander”. In a harshly worded statement, the office repeatedly rebuked the US and defended its national security law, saying it was to ensure stability in the former British colony.
“The US must immediately stop its interference in Hong Kong affairs and China’s domestic affairs, or else it will be met with a powerful counter-attack from the Chinese side,” a ministry spokesperson said.
On Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced restrictions on US visas for serving and former Communist Party officials “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in” undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy, rights, and freedoms.
His statement, which said restrictions may cover family members of these officials, lambasted Beijing for moving to “unilaterally and arbitrarily impose national security legislation on Hong Kong” and damaging its commitments in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The 1984 agreement was signed between China and Britain ahead of the 1997 transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong to Beijing.
“[US] President [Donald] Trump promised to punish the Chinese Communist Party officials who were responsible for eviscerating Hong Kong’s freedoms,” Pompeo said. “Today, we are taking action to do just that.”
The new law, which comes after a year of anti-government protests in the city, is expected to be formally approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, at a three-day meeting from Sunday.
Opposition lawmakers and critics in Hong Kong have said the law – targeting secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, and foreign interference – will essentially criminalise dissent and erode the city’s freedoms and semi-autonomous status from Beijing.
The Chinese embassy in Washington also released a statement on Saturday that insisted the national security law would target only a “very narrow category of acts” in Hong Kong. “No one has any legal grounds or right to make irresponsible comments on Hong Kong affairs citing the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” an embassy spokesperson said.
The visa restriction came after the US Senate approved legislation that would strengthen the US government’s ability to sanction those violating China’s commitments to Hong Kong under the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
As well as punitive measures against individuals, the Hong Kong Autonomy Act introduced by Senator Chris Van Hollen requires sanctions against any foreign financial institution that knowingly conducts “significant transactions” – as defined by the US Treasury – with the designated individuals.
Chinese analysts said Beijing was unlikely to take immediate action in response to the US visa restrictions. A bigger concern, they said, was the passage of a bill last week in the US Senate to sanction Chinese officials and freeze their assets over repressive actions in Hong Kong.
Cui Lei, an associate research fellow on China-US relations at the China Institute of International Studies, said high-level dialogue between the two countries had pretty much come to a standstill, so the direct impact of visa controls was not that significant.
“There is no need to go to the US now and diplomats have diplomatic passports so they would not be included in these restrictions,” he said. “If the Chinese side decides to take countermeasures, they do not have very many options – they can only enact some restrictions on US consular staff in Hong Kong, or reject the US military from visiting Hong Kong.”
Cui said a change in the US administration after the November presidential elections could also affect the roll-out of visa restraints, which were part of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed into law in 2019. The US president had discretionary powers that would allow exemptions for the sanctions to be made based on national interest, he said.
Wei Zongyou, a professor of international studies at Fudan University, said the move was yet another reflection of ever-worsening ties between China and the US.
“This will of course impact the officials on their restriction list who need to travel to the US,” he said. “I think some time will need to pass before the Chinese side responds, if they decide to do so, and they may not necessarily immediately take any countermeasures.”
In late May, Trump announced he would move to end Hong Kong’s special trading status with the US and would sanction officials responsible for “absolutely smothering Hong Kong’s freedom”.
Christopher McNally, a professor of political economy at Chaminade University, said the visa restrictions were mostly symbolic, amid the deteriorating ties between Beijing and Washington, but could be quite personal for specific officials who may have family members travelling to, or studying in, the US.
“It’s just another nail in the coffin,” he said. “For the most part, it is more symbolic – it certainly irks the Chinese, they are not very happy about it, but it’s not that consequential overall and you don’t have that much back and forth anyway because of Covid-19.”
The Chinese side would not be expected to take countermeasures, he said, but were probably anticipating the possibility – however unlikely in the short term – of US sanctions on certain Chinese officials for Hong Kong that would have more far-reaching implications for relations. “Freezing somebody’s assets – that’s a whole other ball game.”
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More from South China Morning Post:
- US imposes visa restrictions on Chinese officials over Hong Kong national security law
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