A blame game ensued among Hong Kong’s politicians on Thursday, a day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the city as no longer autonomous from China, a determination which could be a precursor to sanctions or crimping its preferential trading terms.
Each side insisted they were not responsible for the threat of such actions, which could deal a devastating blow to the city’s economy and status as an international business centre, pointing fingers instead at their opponents for dragging Hong Kong down.
Opposition figures accused the pro-Beijing camp of failing to persuade the central government to honour its promises under the “one country, two systems” principle as guaranteed under the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, and standing by while China encroached on Hong Kong’s freedoms.
But pro-establishment politicians, who shrugged off the threat of US retaliatory measures, slammed the pro-democracy camp for inviting American interference in the city’s affairs and lobbying for sanctions, especially when Washington had been trying to contain China’s influence in the global arena.
The Trump administration dropped a bombshell on Wednesday by informing the US Congress that Hong Kong was deemed no longer suitably autonomous from China.
The assessment by the US State Department is a crucial step in deciding whether the city will continue to receive preferential economic and trade treatment from the United States as spelt out by the 1992 US-Hong Kong Policy Act.
After such certification, US officials, including President Donald Trump, now must decide to what extent sanctions or other policy measures should be levelled on the city, and options available include higher trade tariffs, tougher investment rules, asset freezes and more onerous visa rules.
Under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed by the US Congress in November, the US government must decide every year whether governance of the city is suitably distinct from China, which is the prerequisite for Washington to continue to grant trade privileges under the 1992 legislation.
Washington’s move came a week after Beijing revealed its plan to impose a national security law on Hong Kong which would prohibit acts of conspiring with foreign parties, and allow mainland agencies to operate in the city as needed. China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), endorsed the plan on Thursday.
Hong Kong’s pro-establishment legislators maintained they were not surprised by Pompeo’s verdict.
New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who also sits on the Executive Council, the city leader’s de facto cabinet said it was only a matter of time before the US withdrew its special treatment for Hong Kong.
“That’s unavoidable, as Hong Kong’s [integration with] China is bound to happen. It is China’s Hong Kong, not the British Hong Kong any more,” Ip said.
“As Hong Kong closely integrates with mainland China, the US would do so sooner or later. They just have to consider their own commercial interests here.”
Ip argued that even if the preferential treatment from the US was withdrawn, the impact on Hong Kong’s trade would be limited and the economy would not take a huge hit.
She said she had done her part by joining two US visits to engage officials and think tanks.
“More bilateral discussion is good, but they won’t make fundamental changes,” she said.
In August last year, four pan-democrats and two pro-establishment legislators – Ip and Felix Chung Kwok-pan – accepted an invitation to attend an exchange seminar in the state of Montana. Two other pro-Beijing lawmakers, Starry Lee Wai-king and Martin Liao Cheung-kong, turned down the invitation.
In March, Executive Council convener Bernard Chan, three pan-democrat lawmakers, and pro-establishment legislators Ip, Liao and Horace Cheung Kwok-kwan visited California to meet American officials.
Liao on Thursday said the discussions in March were frank and open, “but whether they had any influence is another matter”.
“If the NPC does not plug the loophole – that is, national security in Hong Kong – will the US lower its tariffs [in the trade war]? Will it not accuse China as the source of the coronavirus? Will it leave Huawei alone?” Liao said, in a reference to the Chinese tech giant that was caught between the two nations’ rivalry.
Cheung and Chung also echoed Liao’s views, saying the pro-Beijing camp had tried to engage US politicians, who sometimes only invited opposition lawmakers for talks.
“Are the Americans really willing to listen?” Cheung asked.
The Americans wrote the script, but they did not direct and act it out on their own. People like Joshua Wong played their role, and helped to assist and defend the US plans
Kwok Wai-keung, lawmaker
Chung said the impact on Hong Kong depended on how the US could act against the city’s financial system. As not a lot of products were made in Hong Kong, Chung said tariffs would not hurt as badly.
A pro-establishment lawmaker, who wished not to be named, said the Hong Kong government was “100 per cent the biggest culprit” in the city’s deepening political crisis.
“If the Hong Kong government hadn’t pushed forward the extradition bill, how would things have become like so?” he said, referring to the now-withdrawn bill that triggered social unrest in June last year.
But Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Kwok Wai-keung, who was not involved in the US trips, said while Washington had made up its mind on its China and Hong Kong policies, the city’s opposition and protesters were reaping what they sowed, urging the US to intervene and egging on Beijing to act.
“The Americans wrote the script, but they did not direct and act it out on their own. People like Joshua Wong Chi-fung played their role, and helped to assist and defend the US plans,” Kwok said.
Before the Human Rights and Democracy Act was passed last year, Demosisto, a Hong Kong political group co-founded by Wong, had advocated for its passage and sanctions on local and mainland officials.
Wong on Thursday urged European and Asian leaders and those involved in the United Nations Security Council to oppose the national security law to be imposed on Hong Kong, but he refuted claims that he was “selling out” the city.
“If Beijing didn’t decide to impose the national security law in Hong Kong, to turn Hong Kong into a nightmare, we don’t believe Washington would suddenly announce imposing such arrangements in Hong Kong,” he said.
It’s the Communist Party that broke its own promises to the international community in safeguarding Hong Kong’s autonomy
Martin Lee, veteran democrat
The Democratic Party’s founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming said it was unreasonable to accuse the opposition camp of pushing Hong Kong into its current predicament.
“It’s the Communist Party that broke its own promises to the international community in safeguarding Hong Kong’s autonomy. Why doesn’t the Hong Kong government ask Beijing to follow its own words?” he asked.
“Have the chief executive, executive councillors, pro-Beijing puppets ever voiced out? We, as the opposition, have no power and authority.”
Lee is well known internationally, and back in 2014 met then US vice-president Joe Biden when he visited Washington to discuss Hong Kong affairs.
He said he supported the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, but had never lobbied the US for any concrete actions.
“I only lobbied for sanctions after Beijing launched large-scale arrests after the [Tiananmen] crackdown on June 4, 1989,” Lee added.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai and opposition legislator Kenneth Leung echoed Lee’s view.
“The [Hong Kong] government and Chinese Communist Party did it to themselves, it was them who told people that Hong Kong only has ‘one country, one system’,” Wu said.
Leung said Chinese and US officials should sit down and discuss Hong Kong’s situation.
“I don’t want to see any sanctions and I don’t want to see the implementation of the national security law,” he said.
A moderate pan-democrat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, conceded that all sides, including his own camp had in hindsight “misjudged” the situation.
“We misjudged the bottom lines of both mainland China and the US, on Beijing’s grip over Hong Kong and the possible actions from the US,” the source said.
He also said the pro-democracy camp was split on whether to lobby the US for pushing ahead with sanctions.
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