US imposes visa restrictions on Chinese officials over Hong Kong national security law

Jacob Fromer

The US State Department has imposed its first wave of visa restrictions against Chinese officials in retaliation for Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Friday.

“President Trump promised to punish the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials who were responsible for eviscerating Hong Kong’s freedoms. Today, we are taking action to do just that,” Pompeo said.

“I am announcing visa restrictions on current and former CCP officials who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, as guaranteed in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, or undermining human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong,” he said. “Family members of such persons may also be subject to these restrictions.”

When asked if Chinese officials targeted for sanctions had been identified, a State Department spokesman would not comment beyond Pompeo’s statement.

Friday’s announcement follows the State Department’s determination last month, in a report mandated by the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 and the Hong Kong Human Rights & Democracy Act of 2019, that the city no longer warrants different treatment from mainland China.

The laws authorised the Trump administration to decide to what extent sanctions or other policy measures should be levelled on the city.

Pompeo’s announcement comes on the heels of the US Senate’s unanimous passage of the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which calls for mandatory sanctions against any individuals identified as being responsible for undermining the city’s autonomy from China. That legislation now moves to the US House of Representatives.

The bill would also require sanctions against foreign financial institution that knowingly conduct “significant transactions” – as defined by the US Treasury – with the designated individuals.

US bill to punish Beijing over Hong Kong law blocked at White House request

The sanctions announcement was the latest sign of just how far the US-China relationship has fallen amid a trade war, a pandemic and generally soaring distrust between Washington and Beijing.

This week alone, the US Congress signalled that it would consider allowing Americans to sue China for Covid-19 damages, the Trump administration threatened new tariffs against China’s seafood industry, and Pompeo announced that he had agreed to join a new “dialogue on China” with the European Union.

On Friday, another bipartisan bill was announced that would create a formal programme for US government officials to study in Taiwan.

“Amidst China’s concerted campaign to isolate Taiwan on the global stage, an exchange of our most qualified public servants to the island nation of Taiwan is a visible demonstration of our unwavering commitment to Taiwan,” Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts and author of the bill, said in a statement.

China’s embassy in Washington pushed back, arguing that China’s Constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law supersede any authority the Sino-British Joint Declaration may have had because “all rights and obligations of the British side as prescribed in the Joint Declaration were completed” when sovereignty over the city was transferred to China in 1997.

“No one has any legal grounds or right to make irresponsible comments on Hong Kong affairs citing the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” minister counsellor Fang Hong said in an emailed response to questions. “Legislating on national security is a power and obligation of the central government, and also an international practice.”

“The Hong Kong national security legislation only targets a very narrow category of acts that seriously jeopardize national security,” she added. “The Chinese side will continue to take strong measures to uphold national sovereignty, security and development interests.”

The joint declaration, signed by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, states that China’s basic policies regarding Hong Kong “will remain unchanged for 50 years” after the handover, including the promise that the city would retain a high degree of autonomy. The Basic Law is the city’s mini-constitution, put into effect by China’s National People’s Congress in 1990.

The lack of any move on changing Hong Kong’s status as a trade partner that is distinct from Mainland China shows the care that the Trump administration needs to take on that front, said Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

“I think the administration will want to think about how best to protect US business and, if at all possible, the Hong Kong people,” Economy said. “Given that some democracy activists are now asking the administration not to strip Hong Kong of its special status, the administration may try to draw this process out a bit and use it as leverage to try to negotiate some additional political space for the Hong Kong people.”

The sanctions announcement underscores the pressure US President Donald Trump is facing to appear tough on China, said Allen Carlson, director of Cornell University’s China and Asia-Pacific studies programme.

“Hong Kong and sanctions, the trade war, Xinjiang, and even Taiwan, are of little consequence to this president,” he said. “Viewed from this light, these sanctions are probably best seen as yet another example of the president trying to have his cake and eat it too.”

“He wants to bolster his anti-China credentials to play to his base but, at the same time, I suspect he still is not entirely willing to admit defeat in his efforts to develop a special personal relationship with Xi Jinping,” Carlson added, referring to the Chinese president. “He still sees himself as a charmer who can close the most difficult deals.”

Under the phase one trade deal that Trump signed with Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He in January – reached in an effort to put the brakes on a trade war that started in July 2018 – Beijing promised to buy an additional US$200 billion worth of American agricultural products over the next two years.

Hong Kong and other disagreements dominate US-China Hawaii meeting

That pledge was reiterated last week when Pompeo and Chinese state councillor Yang Jiechi met in Hawaii to discuss a number of issues between the two countries, including Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The lack of any details about specific people being sanctioned makes it difficult to gauge how hard-hitting the State Department’s move really is, said Andrew Coflan, a China analyst at the Eurasia Group.

“The move is strange,” he said. “Not announcing who is on the list is a big give to the Chinese and in some ways defeats the signalling aspect of the sanctions.”

“But this feels like only the beginning to me,” he added. “I would expect clarification around tariffs, potential Treasury sanctions and other measures to be announced over coming weeks. Although there’s always a chance things get watered down by the White House again.

“Still, if I’m Beijing, I probably feel like I got out ahead on this deal so far.”

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