The US State Department on Thursday condemned the approval by Beijing’s legislature of a resolution that will tighten the central government’s control over Hong Kong’s electoral system, calling the move a “direct attack” on the city’s autonomy.
“We condemn the [People’s Republic of China’s] continuing assault on democratic institutions in Hong Kong,” department spokesman Ned Price said at a press briefing. “The changes approved by the National People’s Congress today on March 11 are a direct attack on Hong Kong’s autonomy, its freedoms, its democratic processes.”
The resolution rubber stamped by the National People’s Congress (NPC) on Thursday will overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure that only “patriots” can rule the city, a sweeping move critics fear will further quash opposition voices.
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The measure paves the way for the biggest shake-up to the city’s electoral system since its return to China in 1997. Under the new law, an election committee that currently oversees the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, would be given additional authority to nominate legislative candidates.
The committee would also be expanded from 1,200 to 1,500 seats, with Beijing loyalists making up the 300-member increase.
The US was joined in its criticism by the European Union. EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in a statement the move was “yet another breach of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, and another violation of China’s international commitments and the Hong Kong Basic Law”.
Price said the overhaul would limit political participation, reduce democratic representation, and stifle political debate “in order to defy the clear will in Hong Kong and deny [Hongkongers’] voice in their own governance”.
Hong Kong will be among the numerous issues on the agenda for a bilateral meeting scheduled for next Thursday between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, said Price.
The US would “certainly not pull any punches” in what would be “difficult discussions”, Price said of the meeting in Alaska, also to be attended by national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
On Wednesday, Blinken told lawmakers that the US would “continue to follow through on sanctions – for example, against those responsible for committing repressive acts in Hong Kong”.
Yet the State Department did not respond to questions on Thursday about whether any punitive actions were planned in response to the new electoral changes. A number of US bills enacted during the last congressional session authorised the government to sanction Hong Kong and mainland officials over perceived violations of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
On Capitol Hill, legislators from both parties denounced the NPC’s rubber stamping of the electoral measure and called for action from the US and other governments.
Characterising the move as “a clarion call to the international community,” Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Twitter that “we must stand firmly with the people of Hong Kong [and] ensure China faces real consequences for betraying its commitments”.
Senator Rick Scott, Republican of Florida, called on US President Joe Biden to “make clear that Beijing can’t repeat these abuses in Taiwan [and] threaten regional security”.
Those comments come as other governments wrestle with the decision of whether to take punitive action against Beijing over the new resolution.
Responding to the NPC’s move on Thursday, EU’s Borrell reiterated an earlier warning that the EU would “consider taking additional steps”, and vowed to “pay increased attention to the situation in Hong Kong as part of the overall relations between the European Union and China”.
“The European Union regrets that the fundamental freedoms, democratic principles and the political pluralism that are central to Hong Kong’s identity and prosperity are under increasing pressure by the authorities,” Borrell said, calling on the central and Hong Kong governments to “restore confidence” in the city’s democratic process.
Borrell did not elaborate on the “additional steps” the EU was considering, which would come atop a host of actions concerning Hong Kong that the bloc agreed upon last summer.
Those included: offering asylum, migration, visa and residence support to Hongkongers; applying export controls on dual-use goods; and encouraging scholarships and academic exchanges involving Hong Kong students and universities.
Additional actions have been discussed at the EU’s top levels, including suspending the extradition treaties member states maintain with China and sending a high-level European delegation to Hong Kong to raise grievances, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
But some member states with extradition treaties with China have resisted, since they would have to deal with the consequences. Of the EU’s 27 members, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Portugal, Romania and Spain have extradition treaties with China.
Sanctions on Hong Kong or Chinese officials involved in the electoral reform process are not thought to be an immediate option.
The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council will meet again on March 22, when the EU’s 27 foreign ministers will be expected to discuss whether to take further action. Hong Kong has been on the agenda for each of the last three council meetings.
In a statement responding to the NPC directive, the Federation of German Industries, a powerful business lobby group, said that “increasingly strict orientation of Chinese economic policy toward the goal of technological and economic independence potentially complicates global cooperation”.
The group also took a swing at China’s human rights records, criticising its positions on Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
“The human rights situation in Xinjiang as well as the political situation in Hong Kong strain our political and economic relations. China’s unyieldingly hard-line stance in Hong Kong and Xinjiang clouds prospects for successful ratification of the investment agreement in the EU,” said Joachim Lang, the group’s director general.
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