- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Trump administration said Wednesday that China has effectively stripped Hong Kong of its promised democratic freedoms and the city no longer deserves a raft of U.S. trade and investment privileges, fueling rising U.S.-Chinese tensions and throwing into question the island territory’s status as a global financial powerhouse.

Acting on a 2019 law enacted by Congress, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Wednesday that Hong Kong no longer has the autonomy and freedoms that Chinese authorities promised to tolerate when Britain handed control of the territory back to the mainland communist government in 1997.

Just days after China stunned the world by announcing plans to impose a strict “national security law” on Hong Kong, Mr. Pompeo said in a statement that the Trump administration is determined to counter China’s push to crush democracy in the territory.

“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong as they struggle against [China’s] increasing denial of the autonomy that they were promised,” the secretary of state said.

But the determination is a double-edged sword that the Trump White House had been reluctant to use.

With the U.S. still weighing what sanctions to impose, some fear Hong Kong’s own people may bear the brunt of the U.S. decision, along with more than 1,300 U.S. firms with offices in the “special administrative region.”

SEE ALSO: China endorses Hong Kong national security law, deepening tensions between Washington, Beijing

The national security law came in the wake of months of powerful pro-democratic and anti-Beijing demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong. Although restricted by the coronavirus lockdown, protesters were out again Wednesday to protest a new local law to criminalize criticism of the Chinese national anthem.

Hong Kong’s internal politics are another complication, with many in the business and financial communities wary of popular unrest and worried that provoking Beijing will jeopardize Hong Kong’s status as the country’s financial portal to the world.

Li Ka-shing, said to be the city’s richest resident, this week warned against overreacting to the next national security law.

“It is within each and every nation’s sovereign right to address its national security concerns,” the 91-year-old billionaire said in a text message sent by his representatives, Bloomberg reported. “We probably need not over-interpret it.”

State Department officials said Mr. Pompeo spoke by phone with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. The two men agreed “the international community must support the people of Hong Kong and respond to Beijing’s continued erosions of Hong Kong’s autonomy,” the department said in a statement.

Chinese leaders had been bracing for a U.S. response and made clear they would not tolerate “interference” in what they consider China’s internal affairs.

The “era of the U.S. intimidating China is over,” the state-controlled, nationalist Global Times wrote in an editorial Wednesday.

“The China-U.S. ‘battle’ over Hong Kong is on,” the editorial said. “The U.S. is free to play any cards in its hand. Hong Kong is under China’s sovereignty, and whatever act Washington passes is just wastepaper.”

Weighing options

U.S. officials added that the administration is still weighing targeted actions that could punish Beijing. Complicating the process is Mr. Trump’s hope to preserve his half-implemented “phase one” trade deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping, seen by Mr. Trump as a landmark achievement of his foreign trade agenda.

“There’s a long list of things the president could do,” Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell told reporters, adding that various possibilities, including “economic sanctions” and “visa restrictions,” are being prepared by advisers for Mr. Trump to consider.

“The president will determine exactly what steps the U.S. government takes,” Mr. Stilwell said.

The scope of action will depend on whether Beijing goes through with its newly announced national security law in Hong Kong — a move Chinese leaders are expected to make official Thursday.

Unease continued to mount, meanwhile, in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy protests that last rocked the city nearly a year ago suddenly rearing their head anew this week even as coronavirus fears have dissuaded large crowds from gathering.

China’s hand-picked leader for Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, insisted Tuesday that the territory will still retain autonomy even if Beijing goes ahead with the security law, which would reportedly allow Chinese intelligence and security forces to be based inside the district for the first time.

But pro-democracy factions in Hong Kong say the law will pave the way for a violent crackdown on free speech. Trump administration officials have said the stationing of Chinese security forces within Hong Kong would sound a “death knell” for the global financial hub’s independence.

“While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China, it is now clear that China is modeling Hong Kong after itself,” Mr. Pompeo said. “No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China.”

Mr. Pompeo was required to make the determination under the Hong Kong Policy Act that Congress passed in 2019 requiring the secretary of state to present U.S. lawmakers with an official annual assessment of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“Hong Kong and its dynamic, enterprising and free people have flourished for decades as a bastion of liberty, and this decision gives me no pleasure,” Mr. Pompeo said.

The comments mark something of a reversal in tone by the Trump administration, which was criticized by some Republicans and Democrats on the Hill last year for not taking a more aggressive stand in support of the wider pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong.

Protests ripped through the territory last summer after Beijing attempted to put an extradition law in place in Hong Kong that critics said would put residents at risk of being sent to China, where they could face politically motivated trials.

Some saw the extradition law as an open threat by China — which has come under increasing economic strain from its trade war with Washington — to the autonomy of private banks and other businesses run from Hong Kong.

The fear was that the Chinese communist leadership sought to use the threat of extradition to coerce the heads of such firms into handing over assets, financial intelligence or other sensitive and proprietary information to state-controlled Chinese companies.

The extradition law was ultimately withdrawn in the face of widespread popular outrage in Hong Kong, as demonstrations last year took on wider, pro-democracy scope with demands for free elections in the territory.

Some protests have taken on a notably pro-American strain, with demonstrators waving U.S. flags and even singing “The Star- Spangled Banner.”

Chinese backlash

China has bristled in response. Mr. Xi ordered Chinese military forces to mass near the mainland’s border with Hong Kong last summer — a move that sparked fears of a crackdown akin to the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Chinese authorities also ramped up allegations that American officials were meddling in Hong Kong and fomenting the unrest to tarnish Beijing’s reputation against the backdrop of the U.S.-Chinese trade war.

Mr. Pompeo’s decision received widespread support on Capitol Hill from China’s many critics.

China “relentlessly undermines Hong Kongers’ freedoms and way of life and impinges on the autonomy they were promised,” said the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s ranking Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas.

The committee’s Democrat chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, also expressed frustration with Chinese leaders, saying Hong Kong’s future “hangs in the balance.”

“The U.S. response to the Chinese government’s actions must be decisive, clear and taken to protect U.S. national interests and to support autonomy and democratic freedoms in Hong Kong provided under international law,” he said.

But Mr. Engel warned the administration against using Hong Kong as a “pawn” in a larger campaign against China and complained that Congress so far has been “kept out of the loop” on the White House’s next steps.

Congress added some new fuel to the bilateral fire Wednesday by approving a bipartisan bill to toughen the U.S. response to what critics say is a brutal Chinese crackdown on ethnic minorities. The House passed a bipartisan bill that would impose sanctions on Chinese officials involved in the mass surveillance and detention of Uighurs and other ethnic groups in the western Xianjiang region. The Senate has already approved the measure and Mr. Trump has said he would “strongly consider” signing it.

Some conservatives called Wednesday for harsh action directly against Beijing.

The Committee on the Present Danger-China — a hawkish advocacy group in Washington — called for U.S. sanctions and revoking Hong Kong’s “most favored nation” status as a U.S. trade partner.

But some warned the recent U.S.-China tensions were spinning dangerously out of control, economically, militarily and even in the clash over who best dealt with the global coronavirus pandemic.

“A situation like this — where a powerful rival threatens the liberties of a weak entity —should upset everyone with liberal sentiment,” said Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at the Defense Priorities think tank. “But it is difficult to translate sympathy into useful remedies.”

“Eager to ‘do something’ when our conscience is provoked, but military means seem far too risky, we turn too easily to sanctions, a gesture of solidarity that rarely works,” he said in a statement. “Whether or not revoking Hong Kong’s special trading rights counts as sanctions, it would harm mostly the people it’s meant to help.”

⦁ Lauren Meier contributed to this report.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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