Lawmakers clashed with security inside the Hong Kong Legislative Council on May 18 after the opposition protested in an attempt to stall the election of a pro-Beijing chair of the House Committee.
China approved sweeping “national security” legislation for Hong Kong on Thursday in a move that jeopardizes the city’s autonomy, threatens pro-democracy activists and prompted international condemnation.
Critics warned the law could spell the end of civil liberties in Hong Kong and cripple its status as a global financial hub. The legislation’s adoption by China’s National People’s Congress, the nation’s rubber-stamp Parliament, came less than 24 hours after the Trump administration said it no longer considers the former British colony to be autonomous from mainland China.
A “disastrous decision,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday, denouncing the law. The Trump administration joined the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia in warning that China’s action is destabilizing and “in direct conflict” with its international obligations.
The law “raises the prospect of prosecution in Hong Kong for political crimes and undermines existing commitments to protect the rights of Hong Kong people,” the joint statement says.
The Chinese law bans sedition, secession and other forms of subversion against Beijing. It allows China’s state security agencies to operate in the city, which has been roiled by pro-democracy protests for months.
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President Donald Trump signaled he is considering sanctions or other punitive measures such as visa restrictions or tariffs against China for the move.
In Congress, there’s a bipartisan effort to enact tough sanctions on Chinese authorities or entities that engage in a crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedom. The measure, sponsored by Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., would sanction banks that finance those individuals or institutions.
“The idea of this bill is to send a very clear message to Beijing that we’re not going to sit by idly while they systematically destroy the autonomy that they promised to Hong Kong (and) … attempt to export their authoritarian system to other parts of the world,” Toomey said on CNBC Thursday morning.
In a statement, Van Hollen said he and Toomey are pushing for “urgent consideration” of the bill, given Thursday’s developments in Beijing.
U.S. officials said China’s action erodes Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” political, legal and economic framework, in place since 1997. The policy, set to expire in 2047, enshrined freedoms of speech, press, assembly and an independent judiciary.
Hong Kong has swiftly become a battleground in escalating Cold War-like tensions between Washington and Beijing. The world’s two largest economies have for years sparred over areas from human rights to technology.
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Despite the signing of the first phase of a trade deal in January, relations between the superpowers have deteriorated sharply in recent months, as each side has accused the other of wrongdoing in the coronavirus outbreak.
Daniel Russel, a former Asia affairs adviser to President Barack Obama and now vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, a U.S.-based think tank, said China’s legislation is a “decisive show of force by (Chinese President) Xi Jinping, signaling a willingness to defy international opinion, to challenge the United States, and to threaten the people of Hong Kong.”
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Pompeo’s announcement Wednesday that Hong Kong no longer merits special treatment under U.S. law paves the way for punitive action by the Trump administration. Federal law grants Hong Kong special trading status – including exemptions from certain tariffs and export controls that the United States imposes on China – which could be in jeopardy.
“There’s a very long list of things that the president could do in response,” David R. Stilwell, the Trump administration’s assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said Wednesday. He declined to offer more specifics but said the White House’s actions would be “as targeted as possible” to avoid hurting Hong Kong while sending a clear message to China’s authoritarian leaders.
China has dismissed concerns the law will limit freedoms in Hong Kong. Carrie Lam, the city’s pro-Beijing leader, called it a “responsible” move that will protect Hong Kong’s law-abiding majority. The law is due to be operational from September.
Last year, pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong held disruptive rallies for months to voice their opposition to an extradition law for criminal suspects. Beijing put the bill on hold but did not fully withdraw it, in a bid to restore order in the city.
Edward Tse, the Hong Kong-based founder of the Gao Feng Advisory Co., a management consultancy with roots in mainland China, said the security legislation was needed to maintain stability because it creates a “more certain” environment for businesses facing an “anarchic” situation caused by protesters.
“In the short term, there will probably be some turbulence. That’s human behavior. But when the law is implemented, they will either leave or go underground,” he said.
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