Washington’s mood darkens as China tightens its grip on Hong Kong

Washington expressed strong displeasure on Tuesday over the passage of the Hong Kong national security law as US lawmakers debated what leverage they have to effectively apply pressure on Beijing.
“The United States will not stand idly by while China swallows Hong Kong into its authoritarian maw,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. “The United States will continue to stand with the freedom-loving people of Hong Kong and respond to Beijing’s attacks on freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly, as well as the rule of law.”
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China’s top legislative body on Tuesday enacted the security law before its provisions had been seen by the Hong Kong government or the public. Criminalizing secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, it could lead to life imprisonment for serious offenders.
Critics say the law undermines the former British colony’s freedoms and high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” model by which it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, called on the Trump administration to consider “all options at its disposal” aimed at denying Beijing the benefits of Hong Kong’s distinct economic privileges.
On June 30, Senators introduced the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which would provide refugee status to Hongkongers who participated in the city’s protest movement and “have a well-founded fear of persecution.”
Jeff Merkely, a Democrat from Oregon, said the bill is a response to “a series of alarming and brutal Chinese crackdowns” and would help protesters find “a pathway to safety in America.”
Last week, by unanimous consent, the Senate passed a bill that could punish Chinese officials for violating commitments made under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty governing its handover to China.
“Those complicit in snuffing out freedom, democracy and human rights in Hong Kong must be held accountable,” Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who introduced the Senate version known as the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, said on Twitter.
The House speaker, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, said in a statement that Congress was united “in support of freedom, justice and real autonomy for the people of Hong Kong,” echoing calls for Beijing to be held accountable.
Analysts said China likely underestimated the global resistance, assuming the world would be largely distracted by the pandemic and economic downturn.
“They miscalculated,” said Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University. “The international community, particularly the US, reaction to this is going to be quite serious. It will make Beijing pay quite a substantial price and cost the Chinese economy, hi-tech development and financial development, some troubles in years to come.”
In recent days, the European Union has joined the US in expressing its strong disapproval, echoed somewhat less forcefully by Japan and South Korea, among others. The US in recent weeks has also announced an end to preferential tariffs for Hong Kong, tighter restrictions on technology exports and sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials, without providing specifics.
China’s Asian neighbors will likely have a more muted reaction, but the implications of Beijing’s move are not lost on them, some said.
“The top leaders of these countries will not say too much because they all have lots of business ties with China,” said Victor Shih, chair in China relations at the University of California, San Diego.
“But I think privately, this serves as a serious warning to China’s neighboring countries because all of China’s promises of autonomy, it’s just that,” he added. “If Beijing can use its economic and security coercive capacity to compel a territory to comply with its wishes, it will do so.”
The heavy-handed move in Hong Kong dovetails with more aggressive action on the edges of its territory, analysts said. In recent weeks Chinese soldiers have clashed with their Indian counterparts along their disputed border, killing 20 Indian soldiers.
China in recent months has stepped up island-building activities, patrols and resource exploration in the South China Sea and flexed its muscles with Taiwan.
“Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong should be viewed not in isolation but rather as part of a broader pattern of China working to gain greater control over its claimed territories along its entire periphery,” said Ryan Hass, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and former China director at the National Security Council.
In a statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry termed the security law a “fundamental solution for Hong Kong to restore order, end chaos and resume stability” that “reflects the shared will of all Chinese people including Hong Kong compatriots.”
US analysts voiced concern over elements of the new law. The sedition provisions could apply to almost any “obstruction” of government functions, including legislators blocking a bill, they said.
“Basically any act of defiance will be considered a crime and will be punished with minimum sentencing” of three years, said Shih.
The foreign ministry countered that the bill would be judiciously implemented. “We have every confidence in the bright prospects of Hong Kong,” it said.
The international community has acknowledged that it has limited leverage over China, but some expressed confidence that global displeasure and punitive steps could shape Beijing’s actions over time.
Britain is expected to open up a pathway to resettlement for up to 3 million residents of its former colony. Taipei has reacted similarly, adding in a statement on Tuesday: “Taiwan will not stand idly by.” And Washington has said it will consider similar immigration policies.
“It’s almost like a Saigon 1975 moment,” said Hung, referring to the end of the Vietnam war. “The world recognizes that it’s lost. The best they can do is accept people who come from there.”
Tougher US restrictions on technology exports to Hong Kong could cut off companies in mainland China – already subject to similar restrictions – from leading-edge technology, others said. “Now they’re all at risk,” said Hung.
The most effective, if rather blunt, tool Washington has is its grip over the global banking system through the US dollar’s global currency status, analysts said. This would allow the US to sanction individuals and financial institutions seen abetting Beijing in its cracking down on Hong Kong.

China has apparently anticipated this under the new security law with a provision making it a crime to work with “foreign forces” that endanger national security, analysts said. This could apply to financial institutions that comply with US financial sanctions.
“The bank would be trapped between a rock and a hard place. They could be arrested,” said Shih. “I think the combination of the potential US sanctions and this national security law will accelerate the decline of the financial industry in Hong Kong.”
Others expressed confidence that Hong Kong would adapt, albeit in less vibrant form, as it has done in the past.
One thing is relatively certain, analysts said. As Washington and Beijing face off over trade, a pandemic blame game and Hong Kong, expect more turbulence. “We should expect the overall action-reaction cycle in US-China relations to accelerate in the weeks to come,” said Hass.
Additional reporting by Owen Churchill in Washington.
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