US slams China’s plan for Hong Kong as ‘death knell’ for autonomy

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, has slammed China’s move to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong, saying it would be a “death knell” for autonomy in the financial hub and former British colony.

The top US diplomat condemned the move by the National People’s Congress, the Chinese rubber-stamp parliament, to “unilaterally and arbitrarily impose national security legislation on Hong Kong”.

The plan marks the latest effort by China to clamp down on political expression in Hong Kong, which was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” model agreed by London and Beijing when Britain returned the territory to China in 1997.

“The decision to bypass Hong Kong’s well-established legislative processes and ignore the will of the people of Hong Kong would be a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong,” Mr Pompeo said, adding that it would “impact our assessment of one country, two systems and the status of the territory”.

China has become a wide target in Washington in recent months as Democrats and Republicans become increasingly angry at Beijing. The White House has also taken a tougher position on a range of issues from Huawei, the Chinese telecoms equipment company, to a recent effort to prevent the main US federal pension fund from investing in Chinese companies.

The commerce department on Friday restricted access to US technology for nine Chinese organisations, including the Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science, by adding them to the so-called entity list.

The department said they were “complicit in human rights violations” as part of China’s “campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labour and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs” and other minorities in Xinjiang.

In a separate action, it added 24 Chinese government and commercial groups to the entity list for “engaging in activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States”. The entities included Beijing Computational Science Research Center, Harbin Institute of Technology and Chengdu Fine Optical Engineering Research Center.

Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, said the Chinese move would “push Hong Kong’s autonomy to the breaking point”. He urged Donald Trump to “respond swiftly” and suggested the US president use the tools provided by Congress when it passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last year.

The act, which was passed with very strong bipartisan support, allows the administration to impose sanctions on individuals who are deemed to have suppressed human rights in Hong Kong.

It also makes it easier for Mr Trump to revoke special economic and trading relations that the US extends to Hong Kong but not to mainland China, which could result in the territory being subject to US tariffs.

Mr Rubio, a leading China hawk who co-authored the act, wrote on Twitter that Hong Kong received special treatment because it was guaranteed a measure of autonomy under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

He wrote that any Chinese implementation of the national security law would leave “no choice but to certify HK is no longer autonomous”.

Hong Kong’s stock market suffered its worst one-day fall in almost five years on Friday after Beijing’s move blindsided traders and prompted concerns over the financial hub’s future.

Mr Trump has yet to comment on the Chinese decision, beyond saying that he would address the issue “very strongly”. He has previously given tepid support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, which critics attributed to his reluctance to jeopardise talks with China that led to an easing of the Sino-US trade war earlier this year.

But in recent months, President Trump has taken a much harsher stance towards China, blaming Beijing for the global spread of coronavirus. Experts expect anti-China sentiment to rise ahead of the US presidential election in November.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, criticised Mr Trump for not speaking out forcefully, saying the US president’s silence had emboldened authoritarian regimes such as China.

“Trump has repeatedly turned a blind eye to China’s deepening repression in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and throughout China,” Mr Biden said. “Now we see the consequences: leaders in Beijing are proposing a law to further erode Hong Kong’s autonomy and the rights of its citizens. It is no surprise China’s government believes it can act with impunity to violate its commitments.”

China has provided limited detail about the new law, which would allow its security agencies to set up operations directly in Hong Kong.

The move has fuelled concern among multinational companies about the growing influence of Beijing, which has accelerated changes that were not expected until the “one country, two systems” model expires in 2047.*

Under that model, Hong Kong has authority over its own policies, except for foreign affairs and defence. But China has curtailed its autonomy in an effort to curb the pro-democracy protests that sprang up in 2014.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, was last year forced to abandon a separate effort to introduce security legislation following mass protests that echoed the so-called umbrella revolution six years ago.

*This article has been amended to correct the expiry date of the “one country, two systems” model

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi