China vows to retaliate after Trump signs Hong Kong sanctions bill

By Steven Lee Myers

China on Wednesday sharply criticized President Donald Trump’s moves to strip Hong Kong of its preferential trading status with the United States and clear the way for new sanctions on officials and companies there, vowing to retaliate with punitive measures of its own.

The response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing promised to continue a pattern of tit-for-tat punishments that have accompanied the sharp downward turn in relations between the two countries on a variety of fronts, from trade to technology to human rights.

China was swift to criticize Trump’s latest actions, which he announced at a rambling White House news conference on Tuesday. Those moves, along with his remarks, underscored the extent to which relations with Beijing have become intertwined with the U.S. presidential election.

Trump said he had issued an executive order revoking the special trading status that Hong Kong had enjoyed for more than two decades, following the Chinese government’s imposition of a sweeping new national security law there. The law came into force on June 30, and its chilling effect on political freedoms in the city — which, under a formula called “one country, two systems,” is supposed to have a high degree of autonomy from China — has already been evident in a series of arrests and police raids.

Trump also signed legislation, adopted overwhelmingly in May by Congress, that authorizes the administration to impose sanctions on officials or institutions, including banks, that were found to have undermined Hong Kong’s semiautonomous status.

His executive order, besides revoking the territory’s special trading status, calls for sanctions against people deemed to have been involved in a variety of acts in Hong Kong, including arrests made under the new security law and actions that undermine democratic processes or limit the news media’s freedoms.

Officials in Beijing had clearly anticipated the moves, but they reacted harshly nonetheless.

“The act on the United States side maliciously denigrates Hong Kong’s national security legislation, threatens to impose sanctions on China and gravely violates international law and basic rules of international relations,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement posted on Wednesday morning in China, not long after Trump finished speaking.

“It is gross interference in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs,” the ministry said.

The impact of the new powers detailed in the U.S. law and Trump’s executive order remain to be seen. Congress has authorized similar measures before, only to have the administration delay imposing them as it weighed other foreign policy considerations, including Trump’s signature trade deal with China.

With relations deteriorating badly and the pandemic’s toll mounting in the United States, the administration has acted more aggressively in recent weeks.

When the United States imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials over China’s crackdown on Uighurs and other Muslims in the far western region of Xinjiang, Beijing reciprocated by announcing travel bans and sanctions on prominent Republican members of Congress.

Lau Siu-kai, a senior adviser to the Chinese government on Hong Kong policy, said the U.S. actions would have limited effect on Hong Kong and would, contrary to the intent of the United States, drive the territory closer to mainland China.

“The overall damage to Hong Kong and to China is rather minimal and can be absorbed,” said Lau, a former senior Hong Kong government official who is now with the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

He said Hong Kong was becoming “increasingly detached from the United States and the West, and increasingly attached to China and Asia.”

Others said the U.S. actions could have more significant effects by hurting the city’s reputation for openness and rule of law. That could affect companies as well as academia.

“The only way we can regain the respect and favorable conditions that we deserve is if Beijing fulfills its original promise to the world and Hong Kong people, which is the genuine implementation of ‘one country, two systems’ and our high degree of autonomy,” said James To, a pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmaker.

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