Donald Trump’s administration has imposed sanctions on 14 high-level Chinese officials over allegations they have undermined democracy in Hong Kong.
The officials targeted for sanctions in Monday’s sweep are all high-ranking members of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the Chinese body that oversees the national legislature and was responsible for adopting and implementing the new national security law that paved the way for a crackdown in Hong Kong over the summer.
“Beijing’s unrelenting assault against Hong Kong’s democratic processes has gutted its Legislative Council, rendering the body a rubber stamp devoid of meaningful opposition,” said Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, in a statement announcing the measures on Monday.
Authorities in Hong Kong have stepped up their crackdown on opposition political figures and supporters of the 2019 anti-government protests since Beijing introduced a new national security law in the city in June, targeting terrorism, subversion, collusion and foreign interference.
Last week a trio of Hong Kong activists received jail sentences in connection with pro-democracy demonstrations during the summer.
Mr Pompeo said the NPCSC had “effectively neutered the ability of the people of Hong Kong to choose their elected representatives”, accusing Beijing of repeatedly using the national security law to “stifle dissent and arrest those who protest Beijing’s oppressive policies”.
“Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said on Monday before the sanctions were officially announced. “China urges the US side to immediately stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, and stop going further down on the wrong path.”
Under the Trump administration, relations between the US and China have deteriorated as the two have clashed over trade, espionage claims and coronavirus, among other issues.
The US national security and defence strategies pinpoint China as the country’s most significant threat to its global position.
Joe Biden, the US president-elect, has also promised a tough line against China and has previously described Chinese president Xi Jinping as “a thug”. The precise details of his approach remain unclear, however, and his team may seek potential areas to boost co-operation, including over climate change.
The US already imposed a round of sanctions on officials in China and Hong Kong over the new security law in August. These included targeting Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, who said in a television interview last month she had been forced to receive her salary in “piles of cash” because she has lost access to the banking system as a result of the measures.
The latest sanctions will subject the 14 individuals to asset freezes and visa restrictions that will also apply to immediate family members.
While China is likely to be furious at what it sees as US interference in its domestic affairs, Bonnie Glaser, China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there would nevertheless likely be some relief among business interests at the relatively narrow, personalised scope of the actions.
The Trump administration has so far declined to impose sanctions on financial institutions that would aim to cut them off from the US financial system, she noted.
“The banking system is likely relieved by this approach,” she said.