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Pompeo calls Chinese plan to exert sweeping controls in Hong Kong a ‘death knell’ for territory’s autonomy

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4 days ago Shibani Mahtani
a group of people standing in front of a store: Riot police stand guard near a group of pro-democracy protesters near the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong on Friday. © Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images Riot police stand guard near a group of pro-democracy protesters near the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong on Friday.

HONG KONG —Secret police, surveillance, arbitrary detentions, propaganda in classrooms — all of these will be coming to Hong Kong under a far-reaching national security law Beijing is unilaterally imposing on the territory.

Details of the measure submitted to China’s rubber-stamp legislature on Friday specify that the Communist Party can deploy “relevant national security organs” to Hong Kong, giving legal cover for the first time for the mainland security apparatus to operate in the previously autonomous financial center.

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With approval expected within a week, Beijing will be empowered to target its critics in the former British colony, as it has done on the Chinese mainland. Actions that once shocked, such as the kidnapping of booksellers from Hong Kong in 2015, will be legal — and perhaps routine.

A major question is how the United States may respond.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this month that a report assessing Hong Kong’s autonomy, which could trigger sanctions and a change in the relationship with the territory, would be postponed until after the Communist Party’s annual legislative session that opened in Beijing this week.

On Friday, Pompeo amplified the U.S. denunciations, saying the Chinese plan “would be a death knell” for the relative autonomy promised to Hong Kong when Britain handed over control in 1997.

“The United States strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal,” Pompeo said in a statement.

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China’s provisions against “foreign interference” appear to put diplomats at risk of harassment. Last year, the country leaked personal information of an American official in Hong Kong, accusing her of fomenting unrest, and detained an employee of the British Consulate, who said he was blindfolded and shackled.

“If agents of China’s national security apparatus can operate in Hong Kong, they can use the same methods that they use in China,” said Leung Kwok-hung, a political activist in Hong Kong. “That is the end for us.”

Beijing’s gambit — imposing its will by decree, bypassing legislative procedures it promised Hong Kong under the terms of the 1997 handover — prompted warnings and indignation from Washington. And it marked a decisive blow in China’s efforts to undermine Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, and the “one country, two systems” formula that is supposed to preserve the city’s political rights and autonomy until 2047.

The question now is how far the Trump administration — armed with new tools, namely the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act — will go in its response.

Attention is falling on whether the United States will end Hong Kong’s trade privileges by certifying that the territory should no longer be treated separately from China — a step many regard as a nuclear option because of the implications for business — or sanction key officials.

a group of people holding a sign: Members of the Democratic Party hold banner and placards during a protest in front of the Chinese central government's liaison office in Hong Kong on Friday. © Kin Cheung/AP Members of the Democratic Party hold banner and placards during a protest in front of the Chinese central government's liaison office in Hong Kong on Friday.

“If Beijing abandons ‘one country, two systems,’ undermines the Basic Law and violates its legal obligations under the Joint Declaration, the U.S. policy response, as called for in the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, should be swift and clear,” wrote Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A Democratic Senate aide added: “Pretending that Beijing is respecting Hong Kong’s autonomy is no longer a tenable position to hold.”

Sen. James E. Risch (Idaho), the chairman of the committee, said in a joint statement with fellow Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.) that the developments “could lead to a significant reassessment on U.S. policy toward Hong Kong.”

Bipartisan moves are underway to sanction Chinese officials and entities that enforce the new security law. Efforts are also ramping up in the House and Senate to condemn its passage as a direct violation of Hong Kong’s constitutional framework.

These initiatives are likely to prompt further retaliation from Beijing, which bristles at what it considers interference and insists that the security law is an urgent necessity and in line with its powers.

Hong Kong is “purely China’s internal affair; no foreign country has the right to interfere,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on Friday. “The Chinese government is firmly determined to safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests; implement ‘one country, two systems’; and oppose foreign interference in Hong Kong affairs.”

Political turmoil erupted in Hong Kong last year in response to a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. The sometimes violent protests grew into a movement against Beijing’s encroachment on the city’s constitutional rights and political freedoms and mobilized a new generation of activists.

Beijing appears determined to prevent a reprise this summer.

a group of people sitting at a table: Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, right, at the opening session of China's National People's Congress in Beijing on Friday. © Ng Han Guan/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, right, at the opening session of China's National People's Congress in Beijing on Friday.

“Violent acts caused by a lot of Hong Kong’s radical forces before the epidemic led the Chinese government to make the decision that no matter how difficult it is, and no matter what the backlash would be, it will resolutely introduce the national security law,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. The manner in which it was pushed through “shows how determined China is,” he added.

Hong Kong is supposed to administer its own affairs except for defense and foreign relations. For decades, it has been a thriving center for media, free flow of capital, political activism and free expression.

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Its mini-constitution calls for the implementation of national security legislation, known as Article 23. But those measures proved so contentious when introduced in 2003 that they were abandoned and never revived by Hong Kong’s government.

Carrie Lam, Beijing’s handpicked chief executive of Hong Kong, promised in a statement Friday to comply with the Communist Party’s maneuvers, and characterized the security laws as “in the interest of all the Hong Kong residents.”

“Legislation on national security is undoubtedly within the purview of the central authorities. Just as it is in any other country in the world, it is the authority of the country to legislate on its own national security,” Lam said.

China’s Foreign Ministry wrote to foreign diplomats ahead of Beijing’s announcement, effectively telling them to lay off and continue business as usual.

“Hong Kong’s prosperity and long-term stability is in line with the common interests of the whole international community, including your country,” the letter said. “We hope that your government will understand and support China’s relevant practices.”

a building with a metal fence: Police officers guard the entrance to the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong. © Paul Yeung/Bloomberg Police officers guard the entrance to the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong.

Already, though, Hong Kong’s prosperity appears to be at risk from Beijing’s actions. The city’s benchmark Hang Seng stock index plunged 5.6 percent on Friday, its steepest daily percentage fall in five years, and the Hong Kong dollar weakened sharply against the U.S. currency following the announcement.

While last year’s unrest hurt Hong Kong’s standing as a financial hub, experts say the security laws pose an entirely different challenge.

Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said most concerning to businesses is the way the legislation was introduced.

“This opens a whole new can of worms as to what national security legislation will mean, for everyone including the international business community,” she said.

An exodus of talent and money have already started. Capital and senior management began shifting to places such as Singapore last year, said Stuart Witchell, managing director of Berkeley Research Group in Hong Kong.

“We suspect that firms will be updating their contingency plans yet again in light of increased and possibly more-violent protests,” he said.

Analysts say the erosion of Hong Kong’s status as a financial center could hurt the Chinese economy more than Beijing expects, particularly with moves underway to delist Chinese companies in the United States.

“This is typical of Xi Jinping,” said Ho-fung Hung, a political economist at Johns Hopkins University, referring to China’s leader. “They misjudged the situation entirely when they pushed for the extradition bill last year and thought it was going to be easy. This time around, they may have made the same mistake, and it could blow up for them again.”

Liu Yang in Beijing and Gerry Shih contributed to this report.

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