WASHINGTON - The United States will restrict visas to Chinese Communist Party officials it deems responsible for undermining Hong Kong's autonomy, said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday (June 26).
Mr Pompeo said the curbs apply to "current and former CCP officials who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy", and may include their family members.
The move is largely symbolic but could be a harbinger of sanctions aimed at dissuading Beijing from the imminent passage of a national security law for Hong Kong, which has become yet another flashpoint in US-China relations.
The legislation, which bans acts of subversion and foreign interference in Hong Kong's politics, is seen by Washington as a sign that Beijing is eroding the territory's freedoms guaranteed by international law, but Beijing has warned Washington not to interfere in its internal affairs.
"Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and the full implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as well as respect for human rights, are of fundamental importance," said Mr Pompeo.
"The United States will continue to review its authorities to respond to these concerns."
The White House and Congress have signalled their willingness in recent months to punish China for advancing with the national security law, moving on several fronts to support Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.
In May, Mr Pompeo certified that Hong Kong was no longer sufficiently autonomous from Beijing, and President Donald Trump announced the US would end its preferential treatment of Hong Kong as a customs and travel territory separate from the rest of China.
On Thursday, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that would sanction Chinese officials who undermine Hong Kong's autonomy, as well as the banks and companies that do business with them. The bill must next be passed by the House of Representatives and signed by the President.
In practice, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration's restrictions on flights and travelers from China mean that few Chinese officials are visiting America at the moment anyway, limiting the number of people whose entry the US can ban.
Criticising the Washington's move, Mr Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the state-owned tabloid Global Times, wrote on Twitter: "Don't be so narcissistic. Now who among Chinese still wants to go to the US that is experiencing the most severe Covid-19 epidemic?"
Strained US-China relations also limit the efficacy of the move. "I think the chance of them being allowed to visit the US by the Chinese authorities is pretty thin at this point, especially given the political environment," the Stimson Centre's China programme director Yun Sun told The Straits Times.
The State Department did not name the officials who would be hit by the visa restrictions on Friday. But Ms Sun said that wording of Mr Pompeo's announcement did not seem to apply to officials in Hong Kong's government.
"Strictly speaking, CCP officials are those who serve at CCP party organs, but not those serving at agencies under the State Council," she said.
"I don't think officials of Hong Kong, including (chief executive) Carrie Lam, would be included. They are not CCP officials."