US targets 14 Chinese officials in Hong Kong-related sanctions

Up to 14 people, including members of the Chinese Communist Party, would likely be targeted by measures such as asset freezes and financial sanctions, two sources said. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - The United States slapped sanctions on 14 Chinese officials on Monday (Dec 7) in new Hong Kong-related designations, according to the US Treasury Department website.

The individuals are all members of China's National People's Congress, according to the website.

The move comes after Hong Kong's Beijing-backed government last month expelled four opposition members from its legislature after China's Parliament gave city authorities new powers to curb dissent.

It is being seen as President Donald Trump's intent to continue to pile pressure on China's President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party in his final weeks in office.

The names or positions of any of the potential targets weren't immediately known.

The Trump administration had previously declined to sanction any members of the Politburo's supreme Standing Committee.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry didn't immediately return a request for comment sent via WeChat on Monday.

News that the US was preparing sanctions on some Chinese officials helped sour the tone in global financial markets in Asian trading on Monday morning, and futures on the S&P 500 Index slipped 0.2 per cent.

"One thing that the market has been concerned about is that on his 'Out of office' Trump would look for some retribution on China. So this news speaks to that fear," said Mr Kyle Rodda, market strategist at IG Markets in Melbourne.

Hong Kong has continued to be rocked by political upheaval in recent weeks.

Last month, China passed a resolution allowing the disqualification of Hong Kong lawmakers who weren't deemed sufficiently loyal - prompting opposition legislators to resign en masse.

White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien said in November the expulsion showed the "One Country, Two Systems" formula, under which Hong Kong's autonomy had been promised since Britain handed the territory back to China in 1997, was now "merely a fig leaf" and promised further US action.

That month, the State Department and Treasury Department imposed sanctions on four more Chinese officials in Hong Kong's government and security establishment, barring them from travelling to the United States and blocking any US-related assets they might have.

Their departure fuelled concern about Hong Kong's autonomy from Beijing in the wake of China-drafted national security legislation imposed on the former British colony in June.

Prominent local activist Joshua Wong was also sentenced to more than a year in prison last week for leading a 2019 protest outside police headquarters, the latest in a series of moves by Chinese and local officials to clamp down on the city's battered opposition.

The US has already hit officials with sanctions over Beijing's crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, including the city's Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

Ms Lam recently said she was collecting "piles of cash" at home as the measures barred her from basic banking services.

Mr Trump indicated to aides in July that he did not want to further escalate tensions with China and had ruled out additional sanctions on top officials for now, Bloomberg News reported at the time.

Before that, his team had created a list of officials that included Vice-Premier Han Zheng, a member of the party's powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, Bloomberg said, citing people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.

An even more senior target would be National People's Congress chairman Li Zhanshu, the party's No. 3 official and Mr Xi's former chief of staff.

The legislative body led by Mr Li has been directly responsible for China's most controversial measures on Hong Kong in recent months, including the loyalty resolution.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a video address to the US-China Business Council on Monday that Washington and Beijing should "work together" to "achieve a smooth transition" of their ties.

"At the same time, the two countries should, following a direction that conforms to the interest of both countries' people, strive to restart dialogue, return to the right track, and rebuild mutual trust in the next phase of China-US relations," Mr Wang said.

Meanwhile, China's Foreign Ministry said on Monday that China firmly opposes and strongly condemns Mr Pompeo imposing sanctions on the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) United Front Work Department.

China will take the necessary and legitimate measures to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development rights, Ms Hua Chunying, spokeswoman with the ministry told a briefing.

Mr Pompeo said on Friday that he had imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials and others who have used or threatened to use violence, the release of private information or other coercive tactics to intimidate critics.

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