US warns that China's Hong Kong law could jeopardise its special status

US and Chinese flags displayed outside a hotel in Beijing on May 14, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - The United States called on China to respect Hong Kong's autonomy in response to an upcoming national security law that would tighten Beijing's control over the territory, as outraged lawmakers in Washington lined up legislation that could sanction Chinese officials and banks over the new law.

Proceeding with the legislation could jeopardise Hong Kong's special trade status under American law, the State Department warned.

The national security law, which is on the agenda of China's highest law-making body when it meets on Friday (May 22), will ban seditious activities against the central government.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Beijing's decision to bypass Hong Kong's legislative processes "a death knell for the high degree of autonomy" it promised Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

The US stands with Hong Kong and strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its "disastrous proposal", he said in a statement on Friday.

"Any decision impinging on Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms as guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law would inevitably impact our assessment of One Country, Two Systems and the status of the territory," added Mr Pompeo.

The US treats Hong Kong differently from China in matters of trade and commerce, under the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act. This exempted Hong Kong exports from tariffs imposed by the US on Chinese goods under the US-China trade war.

But under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act introduced by the US last November in support of the protest movement, the Secretary of State is required to annually re-certify that the territory remains sufficiently autonomous from mainland China to warrant its special status.

Mr Pompeo said on May 6 that this year's review would be postponed, to take into account any actions by Beijing in the lead-up to the annual meeting of the National People's Congress.

President Donald Trump, when asked by reporters for his reaction to the national security law on Thursday, said: "I don't know what it is because nobody knows yet. If it happens, we'll address that issue very strongly."

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill took a stronger stance, urging the White House to hold Beijing accountable and act to preserve Hong Kong's autonomy in a rare show of bipartisan unity.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called the national security law unacceptable, saying: "A further crackdown from Beijing will only intensify the Senate's interest in re-examining the US-China relationship."

Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said on Twitter that the Trump administration should use the powers of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and "lead a global coalition to support the people of Hong Kong".

Said Republican senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a China hawk who introduced and pushed for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, said on Twitter: "It's in the best interest of all for China and the US to have a balanced relationship. But that will not be possible if it requires ignoring or silently accepting repeated violations of their commitments on Hong Kong's autonomy and attacks on basic rights."

On Thursday, Republican senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland introduced a Bill to sanction those who undermine Hong Kong's autonomy.

This could include police officers who crack down on Hong Kong protests, or Chinese Communist Party officials who impose the national security law on Hong Kong.

Banks that transact with such individuals or entities would also be sanctioned under the proposed legislation, titled the Hong Kong Autonomy Act.

"The communist regime in Beijing would like nothing more than to extinguish the autonomy of Hong Kong and the rights of its people," said Mr Toomey in a statement.

"In many ways, Hong Kong is the canary in the coal mine for Asia. Beijing's growing interference could have a chilling effect on other nations struggling for freedom in China's shadow," he added.

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