US declares Hong Kong is no longer 'politically autonomous' from China

The determination means that Hong Kong could lose trading privileges with the world's largest economy.

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed Congress on Wednesday that Hong Kong cannot be considered to have a high degree of autonomy from China and therefore no longer warrants special treatment under US law. The status change could be a major blow to Hong Kong's trading relationship with the US and the ability of its residents to obtain visas.

Furthermore, it potentially damages the territory's status as a key Asian financial hub, which also serves as a port for Beijing's financial and commercial transactions with other countries.

"While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China, it is now clear that China is modelling Hong Kong after itself," Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday.

"No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground," Pompeo said, adding that "the United States stands with the people of Hong Kong."

Pompeo's proclamation came as Beijing was expected to impose a national security law on the territory, bypassing Hong Kong's internal legislature, a move the top US diplomat called a "disastrous decision." The proposed Chinese legislation authorises mainland agencies to set up outposts in Hong Kong to curb violent protests and interference by "foreign forces."

When the British handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 after 150 years of colonial rule, the region was promised semi-autonomy by Beijing until 2047 under an agreement with Britain, known as "one country, two systems." Critics of the proposed legislation fear it will be used to quash political dissent and roll back freedoms enjoyed in the territory not seen on the Chinese mainland.

New protests erupted in Hong Kong over the weekend, resulting in clashes between protesters and police and hundreds of arrests.

Meanwhile, Pompeo's declaration potentially further ratchets up tensions between the world's two largest economies, with possible negative repercussions for a global economy weakened by the coronavirus pandemic. The US mission to the United Nations also said in a tweet that it called for a meeting of the UN Security Council "in the wake of [China's] decision to undermine Hong Kong's autonomy [and] freedoms guaranteed under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration."

The Chinese mission to the international body later "categorically' rejected the US request, saying on Twitter that the legislation "is purely China's internal affairs" and "has nothing to do with the mandate of the Security Council."

In another development, the US House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill calling on President Donald Trump's administration to sanction Chinese officials responsible for human rights violations related to China's Uighur minority. The bill, passed in a 413-1 vote, has already passed the Senate and will head to Trump, who has not indicated whether he will sign it into law. The legislation forces the Trump administration to identify Chinese officials responsible for repressing minority Uighurs and other Muslim groups in China's Xinjiang province, however, it gives the president leeway to decide against sanctions.

The US law mandating that the US secretary of state annually reaffirm if Hong Kong is autonomous was passed last year in response to a previous series of protests on the territory against Beijing. Those demonstrations erupted against a bill that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to China, subjecting Hong Kong residents to the mainland's opaque legal system. It was scrapped after months of demonstrations.

The US law, known as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, enjoyed bipartisan support, and was a sign of growing unease in the US towards China as the country emerges as a major power. Beijing's growing clout has also led to a tougher US stance over what is seen as unfair trading practices, such as intellectual property theft and restrictions on foreign businesses.

The two countries inked an initial trade deal in January, following more than a year of tit-for-tat tariff escalation, but the coronavirus pandemic again exposed frays in their relationship. Trump has been upping the ante, blaming China for not being transparent on the coronavirus pandemic. Pompeo claimed the virus may have started in a Chinese government lab and held Beijing responsible for the high global death toll and resulting economic downturn.

The US is now pushing for on-shoring businesses from China, to reduce supply chain dependency, and is also trying to freeze Chinese tech giant Huawei out of Western markets, while also blocking its access to semiconductors.

Trade between the US and Hong Kong is estimated at about $67bn annually. The next steps would have to be decided by the White House, but potentially could lead to the same tariffs being imposed on Hong Kong that Trump has slapped on Chinese goods.

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