U.S., U.K. Lead Global Push Back Against China in Hong Kong

The U.S. and U.K. have emerged as the global leaders of a pushback against the Chinese Communist Party's suppression of anti-government dissent in Hong Kong, deepening tensions with Beijing and putting Hong Kong center stage in the bubbling confrontation between China and liberal democracies.

The transatlantic allies have so far taken the most robust steps to try and check China's political encroachment into the semi-autonomous territory, which was ruled as a British colony until 1997.

This week, Chinese lawmakers circumvented local representatives to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong. It prohibits the broadly-defined offenses of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion. Those convicted under the legislation face anywhere from three years to life behind bars, whether tried in Hong Kong courts or extradited to the mainland.

China has long framed unrest in Hong Kong as driven by extremists funded and directed by foreign powers, particularly the U.S.

President Donald Trump's administration has approved new legislation backing pro-democracy protesters and allowing sanctions on Chinese individuals and companies accused of undermining human rights in Hong Kong and the territory's autonomy.

This includes visa restrictions on "current and former" Chinese Communist Party officials, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. It may even include their families.

Earlier this month, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that the U.S. would rescind Hong Kong's special economic status which had given it preferential trade treatment. Pompeo has since said that the administration will pursue this action in accordance with Trump's wishes and despite Beijing's protests.

This status benefitted China too, helping the territory become a valuable economic window to the world, home to financial institutions and firms not comfortable with operating while too heavily reliant on Chinese authoritarianism.

Pompeo has been one of the fiercest critics of the Chinese government. He said Tuesday that the new national security law "outrageous and an affront to all nations."

"Free Hong Kong was one of the world's most stable, prosperous and dynamic cities," he added. "Now, now it will be just another Communist-run city where people will be subject to the party elites' whims."

While the U.S. concentrates its efforts on Chinese finances and visas, the British government has mobilized to offer as many as 3 million Hong Kongers a way out of the region. The U.K. has been criticized over the past year for perceived weakness in standing up against China over Hong Kong.

It was the U.K. that agreed to the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Beijing, which was supposed to protect Hong Kong's free market economy and political freedoms under the "one country, two systems" agreement until 2047. But as millions marched against last year's extradition bill, the former colonial master was found wanting.

But the national security law appears to have spurred the country into action. On Tuesday the prime minister said that Hong Kong holders of a British National Overseas passport would be allowed to come to the U.K. and eventually apply for citizenship.

Johnson said the national security law "violates Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and threatens the freedoms and rights protected by the joint declaration."

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab admitted, however, that there is "little we could do to...cohesively force" China to allow BNO passport holders to travel to the U.K..

BNO passport holders are currently only entitled to visa-free access to the U.K. for six months. Under Johnson's plan, they would be allowed to remain for six years at which point they could apply for permanent residency.

Elsewhere, Taiwan has resolutely stood by the protesters in Hong Kong since the start of the unrest last year. At least 200 or so activists have already fled the expected Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong, taking refuge in Taiwan where pro-democracy groups now intend to shift some of their operations.

Recently, the government reiterated its support for pro-democracy activists. Liberal and nationalist President Tsai Ing-wen—re-elected for a second term in January despite Chinese efforts to undermine her—wrote on Facebook in May: "In face of the changing situation, the international community has proactively stretched out a helping hand to Hong Kong's people."

China has responded predictably to foreign condemnation, and may even use foreign support for protesters as evidence of collusion with other nations; something that could now land offenders in jail for life.

Beijing has introduced reciprocal visa restrictions on U.S. individuals guilty of "egregious conduct" over Hong Kong, and has promised further measures to retaliate against Hong Kong's loss of its special trading status.

On Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing that the U.K. would face consequences for its BNO decision. He did not specify what measures the Chinese government may employ, but both the U.S. and U.K. appear to have decided that dwindling freedom in Hong Kong currently trumps any economic or diplomatic blowback from Beijing.

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A protester holds the U.S. flag at the Hong Kong University campus on September 20, 2019. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty