The United States on Monday imposed financial sanctions and a travel ban on 14 Chinese officials over their alleged role in Beijing’s disqualification last month of elected opposition legislators in Hong Kong.
The move, which was first reported by Reuters news agency overnight and sent Asian stock markets lower, targeted the vice-chairpersons of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), the top decision-making body of the Chinese legislature.
The action was widely seen as part of an effort by outgoing US President Donald Trump to cement his tough-on-China legacy and box President-elect Joe Biden into hardline positions on Beijing at a time of bipartisan anti-China sentiment in Congress. Biden will take office on January 20.
The Trump administration earlier slapped sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the Asian financial hub’s current and former police chiefs and other top officials in August for what it said was their role in curtailing freedoms in a crackdown on the territory’s pro-democracy movement.
“Beijing’s unrelenting assault against Hong Kong’s democratic processes has gutted its legislative council, rendering the body a rubber stamp devoid of meaningful opposition,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
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. The move triggered mass resignations by pro-democracy opposition lawmakers in the former British colony.
US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said in November that the expulsion showed the “One Country, Two Systems” formula, under which Hong Kong’s autonomy was to be safeguarded after the United Kingdom handed the territory back to China in 1997, was now “merely a fig leaf”, and he promised further US action.
Pompeo said the NPCSC has effectively “neutered” the ability of people in Hong Kong to choose their elected representatives, and added, “These actions demonstrate once again Beijing’s complete disregard for its international commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a UN- [United Nations] registered treaty.”
Beijing’s action heightened alarm in the West. The Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group – comprised of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US – said last month that the move appeared to be part of a campaign to silence critics and called on China to reverse course.
The sanctions prohibit 14 individuals and their immediate family members from travelling to the US. Any assets the officials might have within the US will be blocked and US individuals and companies will be banned from dealing with them.
The news kept global markets on edge as investors fretted over fresh Sino-US tensions, which offset bets over more stimulus in Europe and the US.