SEOUL >> The United States punished 24 Chinese officials today for undermining Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms, acting days before the first scheduled meeting of senior Chinese and U.S. diplomats since President Joe Biden took office.
In diplomatic terms, the timing of the action was pointed and clearly intentional, continuing a testy start to relations between the Biden administration and China after a tumultuous four years under former President Donald Trump.
The State Department announced that it would impose financial sanctions on a raft of officials, including a member of the Communist Party’s 25-member Politburo, Wang Chen, over an issue that Beijing has repeatedly said is an internal political matter. Earlier sanctions imposed by the Trump administration had barred the same officials from traveling to the United States and frozen their assets in the country.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is visiting Japan and South Korea, said the move followed China’s latest effort to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy by rewriting the territory’s election laws in Beijing and ramming the changes through its pliant Communist Party-controlled legislature.
“This action further undermines the high degree of autonomy promised to people in Hong Kong and denies Hong Kongers a voice in their own governance,” Blinken said in a statement released midday in Asia, referring to the electoral overhaul.
He added that Britain had declared the election changes a violation of the agreement that returned sovereignty of the former British colony to the Chinese in 1997. Blinken and other administration officials have sought to highlight how China’s recent behavior on several issues is concerning not only to the United States but to other countries as well.
At the start of a meeting with South Korea’s foreign minister today, Blinken mentioned China in the same breath as Myanmar, North Korea and other countries in which he said ruling governments are threatening democracy and stability.
“China is using coercion and aggression to systematically erode autonomy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abuse human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet and assert maritime claims in the South China Sea that violate international law,” Blinken told the foreign minister, Chung Eui-yong.
Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin began their joint visit in Tokyo, where they strongly rebuked China for what they called “destabilizing actions,” including efforts to menace Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands.
Separately, one of Biden’s senior advisers on Asia, Kurt Campbell, told The Sydney Morning Herald that there would be no improvement in relations between the United States and China until Beijing relented in its undeclared war of economic coercion against Australia.
Such remarks have heartened traditional U.S. allies and stirred anger in China, which has repeatedly called on the United States to abandon a confrontational approach. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Blinken are scheduled to meet the top Chinese diplomats, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, in Alaska beginning Thursday.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zhao Lijian, said today that the latest round of Hong Kong sanctions “fully exposed the sinister intentions of the United States to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
Earlier in the week, he accused the United States of a “zero-sum mindset” that was “doomed to end in the dustbin of history.”
“Those wearing colored lenses can easily lose sight of the right direction, and those entrenched in the Cold War mentality will bring harm to others and themselves,” Zhao said Monday.
The United States has imposed sanctions against Chinese officials before under the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which was approved by Congress and signed into law by Trump last year. Among other things, it authorizes the State Department to restrict designated officials from using U.S. financial institutions.
Wang Chen, a veteran party leader who led the legislative changes adopted last week, is the most senior Chinese official targeted so far. The Trump administration previously imposed the sanctions on Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, the police chief and the justice secretary.
The ultimate impact on Chinese behavior has, so far, been minimal, but the latest designations significantly expand the number of officials targeted.
In all, the latest U.S. sanctions would affect 14 vice chairmen of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which recently concluded its annual gathering in Beijing, and officials from the Hong Kong Police Force’s National Security Division, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, and the Office for Safeguarding National Security.
“The law doesn’t require them to act at any particular time,” said Julian G. Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University’s Maurice A. Deane School of Law in New York. “They chose to drop this right before the meeting in Alaska. So this is a further message that the Biden team is not going to worry about offending China in public.”
Overseas supporters of the Hong Kong opposition said the sanctions showed the Biden administration’s willingness to confront China. Samuel Chu, the managing director of the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, said in a statement that they were a “timely and clear rebuke to the malfeasances” of the Communist Party and the government in Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, the pro-democracy camp was silent on the move. Dozens of its most prominent members are in custody and charged with subversion for election organizing last year, which the authorities said was a violation of the new national security law. The law itself makes it illegal to call for foreign sanctions, meaning any positive comments in support of the move risk criminal liability.