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U.S. sanctions Hong Kong chief and 10 others blamed for repression in the city

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. (Vincent Yu/AP)

The Trump administration on Friday targeted 11 Hong Kong officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, for restricting freedoms and undermining the territory’s autonomy.

In a step that is certain to further increase tensions between Washington and Beijing, the Treasury Department said the sanctions were because of the “draconian” national security legislation China has imposed on Hong Kong, which lays the groundwork to jail protesters and censor voices critical of Beijing.

The sanctions, including against current and former police commissioners, also mark a clear shift in the way the semiautonomous territory’s leadership is viewed by Washington — as entirely subservient to Beijing and its intentions for the city.

U.S. policymakers as recently as November were focused on finding evidence of direct involvement by China’s army, the People’s Liberation Army, or by the People’s Armed Police in the Hong Kong Police Force before considering a reworking of policy against the territory. Now, the Trump administration has taken this step even without clear evidence of that, a reflection of how quickly perceptions of Hong Kong’s autonomy have changed.

The most prominent target of the U.S. sanctions is Lam, who was responsible for implementing the national security law and other acts that have ignited large opposition protests in Hong Kong. The Treasury Department said that she was “directly responsible for implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes.”

The Trump administration said the sanctions are being issued under an executive order signed by the president last month in response to China’s ongoing crackdown on Hong Kong.

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“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement announcing the sanctions.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement saying the 11 officials sanctioned had all “crushed the Hong Kong people’s freedoms” by working on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to adopt and implement the national security law.

“This law, purportedly enacted to ‘safeguard’ the security of Hong Kong, is in fact a tool of CCP repression,” Pompeo said. Among the restrictions in the law is a ban on literature critical of the CCP.

Pompeo accused China of abandoning its treaty commitments to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy and personal freedoms for 50 years after the British relinquished power in 1997 and Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty.

In a statement Saturday afternoon, the Hong Kong government called the sanctions “shameless and despicable.”

“The US Government’s claim that the imposition of the so-called ‘sanctions’ was in response to the enactment of the National Security Law in Hong Kong is a lame excuse that could hardly stand up to challenge,” the statement said, adding that it would support Beijing in adopting “counter-measures.”

Lam said her government is “discharging an honorable duty to safeguard national security, protecting the life and interests of not only the 7.5 million Hong Kong people but also the 1.4 billion Mainlanders” and “will not be intimidated.”

The U.S. sanctions against Hong Kong officials, explained

The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement overwhelmingly celebrated the sanctions, which many have been clamoring for as a token of justice after the crackdown on the city’s freedoms began. Street protests last year specifically called on the United States to pass legislation in support of Hong Kong’s protesters and to sanction the city’s leadership, especially its police.

In a video posted on YouTube, Joshua Wong, a leading activist, praised the U.S. sanctions and called on other nations to follow.

“It’s time for the world to realize that they need to reassess their foreign policy to Hong Kong and China,” he said. “Otherwise, the situation in Hong Kong will still escalate. It’s time for the world to stand with Hong Kong.”

Under the new national security law, speaking in support of sanctions could be a crime of “foreign interference,” punishable by life in prison.

The sanctions allow the United States to seize any U.S. property the designated officials may have, though it is unclear whether any of them have any assets subject to seizure. But the move is unlikely to change the situation on the ground in Hong Kong.

Lam and others in the Hong Kong establishment had dismissed the risk of sanctions. Regina Ip, a member of Lam’s executive council who was not included in the list of officials sanctioned Friday, said the Hong Kong government and officials should not be sanctioned by the United States, since it was Beijing that had spearheaded the national security legislation.

In a July 31 news conference announcing the postponement of legislative elections in Hong Kong, Lam said she “dismissed the threat of sanctions with a laugh” and said it was something she and her government “could handle.” In an earlier television interview, she said she had no assets in the United States.

Among those named in the sanctions was Chris Tang, the current police commissioner, and his predecessor, Stephen Lo, both of whom oversaw the arrests of thousands of protesters and violent street clashes between police and protesters. As well as other security and political officials, the sanctions also target Luo Huining, mainland China’s top official in Hong Kong.

Mahtani reported from Hong Kong.