Trump Administration Penalizes Hong Kong Officials for Crackdown on Protesters
Pranshu Verma and Edward Wong
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Friday on Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and 10 other senior officials in Hong Kong and mainland China over their roles in cracking down on political dissent.
The move comes after Beijing announced in June that it was imposing a national security law in Hong Kong to grant security agencies expansive powers.
The sanctions are the first against officials in Hong Kong and mainland China over suppression of pro-democracy protests and dissent in the territory. Last month, President Trump signed an executive order seeking to punish China for its repression in Hong Kong.
“The Chinese Communist Party has made clear that Hong Kong will never again enjoy the high degree of autonomy that Beijing itself promised to the Hong Kong people,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Friday. “The United States will therefore treat Hong Kong as ‘one country, one system,’ and take action against individuals who have crushed the Hong Kong people’s freedoms.”
Mr. Pompeo was referring to “one country, two systems,” the term widely used to describe the promise that China made in an international treaty signed with Britain in 1984 that Hong Kong would remain autonomous for 50 years after its transition from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Treasury Department officials said Ms. Lam was being penalized because she was “directly responsible” for enacting Beijing’s policies that stifle dissent in Hong Kong.
Others facing sanctions include Chris Tang, the commissioner of the Hong Kong Police Force, and Stephen Lo, who led the police department until 2019 and oversaw the arrest of 4,000 pro-democracy protesters that led to over 1,600 people being injured, according to Treasury Department officials. Many of the protesters were released on bail hours after their arrests.
Also facing penalties are the leaders of China’s liaison office to Hong Kong and of its Hong Kong and Macau affairs office, both of which enact Beijing’s policies in the territory. The most senior Chinese official named is Xia Baolong, who oversees the Hong Kong and Macau affairs office, which is under the State Council, China’s cabinet. Mr. Xia is believed to be trusted by Xi Jinping, China’s leader.
The chief of the liaison office, Luo Huining, is the most senior mainland official in Hong Kong. The Treasury Department also named Zheng Yanxiong and Eric Chan, two officials taking up senior posts established by the new national security law.
The actions announced on Friday are symbolic to a degree, since it is unclear if any of the 11 individuals have assets or property in the United States that would be frozen under the measure.
The officials are prohibited from traveling to the United States.
Ms. Lam addressed the threat of facing sanctions during a news conference last month, saying she would “laugh it off.”
“I’m not worried,” she said. “I don’t have assets in the United States and don’t really yearn to go to the U.S.”
Dali L. Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said the sanctions appeared to be “very targeted.”
“It’s much more about sending a message and demonstrating that the administration is acting on something that is in violation of and impinging on the freedom and the democratic potential of Hong Kong,” he said.
Pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in June 2019, and the police soon began taking increasingly hard-line measures to try to suppress them, firing tear gas and using batons to beat demonstrators in subway cars and alleyways. Those tactics escalated the protests, becoming the focal point of grievances.
The Trump administration has taken a series of measures in recent months that have heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing. Administration officials say they are largely taking reciprocal actions that counter bad behavior by the Chinese Communist Party.
On Thursday, Mr. Trump signed two executive orders barring American residents and corporations from making any transactions with the Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat apps within 45 days, saying the use of the services posed a national security risk because they do not keep user data private. Officials did not detail what the ban would entail. WeChat is widely used in China, and halting the use of the app in the United States would be onerous for anyone trying to keep in touch with people in China or make transactions with Chinese businesses.
Last month, the administration imposed sanctions on senior Chinese officials, including a member of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo, over human rights abuses against the largely Muslim Uighur ethnic minority in the Xinjiang region. Officials have also shut down the Chinese Consulate in Houston, citing economic espionage efforts by diplomats; banned some students affiliated with Chinese military institutions from traveling to the United States; and arrested officers or affiliates of the People’s Liberation Army in the United States on accusations of visa fraud.
The Trump administration has also imposed visa restrictions on Chinese journalists in the United States and effectively expelled dozens of them. That has incited Beijing to take harsh actions on American journalists, including expelling employees of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
In May, the administration imposed a new 90-day limit on stays for Chinese citizens who are in the United States on a journalism visa. This required all such journalists to apply for a visa renewal before Thursday.
U.S. officials are not expected to renew many of the visas, which would lead to expulsions in the coming days.
Except for starting a trade war in 2018, Mr. Trump was reluctant to take hard actions against China during much of his time in office. He constantly praised China’s leader and pleaded with Mr. Xi for help on re-election. But he has soured on that relationship since the coronavirus spread across the United States, devastating the economy and his prospects for re-election.
Since Beijing announced the new national security law for Hong Kong, American officials have debated how to persuade Chinese officials to roll it back or how to penalize the Chinese government.
Last month, Mr. Trump signed an executive order ending the special status that the United States grants Hong Kong in diplomatic and trade relations. U.S. officials are now beginning to treat the territory like mainland China.
At the time, some administration officials had wanted Mr. Trump to announce that his government would impose sanctions on Ms. Lam and other officials in Hong Kong and China. The president declined to do so then.
The current flurry of actions against China dovetails with a core part of Mr. Trump’s campaign strategy. His aides are trying to show Mr. Trump is hitting China hard to shift the national conversation from his failures on managing the pandemic and the economy.
The outbreak was first detected in central China, and recently, Mr. Trump has blamed Chinese officials for failing to contain it, though he praised Mr. Xi’s efforts this winter.
Some of the China hawks in the administration are trying to set the two nations on a course for long-term confrontation and ensure that relations remain in a state of open rivalry even if the presumptive Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., wins the November election.
“This administration is weaving together a tapestry of actions, almost like they’re trying to cement a stand that, regardless of what happens in the elections, would not be taken down easily,” Mr. Yang said.
Elaine Yu and Austin Ramzy contributed reporting from Hong Kong.