China has hit back at a US declaration that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from Beijing as lawmakers in the Chinese capital met to formally approve a plan to impose tough national security laws on the city.
The declaration on Wednesday by Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, was the most serious response yet by the Trump administration to Beijing’s decision last week to impose the new security law on Hong Kong, which has raised concerns about the territory’s future as a financial centre.
CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster, sharply criticised the US for hypocrisy and pointed to Washington’s own national security legislation. It said the true intent of US politicians was to “make Hong Kong as chaotic as possible” to distract attention from Washington’s failures in handling the coronavirus pandemic and to “contain the development of China”.
“The US has always seen Hong Kong as a stronghold from which to conduct political infiltration in Asia,” the CCTV commentary said.
The dispute over the law underlines how the territory, which has been wracked by pro-democracy protests, is increasingly on the frontline of escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing.
China’s National People’s Congress, the country’s annual gathering of lawmakers, on Thursday began discussions on a proposal for the new security law that would target “splittism, subversion, terrorism, any behaviour that gravely threatens national security and foreign interference” in Hong Kong.
The proposal is expected to be passed by the rubber-stamp parliament on Thursday afternoon and the draft of the law will then follow in the coming months. If the bill is enacted, it would represent the first time Beijing had introduced a law that imposed criminal penalties into Hong Kong’s legal code, bypassing the city’s legislature.
The US decision threatens Hong Kong’s special trading status with Washington, under which the Asian financial hub is not subjected to the same tariffs and restrictions as mainland China on the basis that it enjoys a high degree of political and legal autonomy from Beijing.
“No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground,” said Mr Pompeo on Wednesday.
Shares in Hong Kong tumbled following Mr Pompeo’s remarks, with the Hang Seng index down 1.6 per cent by midday. China’s announcement that it would push ahead with the national security law has reignited protests in the city after a hiatus during the coronavirus epidemic, with hundreds arrested on Wednesday in Hong Kong’s central business and main shopping districts.
Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon and prominent pro-democracy activist, applauded the US move. “Mike @SecPompeo speaks up and speaks the truth about #Hongkong,” he wrote on Twitter, saying that the Chinese Communist party “and its puppets will soon face sanctions on them, for violating #HKers basic human rights and freedom”.
Washington’s decision that Hong Kong was no longer autonomous provoked an uproar from nationalist Chinese commentators.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, wrote on social media that moving closer to China would help Hong Kong. “Hong Kong’s biggest pillar for maintaining its status as an international financial centre is its special relationship with the huge economy of mainland China, which is much more important than the attitude of the US,” he wrote.
Under US legislation enacted last year, the state department is required to certify that Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous from China to warrant special treatment.
But it was unclear what steps the Trump administration was prepared to take following Mr Pompeo’s decision.
“The shoe will soon drop with respect to what concrete actions the US will take in response to Secretary Pompeo’s announcement today on Hong Kong,” said Wendy Cutler, a former US trade negotiator now at the Asia Society Policy Institute think-tank, who suggested the Trump administration might subject imports from Hong Kong to China tariffs.
“While this would sound like a major move, it may not have a big commercial impact given the low levels of trade between the US and Hong Kong. However, it could have a chilling effect on business activity, particularly if followed by other actions.”
Britain returned its former colony to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” model, which guaranteed Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy from Beijing for 50 years.
But China has chipped away at those freedoms in recent years. A move to introduce a controversial extradition law that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China sparked months of pro-democracy protests last year, pummelling the economy.