(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s determination to Congress Wednesday that Hong Kong is no longer “sufficiently autonomous” from China to merit U.S. trade privileges paves the way for President Trump to take punitive steps against Beijing at a time when bilateral relations have soured dramatically over the coronavirus pandemic.
In response to China’s plan to impose controversial security legislation on Hong Kong, Pompeo said Wednesday that “no reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground.”
He therefore informed Congress “that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under United States laws in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997.”
U.S. law signed by Trump late last year requires the secretary of state to certify annually whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous from China to merit the special trade status it has enjoyed since the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
That benchmark points back to legislation passed in the 1990s, which provides for preferential trade treatment for Hong Kong post-handover. It also authorizes the president to suspend the favorable trading terms if it is determined that Hong Kong is not “sufficiently autonomous” from the mainland.
The National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature, has been reviewing a proposed bill for Hong Kong to prohibit treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the central government, and other activities. It gave its approval for the move on Thursday.
China says the law is needed to counter subversive elements calling for Hong Kong’s independence, and their foreign backers.
“The national security legislation for Hong Kong is not aimed to undermine freedom but to prevent ‘Hong Kong independence’ activities and other radical separatists,” a foreign ministry spokesperson tweeted Wednesday.
What steps Trump chooses to take as a result of Pompeo’s certification remains to be seen, but he told reporters on Tuesday that they would be hearing about a “very interesting” U.S. response, “before the end of the week.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told a briefing the same day Trump was “displeased” with China’s actions and said it was “hard to see how Hong Kong can remain a financial hub if China takes over.”
Among other things, the special trade status exempts Hong Kong from punitive U.S. tariffs affecting the rest of China. Loss of the privileges could severely impact its standing as an international business center.
A senior State Department official, while not wanting to get ahead of any White House announcement, told reporters Wednesday that the administration would do its “best to ensure the people of Hong Kong are not adversely affected” by U.S. actions.
“Our approach is to mitigate the impact globally on the Hong Kong people, while at the same time helping Beijing understand our concerns,” said Assistant Secretary David Stilwell of the department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Stilwell said it was up to the president to “determine exactly what steps the U.S. government takes on this one,” but that actions could include economic sanctions or visa restrictions.
“I’m not going to forecast or limit what it could be, but there’s a very long list of things that the president could do in response.”
Stilwell said that while China was trying to characterize the issue as part of a contest between China and the U.S. – with the U.S. being the hostile party – it was in fact the Chinese government that was “changing the status quo.”
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule 23 years ago under a special “one country, two systems” agreement, with the communist government in Beijing pledging to uphold limited autonomy for the territory, under a capitalist system, for at least 50 years.
Pro-democracy advocates in the territory have pushed back against an erosion of the promised freedoms, such as a proposal last year to allow extradition to mainland China. The mass protests triggered by that proposal – which was later shelved – drew strong support from the U.S. administration and members of Congress from both parties, to Beijing’s annoyance.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian at a briefing Wednesday reiterated Beijing’s view that the U.S. was meddling in China’s domestic affairs in Hong Kong.
“The legislation on upholding national security in Hong Kong is purely China’s internal affair that allow no foreign interference,” he said.
“In response to the erroneous practices of external intervention, we will take necessary countermeasures,” Zhao added, without elaborating.