With tensions running higher than ever following Donald Trump’s pair of executive orders targeting TikTok, WeChat, and their parent companies, Sino-US relations took another turn for the contentious on Friday.
Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control slapped sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Police Commissioner Chris Tang (among others), a move that, while not totally unexpected, nevertheless marks a material escalation.
The sanctions are pursuant to Trump’s July 14 order and come on the heels of bipartisan legislation calling for Beijing to be held accountable for the imposition of new national security laws widely decried as a death knell (of sorts) for Hong Kong’s autonomy.
“The recent imposition of draconian national security legislation on Hong Kong has not only undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy, it has also infringed on the rights of people in Hong Kong, allowing mainland China’s security services to operate with impunity in the region, mandating ‘national security education’ in Hong Kong schools, undermining the rule of law, and setting the groundwork for censorship of any individuals or outlets that are deemed unfriendly to China”, Treasury said Friday, in a scathing press release.
Here are the accusations leveled against Lam:
Carrie Lam is the chief executive directly responsible for implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes. In 2019, Lam pushed for an update to Hong Kong’s extradition arrangements to allow for extradition to the mainland, setting off a series of massive opposition demonstrations in Hong Kong. Lam is designated for being involved in developing, adopting, or implementing the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (National Security Law).
And against Tang:
Chris Tang, as the Commissioner of the HKPF, has enthusiastically supported the Hong Kong National Security Law. The HKPF besieged Hong Kong Polytechnic under his leadership, along with arresting hundreds of protestors. Chris Tang also sits upon the newly established Committee for Safeguarding National Security. He is designated for coercing, arresting, detaining, or imprisoning individuals under the authority of the National Security Law.
Again, this isn’t a “surprise”, but it won’t go over well in Beijing, where the Foreign ministry will doubtlessly castigate the US for further meddling in China’s affairs.
Asked late last month how she would react to potential US sanctions, Lam told reporters she would be inclined to “just laugh it off”. “I do not have any assets in the United States nor do I long for moving to the United States”, she said.
Do note that in addition to coming hours after the executive orders on TikTok and WeChat, the sanctions were announced just days ahead of Alex Azar’s planned visit to Taiwan, which marks the highest-level US delegation in decades.
“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy”, Steve Mnuchin declared on Friday.
Hong Kong is mired in a deep recession. The economy has contracted 9% in two consecutive quarters and retail sales have fallen for 17 straight months. The jobless rate is the highest in 15 years.
Trump is attempting an impossible balancing act — punishing Beijing for the security crackdown invariably hurts Hong Kong more than the mainland.
Some are keen to write recent aggression off to pre-election posturing by Trump. Upcoming talks around the implementation of the trade pact will perhaps serve as a litmus test for exactly how frayed nerves really are.