U.S. President Donald Trump has indicated to aides that he doesn’t want to further escalate tensions with Beijing, and has ruled out additional sanctions on top officials for now, according to people familiar with the matter.
Trump’s private decision to refrain from further restrictions — which he made before signing the Hong Kong Autonomy Act on Tuesday — contrasts with the combative public tone he has struck for weeks with China over issues from the coronavirus pandemic to trade to Hong Kong’s political freedoms.
The new law calls for sanctions against “primary offenders” undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy but doesn’t require the administration to act immediately. The president can still decide to go forward with the penalties even if he doesn’t do so now.
Before Trump decided against the move, his team had already created a list of officials including Vice Premier Han Zheng, a member of the Communist Party’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful body in China and headed by President Xi Jinping, said two of the people who spoke on condition of anonymity. Others included Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Chris Tang, the city’s police commissioner, they said.
Trump had threatened to take action ever since Chinese officials imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong about two weeks ago. China’s implementation of the law, and the reaction of major trading partners who have criticized it, could have a substantial impact on a Hong Kong economy already battered by months of historic anti-government protests and coronavirus restrictions.
The New York Times reported late Wednesday that the administration was also looking into a broader travel ban involving Communist Party members and their relatives. The Times, citing unidentified sources, said the proposal was still only a draft, but could allow for the revocation of visas held by members of the party who are now in the U.S.
The presidential order would be based on the law cited by the Trump administration to ban travel from several countries with Muslim majorities, the Times reported.
On Tuesday, Trump also ordered an end to some of Hong Kong’s special trading privileges. In doing so, he avoided a more drastic measure that was under consideration to undermine the city’s dollar peg, which could impact financial stability across the globe.
The Hong Kong Autonomy Act — which gives the administration 90 days to identify Chinese officials who could be sanctioned for cracking down on political dissent in the city — already drew a rebuke from China and added fresh uncertainty for businesses including banks in the financial hub.
The executive order that Trump signed on Tuesday bars entry to Chinese and Hong Kong officials who were responsible for the new Hong Kong national security law or otherwise undermined democracy in the former colony. The ban also applies to those officials’ immediate family members. The administration hasn’t named anyone who has been barred.
The U.S. has already sanctioned a top member of China’s ruling Communist Party and three other officials under a different law over the alleged human rights abuses against ethnic minority Muslims in the far west region of Xinjiang.
“In no way has he taken anything off the table with respect to further sanctions of party officials for actions in Hong Kong or on other issues,” National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot said in a statement.
On Monday, China announced sanctions against U.S. officials including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, in a largely symbolic retaliation over the legislation intended to punish Beijing for its treatment of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region.
Many U.S. lawmakers have been pushing for new sanctions on China.
After the House of Representatives measure passed early this month, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “Today’s action is an urgently needed response to the cowardly Chinese government’s passage of its so-called ‘national security’ law, which threatens the end of the ‘one country, two systems’ promised exactly 23 years ago today.”