Washington – The United States on Monday imposed new sanctions on Chinese officials over the clampdown on Hong Kong and took a step toward welcoming in residents of the city, as U.S. leaders across the political spectrum voiced outrage at Beijing.
President Donald Trump’s administration has been using its waning days to ramp up pressure on China, a rare point of unity with President-elect Joe Biden who has signaled he will maintain a tough line, if not always the same bellicose tone.
In its latest move, the Trump administration said it was freezing any U.S. assets and barring travel to the United States of 14 vice chairs of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which spearheaded a tough new security law in Hong Kong.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States was holding Beijing accountable for its “unrelenting assault against Hong Kong’s democratic processes.”
The Trump administration, however, stopped short of punishing the committee’s chairman, Li Zhanshu, sometimes described as a right-hand man of President Xi Jinping, who has forged an on-again, off-again friendship with Trump.
The United States has already slapped sanctions on Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, Carrie Lam, and has declared that it no longer will treat the financial hub separate from China.
While Lam has sought to play down the effect of U.S. moves, she acknowledged in a recent interview that she relies on “piles of cash” as she can no longer maintain a bank account due to pressure from the U.S. Treasury Department, which has broad influence over dollar-denominated transactions.
The House of Representatives voted unanimously Monday to make it easier for residents of Hong Kong to live in the United States, following similar steps by Britain and Canada.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, a member of Biden’s Democratic Party who led the Hong Kong act, said that welcoming people was more powerful than deciding to “slap a few sanctions” on Chinese officials.
“The best way to win against a dictatorship is to pit the strength of our system against the weakness of theirs, to hold up the glaring contrast between our free, open and self-confident democracy against the weakness of the oppressive, closed and fearful system that the Communist Party has imposed on the Chinese people, including now in Hong Kong,” Malinwowski said on the House floor.
“It’s actually much more than a humanitarian gesture — it’s one of the best ways to deter China from crushing Hong Kong,” Malinowski said.
Hong Kong residents would enjoy so-called Temporary Protected Status for five years, joining citizens of conflict-ridden states such as Syria who cannot be deported and will have the right to work in the United States.
The move still needs approval by the Senate but it has support across party lines — unlike a previous bid by Democrats to extend the status to Venezuelans, which was effectively blocked by Trump’s Republicans.
The Trump administration has described decades of efforts to engage China to be a failure and the U.S. intelligence chief, John Ratcliffe, last week called Beijing “the greatest threat to democracy worldwide.”
In other steps last week, Pompeo terminated five Beijing-funded exchange programs, calling them propaganda tools, and said the State Department would limit the validity of visas for any members of the Chinese Communist Party and their family members — a decision that could affect hundreds of millions of people.
China’s rubber-stamp parliament pushed through the draconian new security law in June despite international warnings that it was violating a promise to allow a separate system in Hong Kong made before Britain handed over its colony in 1997.
Through the law, China has largely succeeded in stamping out protests that rocked Hong Kong last year.
On Monday, police cited the law to make arrests over a small unofficial graduation rally last month at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where masked students waved banners and chanted slogans that included, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.”
Li Kwai-wah, a senior officer in Hong Kong’s new national security unit, told reporters that three had been arrested for unlawful assembly and “inciting secession,” a crime under the law.
Five others were also arrested for unlawful assembly, added Li, who is among a group of senior Hong Kong and Chinese officials that were earlier sanctioned by the United States.
Also in November, pro-democracy lawmakers resigned en masse from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council after the disqualification of four of their colleagues.
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