WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday revoked Hong Kong‘s special status under US law, paving the way to strip trading privileges for the financial hub as Washington accused China of trampling on the territory’s autonomy.
Hours before China’s rubber-stamp parliament was set to take a key vote on a new Hong Kong security law that has sparked protests, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified to Congress that Hong Kong “does not continue to warrant treatment” under US laws that it has enjoyed even after its handover to China in 1997.
Under a law passed last year to support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, the US administration must certify that the territory still enjoys freedoms promised by Beijing when negotiating with Britain to take back the colony.
“No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Although the administration could still waive consequences, the US law says that Hong Kong would lose the trading advantages, including lower tariffs, that it enjoys with the world’s largest economy.
Pompeo had initially delayed the report, saying the United States was waiting to see the session of China’s National People’s Congress.
The legislature is expected Thursday to take another step on the security law that would ban secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference — a step that Hong Kong activists say abolishes basic freedoms.
“While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China, it is now clear that China is modeling Hong Kong after itself,” Pompeo said.
“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong as they struggle against the CCP’s increasing denial of the autonomy that they were promised,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
Protests also broke out in Hong Kong on Wednesday over another controversial proposed law that criminalizes insults to the national anthem with up to three years in jail.
Police surrounded the city’s legislature with water-filled barriers and conducted widespread stop-and-search operations to deter mass gatherings.
Small flashmob rallies in the districts of Causeway Bay, Mong Kok and Central, the latter broken up by officers firing crowd-control rounds filled with a pepper-based irritant.
Police said more than 300 people were arrested, mostly on suspicion of holding an unlawful assembly. Live images showed many of those detained were teenagers.
“It’s like a de facto curfew now,” Nathan Law, a prominent pro-democracy advocate told AFP. “I think the government has to understand why people are really angry.”
“You can see there are police every corner, it’s like martial law in force,” added a woman, who gave her nickname Bean, after she was searched.
Police said that they “respect the right of residents to express their views peacefully, but it must be carried out legally,” adding crowds were blocking roads.
Public gatherings of more than eight people are banned under emergency anti-coronavirus measures, although the city has halted its outbreak.
Requests by civil society groups to hold protests have been denied for months by authorities citing both the pandemic and last year’s unrest.
Under the “one country, two systems” model agreed before the city’s return from Britain to China, Hong Kong is supposed to be guaranteed certain liberties until 2047 that are denied to those on the mainland.
The deal fueled the city’s rise as a world-class financial center and gave Chinese companies a crucial channel to raise capital.
But in recent years, unrest has swept through the city, something Beijing’s communist rulers are determined to end.
The Hong Kong legislature was blockaded and later trashed by demonstrators during last year’s protests as officials tried to fast-track an eventually scrapped bill allowing extraditions to the authoritarian mainland.
US lawmakers have voiced hope that the loss of trading privileges would also serve as pressure, considering Hong Kong’s importance to China’s economy.
But Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government has vowed to pass the national anthem law as soon as possible.
“As Hong Kongers, we have a moral responsibility to respect the national anthem,” Matthew Cheung, Hong Kong’s de facto deputy leader, told reporters.
Beijing has been infuriated by Hong Kongers — especially football fans — booing the national anthem to signal dissatisfaction with China.
Wednesday marked the bill’s second reading and the debate is set to continue into next week when it will likely be approved and become law.
Beijing portrays Hong Kong’s democracy protests as a foreign-backed plot to destabilize the motherland.
Activists say their rallies, which have been attended by millions, are the only way to voice opposition in a city without fully free elections.