US to Pull Hong Kong’s Special Status as China Tightens Grip

Pan-democratic legislator Lam Cheuk-ting is taken away by security during a May 18 meeting in Hong Kong of the Legislative Council’s House Committee. For the second time this month, security guards have ejected pro-democracy lawmakers amid infighting for control over a key committee that scrutinizes bills in Hong Kong’s legislature. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

WASHINGTON (CN) — No longer considering the territory autonomous from China, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Wednesday that the United States will work toward stripping Hong Kong of special diplomatic status.

“After careful study of developments over the reporting period, I certified to Congress today that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under the United States laws in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997,” Pompeo said in a statement. “No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground.”

Billions in trade dollars between America and Hong Kong are at stake if the U.S. revokes the city’s special status under the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992. That status gives Hong Kong benefits for its legal and economic systems, which are separate from the People’s Republic of China.

Pompeo made his certification today as part of a bill passed by lawmakers last year as pro-democracy demonstrations in the region spurred violent clashes between protesters and police.

For months those concerns had taken a back seat to the novel coronavirus pandemic, but the start of Beijing’s legislative session last week reignited tensions with the introduction of a national security bill that purports to ban secession and foreign interference in Hong Kong — a move widely seen as a threat to the “one country, two systems” policy put in place in 1997.

“It’s always tough to understand the strategy behind the moves made by the Chinese government, but they may have viewed Covid-19 as an opportunity to enact coercive measures and assert greater control over Hong Kong while the rest of the world is distracted by a pandemic,” Jens Ohlin, a professor and vice dean of Cornell Law School, explained in an email Wednesday. “While it is true that the U.S. is distracted, China may have badly miscalculated.”

As for the terminating Hong Kong’s special diplomatic status, Ohlin predicts it would be “disastrous for all concerned.”

Until this moment, Hong Kong has been considered a global financial capital, but ending this special status could soon change that perception, he said.

Outside of legislative buildings in Hong Kong where debate on the bill is raging, nearly 300 protesters have been arrested, closely mirroring the 2019 demonstrations.

“Hong Kong and its dynamic, enterprising and free people have flourished for decades as a bastion of liberty and this decision gives me no pleasure,” Pompeo said Wednesday. “But sound policy making requires a recognition of reality. 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 had warned on Friday that ignoring the will of Hong Kong’s people “would be a death knell” for the city’s autonomy under the agreement. 

“Any decision impinging on Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms … would inevitably impact our assessment of One Country, Two Systems and the status of the territory,” Pompeo said last week. 

On Tuesday, speaking from the White House’s Rose Garden, President Donald Trump promised that China could expect pushback this week from the U.S.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham tweeted Wednesday that lawmakers could draft bipartisan legislation to sanction China. Another endorsement of the administration’s decision came from fellow Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who said the status is meant to be a deterrent “to stop Communist China from violating its agreement and stripping away liberty from the people.”

China’s national security law has rattled human rights watchdogs and activists.

“The international community must take necessary and appropriate actions to stop China’s violations of Basic Law,” the Washington, D.C.-based group Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in a statement Friday. “This includes enacting and implementing sanctions legislation targeting the Chinese government’s continuing and escalating violations of human rights in the mainland, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang.”

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