Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Wednesday that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China — a dramatic step that could transform the US’s relationship with the territory.
Pompeo’s announcement comes one day before China is expected to pass a controversial national security law that will criminalize “treason, secession, sedition (and) subversion” against the government in Beijing, CNN reports. It will also allow Chinese security forces to operate in Hong Kong “to fulfill relevant duties to safeguard national security in accordance with the law.”
Critics fear it will be used to target not just protesters but also the media, international businesses, and anyone else in Hong Kong who tries to challenge Beijing’s authority.
And it may be what triggered Pompeo to decline to certify Hong Kong’s autonomy.
“Beijing’s disastrous decision is only the latest in a series of actions that fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms and China’s own promises to the Hong Kong people under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a UN-filed international treaty,” Pompeo said in a statement on Wednesday, referring to China’s national security law.
The Sino-British Joint Declaration refers to a treaty between the United Kingdom and China that mapped out the future of Hong Kong, a former British colony. Britain agreed to return the territory to China on July 1, 1997, on the promise that China would give Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years, until 2047. Pompeo, in his certification, is saying Beijing has reneged on this binding promise.
“After careful study of developments over the reporting period, I certified to Congress today that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under United States laws in the same manner as US laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997,” Pompeo’s statement continued. “No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground.”
Pompeo is required to assess Hong Kong’s autonomy annually to determine whether it still merits the special trading and economic benefits it enjoys from the US, which aren’t extended to mainland China.
The State Department had to make this assessment as part of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act signed by President Donald Trump late last year, an attempt by Congress to signal its support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. (The bill also includes provisions to sanction those who violate human rights in Hong Kong.)
But Beijing has increasingly encroached on Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy, trying to bring it closer under its control and stamp out dissent. Last year, the Hong Kong government — whose chief executive, Carrie Lam, is closely tied to Beijing — introduced an extradition bill that set off months of pro-democracy protests by Hongkongers who interpreted the legislation as another attempt to curtail Hong Kong’s freedoms and rule of law.
The Covid-19 outbreak tamped down the public resistance, but China’s attempt to impose this national security law reignited tensions. Thousands of protesters demonstrated against the law this weekend. Activists flooded the streets again on Wednesday, surrounding government buildings to agitate against a Hong Kong law that would criminalize disrespecting the Chinese national anthem, which pro-democracy groups see as yet another attempt to cripple Hong Kong’s autonomy and stifle dissent.
Pompeo cited some of these points in the official certification he sent to Congress. In it, Pompeo says that Beijing has slowly been eroding freedoms, but that since his last report, “China has shed any pretense that the people of Hong Kong enjoy the high degree of autonomy, democratic institutions, and civil liberties guaranteed to them by the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.”
The secretary of state’s declaration doesn’t trigger any actions directly; it’s up to Trump to decide what steps to take and whether to formally revoke Hong Kong’s special status.
Such a move could have unpredictable consequences. The US could risk tens of billions in trade, and it could jeopardize Hong Kong’s standing as a global financial hub. “That status is really critical to Hong Kong’s economy, and that’s obviously very related to Hong Kong’s ability to protect that separate identity,” Jacob Stokes, a China analyst at the US Institute of Peace told me last week, before Pompeo’s decision.
Hong Kong — and its relatively strong rule of law — is a gateway for foreign companies who want to do business in China but without some of the risks. That’s also a boon to China that could go away if the Trump administration pursues this “nuclear option,” as Ho-Fung Hung, professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins, described it to NPR’s Marketplace.
Removing the status entirely might send the wrong signal, too: that Hong Kong is too far gone — something that could actually undermine the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong if the US sends the message that the territory is a lost cause.
Which is why the Trump administration is likely weighing several different options. The New York Times reports that the Trump administration is considering applying tariffs to goods coming from Hong Kong, taxes from which it had previously been exempt.
But Pompeo’s announcement is still an incredibly strong signal from Washington to Beijing, particularly as the Trump administration has vowed to punish China for its role in the pandemic. The declaration that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous is a powerful acknowledgment of the erosion of the territory’s freedoms under China’s control.
And it’s a clear show of support to the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, which has decried China’s encroachment even as pro-Beijing Hong Kong officials have dismissed concerns that it will diminish the territory’s freedoms.
China’s new national security law “tears down all the remaining pretension of ‘one country, two systems’”
Pompeo has previously described China’s new proposed national security law as a “death knell” for Hong Kong. Chinese officials claim the law is meant to target the alleged “foreign influence” China says is driving the unrest in Hong Kong. But that is largely disinformation; China has blamed outsiders for fueling violence in Hong Kong to deny the grassroots resistance.
The reality is that the law is very clearly targeted as a catchall against dissent and anyone challenging Beijing’s authority.
China has, at least rhetorically, honored the “one country, two systems” rule. In practice, though, it has sought greater and greater control over Hong Kong. The national security law is merely a much more direct and obvious step toward what Beijing has been trying to accomplish for years: one country, one system.
That’s because this law is coming directly from Chin, rather than from the Hong Kong government, which would at least give it the veneer of legitimacy. Ho-Fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University, told me last week that Beijing may have stepped in directly because it learned a lesson from the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests, which ultimately defeated the legislation and embarrassed China.
“It will be a huge embarrassment if it tried to push through the local legislature that is eventually shelved because of local protests,” Hung said. “Beijing didn’t want to reach that event. Beijing even didn’t trust the local legislature, so it adopted this kind of extreme route to directly legislate.”
“And it is a big, risky move,” he added, “because it tears down all the remaining pretension of ‘one country, two systems.’”
China’s dramatic escalation also comes as the whole world — and the media, which had devoted a lot of attention to the Hong Kong protests — is distracted by the pandemic and as Hong Kong itself is under social distancing restrictions. The imposition of those rules gave Hong Kong some cover to quell protests (while also helping to successfully control the outbreak there).
But China had long made it clear it had no tolerance for the protesters or even more peaceful challenges to its authority, such as when pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong dominated local elections. And now China has at least hinted at how it plans to consolidate its control.
The introduction of the law has still sparked resistance in Hong Kong, with protesters congregating and defying social distancing rules that ban large gatherings last weekend. Police cracked down on the protests, arresting more than 100 people. But what happens when China implements the law — which could happen as soon as August, per CBS News — is still unclear.
Whether the US’s decision will have ramifications for China’s power grab is also uncertain. China has previously resisted any interference by the State Department into what it considers its internal affairs. “As to the erroneous foreign interference in Hong Kong affairs, we will take necessary measures to fight back,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Wednesday, after Trump said Tuesday that the US might “do something” about Hong Kong.
How China responds will depend on what the Trump administration does following this certification. Some lawmakers have cautioned the administration against trying to use Hong Kong as a cudgel in its separate battle with China. “The U.S. response to the Chinese government’s actions must be decisive, clear, and taken to protect U.S. national interests and to support autonomy and democratic freedoms in Hong Kong provided under international law,” House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) said in a statement. “US policy toward Hong Kong should not be a pawn in whatever games Secretary Pompeo or President Trump is playing with Beijing.”
But Pompeo’s announcement today risks further souring relations between Washington and Beijing, with Hong Kong caught in the precarious middle.
Alex Ward contributed reporting to this story.
Support Vox’s explanatory journalism
Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.