United States stops visas for Chinese officials for Hong Kong freedoms: Pompeo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that Washington was imposing visa restrictions on Chinese officials responsible for restricting freedoms in Hong Kong, but did not mention any of the targets.

FILE PHOTO: United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gives a press conference on the deals with China and Iran, and on fighting the coronavirus disease pandemic (COVID-19), in Washington, USA, June 24, 2020. Mangel Ngan / Pool via REUTERS

The move comes ahead of a three-day meeting of China’s parliament on Sunday that is expected to enact new national security legislation for Hong Kong that has alarmed foreign governments and democracy activists.

The United States’ visa restrictions apply to “current and former” Chinese Communist Party officials “who are believed to be responsible or complicit in undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy,” Pompeo said, without naming them.

Last month, President Donald Trump responded to China’s plans by saying he was initiating a process to remove the special economic treatment that has allowed Hong Kong to remain a global financial center since its handover by Britain in 1997.

Pompeo’s announcement represents the concrete first step for the United States in response to China’s movements, but Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the visa restrictions were largely symbolic and the the fact that no names were given could lessen their impact.

A State Department spokeswoman said family members of those designated could also be excluded. A Bloomberg columnist quoted a department official as saying that the number of officials selected was “single digit.”

Major Wall Street indexes fell on Friday after a Wall Street Journal article said the United States “meddling” in issues like Hong Kong and Taiwan could jeopardize Chinese purchases under a Phase 1 trade deal. Trump agreed with China in January, scaring investors who were already concerned about a surge in coronavirus cases.

Pompeo’s announcement comes at a time of heightened American rhetoric against Beijing as Trump campaigns for reelection. Opinion polls have shown that voters are increasingly bitter towards China, especially about the coronavirus, which started there.

“President Trump promised to punish Chinese Communist Party officials responsible for disemboweling Hong Kong’s freedoms. Today, we are taking steps to do just that, ”said Pompeo.

He said China was pressuring local authorities to arrest pro-democracy activists and disqualify pro-democracy electoral candidates, adding: “The United States will continue to review its authorities to respond to these concerns.”

Pompeo said last week that Washington would treat Hong Kong as a Chinese city rather than an autonomous city to the extent that China treated the territory as a Chinese city. He said the Hong Kong elections to be held in September will show China’s intentions.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

However, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said a Hong Kong government spokesman called the legislation passed by the United States Senate on Thursday unacceptable. The measure would impose mandatory sanctions on individuals or companies that support efforts to restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy, and includes secondary sanctions on banks that do business with anyone who supports any repression of territory autonomy.

Reports by Lisa Lambert and David Brunnstrom; Edition of Jonathan Oatis, Richard Chang and Daniel Wallis

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