WASHINGTON—The U.S. levied sanctions on some of Hong Kong’s leading officials and China’s top enforcers of Beijing’s clampdown on the territory, ratcheting up the Trump administration’s use of sanctions against senior Chinese political figures.
The Treasury Department measures target the territory’s Beijing-appointed chief executive Carrie Lam and several other current and former officials responsible for implementing Beijing’s decision to assert greater control over the former British colony. The moves are likely to exacerbate diplomatic tensions between the world’s two largest economies. By targeting Mrs. Lam and other senior officials, they are a further blow to Hong Kong’s standing as a global financial center.
“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement accompanying Friday’s action.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the officials were selected “for being leaders or officials of an entity engaged in actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, or autonomy of Hong Kong.”
The Chinese embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but China has responded to a string of recent U.S. sanctions with blacklistings of U.S. officials, criticizing the Trump administration’s actions as interference in domestic politics.
The confrontation between the two powers over Hong Kong’s autonomy has become another flashpoint in a relationship that has been deteriorating for several years. Tensions have built as Washington challenged China’s expanding naval presence in the South China seas, prosecuted a trade war to counter what it said were unfair practices and charged Chinese tech giants and government agents of state-orchestrated corporate espionage and hacking campaigns.
Those tensions have worsened in recent months as the Trump administration pointed to Beijing’s Hong Kong crackdown as representing a much broader threat to U.S. security and democratic and free-market principles globally. Beside Treasury sanctions, the Commerce Department has expanded its own blacklist of Chinese companies, the Justice Department has filed charges against alleged Beijing-directed hackers and the Department of State forced Beijing to shut down its Houston consulate over espionage charges.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), a senior member of the Senate committee with sanctions and trade oversight, said the action “holds Chinese officials accountable for their brutal crackdown on human rights and liberty in Hong Kong.”
“China must face the consequences of its actions—we will not let up,” Mr. Van Hollen, co-sponsor of legislation that would levy additional sanctions against China over Hong Kong, said.
Friday’s action freezes any assets the targets have within U.S. jurisdiction and prevent their travel to the U.S. In an interview with a local television station last month, Mrs. Lam said she had no fear of being blacklisted by U.S. authorities.
“I have no assets in the U.S., and I don’t particularly like going to the U.S.,” Mrs. Lam told Hong Kong Open TV, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper. “If they won’t grant me a visa, then I will just not go there.”
U.S. experts say the sanctions listings are likely not only to spur diplomatic friction but also will be seen by Western companies with Hong Kong operations as elevating their business risk. If Washington and Beijing continue their tit-for-tat actions, it could fuel a corporate exodus out of Hong Kong, those experts say.
The administration sanctioned Luo Huining, director of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, and Xia Baolong and Zhang Xiaoming, the head and deputy head, respectively, of Chinese central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, both of whom were appointed in the last year to oversee the Communist Party’s new policy. Beyond Ms. Lam, other Hong Kong officials targeted in the measure, including police commissioner Chris Tang, are responsible for security and law enforcement.
Mrs. Lam, Hong Kong’s highest official, has served as chief executive since 2017. She sponsored the controversial bill to legalize extradition to mainland China in 2019 that prompted the biggest protests in the city’s history.
She has continued to push Beijing’s agenda over the past 12 months. After the implementation of the sweeping National Security Law, she said she was confident “social unrest, which has troubled Hong Kong people for nearly a year, will be eased and stability will be restored, thereby enabling Hong Kong to start anew.”
Mr. Tang was appointed Hong Kong police commissioner in mid-November 2019 as a standoff between students and police officers at universities in the city was already under way.
The siege at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which lasted for over a week, coincided with one of the most violent weeks of the Hong Kong protests. Mr. Tang joined the police force in 1987 and his official biography notes that he received training at overseas institutions including the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy at Quantico.
Mr. Xia, the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, was once a provincial leader who upheld Communist Party authority with a campaign to tear down Christian churches and crosses. Before his appointment in February of this year, he had little experience with Hong Kong affairs. He was a deputy to Chinese President Xi Jinping when the Chinese leader was a top provincial official in the 2000s.
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8