The United States may sanction those involved in the arrest of more than 50 people in Hong Kong and will send the US ambassador to the United Nations on a Taiwan visit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday, drawing anger and threat of retaliation from Beijing.
Pompeo said he was also “appalled” by the arrest of an American citizen as part of Wednesday’s crackdown and added: “The United States will not tolerate the arbitrary detention or harassment of US citizens.”
Hong Kong police arrested 53 people in dawn raids on democracy activists on Wednesday in the biggest crackdown since China last year imposed a security law, which opponents say is aimed at quashing dissent in the former British colony.
About 1,000 police officers were involved in the operation, and those detained included former legislators, prominent activists, academics as well as American lawyer John Clancey.
Joshua Wong, a 24-year-old Hong Kong activist, who is already serving a 13-month jail sentence for illegal assembly, was also questioned on suspicion of violating the national security law, a post on his Facebook said on Thursday.
A senior police source told the AFP news agency that Wong was arrested on a new charge of subversion, the first time he has been arrested under the national security law.
Pompeo called the clampdown an “outrage and a reminder of the Chinese Communist Party’s contempt for its own people and the rule of law”.
“The United States will consider sanctions and other restrictions on any and all individuals and entities involved in executing this assault on the Hong Kong people,” Pompeo said.
He said it would also “explore restrictions against the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in the United States, and take additional immediate actions against officials who have undermined Hong Kong’s democratic processes”.
The mass arrests drew condemnation in Hong Kong and beyond, with the UN also voicing alarm on Thursday and calling for the release of the 53 people arrested.
“Yesterday’s arrests were the latest in a series of detentions related to the exercise of fundamental freedoms, including the right to peaceful assembly, in Hong Kong,” UN rights office spokeswoman Liz Throssel said in a statement.
“These latest arrests indicate that – as had been feared – the offence of subversion under the National Security Law is indeed being used to detain individuals for exercising legitimate rights to participate in political and public life,” she said.
Taiwan, a democratically run island that is claimed by China, also condemned the arrests, calling the swoop “shocking”.
In his statement, Pompeo also announced that Kelly Craft, Washington’s UN ambassador, would visit Taiwan, a highly symbolic trip as the island is not a UN member due to the objections of Beijing, which views Taiwan as a wayward province.
“Taiwan shows what a free China could achieve,” he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Pompeo’s comments represented a serious interference in the country’s internal affairs, which China strongly condemned.
“For a period of time, we have seen a minority of anti-China politicians in the Trump administration continue to stage their final madness, unscrupulously using their remaining term to deliberately undermine China-US relations and serve their personal political interests,” Hua told reporters.
“This kind of move goes against the trend of history and will surely be punished by history,” she said, adding: “China will take all necessary steps to resolutely safeguard its sovereignty and security interests.”
Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry welcomed Craft’s visit, which will be the first of a sitting US ambassador at the UN to the island, saying it demonstrates the strong US support for Taiwan’s international participation.
Pompeo’s statement came after a day of turmoil in Washington, DC that saw supporters of President Donald Trump storm the Capitol in a bid to overturn his November election defeat.
Legislators on both sides denounced the gravest assault on the two houses of Congress in more than 200 years, calling it an embarrassment to American democracy that would play into the hands of rivals like China.
“I think they’re high-fiving in Beijing, and the Chinese look at this and are very happy about it,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a China hawk, told Tucker Carlson on the Fox News channel. “It kind of bolsters their claim that we’re falling apart and they’re the country of the future.”
On Wednesday, the Chinese embassy in Washington issued an advisory on its website, warning Chinese citizens to strengthen safety precautions in light of the “large-scale demonstration” in Washington, DC and the curfew announced by the local government.
Trump has pursued hardline policies towards China on issues from trade to espionage and the coronavirus. His administration has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for crushing Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and other alleged rights abuses.
Tensions have escalated within Washington on China policy in the final days of the Trump administration before President-elect Joe Biden takes office on January 20.
The New York Stock Exchange said on Wednesday it would delist three Chinese telecom companies, while the administration is also considering adding tech giants Alibaba and Tencent to a blacklist of firms allegedly owned or controlled by the Chinese military.