The United States has reaffirmed that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous and remains undeserving of preferential trade treatment, as a court in the Chinese-controlled city prepared to hand down verdicts in the case of several prominent democrats charged with taking part in an unauthorised assembly.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a notice sent to legislators on Wednesday, said China has continued to “dismantle” Hong Kong’s autonomy since his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, first made the determination in May 2020.
As a result, Blinken said, the former British colony does not warrant the trade and financial perks it had received under the Hong Kong Policy Act – a law that allowed Washington to maintain a special relationship with the territory similar to the one it enjoyed before the United Kingdom returned it to China in 1997.
“Over the past year, the People’s Republic of China has continued to dismantle Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, in violation of its obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law,” Blinken said.
“In particular, the PRC government’s adoption and the Hong Kong government’s implementation of the National Security Law have severely undermined the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong.”
The decision is yet another indication that US President Joe Biden’s administration has not strayed from the hard line on China that was taken by former President Donald Trump.
On March 30, the US Department of State once again repeated the Trump administration’s characterisation of Chinese treatment of Uighur Muslims and other minorities in China’s western Xinjiang region as “genocide”.
Blinken’s Hong Kong decision came a day before the city’s West Kowloon court was scheduled to issue verdicts in the case of nine people, including 82-year-old barrister Martin Lee and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, over charges of organising or participating in one of the biggest pro-democracy protests in the city in 2019.
Lee, who helped launch the city’s largest opposition Democratic Party in the 1990s and is often called Hong Kong’s “father of democracy”, is accused of taking part in an unauthorised assembly on August 18, 2019, and could be jailed for 12-18 months, according to some legal experts.
Lee, Lai, and five other defendants including prominent barrister Margaret Ng and veteran democrats Lee Cheuk-yan, Leung-kwok-hung, Albert Ho, Cyd Ho, had pleaded not guilty. Two of the defendants, Au Nok-hin and Leung Yiu-chung, pleaded guilty.
The 2019 pro-democracy protests were spurred by Beijing’s tightening squeeze on Hong Kong’s wide-ranging freedoms and plunged the city into its biggest crisis since its return to China.
Critics, including Western governments, have condemned the arrests of Lee and other democrats. Forty seven other high-profile democratic campaigners are facing subversion charges under the national security law, and have mostly been denied bail and are being held in detention.
China has dismissed concerns over Hong Kong, warning critics against interfering in what it calls its internal affairs.
Chinese and Hong Kong officials also say the security law is needed to “restore stability” and to resolve “deep-seated” problems, and that human rights will be safeguarded.
In his notice to the US Congress, Blinken cited the passage of the security law as well as arbitrary arrests and detentions of pro-democracy demonstrators, opposition figures and politicians as well as a sharp reduction in the number of directly elected members of the territory’s legislature.
The certification is required by the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support in 2019 and was signed into law by Trump.
The law requires the US to impose sanctions against officials held responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong as well as requiring it to determine whether the city continues to warrant special status.
Both the Biden and the Trump administrations have imposed sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials as a result of the determinations.
“We will continue to call on the PRC to abide by its international obligations and commitments; to cease its dismantlement of Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, autonomy, and rule of law; to release immediately and drop all charges against individuals unjustly detained in Hong Kong; and to respect the human rights of all individuals in Hong Kong,” Blinken said.