WASHINGTON — Hong Kong can no longer be regarded as autonomous from mainland China, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a notification to Congress on Wednesday, setting the stage for sanctions against Beijing and the withdrawal of the former British colony’s preferential trading status.
"No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground," Pompeo said in a statement. “I certified to Congress today that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under United States laws in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997.”
After it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy significant autonomy from the communist government in Beijing for 50 years, under the terms of an agreement between China and the United Kingdom, known as the Sino–British Joint Declaration.
That autonomy was to have included protections for free speech and self-rule under what China has termed a "one country, two systems" policy.
NBC News has obtained Pompeo's certification to Congress as required under the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act.
Although it was not accompanied by a revocation of any specific privileges, it said that "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."
It added that instead of listening to the millions who turned out to protest "the Hong Kong government deployed tear gas and made mass arrests, including of peaceful demonstrators."
President Donald Trump will now be required under the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 and the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 to begin designating the Chinese officials responsible for the human rights abuses that undermine that autonomy.
These sanctions could include freezing Chinese assets based in the U.S. or banning Chinese officials from entering the country.
Under the Hong Kong Policy Act, Hong Kong is seen as "nonsovereign entity distinct from China," and therefore not subject to the high tariffs Trump placed on mainland China, meaning the future of the special trade status granted the island is also uncertain.
Pompeo’s notification came after China's move to impose national security laws over Hong Kong, which would allow it to sidestep the territory's own legislative body to crack down on activity Beijing considers subversive.
The laws are widely expected to pass ending the unique model aimed at guaranteeing freedoms not granted on the mainland. A free press and an independent judiciary are among the things currently allowed in the semi-autonomous city.
There have been a number of protests in Hong Kong since the measures were proposed. Protesters demonstrated again Wednesday against another bill that would make it illegal to insult or abuse the Chinese national anthem.
Pro-democracy protesters and politicians say the bill, which carries penalties of up to three years in jail and fines of up to $50,000 Hong Kong dollars ($6,450), is yet another sign of increasing interference from Beijing. Police fired pepper pellets into the crowds of protesters and arrested more than 300 people after flooding central Hong Kong.
The proposed laws increased tensions between the U.S. and China. They were already high after the U.S. alleged that China covered up the coronavirus outbreak and pressured the World Health Organization from taking early action to combat it. That has added to long-standing tensions over trade, human rights, religious freedom and the status of Taiwan.
National security adviser Robert O'Brien previewed Pompeo’s decision to Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
“They're going to basically take over Hong Kong," O'Brien said, adding that it meant Pompeo “would likely be unable to certify that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy. And if that happens, there will be sanctions that will be imposed on Hong Kong and China."
He added that it was “hard to see how Hong Kong could remain the Asian financial center that it's become if China takes over. There was a free enterprise system, there was a capitalist system, there was democracy in local legislative elections. If all of those things go away, I'm not sure how the financial community can stay there."
China reacted angrily to any suggestion that it be punished for what it considers to be a strictly domestic matter.
Asked about possible U.S. retaliation over the security legislation, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in Beijing on Wednesday that China would take the necessary steps to fight back against what he called "erroneous foreign interference in Hong Kong's affairs."