US declares Hong Kong no longer autonomous from mainland China

Sophia Yan
Hong Kong protesters rally against China's national security law at Mongkok district on May 27, 2020 in Hong Kon - Getty Images

Donald Trump’s administration has declared that Hong Kong is no longer highly autonomous from mainland China, escalating a stand-off with Beijing over its new national security legislation. 

The move indicated that the US could end some of its special trade provisions with the territory if Beijing pushes through its controversial proposed law, which is seen by critics as undercutting Hong Kong's liberty.  

Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, released a statement announcing that he had notified Congress on the new view of Hong Kong. His department is required to provide updates on the territory’s autonomy from China. 

“I certified to Congress today that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under United States laws in the same manner as US laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997,” Mr Pompeo said. 

“No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground.”

The move comes after Chinese officials, citing national security,  announced new legislation that would criminalise anti-government movements in the territory.  

Senior Trump administration figures oppose the move, which comes after months of high profile democracy protests in Hong Kong, and Mr Trump himself said earlier this week that retaliatory action was coming.

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state - Mandel NGAN / AFP

Hong Kong enjoys special trading and economic terms with the US compared to mainland China which reflect the “one country, two systems” set-up put in place when it was handed over from Britain in 1997. 

That special status could change, either through US government or US Congress action, on the back of Mr Pompeo’s announcement. 

Any changes could impact major Chinese and financial companies which have used Hong Kong as an international or regional base. 

Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, has said Mr Trump was “displeased” with China’s actions over Hong, adding: “It’s hard to see how Hong Kong can remain a financial hub if China takes over.” 

The announcement came as riot police fired pepper balls in Hong Kong’s main business district on Wednesday to disperse protests against the proposed law. 

Hundreds took to the streets in different neighbourhoods, creating roadblocks, disrupting public transport and swarming malls. Some chanted, “Hong Kong people, build a nation!,” a direct appeal for independence from Beijing. More than 300 people were arrested by late afternoon. 

Unrest has reignited in Hong Kong – despite social distancing rules due to the coronavirus pandemic – ahead of Beijing's expected imposition this Thursday of a sweeping national security law on the global financial centre.

China’s ruling Communist Party will bypass the city’s legislature to install a law that will criminalise subversion, separatism, terrorism and foreign interference – the latest effort by Beijing to stamp out dissent after last year’s often violent mass rallies. 

“This place will become just like any Chinese city. You will have to be aware of what you say; you will have to stay politically correct all the time, or that could cost you your job,” Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, told the Telegraph.

The authorities also “seem to be encouraging people to report on supposed criminals under this new law – doesn’t that sound familiar?” she said. “What they are doing amounts to conducting a Cultural Revolution, part two.” 

Many worry the national security law will end Hong Kong’s unique system of governance – “one country, two systems” – which has allowed rights and freedoms not granted in mainland China.

“The proposed national security legislation gives the big picture that Hong Kong will operate under ‘one country, one system,’” said Ching, 18, a student. Once that happens, “we won’t have another chance to protest anymore.”

“Beijing wants us to feel the fear, but we aren’t, and we won’t,” she said, declining to give a full name. “I want to show the world that we’re not giving up the fight for what we want.”

Demonstrations “will be construed as trying to subvert state power,” said Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The law also aims “to stop foreign organisations from operating in Hong Kong, to stop Hong Kong political parties from maintaining a good relationship with prominent politicians in the UK and US.”

Authorities have stressed the law is necessary for maintaining peace and stability. 

“The decision only targets the small minority of criminals jeopardising national security, while the overwhelming majority of members of the public who are law-abiding will be protected,” said John Lee, Hong Kong’s secretary of security.

But many fear that legal and judicial independence will quickly disappear, as foreign judges in Hong Kong will be reportedly barred from hearing cases brought under the national security law.

Riot police gather to disperse protesters - Getty Images

Protesters were further roiled on Wednesday as city lawmakers debated a separate bill that would criminalise insults to China’s national anthem, punishable by up to three years in prison and fines of 50,000 yuan (£5,680). The national anthem proposal is expected to pass next week.

US president Donald Trump has warned that Washington would do something “very interesting” before the end of the week in response, deepening a row with Beijing. The US government has previously hinted that it would introduce economic sanctions if Beijing continued to encroach on Hong Kong’s treasured liberties. 

MPs and Hong Kong activists are pressuring the UK to hold Beijing to account at the United Nations for potentially breaching the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The international treaty, which went into effect when the former colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, is meant to guarantee Hong Kong’s unique way of life. 

Some are pressing the UK to approve asylum applications for those fleeing the territory and to extend the right to abode or citizenship to British National Overseas passport holders. Having BNO status affords a travel document and consular assistance, but not the right to live and work in the UK.

An activist known as Grandpa Wong has an argument with riot police - Bloomberg

British policymakers have been faced with calls to rethink its approach toward China, as awareness increases over Beijing’s encroaching influence in the UK. The government is considering ways to reduce reliance on China, and to potentially reverse a decision on allowing Chinese telecom firm Huawei a role in building the country’s 5G networks.

On Wednesday, Ofcom said Chinese state broadcaster had broken broadcasting rules by presenting biased coverage of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last year. The “serious failure of compliance” could result in sanctions, such as hefty fines or a cancelled broadcast license, said the media regulator. 

But for some Hong Kong residents, international pressure on China to redirect is far too little, too late, especially as Party leader Xi Jinping on Tuesday urged the military to ramp up combat readiness, an ominous sign that Beijing won’t hesitate to take a stronger response. 

“I feel sad,” said Karen, 36, who took a day off work to join the protests. “If we have a chance, I will try to move to another country.”