China Sanctions US Lawmakers, Rights Group Heads in Retaliation Over Hong Kong

china-meeting3-081020.jpg US Health Secretary Alex Azar meets with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, Aug. 10, 2020.
Taiwan Presidential Palace

China on Monday imposed sanctions on U.S. officials and the heads of pro-democracy and human rights organizations in retaliation over U.S. President Donald Trump's sanctions on officials linked to a recent crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said 11 politicians and heads of civil organizations would be targeted for unspecified sanctions, including Senators Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, Pat Toomey, and Ted Cruz, as well as Representative Chris Smith.

The individuals named had "performed badly" on issues relating to Hong Kong, Zhao said. Rubio co-chairs the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), which has produced in-depth research into China's human rights abuses, while Smith is a former co-chair.

Their number equals that of the Hong Kong and ruling Chinese Communist Party officials whose U.S. assets were frozen by the U.S. Treasury last week for implementing a draconian national security law and hampering freedoms and human rights promised to the city by China.

"The relevant actions of the U.S. blatantly intervened in Hong Kong affairs, grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs, and seriously violated international law and the basic norms of international relations," Zhao told a regular news briefing in Beijing.

"China urges the U.S. to have a clear understanding of the situation, correct mistakes, and immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and interfering in China’s internal affairs," he said.

Also to be sanctioned were Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz, National Endowment for Democracy president Carl Gershman, National Democratic Institute president Derek Mitchell, and International Republican Institute president Daniel Twining.

Further strain on tensions

The arrival of U.S. Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar to the democratic island of Taiwan on Monday, put a further strain on growing tensions between the U.S. and China, which has refused to recognize Taiwan's status as a sovereign state or to rule out an invasion.

Azar met with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen on Monday, as officials signed a memorandum of understanding on health cooperation during the coronavirus pandemic.

The agreement paves the way for bilateral cooperation in areas such as global health security, digital health, infectious disease prevention, and vaccine development, according to a communique.

Local media said two Chinese warplanes briefly crossed into Taiwan's airspace, citing air force headquarters.

The Shenyang J-11 and Chengdu J-10 aircraft briefly crossed into Taiwan's airspace but retreated after radio warnings were issued, the Republic of China Air Force said in a statement.

Azar is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Taiwan since Washington broke off ties with Taipei in 1979 under pressure from China.

Taiwan, the home of the 1911 Republic of China since the Kuomintang (KMT) lost the civil war to Mao Zedong in 1949, has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the People's Republic of China.

Beijing insists on a territorial claim on the island, although President Tsai has said the island's 23 million inhabitants have no wish to be ruled by China, and has ruled out any kind of "one country, two systems" arrangement, saying it has clearly failed in Hong Kong, where months of pro-democracy protests were met with the imposition of a draconian security law and the stationing of China's feared state security police in the city.

Beijing slams US visit

In Beijing, Zhao hit out at Azar's visit, which was made possible by the U.S. 2018 Taiwan Travel Act. China sees official visits to Taiwan as a negation of its claim under its "One China" policy.

“I would like to stress again that the Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations," Zhao said. "What the U.S. has done seriously violated its commitment on the Taiwan issue."

In remarks ahead of his meeting with Tsai, Azar said the island’s success in dealing with COVID-19 was a "tribute to the open, transparent, democratic nature of Taiwan’s society and culture."

Tsai's administration moved swiftly and aggressively to contain the coronavirus and has recorded just 277 reported cases and seven deaths from the illness.

The United States on Friday announced sanctions against Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and other senior officials for their role in curbing the city's promised freedoms, and in implementing a draconian national security regime.

Announcing the sanctions, the State Department said that the Chinese Communist Party had made it clear that Hong Kong will never again enjoy the high degree of autonomy promised under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, and that the city will no longer be regarded as a separate jurisdiction from mainland China by the U.S.

The U.S. has banned Americans from any business transactions with those on the list and has frozen their assets, and Hong Kong Democratic Party member and former banking regulator Cary Lo said the order means that local and international banks will be barred from offering deposit accounts, loans, or credit cards to sanctioned individuals.

He said that while the U.S. can't force banks to enforce the sanctions, failure to do so could mean they also face sanctions from the U.S. authorities on their U.S.-dollar business, a large part of most banks' business.

He cited the example of HSBC, which was fined and almost had its U.S. license revoked for failing to comply with U.S. regulations.

Lo said a statement by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) claiming that the U.S. sanctions had no legal basis in Hong Kong was misleading.

"It is ironic that the HKMA, Hong Kong's financial regulator, would misinterpret such a thing," Lo said. "Any country knows that if it wants to do business in U.S. dollars, it must comply with sanctions issued by the United States."

Reported by Man Hoi-tsan, Hwang Chun-mei and Tseng Yat-yiu for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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