The US State Department imposed visa bans on Chinese Communist Party officials accused of infringing the freedom of Hong Kong citizens, in what a senior official described as the opening salvo in a campaign to force Beijing to back off from new restrictions on the city.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a statement that he was barring travel to the US by “current and former CCP officials who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.” He said family members may also be affected, but, as is customary in visa cases, he didn’t name the officials.
The visa move is largely symbolic. Chinese officials are unlikely to visit the US, especially now that the coronavirus pandemic has shut down most international flights and the US has imposed strict limits on travelers from China, where the outbreak began.
But the State Department official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal strategy, said it was intended as the first of many steps the US plans to punish China over its moves to rein in Hong Kong.
The official said the timing also was intended to send a message: On Sunday, China’s top legislative body is expected to discuss — and possibly approve — a national security law that critics say will rob residents of the former British colony of many of their political freedoms.
American and European officials say the security law would violate China’s promise to abide by the “One Country Two Systems” model that was adopted when it took back sovereignty over the colony from the UK
In late May, President Donald Trump promised sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials “directly or indirectly involved” in eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy, vowing that the actions would be “strong” and “meaningful.”
Despite Trump’s tough stance, the administration remained silent in the weeks since. Several people familiar with that process, who also asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said Trump made that announcement in the White House Rose Garden well before the administration had pinned down what exactly the US might do.
Those people said there has been intense debate within the administration over how hard to hit China. Severe sanctions or a move to strip Hong Kong of its special trading status might get China’s attention but also risk further damage to a global economy already devastated by the coronavirus.
“There are massive collateral consequences at risk,” said Adam Smith, a former senior adviser in the Treasury Department’s sanctions unit and now a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “The problem is that sanctions are such a big stick.”
The move comes as ties between the world’s two largest economies steadily deteriorate. The two sides had little progress to announce after Pompeo met with the Communist Party’s top foreign policy official for talks in Hawaii last week, and the top US diplomat continues to hammer China over its handling of the
coronavirus pandemic, its imprisonment of Muslims in Xinjiang province and issues from trade violations to intellectual-property theft.