Storm clouds continue to gather over Beijing’s relationship with Washington. While popular discontent in the U.S. over Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus has been rising for months, China’s imposition of more direct rule over Hong Kong has catalyzed a wave of both criticism and concrete action in Washington, aiming to hold Beijing accountable.
BEIJING’S PROVOCATION, THE SENATE’S RESPONSE
This week, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a much anticipated national security law in Hong Kong, viewed by Washington as a draconian curtailment of civil liberties and an abrogation of China’s obligations under the 1987 Sino-British Joint Declaration. To date, Beijing remains unmoved by objections abroad. In a statement released shortly afterward, Beijing’s local representative in Hong Kong issued a statement defending the law and stating that “nobody should underestimate the determination of the central authorities to defend national security in Hong Kong.”
In anticipation of Beijing’s move, the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping sanctions bill aimed at Chinese officials encroaching upon Hong Kong’s autonomy. The bill establishes sanctions for both political and financial institutions that facilitate Beijing’s provocations. In a rare move of bipartisanship, the bill was adopted unanimously, with prominent Democratic and Republican co-sponsors, as well as the blessing of the White House. The measure passed alongside a withering denunciation of the national security law by Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a rising star among Republican Senators and outspoken hawk on Chinese influence. In Hawley’s view, “It starts with Hong Kong, but we know what Beijing wants to do. They want to impose their will on the whole Asia-Pacific region.” Hawley added that he has privately urged President Trump to use “all tools at our disposal to send a message” to China.
In a signal of the coordinated nature of the campaign, the offices of both Democratic and Republican Senators launched a coordinated messaging campaign in support of Hong Kong and the sanctions campaign against Beijing. Senator Romney, widely regarded as an elder statesman of the GOP, tweeted: “My heart aches for the people of Hong Kong. Any semblance of freedom and autonomy has vanished; the repressive antics of the CCP are on full display. The U.S. must work with our allies to confront China’s growing aggression.” At almost the same time, Democratic Senator Van Hollen urged Speaker Pelosi to take up the Senate’s bill as well: “Those complicit in snuffing out freedom, democracy, and human rights in Hong Kong must be held accountable. Speaker Pelosi should immediately call a vote on the Hong Kong Accountability Act, which unanimously passed the Senate last week.”
THE WHITE HOUSE AND STATE DEPARTMENT WEIGH IN
For its part, the White House has not shied away from channeling the frustration with China now roiling the American body politic. Even as the Senate was mobilizing to push forward a sanctions campaign, President Trump remarked, “As I watch the Pandemic spread its ugly face all across the world, including the tremendous damage it has done to the USA, I become more and more angry at China. People can see it, and I can feel it!”
At the practical level, the administration has been gradually ramping up measures to curb Chinese influence. This week, the Department of Defense designated telecoms equipment giant Huawei Technologies and video surveillance company Hikvision as firms "owned or controlled" by China's People's Liberation Army, in a move designed to lay the groundwork for future financial sanctions. At the same time, the Trump administration has announced visa restrictions on both current and former Chinese officials, specifically those "responsible for eviscerating Hong Kong's freedoms.”
In a statement on Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced visa restrictions on "current and former CCP officials who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy, as guaranteed in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, or undermining human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong.” While uncertainty remains the watchword of 2020, it is all but assured that the cleavage between Washington and Beijing will continue to deepen.