Last week, the United States imposed sanctions on seven Chinese officials over Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. This has been seen as Washington’s latest effort to hold China accountable for the dismantling of the rule of law in the former British colony.
The new additions to the US Treasury’s “specially designated nationals” list were seven deputy directors at the PRC liaison office in Hong Kong, charged with having “systematically undermined” Hong Kong’s democratic institutions. They join Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, sanctioned last year for her role in implementing Beijing’s National Security Law.
These actions were announced just over a year after former President Donald Trump ordered an end to Hong Kong’s special status under US law to punish China for what he called “oppressive actions” against the territory.
The US now routinely relies on sanctions, export controls and other forms of trade coercion to counter Chinese activities. This has included charges of human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet; overt military support for Taiwan; and a variety of embargoes denying China access to microchips and technology critical to national security.
However, the verbal posturing over the former colony may be a sign that the US and China are happy to let hostilities play out as diplomatic theater, reluctant to raise confrontation to a level that would meaningfully challenge the functioning of the city’s role in the dollar world.
The same could be said for President Biden’s advisory issued to American businesses operating in Hong Kong this week, in response to Beijing’s anti-sanctions law passed in June that suggests countermeasures against companies that comply with US sanctions.
Indeed, analysts have questioned what the advisory will achieve beyond political posturing, which Chinese state media said exposed the US as a “paper tiger.”
Miles Kwok, the most notable CCP dissident in exile in New York, believes that these actions are feeble against China’s 3F plan to “foment weakness, chaos, and the destruction of America.”
He is not alone in his criticism. The American expatriate community in Hong Kong have been left bewildered by actions perceived as coming from a distant, out-of-touch Washington.
In a response, the 1,400-member American Chamber of Commerce said it was “well aware” of an increasingly complicated geopolitical environment and its risks.
“Over 90 per cent of the Fortune 500 is represented in Hong Kong and they are going nowhere, China still represents the strongest consumer market globally,” a US banker in Hong Kong added.
Douglas Arner, a law professor and financial regulation expert at the University of Hong Kong told the FT that enforcement of the counter-sanctions laws in the city could force businesses to separate their China and Hong Kong operations from the rest of their global business.
This poses a threatening dilemma: American businesses operating in Hong Kong may in fact invite liberalized norms-setting whereby if run out, China strips another Western foothold in the Asia Pacific. Continued American presence in the region may do well to ensure Western ideals maintain relevance in what China is calling a war of “ideological hegemony.”
The U.S. sanctions sword is double-edged and cuts both ways, with those in between caught in a clash of wills between two giant adversaries. Both countries are pursuing increasingly isolationist stances which in the end will harm those caught in the crossfire rather than dealing any major strategic blows.
Immediate, concrete action is needed to provide support where it is really needed. This could look like an executive order to facilitate the expatriation of democratic activists from Hong Kong, joining Canada and the United Kingdom in immigration schemes.
A source told Reuters last week that the White House is reviewing residency pathways, but in light of a notoriously slow bureaucracy and mainland-style “exit bans” put into place last week, a reactionary stance may be too little, too late for refugees.
The US could deliver real harm to the CCP by opening its doors to pro-democratic voices. Dissidents granted residency like Mr. Kwok, have done much to bolster the US civil sphere with conversations on freedom of speech and rule of law as well as attract a growing Chinese audience. Imagine how many Hongkongers would do the same, if freed from China’s iron fisted rule?