The US will bar the export of weapons and sensitive technology to Hong Kong, as it revokes the territory’s special trade status in response to China’s imposition of national security legislation on the Asian financial hub.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said the Trump administration could “no longer distinguish between the export of controlled items to Hong Kong or to mainland China” in the wake of Beijing’s decision to introduce the controversial legislation, which could come into force this week.
Wilbur Ross, commerce secretary, said he was suspending the preferential treatment Hong Kong received in terms of exempting US companies from having to apply for export licences that apply to sales to mainland China.
The move comes a month after President Donald Trump warned Hong Kong that he would revoke the special trade status that the territory has enjoyed since Britain returned its former colony to China in 1997. The US says the move to impose the law by circumventing Hong Kong’s legislature shows that the territory is now longer autonomous from mainland China.
Since the handover, Hong Kong has been governed under a “one country, two systems” framework that is scheduled to expire in 2047. In recent years China has imposed a heavier hand on the territory in an effort to clamp down on pro-democracy protests that have swept the city.
Monday’s move was largely symbolic given that the US shipped only $1.4m of defence goods to Hong Kong last year, according to the state department. The vast majority of that was firearms for police and prison officers.
Kurt Tong, a retired diplomat who served as US consul-general in Hong Kong until last year, said the move was “symbolically important” since it was the first step taken by Washington and would likely not be the last.
“Materially speaking, the policy change can only be considered moderately important, since Hong Kong’s economy is so heavily geared toward services rather than manufacturing,” Mr Tong added.
One US official said it would prevent Hong Kong from procuring equipment such as cameras, processors and microprocessors. He said restrictions on cameras, and other surveillance equipment, were important given China’s repression of Muslim Uighurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
“We are going to continue to highlight what China is doing to its own people . . . out in Xinjiang,” the official said.
The decision marks the latest escalation in tension between the countries, as they clash over everything from trade and economics to blame for Covid-19.
Washington last week issued visa restrictions on unidentified current and former Chinese officials whom it said had a significant role in “undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy”. The measure was also extended to visas issued to their family members.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Washington, said the visa restrictions were also “symbolic given that [the] state [department] isn’t going to announce who or how many officials will be affected”.
Mr Pompeo and Mr Ross both said the administration would take further steps to remove other forms of preferential treatment for Hong Kong.
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