The Biden administration slapped new sanctions on Chinese officials for the first time on Wednesday over accusations that they contributed to the declining autonomy and freedoms in Hong Kong.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the sanctions on Twitter, along with the hashtag #StandWithHongKong, a day before his first meeting with senior Chinese diplomats after President Joe Biden took office. The move suggests that Biden is inclined to continue a more confrontational approach to China that began during the Trump administration, although Trump did not appear to personally care about human rights in Hong Kong.
Beijing’s tightening control over Hong Kong has become a major flashpoint in U.S.-China relations. The Chinese government has cracked down on Hong Kong’s 2019 protest movement with a national security law that led to mass arrests of pro-democracy activists. It’s also planning to change the city’s electoral system to eliminate dissent in the legislature.
Washington has accused Beijing of going back on its promise of giving the former British colony a high degree of autonomy and wide-ranging freedoms for 50 years after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. China has protested the U.S.’ comments and sanctions as meddling with its internal affairs.
Beijing has previously expressed hope for a reset in U.S.-China relations after Biden won the presidential election. Earlier this month, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on the Biden administration to remove the “unreasonable restrictions” that stood in the way of the two countries’ cooperation.
The 24 people sanctioned include officials at China’s rubber-stamp parliamentary body, which imposed the national security law, pro-Beijing officials in Hong Kong, and police officials in charge of national security cases.
Six of them were identified for sanctions during the last days of the Trump administration in January.
The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the officials and bar them from traveling to the country. Foreign banks could also face sanctions for doing business with the sanctioned officials. Chinese officials identified as being responsible for the rights abuse in Xinjiang have been hit with similar sanctions.
While the sanctions signal Washington’s support for Hong Kong’s democracy movement, their impact has so far been limited.
Beijing did not stop strengthening its control of Hong Kong since the first ten officials were sanctioned in October for allegedly suppressing freedoms in the city, although Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she had to keep “piles of cash” at home because no banks would want to deal with her.
Luo Huining, head of Beijing’s powerful liaison office in Hong Kong, said last year that the sanctions against him showed he was doing the right things for Hong Kong. He also joked about sending $100 to Donald Trump so the former U.S. president could freeze the asset.
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