The United States on Friday sanctioned seven Chinese officials over Beijing’s clampdown on democracy in Hong Kong, and it also warned U.S. companies about the risks of incurring legal and reputational damage if they conduct business in Hong Kong amid a shifting legal landscape in the former British colony.
“The situation in Hong Kong is continuing to deteriorate,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “The risks faced in mainland China are now increasingly present in Hong Kong.”
The Biden administration has been undergoing a comprehensive review of its policy toward China. The administration already has targeted officials and businesses involved in human rights violations, including the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Friday’s action targeted officials participating in the ongoing crackdown in Hong Kong, accusing them of breaking the 2020 Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which sanctions individuals who contribute to China’s failure to preserve Hong Kong’s legal autonomy.
The action imposes asset freezes and other penalties against officials who are with China’s Hong Kong liaison office, which represents China’s interests in Hong Kong.
'China will respond'
Shortly before the sanctions were announced, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a regular news conference in Beijing that “China will respond firmly and forcefully to the measures taken by the United States."
“The P.R.C. must not suppress rights and freedoms,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a tweet, referring to the People’s Republic of China, the Beijing government’s official name.
Blinken said Friday’s sanctions, along with a business advisory issued by the State, Treasury, Homeland Security and Commerce departments, showed that the U.S. would “continue to speak out for Hong Kong and promote accountability for Beijing’s broken promises and repressive acts.”
The top diplomat’s remarks came as his deputy was set to travel Sunday to Northeast Asia, where China was said to be “directly and indirectly” on the agenda.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is traveling to Japan, South Korea and Mongolia July 18-25.
China is not currently included on her announced itinerary. “There is no final decision" yet on whether Sherman is heading to China after meetings with U.S. allies in the region, according to a senior State Department official.
The visit, should it occur, is expected to set the stage for a potential in-person meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a G-20 summit at the end of October.
“We are open to engagement if it can be substantive and consequential,” said the official.
Sherman’s meetings in China, if they occur, would be the first high-level U.S.-China in-person engagement since the contentious talks between top diplomats in Alaska in March.
A senior State Department official was asked Friday about the level of trust between the two countries.
“I don't think trust is really appropriate in this moment. It's about what work we can do together, and how we will manage a very complicated relationship going forward,” the official said in response to a question from a VOA reporter.
The policy review on China is expected to address human rights issues and trade as well as a clarification of Washington’s policy on ensuring peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. This week, a Japanese government defense white paper for the first time said stability of Taiwan is important for Japanese interests.
“I think you've already seen a heightened consolidation of our partners and allies in an approach to and concern for Taiwan. So, yes, I think that will continue to be how we approach this,” the senior official said.
On Thursday, Biden met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House. Germany has strong trade ties with China and has been more reluctant to join U.S.-led efforts to confront Beijing.
“The situation in Hong Kong is deteriorating. And the Chinese government is not keeping its commitment that it made how it would deal with Hong Kong,” said Biden, one day before the U.S. issued the business advisory warning companies operating in Hong Kong.
Merkel struck a less confrontational tone, saying "it's legitimate for China" to be a leader in high tech and trade, while noting China needed to abide by "a level playing field."
On Wednesday, Blinken held talks with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, in which the State Department said the two addressed China’s “human rights abuses, coercive trade practices and aggressive foreign policy.”
In comparison, a statement from the French government said it was taking a “pragmatic” and “a balanced approach regarding China” where the world’s second-largest economy is “a partner, a competitor and systemic rival at the same time.”
When asked about whether the United States and European nations were bridging their differences over how to approach Beijing, the senior State Department official said, “Europe is much, much closer to the views of the United States” now than during former President Barack Obama’s administration.