The US will delay its report on Hong Kong’s autonomy until after the Chinese government’s major annual meeting later this month, in anticipation of what actions Beijing “may be contemplating” to further undermine the independence of the semi-autonomous territory.
It comes after Beijing’s highest office in Hong Kong referred to the city’s protesters as a “virus”, which must be eradicated.
On Wednesday the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, told reporters the department was delaying its first report to Congress assessing Hong Kong’s autonomy to “allow us to account for any additional actions that Beijing may be contemplating in the run-up to the National People’s Congress that would further undermine the people of Hong Kong’s autonomy as promised by China when they entered the agreement with the people of Hong Kong”.
The Chinese Communist party (CCP) had delayed its meetings due to the coronavirus pandemic, but will now go ahead on 22 May.
The report is mandated under a US law requiring Washington to assess Hong Kong’s political freedom and relationship with China, and to impose sanctions over any human rights abuses it uncovers.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was first introduced in 2014 but eventually passed with bipartisan support last November after months of pro-democracy protests and alleged police brutality in Hong Kong.
Pompeo was not asked about the delay by reporters in attendance, but observers have speculated it may be related to renewed pushes by Beijing to have the the Hong Kong enact national security legislation.
Last month the head of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong said the legislation – shelved since its introduction in 2003 sparked mass protests – must be reintroduced to combat radical violence, foreign interference, and pro-independence forces in the region. It came amid accusations of interference and overreach by his office and the China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) over a series of public statements about Hong Kong.
Beijing has been accused of taking advantage of the world’s focus on the pandemic to make provocative strategic moves, including crackdowns on the Hong Kong protests.
More than 7,000 protesters have been arrested over the demonstrations, including more than a dozen high profile pro-democracy figures in February and March.
On Wednesday HKMAO released a statement calling protesters a “virus” who wanted to “drag Hong Kong off a cliff”. It said the “recklessly demented force” must be eliminated from the city, and warned that the more sympathy protesters had from Hong Kong residents, the greater price the city would pay.
Human Rights Watch said the rhetoric was “chilling and disturbing” and indicated the CCP intended “to assume greater direct control over Hong Kong”.
Several protesters told the Guardian they found it alarming but not unexpected, and said they did not think it would deter the protest movement, which had reduced to smaller skirmishes and flash protests in the weeks prior to the pandemic.
One said they felt the statement was an attempt to “dehumanise” protesters to allow authorities to use greater force against them.
The operator of a social media account associated with the movement said the statement served as “an alarming signal for protesters, reminding us to get prepared ASAP to push back even harder against China’s erosion of Hong Kong’s almost-diminished autonomy”.
“There is certainly fear of even more brutal crackdowns on protesters, but there are more and more small local gatherings in neighbourhood malls as the Covid pandemic has eased in Hong Kong, showing us that Hong Kongers have not forgotten our demands,” they said.
On Thursday the Hong Kong government supported the HKMAO’s statement, saying the office was authorised by China’s central government to handle Hong Kong affairs and thus had the authority and responsibility to comment on major issues, RTHK News reported.