Washington expressed strong displeasure on Tuesday over the passage of the Hong Kong national security law, which gives Beijing sweeping authority to curtail democratic freedoms, even as US lawmakers debated what leverage they have to effectively apply pressure on China.
“We will not stand idly by,” Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee and member of the powerful Armed Services and Commerce committees, said on Twitter.
Senator Tom Cotton, a Republic from Arkansas, echoed the mood. “Xi Jinping and his Communist thugs must face severe consequences for crushing Hong Kong’s freedoms,” he said in a statement.
Cotton, an outspoken China hawk, called on the Trump administration to consider “all options at its disposal” aimed at denying Beijing the benefits of Hong Kong’s distinct economic privileges.
Last week, the Senate passed a bill that could punish Chinese officials for violating commitments made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, the city’s de facto constitution, and Cotton urged the House of Representatives to pass companion legislation.
“Those complicit in snuffing out freedom, democracy, and human rights in Hong Kong must be held accountable,” Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who co-sponsored the Senate version known as the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, said on Twitter.
The House majority leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, said in a statement that Congress was united “in support of freedom, justice and real autonomy for the people of Hong Kong,” echoing calls for Beijing to be held accountable.
Passage of the security law – which gives Beijing broad powers to punish protests and critics under vaguely worded sedition and terrorism provisions – was widely expected after China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress (NPC) approved the measure in May.
But the specific contents were all but unknown by most NPC delegates or Hong Kong residents until Tuesday – after it became law.
Analysts said China likely underestimated the global resistance, assuming the world would be largely distracted by the pandemic and economic downturn.
“They miscalculated,” said Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University. “The international community, particularly the US, reaction to this is going to be quite serious. It will make Beijing pay quite a substantial price and cost the Chinese economy, hi-tech development and financial development, some troubles in years to come.”
In recent days, the European Union has joined the US in expressing its strong disapproval, echoed somewhat less forcefully by Japan and South Korea, among others. The US in recent weeks has also announced an end to preferential tariffs for Hong Kong, tighter restrictions on technology exports and sanctions on Chinese officials, without giving details.
China’s Asian neighbours – including partners in the Belt and Road Initiative aimed at spurring regional development – will likely have a more muted reaction since the implications of Beijing’s move are not lost on them, some said.
“The top leaders of these countries will not say too much because they all have lots of business ties with China,” said Victor Shih, chair in China relations at the University of California, San Diego.
“But I think privately, this serves as a serious warning to China’s neighbouring countries because all of China’s promises of autonomy, it’s just that,” he added. “If Beijing can use its economic and security coercive capacity to compel a territory to comply with its wishes, it will do so.”
The heavy-handed move in Hong Kong dovetails with a more aggressive action on the edges of its territory, analysts said. In recent weeks Chinese soldiers have clashed with their Indian counterparts along their disputed border, killing several.
It has stepped up island building activities, patrols and resource exploration in the South China Sea and flexed its muscles in the East China Sea and with Taiwan.
“Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong should not be viewed in isolation, but rather as part of a broader pattern of China working to gain greater control over its claimed territories along its entire periphery,” said Ryan Haas, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and former China director at the National Security Council.