The Trump administration on Friday targeted 11 Hong Kong officials, including its chief executive, Carrie Lam, for restricting freedoms and undermining the territory’s autonomy.
In a step that is certain to further increase tensions between Washington and Beijing, the Treasury Department said the sanctions were because of the “draconian” national security legislation China has imposed on Hong Kong and laying the groundwork to jail protesters and censor voices critical of Beijing.
The most prominent target was Lam, who was responsible for implementing the national security law and other acts that have ignited large opposition protests in Hong Kong. The Treasury Department said that she was “directly responsible for implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes.”
Other targets included the current and former police commissioners of Hong Kong and other officials responsible for supervising security measures.
The Trump administration said the sanctions are being issued under an executive order signed by the president last month in response to China’s ongoing crackdown on Hong Kong.
“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in a statement announcing the sanctions.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement saying the 11 officials sanctioned had all “crushed the Hong Kong people’s freedom” by working on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to adopt and implement the national security law.
“This law, purportedly enacted to ‘safeguard’ the security of Hong Kong, is in fact a tool of CCP repression,” Pompeo said. Among the restrictions in the law is a ban on literature critical of the CCP.
Pompeo accused China of abandoning its treaty commitments to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy and personal freedoms for 50 years after the British relinquished power in 1997 and Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty.
Pompeo issues critiques of the CCP almost daily, and describes China as the greatest threat to world peace and security. His barbs over China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, its response to the coronavirus pandemic and its crackdown in Hong Kong have made him the most disliked administration official in Beijing’s eyes.
The sanctions allow the United States to seize any property the designated officials may have in the United States, though it is unclear whether any of them have any assets subject to seizure.
Lam and others in the Hong Kong establishment had dismissed the risk of sanctions. Regina Ip, a member of Lam’s executive council who was not included in the list of officials sanctioned on Friday, said the Hong Kong government and officials should not be sanctioned by the U.S. since it was Beijing that had spearheaded the national security legislation.
In a news conference last Friday announcing the postponement of legislative elections in Hong Kong, Lam said she “dismissed the threat of sanctions with a laugh” and said it was something she and her government “could handle.” In an earlier television interview, she said she had no assets in the United States.