US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Picture: NICHOLS KAMM/REUTERS
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Picture: NICHOLS KAMM/REUTERS

Washington/Hong Kong — US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said he had certified on Wednesday that Hong Kong no longer warrants special treatment under US law as it did when it was under British rule, a potentially big blow to its status as a major financial hub.

Pompeo's certification to the US Congress follows China's announcement of a plan to impose new national security legislation on Hong Kong which has triggered fresh unrest in the territory, with police firing teargas and water cannon.

It now falls to President Donald Trump to decide to end some, all, or none of the US economic privileges which the territory enjoys now.

Pompeo made no recommendations for follow-up action in his statement. But people familiar with the matter said on Wednesday the Trump administration was considering suspending Hong Kong's preferential tariff rates for exports to the US as part of its response to China's plan.

Trump could also opt for targeted sanctions against Chinese officials, government entities and businesses involved in enforcing the new legislation, according one of the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trump, already at odds with Beijing over trade and the coronavirus pandemic, had said on Tuesday Washington was working on a strong response to the national security legislation that would be announced before the end of the week.

Pompeo said China's plan to impose the new legislation was “only the latest in a series of actions that fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms.

“No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground,” he said.

He said he certified that Hong Kong no longer warrants treatment under US laws “in the same manner as US laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997", when Britain ended its administration of the territory and returned it to China.

“It is now clear that China is modelling Hong Kong after itself,” Pompeo said.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act approved by the US Congress and Trump in 2019 requires the state department to certify at least annually that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify the favourable US trading terms that have helped it remain a world financial centre.

Under the act, officials responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong could be subject to sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes.

China's security proposal, unveiled in Beijing last week, triggered the first large street protests in Hong Kong for months.

The US, European Union, Britain and others have expressed concern about the legislation, widely seen as a possible turning point for China's freest city.

Specifics of the security bill remain unclear and will not be enacted until later. It is meant to tackle secession, subversion and terrorism after major unrest last year and could see Chinese intelligence agencies set up bases in Hong Kong.

More protests

Chinese authorities and the Beijing-backed government in Hong Kong say there is no threat to the city's high degree of autonomy and the new security law will be tightly focused.

Beijing has said it will take necessary countermeasures to any foreign interference.

“It's for the long-term stability of Hong Kong and China, it won’t affect the freedom of assembly and speech and it won’t affect the city's status as a financial centre,” Hong Kong chief secretary Matthew Cheung said.

Police in Hong Kong fired pepper pellets and made 360 arrests on Wednesday as thousands of people took to the streets in anger over the legislation.

Late into the evening, protesters were still cramming sidewalks, chanting for full democracy and for Hong Kong to seek independence from China, saying this is now “the only way out”.

A heavy police presence around the Legislative Council had earlier deterred protesters from disrupting a debate of a bill that would criminalise disrespect of the Chinese national anthem. That is expected to be passed into law in June