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International relations

US hits Hong Kong chief Carrie Lam with sanctions over crackdown

Washington denounces Chinese 'policies of suppression'

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds a news conference in Beijing on June 3.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- The Trump administration on Friday announced sanctions against Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 other current and former officials for restricting freedoms and undermining the territory's autonomy.

In a step certain to fuel tensions between Washington and Beijing, the U.S. Treasury Department targeted Lam for what it called her role in overseeing and "implementing Beijing's policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes."

The White House has been critical of China's sweeping new national security law aimed at limiting Hong Kong's autonomy.

The sanctions in effect block transactions in "all property and interests in property" of the 11 targets, the Treasury Department explained in a news release giving their names and profiles. Also prohibited will be contributions to and by these persons.

The list includes Hong Kong Police Commissioner Chris Tang and predecessor Stephen Lo.

Lam has shrugged off the prospect of being targeted by U.S. sanctions. "I have no assets in the U.S., and I don't particularly like going to the U.S.," she said in a July television interview. "If they won't grant me a visa, then I will just not go there."

The top official at China's Hong Kong Liaison Office, Luo Huining, also targeted on the list, denounced the move as "blatant and barbaric interference" in China's internal affairs, according to Reuters. He also said the U.S. sanctions indicate he is doing what he "should be doing for my country and Hong Kong," a statement on the liaison office's website showed on Saturday.

But Hong Kong-based pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, the former secretary-general of the now-dissolved Demosisto political party, applauded the sanctions.

"It's time for the world to stand with Hong Kong," Wong declared in a video statement. And with the U.S. announcement, the Hong Kong and mainland governments must be aware that "escalating the tension is not the way out," he said.

The political crisis must be resolved by "political system reform," Wong said. Hong Kongers want Beijing to allow free elections, stop mass arrests and an end to the crackdown, he added.

The sanctions are just the most recent step in an escalation of tensions between the world's largest and second-largest economies.

Since 2018, the U.S. and China have been embroiled in a trade war, which was compounded by trading barbs after the COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year.

Repeatedly called the "China virus" by U.S. President Donald Trump, the disease has stoked tensions between Washington and Beijing since spring. The U.S. has conducted naval drills in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, targeted Chinese technology companies for sanctions, and even shut down the Chinese Consulate in Houston.

"Among all the actions the [Trump] administration can take on the Hong Kong issue, sanctioning 11 individuals is on the limited side," said Bonnie Chan, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"Tit for tat is typically Beijing's response. ... However, it is unlikely that Beijing will impose sanctions on top U.S. officials," Chan said. "Beijing will probably publicly condemn the sanction, and frame it as another attempt of 'the West' interfering in China's internal affairs," she added. "There might be a possibility that Beijing will bar the entry of specific Americans to Hong Kong."

China, for its part, has shut down the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. Flaunting its military might at U.S. allies, it has engaged in a deadly mountain skirmish with India and carried out aggressive naval maneuvers near the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands -- claimed by China as the Diaoyu -- while holding live-fire drills in the South China Sea.

Early on Friday, China's foreign ministry had still not reacted, though it issued a stern warning on another front that is heating up in the ongoing tensions between Washington and Beijing: targeting journalists.

"If the US continues with its political discrimination and suppression against Chinese media and journalists, then China will have to make necessary and legitimate reactions," tweeted the official account of the ministry's spokesperson Friday.

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