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US sanctions 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials over election law

Biden administration's move comes ahead of high-level diplomatic meeting in Alaska

HONG KONG -- Washington has sanctioned 24 officials in China and Hong Kong for their "assault on democracy" by supporting an overhaul to the city's electoral system, on the eve of a high-profile meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top Chinese diplomats in Alaska.

Financial sanctions will be imposed on officials deemed responsible for Beijing's ongoing crackdown on the former British colony, including Wang Chen, a member of the Chinese Communist Party's 25-person Politburo, as well as Tam Yiu-chung, the sole Hong Kong delegate to the National People's Congress Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body.

The NPC passed a resolution last week during its annual parliamentary meeting to empower a separate Beijing-controlled committee to vet candidates for the city's legislature and effectively remove opposition voices. The proportion of democratically elected lawmakers also will be diluted.

In a statement headlined "Assault on Democracy in Hong Kong" and released on Wednesday, Blinken said the new sanctions underscore "our deep concern" with Beijing's latest move to "unilaterally undermine Hong Kong's electoral system."

"This action further undermines the high degree of autonomy promised to people in Hong Kong and denies Hong Kongers a voice in their own governance, a move that the United Kingdom has declared to be a breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration," Blinken said. The 1984 declaration laid out the "one country, two systems" framework for Hong Kong's handover in 1997. 

He added that the U.S. "stands united with our allies and partners in speaking out for the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong, and we will respond when the PRC fails to meet its obligations," using the acronym for the People's Republic of China.

The leading industrial nations of the Group of Seven last week also issued a statement, expressing "grave concerns" at what they said was China's decision to fundamentally erode democratic elements of the electoral system in Hong Kong.

Others on the list include vice chairs of the NPC Standing Committee, officials in the Hong Kong Police Force's National Security Division, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, and the Office for Safeguarding National Security. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and more than a dozen other Chinese and Hong Kong officials were sanctioned last year.

Within 30 to 60 days, the U.S. Treasury Department will identify financial institutions that "knowingly conduct significant transactions" with the newly sanctioned individuals and also subject them to sanctions.

The sanctions announced on Wednesday were introduced under the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, passed by Washington last year in response to a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on the city. The security law provides criminal penalties of up to life imprisonment for acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

The strong action by the U.S. comes as Beijing seeks to mend its relationship with the U.S. under the new administration of President Joe Biden. Blinken and U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan are expected to meet China's top two diplomats, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, in Alaska on Thursday.

On Blinken's diplomatic trip to Tokyo this week, he criticized China for its threats to regional stability, erosion of autonomy in Hong Kong, violations of human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, and undercutting of democracy in Taiwan, warning that the U.S. and Japan would push back when necessary.

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