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Trump takes steps meant to punish Beijing over Hong Kong

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WASHINGTON — President Trump launched initiatives meant to punish China for tightening control over Hong Kong and for misdeeds from espionage to its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in moves likely to compound a tense rivalry with Beijing.

The actions Mr. Trump announced Friday include withdrawing from the World Health Organization, suspending entry to the U.S. by Chinese nationals deemed security risks to American scientific research and scrutinizing Chinese companies listed on U.S. markets.

He also said the U.S. would start rolling back special preferences for Hong Kong, and he threatened to place sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials “directly or indirectly involved in eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy” after China moved ahead with plans to impose potentially draconian national-security laws on the city.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington, asked for comment, referred to recent government statements calling for a global response to the pandemic and urging the U.S. to do its part to better manage problems in relations between the two countries.

The president’s pressure on China comes as his own administration has faced criticism for its handling of the pandemic, which originated in China and has now claimed more than 100,000 American lives, and after Mr. Trump earlier had voiced support for Beijing’s steps to mitigate it. It also signals a get-tough approach to China that his campaign has suggested would be a central issue as the president seeks re-election in five months.

The U.S. withdrawal of preferential policies toward Hong Kong, which cover everything from trade to travel and extradition, would be a blow to the city’s standing as an international financial center. U.S. recognition has bolstered international confidence in the city, which hosts major global financial institutions but has also seen nearly a year of protests against Beijing’s attempts to exert greater control over residents.

Mr. Trump criticized the WHO, the United Nations’ chief global health institution, as being under China’s sway and failing to respond adequately to the coronavirus pandemic. Mr. Trump said the U.S. would redirect the funds it currently sends the WHO to other “deserving, urgent global public-health needs” because the agency failed to make reforms the U.S. had requested. The WHO didn’t comment.

U.S. withdrawal from the WHO could give China more influence over the group, foreign policy experts have said.

Some of the announcements set in motion processes that could take weeks or longer to turn into policies and that could be suspended at Mr. Trump’s direction.

Overall, the latest moves add to a lengthening list of disputes between the U.S. and China, from the pandemic response to trade, security and now Hong Kong, leaving the two powers in an open rivalry for global influence.

“This is a significant turning point in U.S.-Hong Kong, U.S.-China relations,” said Michael Wessel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a bipartisan panel that makes recommendations to Congress. “The president has identified a series of serious responses to China’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s liberties and freedom, and in the coming days we’ll see whether all of it is implemented or not.”

Speaking in the White House Rose Garden on Friday, Mr. Trump cited a sweeping “pattern of misconduct” by China on trade, intellectual property, its handling of the pandemic and its decision to impose national-security laws on Hong Kong. The president, who was surrounded by his top economic and national-security advisers, declined to elaborate on his announcements and didn’t take questions from reporters.

“China claims it is protecting national security, but the truth is that Hong Kong was secure and prosperous as a free society. Beijing’s decision reverses all of that,” Mr. Trump said.

“The world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government,” Mr. Trump said, referring to the coronavirus that first emerged in December in Wuhan, China. He repeated accusations that Chinese authorities withheld timely and complete warnings of the pathogen’s potential to spread.

Relations with China have emerged as a central topic in the U.S. presidential campaign. Mr. Trump has accused former Vice President Joe Biden, the putative Democratic candidate, of having been too soft on China, while the Biden campaign has said Mr. Trump’s decision early in the year to trust Chinese President Xi Jinping to prevent the pandemic’s spread would hurt him with voters.

Before Mr. Trump’s announcement, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing reiterated Friday that the U.S. shouldn’t interfere in China’s domestic affairs, including Hong Kong. The spokesman, Zhao Lijian, noted that U.S. interests in Hong Kong include over 85,000 citizens and 1,300 business enterprises. Mr. Zhao said Beijing would “fight back” against any efforts to damage China’s interests.

While relations with China have been deteriorating for many months, Beijing’s plans to tighten control over Hong Kong created a new inflection point. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this week notified Congress that Hong Kong was no longer sufficiently autonomous from Beijing — a determination that opened the way for a range of fresh actions.

Mr. Trump said he would direct administration officials to begin the process of eliminating policy exemptions that have treated Hong Kong separately from mainland China since Beijing took control of the city from Britain in 1997, under promises to maintain its capitalist ways and Western legal system.

The actions would affect, with few exceptions, the “full range of agreements” the U.S. has with Hong Kong, including an extradition treaty and the more lax controls on dual-use technology exports to the city, he said.

Mr. Trump also said he would revoke Hong Kong’s preferential treatment as a separate customs and travel territory from China. He said the State Department’s travel advisory to Hong Kong would be revised “to reflect the increased danger of surveillance and punishment by the Chinese state security apparatus.” That change effectively puts Hong Kong on par with the rest of mainland China.

Sanctions against Chinese officials and agencies would mark the first U.S. use of such tools over Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong.

Following Mr. Pompeo’s determination on Hong Kong, the State Department issued a report that suggested likely targets for sanctions. It identified the Legislative Affairs Commission of China’s legislature, Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong and the Chinese central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, plus the heads of those two offices.

Mr. Trump couched his decision on the WHO in terms of rivalry with Beijing. “China has total control over the World Health Organization,” the president said, despite China contributing less funding to the organization than the U.S.

The WHO has denied that it was too deferential to China in the early stages of the pandemic. UN officials have warned that cutting off funding to the group during a pandemic could complicate the response to the crisis.

In April, the president suspended contributions to the WHO while his administration reviewed the agency’s coronavirus response.

In a letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Mr. Trump said the “only way forward” for the WHO would be for it to “demonstrate independence from China.” Mr. Trump said the group had 30 days to make “major substantive improvements” or he would cut funding and reconsider U.S. membership.

Friday’s announcement came 11 days after he sent the letter.

Following Mr. Trump’s announcements, the White House said the administration would bar Chinese graduate students and researchers applying for new visas if they work or used to work with a Chinese entity that supports the country’s “military-civil fusion” strategy, a national policy that binds Chinese civilian entities with the People’s Liberation Army in a common goal of bolstering China’s defense.

The order also instructs the State Department to consider whether to revoke existing visas of Chinese nationals who have worked in service of that policy.

About 360,000 Chinese students are studying or working in the U.S., roughly a third of the total international student population. Of these, many are enrolled in graduate programs or working as researchers in the science and engineering fields.

Senior administration officials have been discussing revoking Chinese student visas for months and have accused China of targeting academia, including by sending military researchers to American labs and using talent-recruitment programs to bring top scientists and entrepreneurs, as well as their intellectual property, to China.

Beijing has denied any systematic effort to steal U.S. scientific research, and Chinese state media have called U.S. allegations of intellectual-property theft a political tool.

 

November 2020 pssnewsletter

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