THE IMPOSITION OF sanctions by the United States on Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, and ten other current and former officials in the city, is likely more symbolic than substantive. It is rare if not unprecedented, however, for the United States to sanction a head of government. To this Bystander, still spinning from the seemingly daily ratcheting up of US-China tensions by Washington, it feels that they mark the crossing of a threshold, with the China hawks in the US administration having been given free rein and no longer holding back.
The sanctions, imposed under the executive order US President Donald Trump signed in July to punish Beijing for imposing a national security law on Hong Kong, will mean that the eleven will have any property in the US seized and their financial assets frozen. Lam, for one, says she has no assets in the US; this Bystander would hazard that the rest do not either at this point, if they ever did.
The others sanctioned include Hong Kong’s police commissioner, Chris Tang, and his predecessor, Stephen Lo, Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng, Security Secretary John Lee, Xia Baolong, head of the Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau affairs office and Luo Huining, director of the Hong Kong liaison office.
The sanctions announcement followed hard on the US president ordering US firms to stop doing business with WeChat, the messaging app owned by Tencent, and with the ByteDance-owned video-sharing app, TikTok. The twin executive orders are stayed until September 20, five days after the deadline that the White House has given to Microsoft to conclude an agreement to acquire TikTok’s operations in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
Decoupling TikTok is in the vanguard of the United States’ ‘Clean Network’ initiative to drive Chinese owned apps and components out of US businesses and those of US allies. It was conceived to thwart Chinese telecoms companies Huawei Technology and ZTE in 5G markets. Announcing the initiative’s expansion earlier this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the administration’s most hostile China hard-liners, said:
The Clean Network program is the Trump Administration’s comprehensive approach to guarding our citizens’ privacy and our companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party.
On another front, the Trump administration also announced recommendations that would lead to the long-threatened delisting of Chinese companies from US stock exchanges unless Beijing allows US regulators adequate access to their audited accounts.
Meanwhile, the imminent arrival in Taipei of US health secretary Alex Azar, the highest-level US cabinet official to visit since Washington cut ties with Taipei more than 40 years ago, may prove the most incendiary of Washington’s recent provocations.
That may finally test Beijing’s patience. So far, its public response has been firm but measured, as it has been to each successive provocation from Washington. Wolf diplomacy has been held back. Yang Jiechi, the Politburo member who is the Party’s leading foreign policy strategist, gave an olive-branch speech on US-China relations on Friday, following on speeches and interviews given by Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the same vein. Large-scale purchases of US agricultural produce have also been made to keep the US-China Phase One Trade Agreement alive, with the first round of high-level progress-monitoring talks still possible.
One interpretation of the intensifying of the US administration’s actions is that the president believes continuing to pile pressure on China will be a winning tactic in the run-up to the November election in which he is trailing Democratic candidate Joe Biden in the polls. Another is that the China hawks in the White House, fearful that Trump will not be re-elected in November, are putting in place a web of containment measures that will carry over into the new administration, embedding a de facto ‘cold war’.
Strong anti-China policies would resonate with voters in the United States, where unfavourable views of China have climbed rapidly among both parties over the past year, according to the latest survey by the Pew Research Center published at the end of last month. Eighty-three per cent of Republicans and 68% of Democrats said they had an unfavourable view of China, record highs for both groups. However, only one-third of Democrats say that it is more important to get tougher with China than to build a stronger relationship with it, against two-thirds of Republicans. At 38%, Republicans are also twice as likely as Democrats to describe China as ‘an enemy’.
Beijing’s strategy of taking it on the chin until November in the hope of a change of administration in the US makes sense in that light, as do US intelligence reports that Chinese disinformation campaigns are being deployed in the Biden cause. If it could ever be done, it would make for a fascinating case study to see how they negated Russian disinformation the intelligence reports say is being used to promote a Trump re-election.