Beijing announced Monday that it will restrict its visas to U.S. citizens interfering in Hong Kong, a retaliatory measure after Washington last week announced a similar initiative against Chinese officials it holds responsible for undermining the freedoms regime in the autonomous enclave. . The initiative comes when the leadership of the National People’s Congress (ANP, the Chinese parliament) holds until this Tuesday an extraordinary session to examine the criticized National Security law that will be imposed on the former British colony. It is taken for granted that the legislation will be enacted during the meeting, and will take effect immediately.
The imminent law has already been the subject of friction between the two governments. The United States has joined critical voices that they believe will effectively end Hong Kong’s freedoms regime since its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 and which, as negotiated between Beijing and London, should be maintained until 2047. Washington believes that its entry into force will mean that the territory will no longer have a high degree of autonomy, which will remove the special status that does not apply to Hong Kong the trade restrictions that it does impose on the rest of China.
Beijing, for its part, accuses Washington of meddling in the internal affairs of the autonomous territory and considers that that government has fomented protests against China that paralyzed the international financial center for seven months last year. Precisely, the legislation that the ANP leadership is examining seeks, among other things, to prevent the protests from recurring and punishes foreign interference in Hong Kong.
Announcing the visa restrictions, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the United States’ attempts to prevent the new law “will not be successful.” “In light of the wrongdoings of the United States, China has decided to impose visa restrictions on US officials who behave offensively on issues related to Hong Kong.” The spokesperson did not identify what or how many US officials would be affected by the measure.
Last Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had announced restrictions against Chinese officials, active or already retired, “considered responsible, or complicit” in undermining the Hong Kong freedoms regime. A day earlier, the US Senate had unanimously approved a bill on the autonomy of Hong Kong that expands the capacity of the Hong Kong government to sanction those who violate the enclave’s freedoms regime.
As a punishment measure, visa restrictions, at least for now, will be especially symbolic, due to the limitations on international travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic and which do not appear to disappear in the next few months, at least in a significative way.
The controversial National Security law for Hong Kong, to which the ANP plenary session already gave its approval last month, punishes, in addition to foreign interference, “independence, terrorist and subversive” behavior. It also allows, for the first time, mainland China’s security services to operate openly in the enclave.
The measure has been processed as quickly as opacity. A draft has not been released, so its details are still unknown: what kind of behavior will fall into the prohibited categories, or what penalties will be incurred. A summary published last week by the state news agency Xinhua indicated that, among other things, the autonomous government, Carrie Lam, will be in charge of appointing judges in certain cases that affect national security. This is something that has raised concerns among critics of the measure and legal experts, who fear that the rule of law enshrined in the Hong Kong judicial system will be undermined.