Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has condemned China's effort to take over national security legislation in Hong Kong, calling it "a death knell for the high degree of autonomy" that Beijing had promised the territory.
Pompeo called for Beijing to reconsider the move and warned of an unspecified US response if it proceeds. Meanwhile, White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said China risked a major flight of capital from Hong Kong that would end the territory's status as the financial hub of Asia. Shortly afterward, the Commerce Department announced new restrictions on sensitive exports to China.
The contentious measure, submitted Friday on the opening day of China's national legislative session, is strongly opposed by pro-democracy MPs in semi-autonomous Hong Kong.
Pompeo called the proposal an effort to "unilaterally and arbitrarily impose national security legislation on Hong Kong."
"Hong Kong has flourished as a bastion of liberty. The United States strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal, abide by its international obligations, and respect Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy, democratic institutions, and civil liberties, which are key to preserving its special status under US law," Pompeo said in a statement.
He said the decision to ignore the will of the people of Hong Kong would be a "death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong" under a decades-old agreement known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
The US has limited leverage with China over Hong Kong but it could end preferred economic privileges that Hong Kong currently enjoys if the Trump administration determines that the declaration, which was supposed to give the territory 50 years of special status after it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, has been violated.
The proposed bill is aimed at forbidding secessionist and subversive activity, as well as foreign interference and terrorism. It comes after months of pro-democracy demonstrations last year that at times descended into violence between police and protesters.
Speaking in an interview with the Fox Business Network on Friday, Hassett suggested the damage that would come from China's proposal would be mostly self-inflicted.
"They're going to see a lot of economic harm from what they're doing," he said, adding that businesses would not want to invest or keep money "in a place where they're basically sneering at the rule of law."
"And so, I would expect that they're going to have serious capital flight problems," Hassett said. "And Hong Kong, if they follow through this, will no longer be the financial centre of Asia, and they themselves will bear very, very heavy costs."
Australian Associated Press
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