President Donald Trump said Friday that his administration would begin the process of revoking Hong Kong’s special trade status, a day after China approved a national security law that threatens Hong Kong’s autonomy.
“China has replaced its promised formula of one country, two systems, with one country, one system,” Trump announced Friday from the White House Rose Garden. “Therefore, I am directing my administration to begin the process of eliminating policy exemptions that give Hong Kong different and special treatment.”
Trump said this would include the “full range of agreements” the US has with Hong Kong, including the extradition treaty between the US and Hong Kong, and the end of export controls for the territory.
“We will take action to revoke Hong Kong’s preferential treatment as a separate customs and travel territory from the rest of China,” the president added.
Trump’s announcement is the most dramatic action his administration has taken yet against China’s intervention in Hong Kong. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decertified Hong Kong’s autonomy, saying “no reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground.”
Pompeo cited Beijing’s new national security law, which, if broadly interpreted, could severely restrict freedom of speech and dissent in Hong Kong. Western governments and pro-democracy advocates have decried this as a direct threat to the territory’s semi-autonomous status, which Beijing is bound to preserve until 2047 under a treaty between Britain and China.
The secretary of state’s decision itself did not force action, but Trump’s announcement on Friday suggests his administration is willing to consider a range of options. In addition to reevaluating Hong Kong’s special status — which treats the territory differently than mainland China for trade and customs rules — Trump said the State Department will review its travel advisory for Hong Kong “to reflect the increased danger of surveillance and punishment by the Chinese state security apparatus.”
Trump also said the US would “take steps” to sanction Chinese and Hong Kong officials who were directly or indirectly “involved in eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
This was a forceful declaration from the president who, in the past, has been somewhat reluctant to weigh in on the turmoil in Hong Kong, which is now coming up on a year of pro-democracy protests.
At the same time, the consequences of Trump’s statement are still unclear. Along with its rule of law and relative freedoms, Hong Kong’s preferential treatment from the US helped it become a global financial capital. If the territory loses some of those benefits and exemptions, it could jeopardize Hong Kong’s international standing.
That could backfire, too. If Hong Kong loses its reputation as a financial hub — becoming just another city in China — Beijing may have even less reason to pretend it doesn’t want the territory fully under its control.
Trump also did not give specifics on when, or how, such policy changes might be implemented. (Vox reached out to the White House for more details, and will update if we hear back.)
Trump’s announcement on Hong Kong came as protests are raging across America over the death of George Floyd, yet the president did not acknowledge the unrest at home. Instead, he focused on China, announcing policy plans to “rigorously defend our national interests.”
“These plain facts cannot be overlooked or swept aside, the world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government,” Trump said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic. (Trump also announced Friday that the US would withdraw from the World Health Organization.)
China has gradually been eroding Hong Kong’s freedoms, though this national security law is undeniably a huge escalation in its attempts to bring the territory closer under its control.
Yet Trump’s speech looked to be a larger warning shot against China, which could revive fears that Hong Kong and its pro-democracy movement are now caught in the middle of a great-powers conflict.