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Protesters flee from clouds of tear gas on Queensway Road in Admiralty in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Photo: Nora Tam

‘It depends on what the Chinese do’: US ‘unlikely to move’ on Hong Kong barring dramatic escalation over extradition bill

  • Washington might consider sanctions if Chinese forces move into city and use violence against protesters
  • US response could also be influenced by status of trade talks with Beijing

The Trump administration is unlikely to move to revise a 1992 act that gives Hong Kong special trade and business privileges unless there is a dramatic escalation by China in response to street protests there, a senior US official said.

“It’s going to depend on what the Chinese do,” the official said, adding that the United States might consider sanctions if there was a “precipitating event”, such as Hong Kong police being told to stand down and mainland Chinese forces moving in and using violence against protesters.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity on Thursday, said any US response could also be influenced by the status of trade talks with China that have dominated the US agenda with Beijing for months.

China appeared concerned about the possibility of the Hong Kong situation getting out of hand, the official said, adding that Washington believed Beijing was not interested in seeing it escalate and was looking for a way out without appearing to back down.

Senators want Washington to review Hong Kong’s autonomy annually

Opposition to a proposed Hong Kong law to allow extraditions to China on Sunday triggered the former British colony’s biggest political demonstration since its return to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” deal.

Tens of thousands demonstrated in the following days. On Wednesday, protesters surrounded the legislature and swarmed onto a major motorway, before being forced back by riot police firing volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.

The “one country, two systems” agreement guarantees Hong Kong’s special autonomy, including freedom of assembly, free press and independent judiciary, and the 1992 US Hong Kong Policy Act that preceded it affords Hong Kong trade and business privileges not granted to Beijing.

The US State Department said on Monday it was gravely concerned about proposed amendments to Hong Kong laws and warned that such a move could jeopardise the special status Washington affords the territory.

In Washington on Thursday, senior lawmakers from both parties introduced legislation to require an annual justification from the US government for the continuation of the special treatment.

Cracks appeared on Friday in the support base for the proposed extradition law and one of the key advisers to Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, Executive Council member Bernard Chan, told Cable TV he did not think formal discussion of the bill, a precursor to a final vote by the legislature, should continue at present.

Michael Tien, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature and a deputy to China’s national parliament, urged the city government to put the bill on hold. And 22 former government officials or Legislative Council members signed a statement calling on Lam to “yield to public opinion and withdraw the Bill for more thorough deliberation”.

How protesters besieged Hong Kong's legislature

On Friday, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned Robert Forden, the US deputy chief of mission in Beijing, due to recent US comments and actions on Hong Kong and the extradition law and urged Washington to stop interfering in the city’s affairs immediately, China’s Foreign Ministry said.

It said Le urged Washington to take no actions that harm Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, the ministry said in a statement.

“We urge the US side to treat the Hong Kong government objectively and fairly and respect its normal legislative process,” the statement cited Le as saying. “China will watch the US side’s actions and further respond,” he added, without elaborating.