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United States

Hong Kong government hits back after US report warns Beijing’s ‘encroachment’ on city’s freedoms could erode its status as global business hub and affect import of American technology

  • US-China Economic and Security Review Commission cites joint checkpoint arrangement, anthem law and ban on separatist party as examples
  • Raises observation that city is ‘losing the unique characteristics and legal protections that make it important to US interests’
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2018, 8:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2018, 12:56am

The Hong Kong government has expressed regret over “biased conclusions and unfounded accusations” after a body advising the United States Congress said Beijing’s “encroachment” on the city’s political system could diminish its standing as a global business hub and affect the export of American technology to the city.

In its latest report, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission recommended an assessment of the country’s export control policy on technology “as it relates to US treatment of Hong Kong and China as separate customs areas”.

The report also accused the Chinese government of taking “additional steps toward undermining Hong Kong’s legal autonomy”. It cited as an example the controversial joint checkpoint arrangement allowing mainland Chinese authorities to operate in the Hong Kong terminus of the high-speed cross-border rail.

Under the so-called co-location arrangement, passengers clear both Hong Kong and mainland border checks at the West Kowloon terminus, meaning mainland laws have been enforced on Hong Kong soil for the first time.

Hours after China says respect separatist party ban, US hits back

“Beijing facilitated a controversial rail terminal project that for the first time institutes mainland law in a small portion of the territory. Beijing also passed a National Anthem Law that makes disrespecting China’s national anthem a criminal offence, and compelled Hong Kong to pass similar legislation,” the report stated.

But in a statement released late on Wednesday night, a spokesman for the Hong Kong government said foreign legislatures should not “interfere in any form in the internal affairs” of the Hong Kong special administrative region (HKSAR).

“Since the return to the motherland, the HKSAR has been exercising ‘Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong’ and a high degree of autonomy in strict accordance with the Basic Law. The ‘one country, two systems’ principle has been fully and successfully implemented,” the spokesman said.

“Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong is a separate customs territory and we remain committed to enforcing strategic trade controls. Hong Kong has, and will continue to maintain, close cooperation with the United States on the matter.”

The US is Hong Kong’s second-largest trading partner, behind only mainland China. Last year, the value of US-Hong Kong bilateral trade amounted to HK$544 billion (US$69 billion) – including HK$327 billion in re-exports and HK$214 billion in imports.

The ongoing decline in rule of law and freedom of expression is a troubling trend
US-China Economic and Security Review Commission

In the document, the commission said the Chinese government had encroached on Hong Kong’s rule of law and freedom of expression, and the trend “serves as a cautionary example for Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific region”.

Citing the Hong Kong government’s unprecedented ban of the separatist Hong Kong National Party, the commission said “challenges to freedom of speech and assembly in Hong Kong continue to increase”.

In September, the Hong Kong National Party was officially banned on national security and sovereignty grounds, with Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu saying its willingness to use force meant its pro-independence calls could not be regarded as mere “political rhetoric”.

The commission said: “[The ban raised] concerns that it may lead to the passage of national security legislation that would allow the government to further silence pro-democracy organisations and supporters.”

In a reference to the local government’s refusal to grant Foreign Correspondents’ Club vice-president and journalist Victor Mallet a visa renewal, the report noted that “observers believe the denial was in retaliation for the club’s August 2018 event hosting the head of the Hong Kong National Party”.

The report also recalled how law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, co-founder of the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement, was strongly rebuked by the local government after he suggested in a seminar that Hong Kong could consider becoming an independent state when China became “democratic”.

“Beijing and the Hong Kong government’s harsh criticism and attempted silencing … marked an expanded effort to prevent the open discussion of ideas,” the report said.

British government sounds warning on freedom of speech in Hong Kong

On these accusations, the government’s spokesman insisted that it had “all along been handling Hong Kong affairs strictly in accordance with the ‘one country, two systems’ principle”, under which Beijing governs the city while guaranteeing it a high degree of autonomy.

In a reference to the city’s mini-constitution, the spokesman added: “Any suggestion for ‘Hong Kong’s independence’ is a blatant violation of the Basic Law and a direct affront to the national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China.

“The HKSAR government attaches great importance to freedom of speech … However, the relevant international human rights convention and court cases have clearly pointed out that freedom of speech is not absolute.”

In the conclusion of its section on Hong Kong, the commission noted that some observers argued Hong Kong was “losing the unique characteristics and legal protections that make it important to US interests”.

“The territory also faces growing economic competition from mainland cities … Over the long term these trends could diminish Hong Kong’s standing as a global business centre.

“Considerations regarding the export of sensitive US technology to Hong Kong are also predicated on the territory’s separation from the mainland … The ongoing decline in rule of law and freedom of expression is a troubling trend,” it added.

In a statement, Hong Kong political activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung said it showed US authorities were going to reconsider Hong Kong’s customs status in relation to that of mainland China.

“[The Hong Kong] establishment has only itself to blame. I call upon the Hong Kong government to stop undermining the city’s international reputation, which will hamper our economy too,” Wong added.