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As China tightens its grip on Hong Kong, how will the U.S. respond?

In Hong Kong, demonstrations have intensified as the threats from China mount. Beijing said recently it would make behavior that it deems anti-Chinese illegal, in a move that is prompting the Trump administration to consider rescinding certain trade and travel privileges for the territory. But how far will the U.S. go? Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss what’s next for Hong Kong.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We turn now to a different protest, this time in Asia, where the calls for freedom and justice are just as fierce.

    In Hong Kong, demonstrators have grown increasingly violent, as the threats from China mount.

    Last week, Beijing said that it would make anti-Chinese behavior illegal, a move that is prompting the Trump administration to take action.

    How far will the U.S. go, and what does it all mean?

    Our Nick Schifrin is here to explain.

    So, Nick, hello.

    First of all, tell us about this declaration or statement the administration has made today and the significance of it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, make no mistake. This statement in this moment in U.S.-China relations and for Hong Kong really could determine the fate of the city as a global financial hub.

    Now, as you know, for 30 years, the U.S. has treated Hong Kong with special status. You and I can go without a visa. Goods can travel without any kind of tariffs. And the U.S. and Hong Kong can make trade deals independent of Beijing.

    And that's pushed 1,300 American companies to open up shop in Hong Kong. Now, that special status was legislated by the U.S. Congress before the 1997 handover from the United Kingdom to Beijing. And for those freedoms to continue, the law required that the president certify that Hong Kong was sufficiently independent of Beijing.

    And that is what we have seen the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, saying today in this statement: "I certified to Congress today that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under U.S. laws in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before 1997. No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground."

    Now, what are those facts on the ground? As you mentioned in the introduction, pro-democracy advocates say that Beijing has systematically eroded all of the freedoms that they have enjoyed in Hong Kong, and they launched the city's largest protests we have ever seen beginning last year.

    But in those protests, Beijing saw something very different. Beijing saw a — quote — "weak link" in Chinese national security and a way for — quote — "foreign forces" — translation, the United States — to threaten Beijing.

    And so that's why we have seen this new national security legislation expected to be passed out of Beijing in the next couple hours. What it does is — quote — "ban acts of secession, subverting state power and organizing and carrying out terrorist activities" and bans interference in Hong Kong's eternal — internal affairs by external forces.

    That is obviously very vague language that pro-democracy forces say could be used to further erode their freedoms. And that's why we saw another protest today out in the streets, thousands of Hong Kong residents protesting for their rights. More than 300 were arrested, but they say they're going to continue that protest.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, given all this, what are the Trump administration's options from this point on?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes.

    So, the declaration today doesn't trigger anything automatic. So, senior administration officials say there is a robust debate inside the administration on how far to go.

    And those who are advocating for an aggressive response say this, that there needs to be sanctions of senior government officials, Communist Party officials, known as the CCP, and their families, and also to end Hong Kong's special economic and travel treatment.

    That would include imposing tariffs, visa restrictions, and could leave U.S. businesses to leave the city. And the argument there is that sanctions could impact the people right around Xi Jinping and put pressure on him. And, also, ending special status would also hurt Beijing, because Beijing benefits from all of the international capital that goes through Hong Kong.

    So, take a listen to Dan Blumenthal of the American Enterprise Institute.

  • Daniel Blumenthal:

    You have to put a lot of pressure on Xi Jinping and his closest coterie, also because there's an internal backlash against him inside the CCP because of his various mishaps, not least of which is COVID-19 reaction and approach.

    And so you have to create enough of a backlash that, inside China, it pressures him to reverse course, and I think that's doable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that, critics say, is ineffective and self-defeating.

    They say that tariffs and sanctions don't work, would hurt those U.S. businesses in Hong Kong, and any visa restrictions would actually hurt the pro-democracy advocates who are advocating for Beijing to allow Hong Kong to maintain its freedoms, Judy.

    And so senior State Department officials are hinting in a conference call just about an hour ago that their response, an executive order by the president, will be targeted, will try to support those democracy advocates, but also, at the same time, punish senior Chinese government officials.

    But the decision, Judy, is on the president's desk right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, finally, just quickly, Nick, today, meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the House passing legislation that has to do with the treatment of the Uyghur minority.

    How significant is that in the midst of all this?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, this is the most significant attempt to punish China for a widespread program that has detained more than a million Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China.

    It's now on the president's desk. It calls for the president, again, to sanction senior officials in the Communist Party, as well as the companies that created the camps that are holding these Muslim leaders and the companies that created the surveillance state inside Xinjiang.

    Now, these are authorities the president already had, but they do put public pressure on him to punish Beijing for this, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, Nick Schifrin following it all for us.

    We thank you, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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