In Hong Kong, Anxiety and Defiance Over Trump’s Move to Cut Ties

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HONG KONG — Hong Kong officials reacted with a mix of anxiety, resignation and defiance to President Trump’s announcement that the United States would end its special relationship with the city, reflecting the semiautonomous territory’s deep political divide over its relationship with mainland China.

Mr. Trump’s move, which could imperil the city’s status as an global financial hub, took aim at Beijing’s new national security rules over Hong Kong, as well as fast-deteriorating relations between the United States and China. And the responses it garnered split along familiar lines.

While Chinese officials have been quiet so far on the move, pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong on Saturday echoed their recent criticism of the United States for intervening in what they called China’s internal affairs. They said the city would withstand the blow, in part by leaning on its stronger ties with the mainland.

Some pro-democracy supporters welcomed the announcement, saying it would punish China for national security rules that threaten to strip away some of Hong Kong’s autonomy. The mainland, and its companies, have benefited in some important ways from the city’s status.

“This looks like a new Cold War, and Hong Kong is being made a new Berlin,” said Claudia Mo, a lawmaker in the city’s pro-democracy camp. “We are caught right in the middle of it.”

Hong Kong’s status as a financial capital has long hinged on its differences from the mainland, namely its guarantee of civil liberties and rule of law. Many global companies use Hong Kong as their gateway to Asian markets.

But the turbulent political protests of last year, followed by the coronavirus pandemic, have hobbled the city’s once-bustling economy, and any move by the United States could exacerbate the damage.

Details of Mr. Trump’s plan remain scant, but the president said on Friday that the United States would subject Hong Kong to many of the same restrictions as mainland China, especially on trade and law enforcement.

Officials in Hong Kong and China would also be sanctioned over the decision to impose national security laws. World leaders in the West and elsewhere have decried that move as a violation of the high degree of autonomy that China promised to the city in 1997, when Britain returned the former colony to its rule.

Hong Kong’s government, which is backed by Beijing, played down the threat.

In a statement on Saturday evening, an unnamed spokesperson said the government was “not unduly worried,” as it would rely on the “unique advantages brought about by the continuous opening up of the mainland economy.”

Sanctions were not justified, the statement said, and “will lead to a breakdown of the mutually beneficial Hong Kong-U.S. relationship built up over the years and only hurt local and U.S. businesses in Hong Kong and the people working for them.”

Earlier Saturday, Teresa Cheng, the secretary for justice, told reporters that it was “completely false and wrong” to claim that the city was no longer distinct from China.

Intervening in China’s right to impose security laws on its own territory amounted to “coercion,” she told reporters on Saturday, echoing an argument made by top Chinese officials in recent days.

Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing member of the Hong Kong legislature, suggested that the United States was bluffing and would not drastically curtail the city’s economic standing. While revoking Hong Kong’s special status could dent the territory’s reputation, the United States also has significant commercial interests in Hong Kong, she noted.

“There are 85,000 American citizens in Hong Kong who have been living here happily,” she said in an interview. “I don’t think the U.S. would easily punish Hong Kong to rock the boat.”

The reaction among Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians, who have been demoralized by China’s security push, was more mixed.

Dennis Kwok, a pro-democracy lawmaker, said Mr. Trump’s decision would significantly damage the local economy. But he said it was the “natural consequence” of Beijing’s tightening grip on the city.

Given the Chinese authorities’ refusal to heed international warnings, Mr. Kwok said, “there’s nothing the world can do but to call them out.”

Alvin Yeung, another opposition lawmaker, said he hoped Mr. Trump’s decision would push the Chinese and Hong Kong governments to reconsider the national security laws.

“Hong Kong and Beijing still have a chance to undo the harm,” Mr. Yeung said. “The ball is now in Beijing and Hong Kong’s court. It’s entirely up to them.”

Some protesters, especially younger or more aggressive ones, cheered the United States’s declaration, embracing it as a fulfillment of a protest philosophy, “If we burn, you burn with us” — meaning that if Hong Kong is brought down, China will be, too.

China has long relied on Hong Kong as a crucial financial gateway. Chinese companies, including state-owned enterprises, take advantage of the city’s looser financial regulations to raise capital. Chinese individuals, including many relatives of top Communist Party officials, do business and own property in the city.

But the territory’s importance to China has waned in recent decades as mainland cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen built up their own financial infrastructure. In 2018, four Chinese cities each handled more container traffic than Hong Kong, according to the World Shipping Council.

Ms. Mo said she did not believe that Beijing would relent, adding that Mr. Trump’s move could actually harden Chinese leaders’ resolve.

“Beijing must have considered such consequences and decided it could take them,” she said. She said the party would retaliate, and that it was “just a matter of how and when.”

But the Trump administration had been signaling such a move for days. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said this week that China was prepared to take “all necessary countermeasures” against countries taking actions over the Hong Kong issue.

Mr. Trump’s move will almost certainly bolster Beijing’s narrative that foreign powers are interfering in Hong Kong — a key argument behind its push for national security laws.

“This hegemonic act of attempting to interfere in Hong Kong affairs and grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs will not frighten the Chinese people and is doomed to fail,” read an editorial published Saturday by People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper. The editorial did not mention Mr. Trump by name.

Global Times, a state-run Chinese newspaper, said in an unsigned editorial that Mr. Trump’s moves would only strengthen China’s position and further unite its people against the United States.

“Washington is making a bigger gamble, but America’s economy is not as fat as it once was, and it still coughs from the coronavirus,” the editorial read. “Their extreme tactics amount to nothing more than the slow suicide of a superpower.”

Under its special relationship with the United States, Hong Kong gets preferential treatment on trade, with few tariffs. So Beijing’s options for direct, tit-for-tat retaliation could be limited unless it is willing to hurt Hong Kong as well. Americans enjoy visa-free travel, but if Beijing took aim on that front, it could further damage Hong Kong’s position as a global financial center.

“I think that the most probable thing is that China is ready to live under U.S. sanctions,” said Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based international relations scholar who studies the U.S.-China relationship.

Vivian Wang reported from Hong Kong and Amy Qin from Taipei, Taiwan. Elaine Yu contributed reporting from Hong Kong.

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