Trump signs Hong Kong sanctions bill, announces executive order in escalation with China

Lauren Egan

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday he signed into law a bipartisan bill that sanctions Chinese officials who undermine the rights to free speech and assembly in Hong Kong, the latest escalation in an increasingly hostile relationship between Washington and Beijing.

"This law gives my administration powerful new tools to hold responsible the individuals and the entities involved in extinguishing Hong Kong’s freedom," Trump said at a press conference in the Rose Garden Tuesday evening.

"We’ve all watched what happened, not a good situation. Their freedom's been taken away, their rights have been taken away, and with it goes Hong Kong and, my opinion, because it will no longer be able to compete with free markets," Trump continued, predicting that "a lot of people will be leaving Hong Kong, I suspect."

Trump also said that he had signed an executive order that ended the special trade treatment with Hong Kong, a practice put in place in 1992 to ensure that Hong Kong could continue normal economic activity and remain insulated from tariffs placed on mainland China as it transitioned from British colonial control to Chinese sovereignty.

"Hong Kong will now be treated the same as mainland China — no special privileges, no special economic treatment, and no export of sensitive technologies," Trump said.

China passed a sweeping national security law in June that restricts free speech in Hong Kong, undermining the "one country, two systems" policy agreed between Britain and China in 1997 during the handover of the territory, which allowed Hong Kong to adopt a political system separate to the mainland.

China's crackdown came as Hong Kong has been experiencing a yearlong pro-democracy protests, prompting some Western countries to rally behind them and embarrassing Beijing.

The bill Trump said he signed on Tuesday was passed with bipartisan support in Congress and will impose sanctions on people that Washington says are helping to uphold the new Chinese national security law. Banks could also be penalized for doing business with certain Chinese officials who help implement the law.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement that Trump's signing of the legislation was "a reversal from his years of enabling President Xi’s crackdown against Hong Kong," adding that the action "can only begin to reverse the damage" caused by Trump's previous praise of Chinese President Xi Jingping’s handling of coronavirus, "years of selling out the human rights of Uyghurs to ink a trade deal, and reportedly asking President Xi for help to win his re-election."

Trump's announcement Tuesday comes as the White House's relationship with China becomes increasingly strained. Just this week Chinese officials imposed retaliatory sanctions against top U.S. officials for their criticisms of China's human rights abuses against Muslim Uighurs. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the U.S. viewed China's claims to land in the South China Sea as unlawful.

Trump continued to criticize China for their response to the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday.

“Make no mistake we hold China fully responsible for concealing the virus and unleashing it on the world,” he said.

Trump also used much of his hour-long speech Tuesday to attack Joe Biden, painting the former vice president as overly sympathetic to China.

Biden has hit back against Trump's attacks, releasing an ad earlier this year criticizing the president for his response to the coronavirus. “Trump rolled over for the Chinese. He took their word for it," the narrator in the Biden ad says.

Trump's attacks come as he continues to trail Biden in national and key battleground state polls, raising serious warning signs for his re-election chances.

"Biden expressed more fawning praise about China on an ordinary day than about America. On Fourth of July, the last Independence Day, Biden attacked the United States and said we had, quote: 'never lived up to the ideals of our fathers, our forefathers, or our founding fathers,'" Trump said.

"Biden sides with China over America time and time again," Trump continued.