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'No Reasonable Person Can Assert' Hong Kong Has Autonomy From China, Pompeo Says

Bystanders watch from footbridges Wednesday as riot police stand guard below outside a building in Hong Kong.
Anthony Wallace
AFP via Getty Images
Bystanders watch from footbridges Wednesday as riot police stand guard below outside a building in Hong Kong.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he has reported to Congress that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China, a move that may have major implications for the trade relationship between the U.S. and the former British colony.

"After careful study of developments over the reporting period, I certified to Congress today that Hong Kong does not continue to warrant treatment under United States laws in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997," Pompeo said in a statement released Wednesday. "No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China, given facts on the ground."

The secretary announced his decision at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and China. President Trump has blamed Chinese authorities for failing to prevent the coronavirus from becoming a global pandemic, noting that his administration is "not going to take it lightly." And earlier this month the Senate trained its legislative fire on China, with a unanimously passed bill that could force some foreign companies off U.S. stock exchanges.

The State Department also has pushed back hard against China's recent plans for an aggressive new security law that would criminalize behavior in Hong Kong seen as critical of Beijing. In a statement shortly after news of the proposed legislation surfaced, Pompeo called it "a death knell for the high degree of autonomy."

For more than two decades, the semiautonomous region has been governed under a principle Beijing calls "one country, two systems," which allows Hong Kong certain freedoms from the communist economic and legal systems practiced on mainland China. Partly for that reason, the U.S. treats Hong Kong as separate from the rest of China as long as the city remains sufficiently autonomous.

But the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong's residents has grown increasingly fraught in recent years, with the city periodically erupting into massive demonstration against what protesters and the U.S. call Beijing's attempts to encroach on its freedoms. The region again saw clashes between protesters and riot police last weekend.

One of Hong Kong's most prominent activists, Joshua Wong, urged leaders abroad to reconsider whether its "special trade status can still be held since, once the law is implemented, Hong Kong will be assimilated into China's authoritarian regime, on both rule of law and human rights protections."

Now, that status appears in jeopardy with the Trump administration's reappraisal.

"Hong Kong and its dynamic, enterprising and free people have flourished for decades as a bastion of liberty, and this decision gives me no pleasure," Pompeo said Wednesday.

"But sound policymaking requires a recognition of reality. While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China, it is now clear that China is modeling Hong Kong after itself."

NPR's Michele Kelemen contributed to this report.

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.