China threatens countermeasures after US criticism of Hong Kong law

China has threatened “countermeasures” against the US after Washington criticised Beijing’s plan to impose a national security law on Hong Kong.

The Chinese embassy in Washington on Friday accused the US, Australia, Canada and the UK of “foreign meddling in Hong Kong affairs” after the allies issued a joint statement condemning Beijing’s plan to implement the security law. Critics have warned that the new law would curtail political freedoms in the city.

At a press conference in Beijing, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs, lashed out at the statement. “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong,” he said.

When asked about potential countermeasures, Mr Zhao referred to the US’s large trade surplus with Hong Kong. “The important US financial institutions all have a presence in Hong Kong. The US has important interests in Hong Kong,” he said.

Relations between China and the US are at a historic low, despite the world’s two biggest economies agreeing a “phase one” trade deal in January.

On Wednesday, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, declared that Washington no longer considered Hong Kong autonomous from Beijing.

The decision threatens the city’s special trade status with the US, which exempts the territory from tariffs and other measures Washington applies to mainland China.

President Donald Trump is scheduled to hold a news conference on relations with China on Friday.

Mr Zhao reiterated that any intervention in the city constituted interference in China’s internal affairs.

Analysts said Beijing would have expected such a reaction when it decided to push through the national security law.

“China is prepared for this negative reaction and will not retreat. But I think China will not treat the countries the same way,” said Cheng Xiaohe, deputy director of Renmin University’s Center for China’s International Strategic Studies. “China will focus its main target on the ‘Big Brother’ — the US.”

Mr Cheng added that China would find it difficult to meet its trade deal targets because of the economic toll caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “If Trump has no hope for the phrase one trade deal to complete,” he said, then both sides could allow the relationship to deteriorate “with no worries”.

The National People’s Congress, China’s rubber stamp parliament, approved a plan on Thursday to implement the national security law that would criminalise “separatism, subversion of state power, terrorism or interference by foreign countries or outside influences”.

If enacted, the measures would represent the first time Beijing had introduced a law that inserted criminal penalties into Hong Kong’s legal code and bypassed the city’s legislature.

The US, Australia, Canada and the UK, four members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance, denounced the decision. In a rare joint statement, they warned that the law threatened Hong Kong’s “stability and prosperity”.

The four countries added that it “raises the prospect of prosecution in Hong Kong for political crimes”.

Terms such as “separatist” and “interference by foreign powers” have been widely used by China to describe pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong against Beijing’s influence on the nominally self-ruling territory.

The statement added that the law would undermine the “one country, two systems” framework put in place after the handover of Hong Kong from London to Beijing in 1997. This model granted the territory a high degree of legal and political autonomy.

New Zealand, the fifth member of the Five Eyes alliance, issued a separate but similar statement, saying the proposed law “erodes Hong Kong’s autonomy and the system that made it so prosperous”.

Japan and Taiwan have also expressed serious concerns over Beijing’s move. Taipei said it had set up a department to help Hong Kong people seeking refuge.

Separately, the UK pledged to facilitate a path to citizenship for the more than 300,000 Hong Kong residents who hold British National (Overseas) passports if Beijing did not rescind its plan.

However, Equal Rights for British National Overseas, a campaign group, said the offer was “meaningless” if the path to citizenship did not differ from what was already offered to BNO holders.

China’s embassies in Australia and the UK also condemned the joint statement on Hong Kong.

“Australia has enacted many laws on its own national security, what qualifications do you have to question China’s national security legislation for Hong Kong,” wrote the Chinese embassy in Canberra.

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