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US bars arms exports to Hong Kong as it revokes special status

The US will bar the export of American weapons and sensitive technology to Hong Kong, as it revokes the territory’s special trade status in response to China’s imposition of national security legislation on the Asian financial hub.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said the Trump administration could “no longer distinguish between the export of controlled items to Hong Kong or to mainland China” following China’s decision to introduce the controversial legislation, which could come into force this week.

“We cannot risk these items falling into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, whose primary purpose is to uphold the dictatorship of the [Chinese Communist party] by any means necessary.”

Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, said his department was suspending regulations “affording preferential treatment to Hong Kong over China” in relation to export licence exceptions.

The move comes one month after Donald Trump warned Hong Kong that he would revoke the special trade status the territory has been afforded since it was returned from Britain to China in 1997. The US has argued that the move by Beijing to impose the law, circumventing the Hong Kong legislature, meant that Hong Kong was no longer autonomous.

Since handover, Hong Kong has been governed under a “one country, two systems” framework that is slated to expire in 2047. In recent years, however, Beijing has imposed a heavier hand on the territory in an effort to clamp down on pro-democracy protests that have swept the city.

The move was largely symbolic, given that the US shipped just $1.4m worth of defence goods to Hong Kong last year, according to the state department. The vast majority of the material was firearms for police and prison officers.

Although the volume of US exports to Hong Kong is small, one Trump administration official said the latest move will prevent Hong Kong from procuring equipment such as cameras, processors and microprocessors. He said restrictions on cameras, and other kinds of equipment that can be used for surveillance, were important given China’s repression of Muslim Uighurs in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.

“We are going to continue to highlight what China is doing to its own people . . . out in Xinjiang,” the official said.

The administration’s decision to follow through on the earlier threat risks heightened tensions with China as the countries clash over trade and coronavirus against a backdrop of rising military competition.

Washington last week issued visa restrictions on unidentified current and former Chinese officials whom it said had a significant role in “undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy”, a punitive measure that extended to visas issued to their family members. The state department did not say how many Chinese officials or family members were affected. 

Mr Pompeo said that since China “now treats Hong Kong as ‘one country, one system’”, the US must do the same. He said the administration would take additional measures “to reflect the reality on the ground in Hong Kong”.

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