China on Tuesday slapped an entry ban on four members of a U.S. federal commission on religious freedom, in retaliation for U.S. sanctions on its officials over rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian named U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) chairwoman Nadine Maenza, vice chairman Nury Turkel and commissioners Anurima Bhargava and James W. Carr, saying they would be barred from entering China, and any assets held in China would be frozen.
The U.S. imposed sanctions on Dec. 10 on Chinese officials linked to human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are subjected to mass incarceration, invasive surveillance and forced labor.
On Dec. 20, the State Department also sanctioned five officials in China’s Hong Kong liaison office, in connection with recent changes to election rules in the city that mean only candidates pre-approved by Beijing may stand.
Central Liaison Office deputy directors Chen Dong, He Jing, Lu Xinning, Tan Tienui and Yin Zonghua were named in its report to Congress, bringing the total number of officials sanctioned over rights abuses and loss of promised freedoms in Hong Kong to 39.
“Foreign financial institutions that knowingly conduct significant transactions with the individuals listed in today’s report are subject to sanctions,” the State Department said in its statement.
It said there were “deep concerns about Beijing’s clear efforts to deprive Hongkongers of a meaningful voice” in elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Dec. 19.
‘No real choice’
Political commentator Joseph Cheng said the elections, carried out under new rules following a postponed general election in September 2020, lacked international credibility.
“In the eyes of the international community, the LegCo elections were run by the Central Liaison Office, and Hong Kong voters weren’t given a real choice,” Cheng said.
He said not all of those sanctioned were directly involved in the running of the elections, however.
“They have now sanctioned five deputy directors, which is tantamount to targeting the overall business of the liaison office,” Cheng said.
Cheng said the sanctions are likely to be obeyed by international financial institutions.
“Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam is among the Hong Kong officials sanctioned [by the U.S.],” he said. “She has previously revealed to the media that she has to take her salary in cash, which suggests that she is unable to make use of financial services in Hong Kong.”
China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) approved new rules in March preventing anyone from standing for election in Hong Kong without the approval of a newly-expanded committee of Beijing loyalists.
The Election Committee that previously voted for the city’s chief executive was expanded, and now also directly appoints some members of the Legislative Council (LegCo).
Nobody is able to stand as a candidate for LegCo or chief executive in the city without its say-so, reducing what were already only partial exercises in democracy to cosmetic displays that resulted in a slate of candidates all loyal to the CCP.
While some of the 90 seats in LegCo will are still returned by direct election in geographical constituencies, there is now scant room for candidates who don’t toe the party line, while 40 seats are now de facto appointments by Beijing.
No candidate who makes comments in any way critical of the Hong Kong government or the CCP was allowed to run, with official media citing a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing from July 1, 2020.
The U.K. has criticized the changes as being in breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, in which China agreed to leave Hong Kong’s electoral system and democracy unchanged until 2047.
China defends changes
China on Tuesday issued a white paper defending the electoral rule changes in Hong Kong, saying that there was scant democracy in Hong Kong under British colonial rule, during which the city went from an appointed body prior to the signing of the Joint Declaration to fully elected status in 1995, against strong opposition from Beijing.
“Anti-China agitators in Hong Kong and the external groups behind them must be held to account for impeding Hong Kong’s progress towards democracy,” the white paper said, adding that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has indeed taken steps to strengthen its control of the city, giving it a “form of democracy suited to its realities.”
Current affairs commentator Johnny Lau said China had also agreed to allow gradual progress towards universal suffrage after 1997, a promise which remains unfulfilled.
“The [colonial government] allowed Hong Kong a small amount of democracy in the 1980s, culminating in 1995 when all of the seats in LegCo were directly elected in 1995,” Lau said.
“Shouldn’t this be in line with the CCP’s commitment to a gradual and orderly progression [towards universal suffrage]?” he said. “So why is [Beijing] going backwards now?”
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.