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Trump signs Hong Kong sanctions law, revokes special trade privileges

Law requires gradual financial sanctions on banks that do business with Chinese officials who are cracking down on Hong Kong civil liberties

President Donald Trump announced Tuesday he had signed legislation that establishes a regime for gradually sanctioning foreign banks if they continue to indirectly support Chinese officials’ crackdown on Hong Kong.

In a Rose Garden press conference, the president also announced he had signed an executive order that would revoke the special trade privileges the United States has maintained since 1992 toward the former British colony, which helped Hong Kong rise to become one of the biggest financial hubs in the world.

“Today, I also signed an executive order ending U.S. preferential treatment for Hong Kong,” Trump said. “Hong Kong will now be treated the same as mainland China. No special privileges, no special economic treatment, and no export of sensitive technologies.”

Hong Kong is the United States’ 15th-largest export market. Last year, the United States had a $26.1 billion trade goods surplus with Hong Kong

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The legislation signed by Trump requires the sanctioning of Chinese officials deemed to have violated human rights in Hong Kong. The measure further orders gradually stronger and stronger sanctions on foreign banks that opt to continue to do significant business with Chinese officials who have been sanctioned because of their repressive actions toward Hong Kong.

The bill, which was initially developed by Sens. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., unanimously cleared both chambers of Congress at the beginning of the month as U.S. lawmakers were infuriated by the swiftness with which the Chinese Communist Party – ignoring criticism and condemnation from a number of democratic countries – moved to draft and impose its sweeping anti-sedition law on Hong Kong.

The anti-sedition law effectively strips residents of the formerly autonomous territory of many of the free speech rights and civil liberties they have known and that Beijing promised in a treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, to respect when the United Kingdom relinquished control over the city back to China in 1997.

The Toomey-Van Hollen measure gives the president the ability to waive sanctions should it be in the national security interests of the United States to do so. But the law also lays out an expedited process for lawmakers to vote to overturn the use of that waiver if they can muster veto-proof majorities. In his signing statement of the law, Trump said he would treat these potential congressional limitations on his authority as “advisory and non-binding.”

[Congress clears sanctions bill to punish China over Hong Kong]

“The Chinese government’s aggression merits this swift rebuke,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “Now that the president has signed our Hong Kong Autonomy Act into law, he must impose the sanctions included in our bill. That is the only way to ensure that those involved in the crackdown on Hong Kong will feel the full consequences of their actions.”

“These new, mandatory, and punishing sanctions on those who undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy show the communists in Beijing, and the world, that America stands with Hong Kong,” Toomey said in a statement. “The fight is not over until the Chinese government backtracks and honors its commitments under the Basic Law and Joint Declaration.”

Trump began his press conference with criticism of China and its role in spreading the coronavirus.

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

But after spending a few minutes focused on China, Trump spent the rest of the hour-long press conference, in which he took only a few questions from reporters at the very end, criticizing in rambling, disjointed remarks his re-election opponent, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.