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Blinken sanctions 24 Chinese officials for undermining Hong Kong's autonomy

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) speaks with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (R) at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on Tuesday. Photo by Eugene Hoshiko/EPA-EFE
Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) speaks with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (R) at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on Tuesday. Photo by Eugene Hoshiko/EPA-EFE

March 16 (UPI) -- The State Department on Wednesday released an update to the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, identifying two dozen Chinese officials the United States accuses of reducing the former British colony's autonomy when National People's Congress unilaterally approved legislation last week to overhaul its electoral system.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the State Department has identified 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials for sanctions, including 14 vice chairs of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, whose actions undermined the high degree of autonomy promised to Hong Kong when the city returned to Beijing rule in 1997.

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On March 11, the National People's Congress, China's national legislature, approved a controversial resolution to overhaul Hong Kong's electoral system to ensure only so-called patriots could hold office, a move that swiftly came under condemnation by Western nations and rights groups for barring Hong Kongers the ability to elect their own representatives.

"This action further undermines the high degree of autonomy promised to people in Hong Kong and denies Hong Kongers a voice in their own governance, a move that the United Kingdom has declared to be a breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration," Blinken said in a statement, referring the agreement that returned the city to China.

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Among those named Wednesday include Wang Chen, a member of the Chinese Communist Party's elite 25-person Politburo and the ranking vice-chairperson of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.

Financial institutions that knowingly conduct business with those listed under the act will be hit with sanctions, Blinken said.

The Hong Kong Autonomy Act was signed into law by former President Donald Trump in July to punish China and its officials responsible for imposing a draconian and widely condemned national security law upon Hong Kong with sanctions.

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The act calls for mandatory sanctions to be imposed against persons and entities identified by the State Department who have contributed to China's undermining of its responsibilities to Hong Kong.

Ten people, including Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam, were added to the list in October.

"A stable, prosperous Hong Kong that respects human rights, freedoms and political pluralism serves the interest of Hong Kong, mainland China and the broader international community," Blinken said Wednesday. "The United States stands united with our allies and partners in speaking out for the rights and freedoms of people in Kong Kong, and we will respond when the PRC fails to meet its obligations."

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The move is expected to further fray already fraught relations between Washington and Beijing, with the latter frequently and vehemently rebuking the former when it attempts to hold it accountable for committing human rights abuses.

China has responded to the accusations by saying that the United States is interfering in its internal affairs, and has retaliated, sanctioning 29 former Trump officials after their last day in office on Jan. 20 for pursuing policies that "gravely interfered with China's internal affairs, undermined China's interests, offended the Chinese people and seriously disrupted China-U.S. relations."

The update to the Hong Kong Autonomy Act came after Blinken accused China on Tuesday of using "coercion and aggression" to violate human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet and to undermine Hong Kong's autonomy.

The top U.S. diplomat made the comments in Japan during the Biden administration's first Cabinet-level overseas trip. Blinken said the U.S.-Japanese alliance is critical for common security concerns -- including China's role and actions in the Indo-Pacific region.

"China uses coercion and aggression to systematically erode autonomy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abuse human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, and assert maritime claims in the South China Sea that violate international law," Blinken said in a joint news conference.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi also spoke.

"We're united in the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, where countries follow the rules, cooperate whenever they can, and resolve their differences peacefully," Blinken added. "And in particular, we will push back if necessary when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way."

Austin said the United States is working with Japan to address China's actions in the South and East China Seas.

"I know Japan shares our concerns with China's destabilizing actions, and as I have said before, China is a pacing challenge for the Department of Defense," Austin said. "And we know that competing in today's shifting global dynamics can only be done through the spirit of teamwork and cooperation, which are the hallmarks of our alliance with Japan."

The remarks come a week after Blinken called on Beijing to provide the world access to the Xinjiang region to ensure the country isn't violating the rights of Uighur Muslims. Humans rights officials have called China's actions against the ethnic group a genocide.

"I think it would be very important, if China claims that there is nothing going on, that it gives access to the international community, to the United Nations," Blinken told members of the House foreign affairs committee on Wednesday. "If they have nothing to hide, show it to us, show the world."

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Blinken also said it was important that the United States and other nations be sure to be vocal about the human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region and ensure that they are not importing goods made by forced labor or exporting goods to China that can be used "for the repression of their people and minorities."

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