Move would offer ‘tangible demonstration’ of Biden administration’s interest in making officials uphold their legal obligations, they say.
US lawmakers on an influential China policy advisory committee have urged President Joe Biden to enact sanctions against prosecutors in Hong Kong, alleging that the city’s judiciary has become an agent of political persecution.
In a letter dated Wednesday, the legislators called on the Biden administration to sanction Hong Kong’s Department of Justice and prosecutors involved in political cases for “materially contributing to the failure” of China to meet its treaty obligations and for the “arbitrary detention of individuals for exercising universally recognised human rights”.
“Such sanctions will be a tangible demonstration of the administration’s interest in the [People’s Republic of China] and Hong Kong authorities upholding their international legal obligations as well as international interest in the release of political prisoners,” the bipartisan group of 12 senators and representatives wrote.
The lawmakers included Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, and Representative James McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC).
Established in 2000 to advise the administration on issues around human rights and the rule of law in China, CECC members are responsible for a number of high-profile bills challenging Beijing over its rights record in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, Tibet, and Hong Kong.
In their letter, the lawmakers pointed to sanctioning power provided to the administration in recent years by the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which direct the US government to punish individuals deemed responsible for human rights abuses and the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Beijing committed to preserving Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy until at least 2047. But in recent years, the Chinese government has characterised the treaty as a historical document with no “realistic meaning”.
Authorities in Hong Kong have arrested more than 10,000 people on “political and protest-related offences” since protests erupted across the city in 2019 over a proposed extradition bill, according to the CECC’s tally.
Those protests swelled to wider calls for pro-democratic reforms in Hong Kong, but were effectively extinguished in 2020 after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city, criminalising acts under the categories of secession, terrorism, subversion, and collusion with foreign powers.
The US lawmakers said its passage had undermined Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy”, pointing to provisions allowing for extradition to the Chinese mainland in certain cases and stricter bail conditions in national security cases, among other things.
“Regrettably, the freedom of speech is no longer possible without substantial risk,” the lawmakers wrote, accusing prosecutors of having become “complicit in undermining the city’s once robust rule of law”.
China routinely denies accusations that its policies have contributed to the curtailment of freedoms in Hong Kong, and has previously sanctioned staff on the CECC in response to US government actions regarding the city.
Liu Pengyu, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, said the lawmakers’ letter “openly defies Hong Kong’s national security law, grossly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs, and seriously violates international law and basic norms governing international relations”.
Hong Kong’s economic and trade office in Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter.
Biden has upheld a national emergency declaration first implemented by his predecessor, Donald Trump, stating that actions taken by Beijing “to fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy” constitute a threat to US interests, including its economy and national security.