US to impose visa restrictions on Hong Kong officials over rights concerns

US says crackdown by Hong Kong officials includes new national security law targeting treason, espionage and other crimes.

Protesters gather in front of the Foreign office in the UK to protest Article 23
People hold up placards at a demonstration outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London to protest against Article 23, on March 23, 2024 [Justin Tallis/AFP]

The United States has said it will impose new visa restrictions on a number of Hong Kong officials responsible for cracking down on “rights and freedoms”, days after a draconian national security law went into force in the Chinese-ruled territory.

The law ­- referred to as Article 23 – gives the government new powers to crack down on all forms of dissent on the grounds of alleged treason, espionage, sedition and external interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday said the legislation could be used to suppress dissent inside Hong Kong and further China’s campaign to intimidate activists abroad.

“In response, the Department of State is announcing that it is taking steps to impose new visa restrictions on multiple Hong Kong officials responsible for the intensifying crackdown on rights and freedoms,” Blinken said.

His statement did not identify the officials who would be targeted.

It came after Washington’s annual review of Hong Kong’s autonomy, a status promised by China when Britain handed over the city in 1997.

“This year, I have again certified that Hong Kong does not warrant treatment under US laws in the same manner as the laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1, 1997,” Blinken said.

The Hong Kong government said sanctions and visa restrictions “smack of despicable political manipulation to intimidate the officials safeguarding national security”.

China’s embassy in Washington said it firmly opposed US threats to “impose unwarranted unilateral sanctions” on Hong Kong.

“The US side disregards facts, makes irresponsible remarks about Hong Kong affairs, and levels groundless accusations” at the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, the embassy posted on its website.

Washington has imposed visa restrictions and other sanctions in the past on Hong Kong officials blamed for undermining freedoms and announced an end to the special economic treatment the territory long enjoyed under US law.

On Friday, the United Nations-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) said its Hong Kong bureau was closing because of safety concerns under Article 23.

Bay Fang, the RFA president, said in a statement that the outlet will no longer have full-time staff in Hong Kong but would retain official registration.

“Actions by Hong Kong authorities, including referring to RFA as a ‘foreign force,’ raise serious questions about our ability to operate in safety with the enactment of Article 23,” Bay said.

Cedric Alviani, the Asia Pacific bureau director for Reporters Without Borders, called the broadcaster’s withdrawal “a consequence of the chilling effect applied on media outlets” by the new security law.

“We urge democracies to build up pressure on Chinese authorities so that press freedom is fully restored in the territory,” Alviani said.

Hong Kong ranked 140 out of 180 countries and territories in Reporters Without Borders’s latest World Press Freedom Index.

Source: News Agencies