European leaders condemned China’s “deplorable decision” to press ahead with its new security laws in Hong Kong, warning that it will speed up the reassessment of China as a trustworthy economic partner.
The European Union council president, Charles Michel, said “we deplore the decision” and the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the bloc was now discussing with international partners on any possible measures in response.
The legislation, passed by lawmakers in Beijing on Tuesday, is aimed at stamping out anti-government protests in Hong Kong. It will criminalise secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, facing the greatest test of British diplomatic clout since the Salisbury poisoning in March 2018, described the imposition of the new law as a grave step, and said he would be making a further statement once details of the bill had been released.
He has promised to provide visas, and paths to citizenship, to millions of Hong Kong British National Overseas passport holders. The UK can try to punish China collectively through sanctions, or through selective sanctions against named individuals, but few expect that they will persuade China to step back.
Donald Trump, already on a pre-election collision course with China, has previously said the US will remove Hong Kong’s favoured trading status. The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said on Monday the US would bar defence exports to Hong Kong and would soon require licenses for the sale of items to Hong Kong that had both civilian and military uses.
China has responded by saying it would impose a visa ban on US citizens seeking to interfere with Hong Kong’s security laws.
Pompeo believes he is also making headway in persuading the EU to take a more sceptical approach to Chinese investment, but the EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, on Monday said the EU had to retain the right to view China through its own lenses.
An EU-China Summit set for September has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said it needed to be quickly rescheduled and it was essential that the EU spoke with one voice on China.
By leaving the EU, the UK has less ability to shape the bloc’s sanctions response, but the UK will welcome the signs of Europe-US convergence.
The authority of the US to condemn human rights abuses in Hong Kong has been diminished by revelations last week in the book by the former US national security adviser John Bolton that Trump repeatedly refused to condemn China, believing its cooperation was critical to his re-election chances.
Norbert Röttgen, a senior German CDU member, condemned “the complete lack of transparency” in the new Hong Kong law – which has not been published in full – and said 1 July marked the day “one country, two systems” no longer exists.
Lord Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, said: “This decision, which rides roughshod over Hong Kong’s elected legislature, marks the end of ‘one country, two systems’. It is a flagrant breach of the Sino-British joint declaration – a treaty lodged at the United Nations – and Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the Basic Law.
“It will throttle the city’s rule of law, presenting a major confrontation between what passes for law in China and the common law system in Hong Kong, which has allowed the city to function as one of most important financial hubs in Asia. The separation of powers is in danger of being shattered and the courts politicised by the provision that the chief executive will herself choose the judges for national security cases.”
Benedict Rogers, a co-founder of Hong Kong Watch, called for the appointment of a UN special envoy/rapporteur on Hong Kong, the passing of targeted sanctions against the perpetrators of human rights abuses, the formation of an international contact group to monitor the situation on the ground, and the coordination of an international life-boat policy “to help Hongkongers in need of a lifeline”.
Japan’s ambassador to the EU, Kazuo Kodama, told Euractiv news: “There was an important deal reached between the UK and China […] We understood that Hong Kong’s way of life would be maintained, liberalism and independence of judiciary would be maintained, as well as freedom of speech and press, as these values are protected in the US, Europe and Japan.”
A number of countries are experiencing strained relations with China. Australia, in a deepening security and trade dispute with China, has announced plans for a $A1.35bn (£755m) boost to its cyber security budget, including the recruitment of 500 cyber spies.
India, traditionally a non-aligned country but already at odds with China over deadly clashes on the eastern Ladakh border, on Monday announced it was banning more than 50 Chinese apps, including Bytedance’s TikTok and Tencent’s WeChat. China says it was concerned by the move and seeking details.
France is seeking stronger relations with India, and more recently Russia, to try to build an alliance of countries opposed to China. Other countries would prefer any anti-Chinese alliance to comprise democracies spreading from Europe, the US and Asia, but without Putin.
The test for China will come if it finds that by locking itself into so many disputes with the bulk of its major trade partners, moves such as clamping down on protest in Hong Kong end up backfiring by damaging the Chinese economy, and pushing previously neutral countries into the American orbit.