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Hong Kong May Lose U.S. Preferential Trade Status If No Longer Autonomous From China

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hong Kong no longer, quote, "maintains a high degree of autonomy from China." That is what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he certified to Congress today. That statement, diplomatic and official, comes as Beijing prepares to impose a national security law on Hong Kong. Critics fear it will erode many of the freedoms enjoyed in the former British colony. Well, to understand what this means, we are joined by NPR's John Ruwitch.

Hey, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

KELLY: Decode the diplo-speak for us. When Pompeo says Hong Kong no longer has a high degree of autonomy, what does that mean?

RUWITCH: Yeah. As you will recall, in 1997, Hong Kong was handed back to China from Britain under a governance model called one country, two systems. And it was promised a high degree of autonomy at the time for at least 50 years, right? As that handover approached, though, the U.S. passed a law that basically said that while Hong Kong is going to be part of China, the U.S. would treat it differently, including when it comes to issues like politics and trade. What it also did was it made Hong Kong's special status contingent on China living up to its commitment to allow Hong Kong that autonomy that was promised. And so today, Pompeo certified officially that as far as he's concerned, that is no longer the case.

KELLY: Which would have all kinds of implications for trade and other things. But do we know why Pompeo is doing this now? Is this all tied up with the new national security law I mentioned that China is imposing on Hong Kong?

RUWITCH: Yeah, it is. Beijing signaled last week that it's going to impose this law on Hong Kong, and it's bypassing Hong Kong's own legislature to do so. This law, we know, is going to criminalize separatism, subversion, terrorism, et cetera. And as far as the Beijing and Hong Kong governments are concerned, they say it's necessary. It doesn't undermine one country, two systems. But many people in Hong Kong are unhappy and deeply nervous about it. Pro-democracy politicians and activists who I talked to say it sort of feels like the end of Hong Kong as we know it. And some had actually been appealing to foreign countries like the U.S. to step in and help.

The backdrop, you'll remember, is rising tension in Hong Kong. There were big protests that started about a year ago with people already angry about these perceived encroachments by Beijing on Hong Kong's liberties and on the rights of Hong Kong people. And Pompeo said the national security law was basically the latest in a series of moves by Beijing that strip Hong Kong of its freedoms and autonomy.

KELLY: Right. And practically speaking, what are the consequences of this move by Pompeo? What would it mean for Hong Kong?

RUWITCH: Yeah. It's all signaling actually at this point. We haven't seen the national security law out of Beijing yet, and that could take a few months to be put into effect. But the tensions are rising between the U.S. and China across a bunch of different areas, and we sort of cross a Rubicon with this. If the White House picks up the baton, the president could impose sanctions on Chinese officials, for instance, by blocking their assets in the U.S. or revoking or blocking visas to the U.S. The U.S. could also remove Hong Kong's special customs treatment status, rendering it, effectively, just another Chinese city when it comes to trade. And remember; there's still a trade war going on with China. So Hong Kong could get roped into that. It's potentially huge, and all of it could potentially undermine Hong Kong's status as a finance and trade hub. I mean, at this point, administration officials will only say that, you know, all options are on the table.

KELLY: All right. That is NPR's John Ruwitch reporting there on the latest with Hong Kong and China and the U.S. secretary of state.

Thank you, John.

RUWITCH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.