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Trump Administration Signals Policy Changes Over Hong Kong Autonomy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We have been reporting this morning that China has passed a new national law giving it the power to suppress political dissent in Hong Kong. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he has told Congress that Hong Kong no longer maintains a high degree of autonomy from China. To understand what that means and the implications it has for Hong Kong and U.S.-China relations, we've got NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen with us. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So first off, help us understand the significance of Pompeo's remarks to Congress.

KELEMEN: So under U.S. law, Hong Kong is treated differently than the rest of China. But that's only as long as it has a certain degree of autonomy from China's central government. And what Pompeo did yesterday is that he certified to Congress that Hong Kong does not warrant that kind of treatment under U.S. law anymore given the facts on the ground. He pointed to that national security legislation that you mentioned. He called it a disastrous decision to impose that on Hong Kong, and he said China's taken other steps that are undermining the promises China made to Hong Kong back in 1997. That's when the former British colony became part of China in what was known as one China, two systems.

MARTIN: OK. So Pompeo saying there, listen, the facts on the ground are this and Hong Kong is no longer enjoying that special status. What would be the implications of this from an American perspective?

KELEMEN: Well, the Trump administration could end this special trade and economic relationship that it has with Hong Kong over this or it could impose more targeted sanctions. The assistant secretary of state for Asia, David Stilwell, said he didn't want to get ahead of the president but that there's a very long list of things that the president could do in response. But the trouble, Rachel, is that the U.S. wants to find ways to help and not hurt the people of Hong Kong. There are also, you know, U.S. business interests there. There are hundreds of U.S. companies that have their Asia headquarters in Hong Kong. And there's more than $40 billion in trade. So when we talked to Stilwell about this yesterday, he said, look, businesses are watching this closely. And U.S. officials are promising to do this in a smart way that keeps the pressure on China, not on the people of Hong Kong. The goal is to get China to change its behavior.

MARTIN: Right. But the rub is now that Hong Kong is essentially part of mainland China, any sanctions or economic pressure on mainland China affects the people of Hong Kong. And that's what the dilemma is. The U.S. is going to need a partner in all this, though, right? I mean, are there other allies? Are other countries willing to take this on?

KELEMEN: Well, there's a lot of concern around the world, not just about Hong Kong but, of course, about the coronavirus and the fact that China seems to be using this time of a global pandemic to flex its muscles in the region. But whether countries go along with the U.S. approach to this is a different story. You know, some U.S. officials present this as a kind of a new Cold War, an ideological battle against the Chinese Communist Party. And, you know, some countries are kind of uncomfortable with that. I will say, yesterday, the Trump administration tried but failed to get a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on this matter. China blocked it. And China's ambassador took to Twitter to complain about it, saying the national security legislation for Hong Kong is purely China's internal affairs. He accused the U.S. of being the troublemaker in the world, and he urged the U.S. to stop what he called its power politics and bullying practices. So this kind of U.S.-China battle is really heating up around the world.

MARTIN: Although this is, we have to point out, a rare example of bipartisanship in the U.S., right?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill put out statements supporting the secretary's designation, his certification yesterday, saying that he really had no choice given what China's doing. They're the ones who passed the legislation last year on a bipartisan basis requiring the secretary to make that certification on Hong Kong's autonomy.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, thank you.

KELEMEN: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.