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The United States on Friday announced sanctions against Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and other senior officials for their role in curbing the city’s promised freedoms, and in implementing a draconian national security regime.

Announcing the sanctions, the State Department said that the Chinese Communist Party had made clear that Hong Kong would never again enjoy the high degree of autonomy promised under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, and that the city will no longer be regarded as a separate jurisdiction from mainland China by the U.S.

“The United States will therefore … take action against individuals who have crushed the Hong Kong people’s freedoms,” it said in a statement on its official website.

Under an Executive Order already signed by President Donald Trump, the U.S. Treasury will freeze the U.S. assets of Lam, her chief of police Chris Tang, and secretary for security John Lee, as well as those of constitutional affairs secretary Erick Tsang and newly appointed head of national security Eric Chan.

Former police chief Stephen Lo and justice secretary Teresa Cheng are also named as targets under the sanction order.

Ruling Chinese Communist Party officials Zhang Xiaoming and Xia Baolong will also be sanctioned for being part of a body, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) under China’s State Council, that “threaten[s] the peace, security, stability or autonomy” of Hong Kong, the State Department said.

Luo Huining and Zheng Yanxiong, who as national security adviser and head of the national security office respectively, have ultimate responsibility for implementing a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by decree from July 1, are also named.

“This law, purportedly enacted to ‘safeguard’ the security of Hong Kong, is in fact a tool of CCP repression,” the State Department statement said.

The U.S. Treasury said in a separate statement that the national security law had allowed China’s feared state security police to operate with impunity in Hong Kong, undermining the rule of law.

“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy,” Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin said in a statement.

“As a result of today’s action, all property and interests in property of the individuals named above … that are in the United States or in the possession or control of U.S. persons, are blocked,” the Treasury said, adding that U.S. citizens and residents are barred from any business transactions with those named.

It said Lam was “directly responsible for implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes.”

Reuters quoted a source familiar with the matter as saying that Lam’s recent postponement of elections to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) for one year, citing coronavirus concerns, had intensified U.S. deliberations on sanctions.

Police charge 24 over vigil

The announcement came as Hong Kong police pressed charges against 24 activists, including 2014 student leader Joshua Wong, for taking part in a banned candlelight vigil in the city’s Victoria Park to commemorate the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre, a fixture in Hong Kong’s political calendar since 1990.

“Months after the Tiananmen Square vigil this year, I was just informed by Hong Kong Police that they will charge me with ‘knowingly taking part in an unauthorized assembly’,” Wong said via Twitter.

“Clearly, the regime plans to stage another crackdown on the city’s activists by all [possible] means,” Wong said, adding that his first court appearance in the latest public order charge against him had been set for Sept. 15.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu, former student leader Lester Shum, and leaders of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organizes the annual vigil, were also among those charged.

Tens of thousands of people defied the ban to attend the vigil on June 4, 2020, holding a peaceful and socially distanced event to commemorate those who died at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989.

Journalists fear targeting

Meanwhile, foreign journalists in the city hit out at recent delays to work visa renewal applications, suggesting that they are being targeted as part of a tit-for-tat media sanctions war between Beijing and Washington.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) called on the Hong Kong government to clarify the impact of the new national security law on journalists working in the city, and said it has asked the government to guarantee, among other things, that journalists will be free to continue their work without intimidation or obstruction.

“So far, Hong Kong authorities have not provided such clarity or guarantees,” it said in a statement on Friday.

“This downward spiral of retaliatory actions aimed at journalists helps no one, not least of all the public that needs accurate, professionally produced information now more than ever,” the FCC said.

China’s Hong Kong-based foreign ministry commissioner said that retaliatory sanctions were being made in response to “political suppression of the Chinese media,” in a reference to Washington’s designation of state media entities as foreign diplomatic missions, and its slashing of their staff numbers.

“Any freedom shall be exercised within legal boundaries,” it said. “We are firmly against external interference in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs as a whole on the pretext of the freedom of the press.”

The American Consulate in Hong Kong hit out at a report in China’s state-run Global Times newspaper suggesting that anyone who meets with its staff could be seen as “colluding with foreign powers” under the remit of the national security law.

“These meetings are neither secretive nor mysterious,” the consulate said. The Global Times’ allegations “underscore the fact that the new law is not about security, but to silence democracy advocates and threaten people engaging in free speech,” it said in a statement.

Reported by RFA’s Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.