U.S. blows on China are landing harder. The Treasury Department on Friday slapped sanctions on Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, and other officials accused of undermining the territory’s autonomy. It follows moves targeting Chinese apps WeChat and TikTok. It’s getting more difficult for Beijing to tolerate the punches.
Until now, the administration of President Donald Trump had yet to match its rhetoric with action on the new security law imposed by China on Hong Kong. It had restricted visas for officials, with retaliatory moves by Beijing, and rolled back the region’s special trade status. The highest Chinese official to face sanctions was the head of the communist party in Xinjiang province amid accusations of human rights abuses of Uighur Muslims.
Targeting Lam takes it up a few levels. The U.S. government has essentially frozen any U.S. assets she may have, along with those of Hong Kong’s police commissioner, the territory’s secretary for security and others. U.S. individuals and entities are also generally now prohibited from doing business with them.
The White House has stepped up attacks on Chinese companies, too. On Thursday, it said it will block “transactions” with payments-to-messaging app WeChat and other subsidiaries of Tencent. It gave the same deadline to video app TikTok, owned by ByteDance, though it may be saved if parts of it are sold to Microsoft. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined a plan to purge America’s internet of Chinese telecoms, apps and cloud services, dubbed the “Clean Network.”
Beijing has condemned the restrictions but has yet to retaliate in kind. But the Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive tactics make that harder to avoid. The two countries are scheduled next week to review the so-called Phase One trade deal. That pact, limited as it was, could be in jeopardy. Beijing could also put U.S. companies with significant business in China, like Apple, on its own black list.
It’s hard not to attribute some of the escalation to Trump majoring on anti-Chinese rhetoric as part of his re-election pitch – and from a distant second place based on the latest, though still early, poll numbers. Whatever the motivations, it looks like the gloves are coming off.