NEW YORK – The United States announced sanctions on Friday against Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam as Washington continued to ratchet up pressure on China.
Proclamation of the measures targeting Lam and 10 other senior Hong Kong officials came hours after President Donald Trump issued a pair of executive orders banning transactions with the companies behind the popular mobile apps TikTok and WeChat.
The orders affecting TikTok parent company ByteDance and WeChat’s owner, Tencent Holdings, are set to take effect in 45 days.
That delay is apparently meant to allow time for Microsoft to complete the purchase of TikTok from ByteDance, assuming the parties can agree on a deal.
“The United States must take aggressive action against the owners of TikTok to protect our national security,” Trump said.
In announcing the sanctions against Lam and her colleagues, the Treasury Department said that they “implemented policies directly aimed at curbing freedom of expression and assembly, and democratic processes, and are subsequently responsible for the degradation of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
The accusations are based on the 11 named individuals’ role in enforcing a new Chinese national security law on Hong Kong that creates a mechanism to crack down on secessionism and opposition to the Beijing government.
Lam, according to the Treasury Department, is “directly responsible for implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes.”
Though Hong Kong has never been a democracy, Beijing agreed to maintain the modest degree of representative government instituted by the British colonial authorities in the late 1980s as they prepared for the handover of sovereignty to China in 1997.
But China’s Communist government became impatient with the “one country, two systems” arrangement during months of sometimes-violent anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong.
In the executive orders blocking transactions with the owners of TikTok and WeChat, Trump reiterated claims that the apps share user data with the Chinese government.
“This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information – potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage,” he said.
While TikTok, a video-sharing app, has some 100 million users in the US, the main market for the WeChat messaging service is mainland China.
But Chinese people traveling or residing outside the country in locations such as the US, Taiwan, Australia and South Korea also rely on WeChat.
“Like TikTok, WeChat automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users,” Trump said in his executive order.
Denying any connection with the government in Beijing, ByteDance insists that data from American users is stored exclusively on servers located in the US.
The Trump administration has given Microsoft 45 days to negotiate a deal for the acquisition of TikTok. Failing a shift to US ownership, the app will be banned under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.
“There is no security justification for banning an app merely because it is owned by a Chinese company. Allegations of security risks should be backed by hard evidence, not unsubstantiated innuendo,” the Washington-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation said on Friday.
“American tech companies stand to lose significant global market share if other countries follow a similar standard and block US tech companies from their markets because of concerns about US government surveillance,” the foundation said in a statement.
The moves against Hong Kong officials and the two apps are in line with the increasingly strident anti-China rhetoric coming from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has called on the international community to join Washington in putting pressure on the Chinese Communist Party to change course.
Pompeo has made several major speeches on China policy since the US ordered the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston for allegedly engaging in industrial espionage and Beijing retaliated by shutting down an American consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
On Thursday, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper had a 90-minute telephone call with Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe to communicate Washington’s concerns about “destabilizing activity” by China’s forces near Taiwan and in the South China Sea, according to a Pentagon spokesperson.
Esper urged China to “honor its international obligations,” the spokesperson said.
Even as Taiwan – officially viewed by Beijing as a “rebel province” of China – complains about the Chinese military maneuvers, the US plans to have Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visit the island.
Azar would be the highest-ranking US official to set foot in Taiwan since 1979, when Washington affirmed that the Beijing administration was “the sole legal Government of China.”
Last year, the US drew China’s ire by approving a $2 billion sale of military equipment to Taiwan.