The U.S. has imposed sanctions on four more officials accused of undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy, showing the Trump administration is ready to keep hitting out at China even after Joe Biden won last week’s presidential election.
The announcement on Monday sanctioned three officials in Hong Kong who are key to implementing a national security law imposed earlier this year that has been used to help snuff out pro-democracy protests: Li Jiangzhou, deputy director of the Office for Safeguarding National Security, which was established under the new legislation; Edwina Lau, head of the National Security Division of the Hong Kong Police Force; and Steve Li Kwai-Wah, the senior superintendent.
The administration also designated Deng Zhonghua, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing—one of China’s key agencies overseeing the financial hub. All of them are barred from traveling to the U.S. and will have any American assets blocked.
“These actions underscore U.S. resolve to hold accountable key figures that are actively eviscerating the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy,” the State Department said in a statement.
China’s Foreign Ministry denounced the sanctions on Tuesday. It has previously responded with retaliatory measures against U.S. senators and human rights activists, although has so far avoided senior White House officials.
“We urge the U.S. to immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs, immediately withdraw so-called sanctions, and not go further down the wrong path” spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters at a briefing in Beijing.
The new names add to a list of 10 officials—including Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Xia Baolong, the head of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office—already sanctioned this year. The Trump administration faces a mid-December deadline to name and sanction any banks that have business dealings with officials on the list, a move that could roil U.S.-China relations even further before Biden takes office in January.
The Trump administration could take more action against China related to Hong Kong and abuses against Muslim minorities in the far west region of Xinjiang, according to Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has advised both the U.S. State and Defense Departments.
“I anticipate more actions will be taken against China in the presidential transition,” she said. “The Trump team has a ‘to do’ list that is aimed at making the changes in U.S.-China relations irreversible.”
On the campaign trail, Biden has stepped up criticism of China over human rights issues including its crackdown in Hong Kong. Yet he’s avoided given specifics on what he’d do differently from President Donald Trump on issues ranging from Huawei Technologies Co. to data security to sanctions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
The Trump administration has taken other tough measures against Hong Kong, including an executive order to end preferential trading treatment for the city. It also suspended its extradition treaty with the territory and ended reciprocal tax treatment on shipping.
Beijing has been muted on Biden since the election, with Wang declining to answer a question on Tuesday on whether it saw him as the winner.
The worsening situation in Hong Kong, seen by the crackdown on opposition lawmakers and the arrest of a journalist who investigated police violence, has opened the door for the U.S. to take harsher measures, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s government and international studies department who’s written numerous books on Chinese politics.
”I don’t think the Trump administration is going to refrain from making any moves,” he said. “It would be very embarrassing for Biden—an incoming president-elect—to criticize such a move, particularly on human rights.”