The announcement—reported by Reuters, which lowered Asian stock markets—targeted the vice-chairpersons of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), China's highest legislative body.
The move has been understood as an effort by outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump to strengthen his tough-on-China approach and box President-elect Joe Biden into hardline positions on Beijing in this moment of bipartisan anti-China sentiment in Congress.
Hong Kong Protesters Ask Trump for US Intervention
In August, the Trump administration placed sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the financial hub’s current and former police chiefs, and other top officials for what it said was their role in limiting freedoms in a "crackdown" on the Chinese territory’s pro-democracy movement.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “Beijing’s unrelenting assault against Hong Kong’s democratic processes has gutted its legislative council, rendering the body a rubber stamp devoid of meaningful opposition."
Last month, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government expelled four opposition members from its legislature after China’s parliament gave city authorities novel powers to control dissent. The decision catalyzed resignations by "pro-democracy" opposition lawmakers in the former British colony.
U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said last month that the expulsion showed the “One Country, Two Systems” formula, under which Hong Kong’s autonomy was to be safeguarded after the United Kingdom handed the territory back to China in 1997, was a “merely a fig leaf," promising further U.S. action.
Pompeo claims the NPCSC has “neutered” the Hong Kong people's ability to choose their elected representatives, asserting, “these actions demonstrate once again Beijing’s complete disregard for its international commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an UN-registered treaty.”
Western countries were alarmed by Beijing's move, with The Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the U.S.–stating last month that the move seemed to form part of a campaign to silence critics, calling on China to reverse course.
The sanctions will deny 14 individuals and their immediate family members the ability to travel to the U.S., and any assets the officials might have within the U.S. will be blocked, meaning U.S. individuals and companies will be banned from dealing with them.