BEIJING — Ignoring threats from Washington, China stripped another layer of autonomy from Hong Kong on Thursday, plowing ahead with a plan that would ban any form of dissent deemed subversive in the territory reclaimed from Britain more than two decades ago.
But even as the plan was approved by China’s top legislative body, and Chinese officials taunted the United States as an imperious meddler, Premier Li Keqiang struck a conciliatory tone. While offering no concessions to US demands, he called for close trade relations between the two countries.
The clash over Hong Kong and other issues points to the quandary facing China as it grows in power and contends with an increasingly aggressive Trump administration. The Chinese leadership does not want to incinerate the relationship with the US, given the enormous economic benefits. Nor is it willing to back down, reflecting divisions in Beijing between hawks and more moderating forces.
“Anything the US says or does or will do, China will refuse,” Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said in a telephone interview.
With both countries blaming each other for the coronavirus pandemic, trade disputes and now the crisis roiling Hong Kong, the result has been a downward spiral of actions and responses that may not let up before President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign ends in November.
The back-and-forth between Washington and Beijing intensified in the past two days.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Wednesday that Washington would no longer consider Hong Kong to have significant autonomy, clearing the way for Trump to end the special trade and economic relations the territory now enjoys. Less than 24 hours later, the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, did precisely what Pompeo had railed against: authorizing new security laws in Hong Kong.
After the US won an initial victory in a Canadian court Wednesday in its long effort to bring criminal charges against a senior executive of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, China swiftly vowed to retaliate against both Canada and the US. China already had blocked some Canadian exports and detained two Canadian citizens for more than 500 days.
Trump administration officials argue that they have brought China to the table on trade by imposing tariffs. But they have failed so far to achieve their goal of fundamentally shifting China’s behavior — on trade or any other issue.
From Beijing’s perspective, the punitive measures have simply revealed the core of US hostility toward China.
“When China was rising as an economic power, the United States tolerated it,” Shen Dingli, an expert on relations with the US at Fudan University in Shanghai, said in a telephone interview. “Now that China is strong, it cannot tolerate it anymore.”
When the Trump administration announced new restrictions to block companies around the world from using American-made machinery and software to help Huawei, Beijing promised to target American technology companies operating in China.
When the administration capped the number of Chinese journalists in the US, China kicked out most of the American correspondents from three major news organizations in the US, including The New York Times.
Both Trump and President Xi Jinping of China feel compelled to appear strong. The US president views blaming China for the coronavirus crisis in the US as a path to reelection. The Chinese leader faces enormous economic and diplomatic challenges that could stir domestic opposition to his grip on power.
What the American moves have not done is chasten Xi’s government, which appears to feel simultaneously embattled and defiant.
Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, all but dared the Trump administration to carry out its threat to end Hong Kong’s favored trade status. He noted that there were 85,000 Americans there and scores of companies that would reap “the bitter fruits” of the US decision.
“Washington is too narcissistic,” he wrote in Chinese on Weibo on Thursday. “American politicians like Pompeo arrogantly think that the fate of Hong Kong is in their hands.”
The National People’s Congress on Thursday dutifully adopted the government’s proposals to impose new laws on Hong Kong to suppress subversion, secession, terrorism and other acts that might threaten China’s national security — as authorities in Beijing define it. The vote was nearly unanimous, with only one delegate voting against and six abstaining.
Lau Siu-kai, a former senior Hong Kong government official who advises Beijing, said that US pressure had failed to prompt a reconsideration in the Hong Kong issue in part because China’s leadership has anticipated US opposition on many fronts.
“Beijing will stick with its new policy toward Hong Kong regardless of US reactions and is prepared to take countermeasures in a tit-for-tat manner,” he said.