US slaps sanctions on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam over free speech crackdown

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<span>Photograph: Lam Yik/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Lam Yik/Reuters

The US government has imposed sanctions on Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, and 10 other senior Chinese and Hong Kong officials, in response to the crackdown on free speech and political freedoms in the city, the US treasury department said.

Related: Hong Kong activists charged over traditional Tiananmen vigil

The measures are among the most high-profile taken by the US administration in a broad campaign to challenge China at home and internationally, as tensions between the world’s two largest economies escalate sharply.

In addition to Lam, the sanctioned Hong Kong officials include the current and former head of the city’s police force – criticised by protesters for its brutal tactics – and the cabinet secretaries for justice, Teresa Cheng, and security, John Lee Ka-chiu.

From the mainland, targets include Luo Huining, who heads the Hong Kong liaison office and is the most senior Chinese figure in the city, and Zheng Yenxiong, a hardliner appointed to the newly created position of security chief.

“The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong and we will use our tools and authorities to target those undermining their autonomy,” said the secretary of the treasury, Steven Mnuchin.

It is relatively unusual for Washington to directly a sanction the leader of a country or region and the move puts Lam in company with Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The sanctions have been brought in under an executive order that Donald Trump signed last month, in response to China’s introduction of a sweeping new security law in Hong Kong.

Related: China uses Hong Kong security law against US and UK-based activists

Beijing said the law was needed to restore stability and would not threaten Hong Kong’s freedom of expression. But it has already been used to crush dissent, cited in the barring of moderate pro-democratic candidates from elections, the arrest of teens for social media posts, and the suppression of popular protest slogans.

It has been widely condemned by western governments, and has led many to reconfigure their relationship with Hong Kong, including ending extradition agreements. The US has ended special economic status for the city, which is likely to batter an economy already badly damaged by Covid-19.

“This law, purportedly enacted to ‘safeguard’ the security of Hong Kong, is in fact a tool of Chinese Communist Party repression,” said the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, after the sanctions were announced.

He is one of a group of China hawks in the Trump administration, along with the trade adviser, Peter Navarro, and deputy national security adviser, Matthew Pottinger, who recently appear to have gained the upper hand in the White House.

The coronavirus pandemic, the suppression of dissent in Hong Kong and increasing information about the mass internment of Uighurs and other minorities in western Xinjiang have all been cited as reasons for the shift in Washington’s stance.

These latest sanctions come the day after Trump announced that he would ban transactions with the Chinese companies that own popular apps TikTok and WeChat.

Last month the administration also imposed sanctions on a senior Chinese communist party official, Chinese companies and a paramilitary government organisation it alleged were complicit in forced labour and other abuses in the western Xinjiang region.

US and Chinese officials are due to meet in mid-August to discuss how to revive a partial trade deal agreed in January, amid US allegations that Beijing is not keeping its promises on buying US agricultural products and energy.

But hopes of success are limited. Trump has said his support for the deal has been undermined by China’s role in the coronavirus outbreak, and his re-election campaign has so far leaned heavily on anti-Chinese rhetoric.

There was no immediate response to the sanctions from Hong Kong or Beijing. Lam has previously said she is not worried about sanctions. “I have no assets in the US, and I don’t particularly like going to the US. If they won’t grant me a visa, then I will just not go there,” she said in a TV interview last month.

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