US and Hong Kong flags are seen inside the hangar of the US carrier Ronald Reagan, when its strike group visited Hong Kong in 2018. Photo: Handout

While it is not known which Chinese and Hong Kong officials will face United States sanctions over the newly passed security laws in the former British territory, some media have speculated on who will be targeted and rumors have circulated.

Last Friday the US Senate passed the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which will see individuals sanctioned, to augment Washington’s Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

While vague on specifics, the latest US move threatens sanctions including visa restrictions on those deemed to be undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” agreement.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week the new visa restrictions would apply to “current and former” officials of China’s ruling Communist Party “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.”

However, there has yet to be a clear-cut definition of such acts as well as a list of people in Hong Kong and mainland China who will be targeted. But that has not stopped the speculation and rumors.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, owned by media mogul Jimmy Lai, who is believed to be among the first to be targeted by the security law, has cited sources in Washington as saying that only a few of the Communist Party hierarchy would be on the list.

The paper claimed the list was “already prepared, but not made public,” and that President Xi Jinping would not be included.

It claimed that Deputy Premier Han Zheng, the most senior Chinese official directly in charge of Hong Kong affairs and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, would be leading the list.

The paper said Han will also find his direct subordinate Xia Baolong on the list. He is the newly-installed director of the Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, who is also a deputy chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Xia is one of Xi’s most trusted lieutenants and a former party chief of Zhejiang province, Xi’s political base.

Also rumored to be on the list is Luo Huining, Beijing’s top envoy in Hong Kong who runs the liaison office in the former British territory.

Hong Kong’s first post-handover leader, Tung Chee-hwa, now a staunch proponent of strong policies from Beijing to tame the unruly city, may also be targeted. Tung’s wife, sons, daughters and sons-in-law are all US citizens.

Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng (right) and Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Han, also a member of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, is the most senior Chinese official directly in charge of Hong Kong affairs.
Hong Kong’s first post-handover leader Tung Chee-hwa and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photos: Handout

Radio France Internationale also noted on its Chinese-language website the existence of the list. Bloomberg reported over the weekend that the number of people on the preliminary list will be “in a single digit.”

But some observers say that although it is an open secret that numerous mainland Chinese cadres park their proceeds and capital in popular offshore havens like the US and many of their family members have US nationality, the efficacy of these sanctions and entry and visa restrictions are questionable.

People can offload their holdings in the US and park their assets elsewhere in the West, since many of these people may also hold passports from other countries.

Whether top cadres including Deputy Premier Han have assets in the US or relatives living there is also unknown.

In a sarcastic reply, China’s Global Times has called the act “another bluster” and the entry restrictions “laughable” as few Chinese will consider going to the US amid the simmering animosity and the rapidly expanding Covid-19 pandemic engulfing the country.

“We should let the US know that Chinese people do not fancy visiting the country too much … US politicians should think about how to make America well again before minding others’ business, thank you very much,” wrote Hu Xijin, chief editor of the nationalistic tabloid.

Protesters wave US flags as they march to the US consulate in Hong Kong on September 8, 2019. Photo: AFP/Vivek Prakash

But some have raised the prospect of the United Kingdom following suit and banning or restricting entry by Chinese and Hong Kong officials and their family members.

Almost all current and former Hong Kong officials and their families are British nationals. The city’s leader Carrie Lam renounced her UK citizenship before assuming senior roles in the city’s government, but her husband and two sons are British nationals.

“If London moves in lockstep with Washington to sanction Hong Kong officials or ban their entry, quite a lot of them and their families will be affected. Yet just like the potential legal ambiguities and even lawsuits that the US sanctions may entail, London will face similar challenges if it bans entry by the family members of these Chinese and Hong Kong officials who are already UK citizens,” said Hong Kong-based current affairs commentator Lee Yee.

While party cadres in China are wondering if they need to devise a contingency plan if they are on the list, Beijing has been swift in hitting back. On Monday the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced countervailing measures against the latest US act on Hong Kong, including similar visa and entry restrictions against those who “acted egregiously” on Hong Kong-related issues.

But just like the US act that was coy about specific targets, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian did not come up with a list of US officials and lawmakers who would be barred from entering China.