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Published: 23:16, July 29, 2021 | Updated: 10:50, July 30, 2021
Foreign sanctions: Beijing counters Biden's bullying of Hong Kong
By Grenville Cross
Published:23:16, July 29, 2021 Updated:10:50, July 30, 2021 By Grenville Cross

"Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke”, said Benjamin Disraeli, the British statesman.

Bullying is as old as the hills, and the strongest have always sought to get their way by pushing the weaker around. The deliberate targeting of those who have less power is, moreover, what distinguishes bullying from outright aggression. It can arise in various situations, such as hubris, as where dominance is asserted, or from fear, as where decline beckons, or even from cruelty, as where power is abused for the thrill of it.

According to Psychology Today, bullying is “a distinctive pattern of repeatedly and deliberately harming and humiliating others, specifically those who are smaller, weaker, younger or in any way more vulnerable than the bully”. It is, of course, not confined to the schoolyard, but is regularly deployed in international relations, at least by some. Once, however, bullying and intimidation embed themselves in a nation’s foreign policy, morality is invariably the biggest casualty, followed closely by decency. 

On July 22, the United States slapped sanctions on Cuba, where it has been seeking regime change ever since its proxy, the dictator, General Fulgencio Batista, was overthrown by the Cuban revolution in 1959. These include the targeted freezing of Cuban assets in the US, as well as prohibitions on US citizens or entities doing business with particular Cuban nationals. The US president, Joe Biden, hoping to capitalize on COVID-19-related unrest, declared that this was “just the beginning”, and he was considering “multiple new steps” to force the island’s government to “allow the Cuban people to enjoy their fundamental rights”. 

Those “steps”, hopefully, will not involve a reprise of the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, when the CIA covertly financed and directed a landing on Cuba’s southwest coast. A force of over 1,400 paramilitaries, comprising Cuban exiles and mercenaries, trained by the CIA in Guatemala, planned to restore a US-friendly government. It was, however, defeated in three days by forces under the direct command of the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, and those responsible learned a very bloody lesson. A repeat performance, however, is still feared, and, after the Cuban president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, accused Biden of fomenting social upheaval, tens of thousands of people rallied in Havana, protesting against the US for seeking to justify another military intervention. 

Although China’s anti-foreign-sanctions law is novel, it is a vivid demonstration that the days when the US could bully others with impunity are gone. It can certainly be made more effective over time, but it sends out the message that actions have consequences, including punitive compensation claims in Chinese courts. It will also help to deter bullying, not least because many US companies realize it would be madness to miss out on the opportunities now opening up in China

After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the US resorted to trade embargoes and travel bans, which have caused great hardship to Cuba. Its people, however, are resilient, and have always stood up for themselves, undaunted by even the biggest of bullies. Indeed, faced with the latest assault, Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, called on the US to focus on sorting out its own problems, including repression and police brutality, and who can blame him.

Although there may not be much that tiny Cuba can do by itself to withstand the mighty US, it is absolutely right to refuse to be cowed. At heart, the bully is a coward, and, as many parents will have told their children, he only backs off once he is stood up to. But he is also a realist, and, after the failure of over 50 years of efforts to achieve regime change, the former president, Barack Obama, accepted that it was time to normalize relations in 2017. This, however, has now been rowed back on by the antediluvians in Washington, DC, who sense political capital in once again bullying their neighbor.

Like Cuba, China has no intention of allowing itself to be bullied by the US, but, unlike Cuba, it is able to retaliate. In January, using ad hoc procedures, it announced sanctions against Mike Pompeo, the outgoing secretary of state, who tried so hard to destroy Hong Kong in 2019-20, and 27 other US officials. Its response mechanisms to hostile sanctions are, however, still a work in progress, which is why, at a legal conference in November, President Xi Jinping said that China needed to use legal tools to defend its sovereignty. This, of course, was music to the ears of everyone in Hong Kong, which has been a particular victim of US bullying.

With China’s inexorable rise, panic has gripped Washington, DC. Every effort is now being made by the Biden administration to use Hong Kong, along with Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, as a means of striking at Beijing and hampering the country’s progress. Over the past year, officials and politicians from Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland have been sanctioned for what the US calls efforts to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, including an overhaul of the city’s electoral system. 

On July 16, moreover, Biden issued a “Hong Kong Business Advisory”, designed to harm its economy by deterring people from doing business in the city, and imposed sanctions on seven mainland officials working in Hong Kong, over an alleged “crackdown” on democracy. In a bizarre attempt to justify his bullying, Biden declared that Hong Kong “continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States”, which, for sheer gibberish, left even his closest aides gasping for breath. If, however, Biden thought he could kick China around in the same way he does Cuba, he will have had a rude awakening.   

On June 10, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee enacted its anti-foreign-sanctions law, which will help to protect China, its businesses and its people from foreign intimidation. It provides a solid legal basis for countermeasures to be taken against anybody responsible for the imposition of foreign sanctions on the country. It is China’s strongest response yet to foreign bullying, and it comes hard on the heels of efforts by the Commerce Ministry since January to identify those places which are trying to hamper trading by Chinese companies, and to ascertain which foreign businesses are unreliable partners.  

The new law, moreover, mandates the creation of an interdepartmental group, drawn from the State Council, to oversee the “overall planning and coordination” of anti-sanctions initiatives, and it will also integrate law enforcement resources. The group, which will facilitate information sharing, will be responsible for whatever countermeasures are decided upon. These may include such things as the expulsion of individuals, denial or revocation of visas, seizure or freezing of China-based assets, blocking or restricting dealings with Chinese entities or individuals within China, and other “necessary measures”. 

The group is also expected to consider how to deal with companies which have cooperated with foreign sanctions, such as by closing bank accounts or banning Xinjiang cotton. If individuals or entities have suffered as a result of foreign sanctions, it is anticipated that, as victims, they will be able to claim compensation in the Chinese courts against any organization complicit in facilitating the sanctions against them. According to insiders, the State Council will also be issuing a more specific implementation regulation at some point, and nobody should delude themselves into thinking that the enforcers are other than deadly serious.

In other words, the anti-foreign-sanctions law has real teeth, and anybody falling foul of it will certainly feel its bite. On July 23, having explained that Biden’s sanctions were designed to “groundlessly smear Hong Kong’s business environment” and violated “international law”, China announced sanctions of its own on seven US entities and individuals, thus giving the US a taste of its own medicine. Those targeted include former US commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, who was responsible for raising barriers to Chinese companies trading with the US, and Human Rights Watch’s China director, Sophie Richardson, who spends much of her time churning out allegations of what she calls “serious human rights crimes” by China.

Although clearly taken aback, Richardson, like Pompeo before her, sought to make light of the sanctions, calling them a “noise”, a “distraction” and “hollow”. She may, however, have not yet fully absorbed their implications. People like her, who hold themselves out as China experts, will, along with family members, no longer be able to visit the mainland, Hong Kong or Macao; any assets they have there will be confiscated; and previous contacts and information sources will now cut them dead. Those involved in business, like Ross, together with any companies with which they are associated, will no longer be able to deal with China. 

Given its staggering economic growth and potential, there will be many US companies desperate for a share of the China market, and they will shun like the plague any sanctioned individuals, whether as board members or employees. Indeed, doors previously open will now be slammed in the faces of sanctioned individuals and entities, and their competitors will happily take their place.

Although China’s anti-foreign-sanctions law is novel, it is a vivid demonstration that the days when the US could bully others with impunity are gone. It can certainly be made more effective over time, but it sends out the message that actions have consequences, including punitive compensation claims in Chinese courts. It will also help to deter bullying, not least because many US companies realize it would be madness to miss out on the opportunities now opening up in China. If they have any clout back home, and many of them are associated with political parties, they may also seek to make Biden understand that sanctions are a two-edged sword, and that the US could be the big loser if it ramps up needless hostility.       

Although Biden is clearly afraid that the era of American hegemony is drawing to an end, he may at least draw solace from his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, who once observed, “I would rather be a little nobody, than to be an evil somebody”.

The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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