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Published: 00:50, August 02, 2022 | Updated: 09:57, August 02, 2022
US unilateral sanctions will ultimately backfire
By Junius Ho and Kacee Ting Wong
Published:00:50, August 02, 2022 Updated:09:57, August 02, 2022 By Junius Ho and Kacee Ting Wong

A nearly universal consensus prevails that US unilateral sanctions are ineffective in changing the behavior of sanctioned countries and individuals. Aside from raising the sanctions in the global limelight, numerous US unilateral sanctions against various countries have been criticized by many commentators around the world. To cite an example, the US has imposed an economic embargo on Cuba for its allegedly “poor” human rights record since 1960. In response to this unreasonable embargo, the UN General Assembly has since 1992 regularly passed annual resolutions to ease the ongoing impact of the embargo.

The US has played an active role in anathematizing the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL) since its promulgation. The Hong Kong Autonomy Act (HKAA) imposes penalties on those who are accused of taking part in “eroding” the “one country, two systems” principle. The US has since sanctioned 34 Chinese-mainland and Hong Kong officials under the HKAA, including then-chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and current Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu.

Although the US pretends to be an international guardian of human rights in general and a guarantor of “one country, two systems” in particular, it has failed to sweep its selfish geopolitical considerations and national interests under the veneer of its proclaimed moral and legal responsibilities. In May 2022, seven members of the US Congress urged President Joe Biden to sanction Hong Kong judges and prosecutors involved in handling national security cases. It’s definitely an attempt to undermine the rule of law and judicial independence in the city.

Recently, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) has taken another unreasonable and offensive step by urging Biden to consider issuing sanctions on Secretary for Justice Paul Lam Ting-kwok and 15 public prosecutors because of their involvement in prosecuting individuals suspected of committing national-security and protest-related crimes. The increase in the use and intended use of morality-coated sanctions against innocent Chinese-mainland and Hong Kong officials as a foreign policy tool has prompted a debate about its effectiveness and the costs of maintaining such a unilateral sanction regime.

Much has been written on the groundless allegations made by the US against the NSL. We reiterate that the black-clad violence in 2019 severely undermined the operation of the principle of “one country, two systems”, challenged China’s national security, and trampled on Hong Kong’s rule of law. Contrary to the unjustified US allegation that the NSL has eroded the “one country, two systems” principle, the NSL has undoubtedly restored political stability in Hong Kong and safeguarded national security. Most importantly, the NSL has dispelled the dark clouds over the principle.

Following the promulgation of the NSL, 55 countries led by Pakistan issued a joint statement expressing their support for China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong and urging foreign forces not to interfere in Hong Kong affairs. The joint statement obviously was responding to Western countries’ attack on the NSL.

Washington’s criticism of the NSL has to be viewed against the broader picture of the geopolitical rivalry between China and the US. It is worthy of note that no American ally has implemented sanctions on Hong Kong officials.

Although the US and its Five Eyes partners share the same anti-China geopolitical strategy, those American allies are less interested in undermining “one country, two systems” as part of their grand strategies to contain China. In the long term, the divergent interests between the US and its allies will eat away at the cohesion of the US-led alliance system. Attempts by the seven anti-China Congress members and the CECC to intimidate Hong Kong judges and prosecutors with sanctions have tarnished the image of the US and helped the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government gain international sympathy.

Obviously, those Congress members and the CECC are under the delusion that they can undermine Hong Kong’s much-cherished judicial and prosecutorial independence by intimidating its judges and prosecutors in their attempt to mess up the city. In Hong Kong, prosecutorial independence is guaranteed by Article 63 of the Basic Law. Fearlessness is an essential quality of our prosecutors. Like Fatou Bensouda of the International Criminal Court, Hong Kong’s prosecutors will not buckle amid threat of US sanctions. In September 2020, then-American president Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Bensouda because she had launched an investigation into alleged American war crimes committed in Afghanistan.

Unilateral trade sanctions have also proved ineffective in achieving Washington’s political goals. According to economist Daniel Griswold, the use of trade sanctions as a foreign policy weapon has harmed US interests without greatly enhancing its national security. The proliferation of trade sanctions in the 1990s was accompanied by their declining effectiveness (Daniel Griswold, Getting Alone on Economic Sanctions Hurts US More Than Foes, in TechCentralStation.com, Nov 27, 2000). To make matters worse, the overuse of sanctions will make the US more isolated in the international community.

US sanctions on Hong Kong officials, including a ban on financial transactions at all institutions affiliated with US banks, are called extraterritorial sanctions, which have important economic implications, particularly for the EU. Such sanctions will divide the US and EU because they reflect US interference in the affairs and interests of the EU. The more extraterritorial sanctions are applied, the more they are seen in the EU as a violation of EU sovereignty.

The above analysis highlights the need for the US to reconsider the effectiveness and costs of its unilateral sanction regime. It should face the harsh light of the above reality and stop using sanctions as a tool to interfere in Hong Kong politics. While disturbing, the sanctions imposed on Hong Kong’s officeholders have not compromised their determination to serve the city in accordance with the principle of “one country, two systems” and safeguard national security. The bullying tactics employed by the seven anti-China Congress members and the CECC have reminded us that we should toughen our resolve to say no to American interference. As a blessing in disguise, American sanctions and intimidation have unintentionally provided an excellent national-security education for Hong Kong residents.

Junius Ho Kwan-yiu is a Legislative Council member and a solicitor.

Kacee Ting Wong is a barrister, part-time researcher of Shenzhen University Hong Kong and the Macao Basic Law Research Center, and co-founder of the Together We Can and Hong Kong Coalition.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily. 

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