The United States strengthened threats on Friday to deprive Hong Kong of special trading privileges as it angered Western nations over China's brazen attack on the territory's autonomy.
US lawmakers are pushing hard for Hong Kong, which has become the latest front of growing tensions between Washington and Beijing, but even some advocates of the territory's democracy movement are asking whether the "nuclear option" would be effective.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that a proposed national security law that was presented to Chinese lawmakers on Friday would be "a death blow to the high level of autonomy Beijing has promised Hong Kong".
The new law would enforce punishment for "subversion" and other perceived crimes in the city, which have been plagued by months of massive and occasionally violent protests against democracy over the past year.
In a demonstration of support for demonstrators last year, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed a law that, if Beijing is no longer promised, would end Hong Kong's preferred access to trade with the world's largest economy before it regained control of the then British colony in 1997.
Pompeo said Beijing's recent moves would "inevitably" affect the State Department's decision.
"The United States urges Beijing to rethink its catastrophic proposal, honor its international commitments, and respect Hong Kong's high levels of autonomy, democratic institutions, and civil liberties, which are critical to maintaining its special status under US law," Pompeo said in a statement.
"A nuclear option"
Pompeo had postponed the certification decision, citing the just started session of the National People's Congress, and lawmakers had previously expected President Donald Trump's government to shy away from ending Hong Kong's trading status.
Trump had reluctantly signed the Hong Kong law, which Beijing had strongly rejected, when he negotiated an agreement to end a trade war with China.
Dennis Kwok, a democracy-friendly lawmaker in Hong Kong, said in front of an American audience on Friday that the opposition forces in the territory appreciated and continued to be vigilant for US efforts, and expressed fear of police raids in the coming days.
However, he warned of the risks that the United States would revoke the city's trading status, while recognizing that many in Hong Kong were angry and would support the move.
"This is almost like a nuclear option where anyone gets hurt once you use it, and it will be very difficult to rebuild Hong Kong," Kwok told the Conservative Heritage Foundation via video conference.
Kwok said the most effective lever would be to emphasize how investors are being frightened of restrictions on autonomy in Hong Kong, one of the world's top financial capitals.
"If China is so stupid to believe that it can do away with Hong Kong and doesn't need an international financial center, then of course there is nothing you can do to stop it from doing anything else," he said.
Senior Trump's economic advisor Kevin Hassett made a similar case to White House reporters, saying that "contempt for the rule of law" is "very, very bad for the Chinese economy."
"The most dangerous moment"
Hong Kong is just a focal point between the United States and China, the two largest economies in the world.
Trump and Pompeo have accused Beijing of being responsible for the coronavirus pandemic by failing to act faster – an argument that critics say is different from Trump's own handling of the crisis.
Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, warned that the Pacific powers have been "at their most dangerous moment" since normalizing relations four decades ago.
"There is a growing list of disagreements (Hong Kong is only the youngest), but no strategic reasons for the relationship or the plan to limit friction. Both countries are likely to lose," Haass wrote on Twitter.
Congress is trying to increase pressure with broad support from both parties.
Following China's announcement of the law, two senators, Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Chris Van Hollen, proposed a law that would impose sanctions on anyone involved in restricting Hong Kong's autonomy, including banks.
Senator Marco Rubio, a prominent Trump ally, said Hong Kong has shown that China will "lie to get a deal."
Martin Lee, who is considered the grandfather of the Hong Kong democracy movement, commented similarly to the Heritage Foundation and warned that Beijing could do without Trump's valued trade agreement.
"If Beijing could punish an international agreement registered with the United Nations as punished without being held accountable, it would encourage Beijing to break more international agreements with other countries," said Lee.
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and is generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)