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China will likely face U.S. sanctions over Hong Kong national security law, White House says

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 22, 2020.

The U.S. government will likely impose sanctions on China if Beijing implements national security law that would give it greater control over autonomous Hong Kong, White House National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien said Sunday. 

The draft legislation represents a takeover of Hong Kong, O'Brien said, and as a consequence U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would likely be unable to certify that the city maintains a "high degree" of autonomy. This would result in the imposition of sanctions against China under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, O'Brien said.  

Pompeo has already called the proposal a "death knell" for Hong Kong's autonomy. O'Brien warned that Hong Kong could lose its status as a major hub for global finance. 

"It's hard to see how Hong Kong could remain the Asian financial center that it's become if China takes over," O'Brien told NBC's Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press." He said financial services initially came to Hong Kong because of the rule of law that protected free enterprise and a capitalist system.

"If all those things go away, I'm not sure how the financial community can stay there. ...They're not going to stay in Hong Kong to be dominated by the People's Republic of China, the communist party." 

The legislation was announced during the annual session of China's parliament, the National People's Congress. The session had been delayed for months during the coronavirus pandemic. Hong Kong faced months of at times violent anti-government protests before the pandemic effectively shut China down.  

Hong Kong has been governed under the "one country, two systems" principle since the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The system gives Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and a greater degree of freedom for the special administrative region than the rest of China. 

A draft decision on "establishing and improving the legal system and enforcement mechanisms" for Hong Kong was submitted to China's parliament Friday, according to state news agency Xinhua. A document explaining the decision said the one-country two systems principle "has achieved unprecedented success in Hong Kong," but the "increasingly notable national security risks" in the city "have become a prominent problem," according to Xinhua.  

The document says activities "have seriously challenged the bottom line of the 'one country, two systems' principle, harmed the rule of law, and threatened national sovereignty, security and development interests," according to Xinhua.

The move from China has incited strong opposition from pro-democracy activists and politicians. Thousands of protesters demonstrated for the first time since the introduction of the national security law on Sunday. Hong Kong police fired tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowd.

Nearly 200 political figures from the U.K., Europe, Australia, North America and Asia condemned the law in a joint statement.