The 11 U.S. lawmakers and nonprofit leaders sanctioned Monday by China are speaking out, with one spokesperson characterizing the new measures as “not credible” and others as an attempt to “distract” from China’s crackdown in Hong Kong.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said China’s new sanctions are “symbolic and ineffectual,” but she would not say if the U.S. government would respond.
China announced sanctions on prominent Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, along with four other Republican lawmakers, though China did not target any Trump administration officials. Five individuals at non-profit and rights groups, including Kenneth Roth, executive director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, also were named.
The announcement was a direct response to sanctions the U.S. imposed three days earlier on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 other officials in the special administrative region, including the current and former police chiefs.
"In response to those wrong U.S. behaviors, China has decided to impose sanctions on individuals who have behaved egregiously on Hong Kong-related issues," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian at a press briefing Monday. Zhao did not say what exactly the sanctions would include.
China already announced sanctions against Rubio, Cruz and Rep. Chris Smith last month, after the U.S. criticized China and imposed sanctions for the country’s treatment of its Uighur ethnic minority. The three lawmakers were banned from traveling to China.
“The Chinese Communist Party thinks that it can distract from its crackdown on Hong Kong, including the arrest of freedom fighter Jimmy Lai, by re-announcing sanctions against Sen. Cruz that were already not credible to begin with, said Lauren Blair Aronson, a spokesperson for Cruz, in an email to VOA. “It won't work.”
Cruz himself joked Monday on Twitter that he was “starting to think they [China] don’t like me.”
China views as outside interference U.S. outrage and policy regarding its often violent approach to Hong Kong and the Uighur ethnic minority.
"I want to reiterate that Hong Kong is China's Hong Kong and Hong Kong affairs are China's internal affairs that no external forces can interfere in,” said Lijian, the foreign ministry spokesman. "China urges the US to recognize the situation and correct its wrongdoings, and not to go further and further on the wrong path."
China’s sanctions came the same day as a high-profile arrest of Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai under its new national security law there. More than 100 police officers raided the headquarters of the democracy advocate’s Next Digital company, which the newspaper live-streamed.
“From jailing newspaper publishers, to rigging elections, to dramatically expanding surveillance of Hong Kongers, the recent actions of China’s communist leaders prove just how determined they are to stamp out democracy and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, one of the sanctioned lawmakers, in a statement.
“Now China’s communist leaders are sanctioning American lawmakers who have the audacity to point out their egregious violations of longstanding commitments made to the people of Hong Kong in the Basic Law. My response to being sanctioned is simple: I stand with the people of Hong Kong.”
Toomey, along with Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen, introduced legislation in May that would authorize sanctions on the Chinese banks that allow China to enforce its Hong Kong national security law. Their Hong Kong Autonomy Act became law in July.
Hollen was not named in the sanctions, which targeted Republican lawmakers. He said in a statement, “China’s decision to impose sanctions on U.S. officials will not deter us from taking strong action in response to China’s crackdown on basic human freedoms. I urge the Administration to continue using its full authority under the Hong Kong Autonomy Act to implement wide-ranging consequences on the government and other officials for their acts of repression.”
Rep. Smith, another of the sanctioned Republican lawmakers, also advocated for legislation he helped introduce in June, which would grant Hong Kongers priority status for refugee consideration.
“These attacks on freedom of the press in Hong Kong are deeply concerning and must not go unanswered,” said Smith. “These arrests under the National Security Law prove the need for the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act. The U.S. must respond quickly in a unified voice and provide safe harbor to Hong Kongers.”
Roth, the Human Rights Watch chief, called the sanctions against him a “mere footnote,” writing that China’s actions were “little more than an effort to distract attention from its wholesale assault on the rights of the people of Hong Kong.”
The Chinese government just announced unspecified "sanctions" against me. That is little more than an effort to distract attention from its wholesale assault on the rights of the people of Hong Kong. https://t.co/OupYRsdoKq— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) August 10, 2020
Also included on China’s list of sanctioned individuals were Sen. Tom Cotton, National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman, and Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House.
VOA’s Mandarin Service and Leslie Bonilla contributed to this story.