He was the most senior Trump administration official to offer a substantial reaction to China’s drastic proposal, which brought a new focus to continuing tensions between the United States and China, whose relationship is already at its worst point in decades.
Speaking on CNN Friday morning, the White House economic adviser, Kevin Hassett, a former chairman of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, echoed Mr. Pompeo’s tough talk.
“We’re absolutely not going to give China a pass,” Mr. Hassett said, adding, “It’s a very difficult, scary move.”
After the Chinese proposal was announced on Thursday, the State Department commented only through its press officer. The president himself was noncommittal, saying he was unfamiliar with the measure.
“If it happens, we’ll address that issue very strongly,” Mr. Trump said, stopping short of committing himself to specific action. But bipartisan support in Congress for punishing China could force his hand in the coming weeks.
In his early morning statement, Mr. Pompeo said that the United States “condemns” the legislation proposed by China’s Communist Party on Thursday and likely to be enacted in the coming days.
Mr. Pompeo said that the proposal “would be a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong under the Sino-British joint declaration” and that it “would inevitably impact our assessment of ‘one country, two systems’ and the status of the territory.”
“The United States strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal, abide by its international obligations, and respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, democratic institutions, and civil liberties, which are key to preserving its special status under U.S. law,” Mr. Pompeo said.
“We stand with the people of Hong Kong,” he added.
In the Trump administration, China policy has generally been divided between economic officials wary of conflict that could rattle markets and disrupt trade talks, and national security officials determined to confront Beijing’s growing strategic power, making Mr. Hassett’s harsh words all the more notable.
“China’s move in Hong Kong is going to be very, very bad for the Chinese economy and the Hong Kong economy,” Mr. Hassett added in remarks to reporters at the White House.
National security officials in the administration have tried to push back against China on a wide range of issues, like technology, espionage and military presence in the Pacific. Their concerns over Hong Kong escalated last year, when pro-democracy protesters took to the streets beginning in the summer and were confronted at every turn by the police. In Beijing, hard-line Chinese officials determined that the police were not using enough force to suppress the protests.
State Department officials have discussed how China’s proposed national security law might affect a potential decision to revoke the preferential trade and economic status that the United States gives Hong Kong since it has had semi-autonomy since 1997, when Britain handed control of the territory to China. One option is for the United States to end the status based on a conclusion that Hong Kong, a global financial hub, no longer enjoys any substantial autonomy under China.
Mr. Pompeo said this month he would delay issuing a report to Congress on the status in order to measure actions that Beijing has taken on Hong Kong; that was intended as a signal to Chinese leaders to back away from their hard-line policies on Hong Kong, but it has not worked so far. The State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, reiterated the importance of the preferential status, based on a judgment by the United States of its degree of autonomy.
Ms. Ortagus said in a statement this week that the department was delaying the submission of the report to “allow us to account for any additional actions that Beijing may be contemplating in the run-up to and during the National People’s Congress that would further undermine Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.”
The State Department is mandated to deliver such a report each year by the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which passed last year with strong bipartisan support in Congress, where lawmakers from both parties advocate a more aggressive approach to China. Mr. Trump reluctantly signed it into law in November, at a time when he was trying not to anger President Xi Jinping of China because he was aiming to secure a trade deal.
“While the U.S. will wait for the exact terms of this legislation and perhaps even wait for how it will be enforced, this legislative move will clearly trigger a close review by the U.S. in accordance with the United States Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” said Dali L. Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
“This latest move is yet another case of how the Chinese leadership’s preoccupation with domestic national security considerations override its considerations of the international repercussions of such a move,” he added.
Chinese Foreign Ministry officials arranged late-night phone calls on Thursday to inform many embassies in Beijing of the proposed law, and also sent letters to some ambassadors at their residences, The Wall Street Journal reported. The officials asked some of the diplomats for responses. The letter said Hong Kong had become “a notable source of risk to China’s national security” because of legal loopholes and a lack of enforcement mechanisms.
Those steps indicate that senior Chinese officials are aware that their move would be perceived as violating an international agreement, the one that Britain and China signed in 1984, and would draw strong condemnation globally. Chinese officials publicly say Hong Kong is an internal matter, but the efforts to make the case for the law to foreign diplomats suggest otherwise. And they show that global opinion on the future of Hong Kong matters to Chinese leaders.
Mr. Pompeo has been the most vocal of the administration’s China hawks. Since 2018, he has denounced the internment camps set up by China to hold at least one million Muslims. He has also pushed an unsubstantiated theory that the new coronavirus outbreak began as a result of a lab accident in the city of Wuhan. On Sunday, he said he was aware that China had threatened to interfere in the work of American journalists in Hong Kong.
“These journalists are members of a free press, not propaganda cadres, and their valuable reporting informs Chinese citizens and the world,” he said.
In March, after the State Department imposed new restrictions on employees of Chinese state-run media outlets in the United States, Beijing expelled almost all American journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. In a violation of Hong Kong’s press freedoms and semi-autonomy, Chinese officials also barred those expelled journalists from working in Hong Kong.