US may take in Hongkongers ahead of China security laws, Pompeo suggests

Helen Davidson
Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images

The US is considering letting people who no longer “feel comfortable” in Hong Kong move to the US, secretary of state Mike Pompeo has suggested.

The comments, made in a conversation with the American Enterprise Institute on Friday, come amid worsening relations between the two countries over China’s moves to impose national security laws on the semi-autonomous region.

Pompeo was asked if the US would follow the UK and offer some sort of “right of abode” to people who no longer feel comfortable in Hong Kong.

The hosts asked: “Are we going to consider that as a possibility to make the United States welcome Hong Kong people to come here and bring their entrepreneurial creativity to our country?”

Pompeo said the US was “considering it”.

“I don’t know precisely how it will play out. The British have, as you know, a different relationship. A lot of these folks have British national passports. There’s a long history between Hong Kong and the United Kingdom; it’s very different. But we’re taking a look at it.”

Pompeo said the US held out hope the Chinese Communist party would reverse its push for greater control over Hong Kong and move back in line with its international commitments.

Related: Hong Kong police ban Tiananmen memorial vigil, citing Covid-19

“But in the event that they don’t go in that direction, which is, I think, the more likely case given what we’ve seen them do over the past several weeks, the United States is going to impose a cost on the decision-makers who deny this freedom to the people of Hong Kong.”

Last week, the UK Home Office widened the pool of Hong Kong citizens eligible to apply for UK citizenship, implying millions may be able to apply if China presses ahead with the security legislation. UK home secretary Priti Patel said the UK would continue to defend the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.

Announcements by the US president Donald Trump that he would revoke Hong Kong’s special status under customs law has provoked anger in mainland China and Hong Kong.

On Monday Reuters reported the Chinese government had ordered state-owned firms to stop large-scale purchases of pork and soybean products from the US, and that cotton and corn purchases had been put on hold.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo Photograph: Reuters

In a worst-case scenario, if Trump continues to target China, Beijing will scrap the the first phase of their trade deal, a second source familiar with the government plan told Reuters. “There’s no way Beijing can buy goods from the US when receiving constant attacks from Trump,” the person said.

The move mirrored decisions last month to place tariffs on Australian barley and restrictions on Australian abattoirs during a diplomatic spat. The Chinese government denied it was retaliatory, although state media suggested otherwise.

On Tuesday Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said Trump’s plan was self-defeating. “These acts would only hurt themselves and not benefit anybody.”

She said there were 1,300 American businesses in Hong Kong, accounting for one fifth of stock market transactions, which received preferential treatment with access to the mainland Chinese market.

She accused the US of double standards in sanctioning Hong Kong over the national security laws, which the Hong Kong government supported.

“You know there are riots in the US and you see how local governments reacted. Then in Hong Kong when we had similar riots we all saw what position they adopted then.”

Lam and her government have repeatedly characterised the Hong Kong protests as riots. She has supported Beijing imposing the laws because Hong Kong has not been able to in 23 years, and is unlikely to in the near future.

Hong Kong’s elections are scheduled for September, and the government is in danger of losing its majority to pro-democracy candidates. On Tuesday the South China Morning Post reported a record 401,900 people had registered to vote in the past year.

Chinese officials and media have also seized on news of the protests sweeping the US to defend its actions in Hong Kong and accuse Washington of hypocrisy.

On Monday China’s ambassador to London denied his country was suppressing pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. “What is going on in Hong Kong is violence,” Liu Xiaoming said. “It is a risk to the national security ... any responsible government has to take measures.”