This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The United States has included Hong Kong’s Government Flying Service on a blacklist of “military end-users” after evidence emerged showing its aircraft were in the vicinity when 12 protesters fleeing Hong Kong for democratic Taiwan were intercepted and detained by the China Coast Guard.
“The U.S. Government has determined that these companies are ‘military end users’ for purposes of the ‘military end user’ control [of] specified items for exports, reexports, or transfers,” the U.S. Department of Commerce said in an announcement on its official website.
The list is intended “to combat efforts by China and Russia to divert U.S. technology for their destabilizing military programs, including by highlighting red flag indicators such as those related to Communist Chinese military companies identified by the Department of Defense,” it said.
Anyone wishing to export certain items to these entities will need to acquire a special license.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said the companies on the list had been confirmed as having connections with the Chinese and Russian militaries.
The list was published after the department expanded the definition of “military end user” in April to include any individual or entity that supports or assists in the maintenance or production of military items.
Export restrictions apply to a wide range of goods, including computer software, scientific instruments, and aircraft parts.
Angry reaction by China
The move generated an angry reaction from Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.
“For some time now, the United States has been using its power to make sweeping generalizations in the name of national security,” Wang said in a statement.
“[It has] continually abused export controls to suppress and contain specific enterprises in other countries,” he said. “China will take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies.”
The Hong Kong Government Flying Service fleet includes European-made Airbus H175 helicopters, Eurocopter EC155 multi-purpose transport helicopters, and Canadian-made Bombardier Challenger 600 fixed-wing aircraft, as well as equipment imported from Australia.
Former commercial airline pilot Jeremy Tam, who has also previously served as an opposition member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo), said it is possible that the Government Flying Service may need to source other parts and equipment from the U.S., however.
“It may be hard to find substitutes for some parts, and … the [service] also needs to follow the requirements of the civil aviation department,” Tam said. “Without certain parts, they won’t be able to fly the aircraft.”
‘More symbolic than practical’
He said the impact of the blacklisting was likely more symbolic than practical, however, and came after damning flight data was made public showing that government aircraft had tracked a speedboat used by the 12 Hong Kong protesters in their bid to flee to the democratic island of Taiwan, and were in the vicinity despite official denials of involvement in the arrests.
“The Government Flying Service has continued to deny any involvement in that operation,” Tam said. “But they did in fact send out a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft on the route taken by the 12 fleeing Hongkongers.”
“The Hong Kong government has refused to give an explanation for the discrepancy between its statements, which will result in a loss of public trust,” he said.
Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong indicted the 12 Hong Kong detainees on Dec. 16 on charges relating to “illegally crossing a border,” paving the way for a trial following a ban on visits from defense lawyers appointed by their families.
Hong Kong’s government has declined to press the Shenzhen authorities for the 12 detainees’ release, on the grounds that they are already fugitives.
Flight data showed government aircraft in the area during their detention, contradicting the Hong Kong authorities’ claim to have had no involvement in the operation, prompting protests by pro-democracy activists and relatives of the 12 detainees in October.
Data obtained from the flight tracking website FlightAware showed that two Hong Kong government aircraft, the fixed-wing plane B-LVB and and the H175 Cheetah helicopter B-LVH, flew around, and to and from the area where the activists were arrested on the morning of Aug. 23.
The Government Flying Service has rejected calls to make its operational data public, saying it wasn’t “usual practice” to do so.
Nathan Law applies for asylum
Meanwhile, in London, former opposition lawmaker and 2014 protest leader Nathan Law has applied for political asylum after fleeing an ongoing crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong following the imposition of a national security law on the city by the ruling Chinese Commmunist Party (CCP).
“I hope that my presence can sound an alarm to remind people just how much of a danger the CCP poses to our shared democratic values,” Law wrote in an op-ed article in The Guardian newspaper.
“Professors in top universities in Hong Kong are forced to be silent about human rights violations in China due to internal and external pressures … Hong Kong businesses that dare to support the democratic movement are punished,” Law wrote.
“We cannot pretend the threats from Beijing will not harm our freedoms and democracy.”