On August 7, 2020, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned 11 individuals e.g. Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu, Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang. Many other officials have real estate in UK, and family with British citizenship.

  1. The UK can do the same, right? I don't think the UK needs a new Act of Parliament. Do they? I don't know what legislation is required, though. Does the Crown have to exercise the Royal Prerogative? Does the Privy Council have to issue Order In Council? Does UK Government simply enact secondary legislation like Statutory Instrument?

  2. If the UK can sanction, why haven't they? UK sanctions "arguably be more impactful than the US, given that most of these people have closer ties with the UK (presumably)"

Carrie Lam "gave up her British nationality in 2007 when she was appointed Secretary for Development, but her husband and two sons kept their nationalities, obtained through the British Nationality Selection Scheme before the handover. She said her husband will not give up his nationality even if she wins". Lam is also an Honorary Fellow at University of Cambridge's Wolfson College.

Teresa Cheng graduated from King's College London with B.Sc. in Engineering, and is a Fellow. See also Bob Seely MBE MP's letter.

I don't think the UK is afraid of China. The U.K. can't anger China any more than it has, when UK is issuing "new special visa for Hong Kong's BNO holders" as on July 23 2020 and politicians like Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab keeps "condemn[ing]" China.

3 Answers 3


Different Styles of Political Conflict

The world is full of countries which dislike each their respective leadership. Many even trade while they dislike each other. Countries have various means at their disposal, from delivering a diplomatic note to calling the foreign ambassador in to receive a protest, ultimately all the way to breaking diplomatic relations and declaring war.

The US habit of sanctioning individuals is popular with the US. It could have something to do with the importance of the US in international finance, but the UK is important that way, too. Many other countries believe that it is not a good idea to single out individuals if it is governments which quarrel and which will have to get along with each other again, one of these days.

The wikipedia list of Magnitsky acts may be incomplete, but relatively few countries seem to use it. And if I read this UK briefing paper right, the UK regulations are more about confiscating wealth gained through gross human rights abuses and terrorist financing.


Regarding how the UK enacts sanctions: the government can impose them by statutory instrument, under powers granted by various Acts of Parliament:

  • The Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 appears to have a number of general powers for unilateral sanctions (e.g. this one), and has been used heavily in 2020 to replace existing EU sanctions with UK ones. Parliamentary approval may be required, depending on precisely which powers are being used.
  • The United Nations Act 1946 is used to implement sanctions made by the UN Security Council (e.g. this one). It's actually done as an Order in Council (the council here being the Privy Council), though as far as I can tell, there is little practical difference between this and a normal SI.
  • Before the UK left the EU, the European Communities Act 1972 was used to implement EU sanctions (e.g. this one).

I can't comment on the legal issues, which have been addressed by another respondent, but I can provide some background to your second question. There are multiple things to consider:

  1. It is still early days. Before Trump, international relations typically happened at a snails pace, with an emphasis on building an international consensus. Take for example the Magnitsky Act, on which basis the current U.S. sanctions are enacted. The original impetus for said action was the 2009 death of a Russian auditor. The bill was passed three years later, in 2012.

  2. Britain has much less influence than the U.S. The threat of economic sanctions on an individual from the U.S. carries an even bigger implicit threat: the U.S. financial system has gargantuan extraterritorial reach. They have the ability to cutoff sanctioned entities from the entire international financial system. This is why the U.K. and E.U. set up INSTEX, in order to pursue trade with Iran.

  3. The Conservative party as-a-whole has, until very recently with the formation of the China Research Group, been a moderately strong proponent of closer links with China. In 2015, Gordon Osborne initiated the "Golden Era", which resulted in significant investments in the U.K. nuclear, agricultural, property, and telecommunications industries. Boris Johnson himself has been on-the-fence/mildly-pro China, ever since his trip to China during the 2008 Olympic Games, when he represented London during the flag handover in anticipation of London 2012. Any volte-face will naturally be measured, in order to avoid accusations of a U-turn.

  4. Following on from my second point, mild sanctions (such as these are, because few of the accussed will have assets in the U.S.) by a relatively small country such as the U.K. will rightly be met with ridicule. There are many other developed countries that are still receptive to closer relations with China, particularly outside of Western Europe. The impact would indeed be negligible. A much more effective action would be for the U.K. to leverage their not-insignificant international standing to pursue a multilateral approach. It is natural that China has always preferred to pursue bilateral relations; their assymetry in economic power always gives them a implicit advantage, no-matter what the terms of a treaty. As Sun Tzu said, 倍則分之 ("if we only outnumber our enemy two-to-one, then divide them").

In summary: it may well still happen, but it wouldn't necessarily be the U.K.'s trump card.

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    The HK government has billions in UK assets (about £20bn in cash and liquid assets, about £2.5Bn in property in London alone and about ten times that spread across the UK). A regime of sanctions could do considerable damage to those with large amounts of wealth invested in the UK. The question is whether those people are the ones that the UK government want to actually sanction.
    – Valorum
    Aug 9, 2020 at 0:12
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    @Valorum source please for your first sentence "about £20bn in cash and liquid assets, about £2.5Bn in property in London alone and about ten times that spread across the UK"?
    – user6241
    Aug 10, 2020 at 1:09
  • @Valorum Wouldn't confiscating assets from the HK government only hurt average citizens (its their money after all, not the government officials'), and make HK as a whole less likely to pursue democracy? Aug 10, 2020 at 8:58
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    @makelemonade - I rather think that the HK democracy ship has sailed out of the harbour and headed off over the horizon.
    – Valorum
    Aug 10, 2020 at 9:07

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