Hong Kong’s Leader Keeps ‘Piles of Cash’ at Home Because of US Sanctions

Hong Kong’s embattled leader said she is keeping “piles of cash” at home after being subjected to American sanctions, in a stark demonstration of U.S. influence abroad that has incensed Beijing.

The city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the government is paying her salary in cash after U.S. sanctions prevented financial institutions from doing business with her and 14 other officials accused of undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“I have piles of cash at home. The government is paying me cash for my salary because I don’t have a bank account,” Lam told the broadcaster Hong Kong International Business Channel in a recent interview. “I’m using cash for all the things.”

Lam is one of the best paid politicians in the world, earning an annual salary of HK$5.2 million, or $672,000. (The U.S. president is paid $400,000 every year.)

The former British colony was promised a high degree of autonomy when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, but Beijing has drastically tightened its grip on the city following anti-government unrest last year. 

In sanctioning Lam, the U.S. treasury in August accused her of being “directly responsible for implementing Beijing’s policies of suppression of freedom and democratic processes” in the city. 

Beijing in June imposed a tough national security law that has chilled dissent across the city. The law allows mainland Chinese agents to operate in the city and gives the local police expansive powers of surveillance and detention. Public libraries have pulled books from the shelf for compliance. Fearing arrest, some pro-democracy activists have fled Hong Kong and sought refuge in democracies from Taiwan to Canada.

Under the sanctions, banks – including non-U.S. banks – could risk fines or getting cut off from the U.S. financial system if they provided services to Lam, who said she was “unjustifiably sanctioned.” In an interivew with the South China Morning Post on Sunday, Lam said she withdraws only part of her salary every month, keeps it “upstairs in a drawer,” and leaves the rest in the city’s treasury, to be collected in the future.

In retaliation, Beijing in August imposed sanctions on 11 American citizens, including lawmakers Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton and the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth.

The Chinese government on Monday announced four more targets of its sanctions, bringing the total number of American citizens penalized over Hong Kong to 15.

But compared to the U.S. sanctions, the Chinese sanctions will do little to disrupt their targets’ finances because, unlike the dollar, the Chinese yuan doesn’t dominate international finance.

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