The House of Representatives on Tuesday voiced strong support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong by passing a measure that would require the US executive branch to conduct annual reviews to determine if the Chinese territory should continue to receive preferential trade status from Washington.
The House passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act along with other measures designed to put pressure on the Hong Kong government as it clamps down on protests that have roiled the Asian financial hub for four months. The Senate is considering a similar measure but no date has been set for a vote in the chamber.
The move comes as the US Congress and Trump administration adopt increasingly tough stances on China over everything from its human rights abuses in Xinjiang to its efforts to stamp out free speech in Hong Kong. The state department last week said it would restrict visas for Chinese officials who were assessed to have connections to Communist party policies involving the mass detention of Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China.
“Over the past few months, we have seen millions of people take to the streets of Hong Kong in pursuit of freedom and democracy,” said Bob Latta, an Ohio Republican lawmaker. “Their calls for due process have been met with violence by the authoritarian communist government in Beijing. As the leader of the free world, the US should urge all those who stand for the principles of freedom to support these protesters and their rights.”
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would require the Trump administration — and successive administrations — to conduct annual reviews to determine if Hong Kong should continue to be treated as a jurisdiction separate from China in matters related to trade, aviation and maritime services.
But the decision on whether to revoke the privileges Hong Kong enjoys under US law, as a territory deemed to be effectively autonomous from China, lie entirely with Donald Trump. The US president may be unwilling to do so if it threatens prospects for a final deal to end the two countries’ trade war or jeopardises Chinese co-operation in efforts to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.
China hit back at the move with a spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs saying Beijing would retaliate if the bill is passed. China “will take strong measures to resolutely respond and firmly defend its sovereignty, security, and development interests”, a spokesperson said.
“[The act] might end up giving the protesters a false sense of confidence as to what the US government is willing or capable of doing,” said James Zimmerman, a Beijing-based partner at law firm Perkins Coie and former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. “Going into an election year, Trump desperately needs a trade deal and it is unlikely that he will do anything to further embroil his already complicated position with Beijing.”
David Law, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said that the act was entirely “symbolic” and effectively a “paper tiger”.
“Both Democrats and Republicans have figured out [Hong Kong] is a good thing for them to publicly speak about and be seen to be taking action on,” Mr Law added. “But they are also either unable or unwilling to force the president’s hand on foreign policy and actually dictate that any particular thing will be done.”
The act requires the president to deny US visas and freeze the US assets of anyone “complicit in suppressing basic freedoms in Hong Kong”, including those responsible for extrajudicial renditions from the territory to mainland China.
The first of these requirements is vague, giving Mr Trump considerable discretion in deciding who might be considered guilty of suppressing freedoms in Hong Kong. Identifying any of the state security agents or other individuals responsible for previous instances of illegal cross-border renditions could be impossible.
Additional reporting by Hudson Lockett