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Monday, Jul 15, 2024

Hong Kong trade offices in US targeted by new Senate bill

Hong Kong trade offices in US targeted by new Senate bill

Legislation by Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Merkley of Oregon would require a yearly review on whether the offices should keep their diplomatic privileges.

Two US senators introduced a bill on Thursday that could shutter Hong Kong’s representative offices in America if the White House determines that Beijing has undermined the city’s autonomy.

The bill would amend the State Department’s annual review of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status to require the US president to explain to Congress why the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices (HKETOs) in the country should retain or lose their diplomatic privileges.

Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, is a co-sponsor of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office Certification Act.

The annual review is required by the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, which went into effect in advance of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997. It was intended to keep US trade and other privileges the city enjoyed in place following the transfer of control.

The bill would block efforts to “knowingly assist in the promotion of Hong Kong as a free and autonomous city or [the Hong Kong government] as committed to protecting the human rights of people of Hong Kong or fully maintaining the rule of law required for human rights and economic prosperity” if the State Department determines that the city has lost its autonomy.

Sponsored by Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office Certification Act is the latest Washington response to Beijing’s crackdown on opposition activists in the city since widespread protests there in 2019.

The bill is the same as one Rubio introduced in December – close to the end of the previous congressional session – but that did not get any cosponsors and was not voted on.

Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, plans to introduce an identical version of the bill in the House on Friday, according to a staffer in his office.

Rubio’s announcement stated that Representative James McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, would co-sponsor Smith’s bill, but McGovern’s office did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.

US legislation in response to the hard line against protesters started with the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, another Rubio-led initiative. That law authorised a string of US sanctions against government officials in the city and mainland China, including Hong Kong’s then-chief executive Carrie Lam.

Friction intensified after Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020 to punish acts that were deemed to support secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and foreign interference. That move prompted then-president Donald Trump to revoke Hong Kong’s special trading status.

A number of Hong Kong activists, including retired Catholic leader Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and jailed media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, have been charged or are being investigated under the law.

Under the Rubio-Merkley bill, a decertification order by the US president would give the three HKETOs in the US six months to terminate operations. If the president certified the HKETOs, Congress could still pass a joint resolution overriding it.

The Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation and the Hong Kong Democracy Council issued a joint statement praising the bill, citing “the urgent need to curtail the influence of the HKETOs”.

“The case for [the offices’] continued existence on American soil is highly questionable given that Hong Kong’s special status under US law was itself already revoked almost three years ago, ahead of the draconian national security law coming into effect,” they said.

“Since then, it’s reasonable to assume that major actions taken by Hong Kong authorities are directed by Beijing.”

The HKETO in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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