The US Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that could pave the way for diplomatic action and economic sanctions against Hong Kong, likely sending the legislation to President Donald Trump to sign into law.
Congress’s upper chamber put the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, sponsored by Florida Republican Marco Rubio, through an expedited process that sidestepped a roll call vote, allowing the bill to pass without any objections. The Senate also passed the Protect Hong Kong Act, sponsored by Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, which would prohibit US companies from exporting non-lethal crowd control and defence items to the city.
The House of Representatives passed that chamber’s versions of the two bills last month.
“The United States Senate sent a clear message to Hong Kongers fighting for their long-cherished freedoms: we hear you, we continue to stand with you, and we will not stand idly by as Beijing undermines your autonomy,” Rubio announced. “The passage of this bill is an important step in holding accountable those Chinese and Hong Kong government officials responsible for Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy and human rights violations.
“Both the United States Senate and House of Representatives have now demonstrated bipartisan solidarity with the people of Hong Kong as they stand up for their freedoms and basic human rights,” Rubio added.
The number of senators cosponsoring the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act surged on Monday, bringing in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and showing the biggest jump since the bill was introduced in June, following a stream of reports about a violent standoff playing out since Sunday between police and radical students at Polytechnic University in Hong Kong.
While some of the students resorted to throwing petrol bombs at the officers, others blocked roads and engaged in other tactics to distract the police and thin out their ranks at the campus.
Speaking before the passage, many of the lawmakers blamed Beijing and the Hong Kong government for the cycle of violence in recent months that has culminated in the university melee.
“The people of Hong Kong are fighting for their lives,” said New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. “Six months ago, millions of Hong Kong residents took to the streets to peacefully protest the erosion of their democracy and their rights.”
“A half a year later we find mounting anger and unrest, with the violence against student protesters, most dramatically in the crackdown at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University only getting worse,” said Menendez, who is the most senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“People are being shot. Universities are being burned. The violence perpetrated by the authorities in Hong Kong, and by extension Beijing, are turning the city into a battlefield.”
Some analysts have voiced concern about the impact passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act will have on the city.
The legislation would “put Beijing on its toes about the consequences of its pronounced policy to tighten the political control of Hong Kong,” said Yun Sun, East Asia programme co-director at The Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
“Assuming that the Chinese do wish to avoid such consequences, we will likely see an expedited effort by Beijing to replace Hong Kong as its conduit.”
Still, the legislation has several steps ahead before it can take effect, with the ultimate decision resting with US President Donald Trump.
The House and Senate versions of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act will need to go to a committee of House and Senate members to be reconciled into one unified bill that will go back to each chamber for final approvals. Trump will then have 10 days to sign the bill into law or veto it.
James Feinerman, a professor of Asian legal studies at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, noted that Trump’s signature is not assured, particularly if the US leader’s priority is to strike a deal with China on the trade front.
“If [Trump] believes that he's made a favorable first step [with China], I think he would veto the bill,” Feinerman said. “The bill would die out without the president's signature.”
The two versions have many of the same stipulations, including a requirement that the US government produce an annual report, certified by the Secretary of State, that Hong Kong has retained enough autonomy from China to continue the city’s distinct trading status.
That distinction protects Hong Kong from the punitive tariffs Washington placed on goods from China last year.
Both versions also call for sanctions against any individuals or entities deemed to have violated freedoms guaranteed under Hong Kong's Basic Law and direct the State Department to not deny visas to those subjected to “politically motivated” arrests or detention in the city.
However, the Senate version goes further in terms of its objectives and stated tactics.
For example, Rubio’s version states that it is the US government’s policy “to support the establishment of a genuine democratic option to freely and fairly nominate and elect” Hong Kong’s chief executive and all members of the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo) by 2020. The House version has no such timeline.
Hong Kong’s current chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, was elected in 2017 by a 1,194-member election committee composed mostly of Beijing loyalists. Half of the Legco members are directly elected by voters in geographical constituencies and the remaining 35 members are returned by 29 functional constituencies, which act on the behalf of particular professions and trades.
The Senate version also calls for the US government to “coordinate” with allies including Britain, Australia, Japan and South Korea “to promote democracy and human rights in Hong Kong”.
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