What a US bill backing Hong Kong protesters could mean after months of demonstrations

Some protesters welcome the prospect of new legislation in Washington – but others are not so sure

Protesters hold up five fingers and a US flag during a march to the US Consulate General in Hong Kong, China. Reuters 
Protesters hold up five fingers and a US flag during a march to the US Consulate General in Hong Kong, China. Reuters 

As the Hong Kong protests neared the 100-day mark on September 8, a group of demonstrators gathered outside the American consulate waving the US flag and singing The Star-Spangled Banner.

One person carried a sign reading: "President Trump, please liberate Hong Kong".

Later, a group handed consulate staff a letter calling for the speedy passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a piece of legislation currently being looked at in Washington.

The bill, sponsored by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, would strengthen the existing Hong Kong Policy Act. This existing bill commits Washington to treat Hong Kong differently from the rest of China, both politically and economically, as long as the city remains "sufficiently autonomous”.

The new law will add to this by requiring the Secretary of State to certify Hong Kong’s autonomy annually and give the government the ability to impose sanctions and travel bans on those responsible for undermining this.

Leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said they are due to “mark-up” – debate and vote on – the bill next week.

A spokeswoman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said they are also working on its version of the legislation, hoping to also hold its mark-up next week.

The United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 with an agreement to protect the special status of the city under a “one country, two systems” formula. This guarantees freedoms, including an independent legal system. The deal would protect Hong Kong’s special status for 50 years – or until 2047.

Throughout the summer, Hong Kong residents have been demonstrating against the city’s leaders over what they say is an erosion of the city’s special status.

It began in June when leader Carrie Lam tried to pass an extradition agreement with Beijing that critics said would give the mainland the power to demand the arrest and deportation of anyone they chose. The demands widened into anger against the administration in Hong Kong.

While protesters hope the bill will bolster their cause, it has not been welcomed by some of the island’s pro-Beijing politicians and officials who see it as American interference.

“The embrace of Hong Kong’s struggle is the embrace of the idea that America should never hesitate to say that democracy and liberty is morally superior to autocracy & totalitarianism,” Marco Rubio tweeted.

Politicians in the US sympathetic to the protesters' demands are working to support the bill’s passage – including House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Mr Rubio said in a recent interview that he believes the legislation could pass without opposition in either the House or the Senate.

Prominent Hong Kongers and activists have been travelling to Washington to lobby the legislation and speak about the movement’s demands.

On Tuesday, one of the movement’s most recognisable faces gave evidence to the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

"I hope, the US government could reveal its foreign policy to China to prioritise human rights issues, especially now we are not only suffering in a political but also a humanitarian crisis,” Joshua Wong said.

"This is not a plea for so-called foreign interference. This is a plea for democracy," singer and activist Denise Ho, who joined Mr Wong, told legislators.

Beijing criticised the pair’s appearance, warning against efforts to “disrupt Hong Kong with foreign support”.

“At the same time, we have to warn certain people, who engage in anti-China activities in order to disrupt Hong Kong with foreign support, that all their efforts are futile and destined to fail,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Wednesday.

He also warned the US not to meddle in internal affairs.

The authorities in Hong Kong have also pushed back against the pair’s claims about human right’s violations and police brutality, saying they are “serious and unfounded.”

A police spokesman said that human rights in Hong Kong were protected under the Basic Law, and that police had handled anti-government protests in the city over the past three months with restraint, the South China Morning Post reported.

Some Hong Kongers say the bill would be a good start but are worried about how potential sanctions – if they are ever applied – could impact their city.

"If sanctions are really imposed, these officials will be publicly shamed internationally and, as such, punished in this way," one young resident of Hong Kong told The National.

"However, I am not convinced whether imposing sanctions on government officials, for example freezing their assets in US or not allowing them to go to US, would be a major help to the situation in Hong Kong because it might not matter to the official whether he/she can go to US or not," she added.

On Tuesday a new pressure group in Washington, the Hong Kong Democracy Council, was launched to give the largely leaderless movement back home a voice in the US.

"We are unified in the belief that the US has a moral and political obligation to preserve Hong Kong's basic freedoms and autonomy while protecting vital US national security and economic interests, including the 85,000 Americans based in Hong Kong," said Samuel Chu, HKDC’s managing director.

“We are committed to being the 'umbrella' group who will provide an independent platform for all pro-democracy, pro-Hong Kong voices in the US and in Hong Kong,” he added.

But China has denied allegations that it's meddling in Hong Kong and accused foreign powers – especially Britain and the US – of fuelling the unrest.

Like the demonstrators waving the US flag, so too have others waved the Union Flag of the UK.

The American bill enjoys bipartisan support across both houses, but it is unclear how it will be received by President Donald Trump.

Mr Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are currently in talks to find an end their protracted trade war.

The US President has suggested China should "humanely" settle the months-long protests before a trade deal is reached.

There is a chance that Mr Trump may also seek to neuter the bill so as not to rock relations with Beijing.

But Mr Rubio is convinced the bill will be signed into law by the president.

“The White House has indicated that they would sign it,” he told The Atlantic. In any case, Mr Rubio said, the bill is likely to pass with enough votes to make a presidential veto impossible.

But there are fears in Hong Kong that the bill will have an unintended consequence that could erode the special status of the city. The bill could lead the US to revoke Hong Kong’s special trading status, which could – in turn – devastate the city’s economy.

"I am worried China will let this happen," the young Hong Konger said. "I hope that the Chinese government realises that Hong Kong is a region that is part of China but also has its own unique characteristics, as it is a common law legal system and a free market.

"I hope that China will not erode Hong Kong’s autonomy."

Updated: September 19, 2019 06:01 PM


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