The US Senate has passed a bill that would force the Trump administration to re-examine Hong Kong’s special status each year, infuriating China as protests continue to roil the city.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was passed on Monday with wide support by Republicans and Democrat lawmakers using a special expedited process to push through legislation that is considered uncontentious.
Under the bill, sanctions can be imposed on individuals who have suppressed human rights in the territory.
China’s foreign ministry expressed “strong condemnation” of the bill. It urged Washington to block the legislation from becoming law or risk being hit by unspecified countermeasures.
“Any attempted tricks by the United States to interference in China’s internal affairs and hinder China’s development will not prevail,” a ministry spokesperson said in a statement.
The bill’s passage follows almost six months of unrest in Hong Kong and comes after a week of violent clashes as police laid siege to a university campus.
On Wednesday morning, a group of demonstrators remained inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Protesters elsewhere in the city once again disrupted the city’s transport networks, forcing delays to underground trains and blocking roads as schools reopened for the first time in five days.
The US bill mandates the commerce department to issue an annual report to establish whether the government of Hong Kong is enforcing US export regulations and UN sanctions. Its passage will boost protesters, who have waved US flags and called for support from Washington at their rallies.
Republican Senator Jim Risch, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, said the bill was “an important step forward in holding the Chinese Communist party accountable for its erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy”.
Bob Menendez, the senate foreign relations committee’s top Democrat, said the bill would “hopefully be a shot in the arm for the millions who have been patiently waiting for the United States to once again serve as a beacon of light and solidarity in their push to defend their basic rights and autonomy”.
A similar version of the legislation has already passed the House. As the bills are not identical, they will need to be reconciled before being sent to President Donald Trump for approval.
The minute you start having these annual certifications you’re eroding certainty, which is extremely important for business
Mr Trump’s hopes to secure a trade deal with Beijing, however, could overshadow the bill.
In June, the Financial Times reported that Mr Trump promised Xi Jinping, Chinese president, that the US would tone down criticism of Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong to revive trade talks.
Experts said that if the legislation became law, it would affect business confidence in Hong Kong. It could also lead to the loss of the city’s special trade status with the US, which would make it subject to American tariffs on Chinese goods.
“The minute you start having these annual certifications you’re eroding certainty, which is extremely important for business,” said Wendy Cutler, a former US trade negotiator and vice-president at the Asia Society Policy Institute think-tank. “It makes it harder for businesses to make a decision on whether to invest or expand in Hong Kong.”
But Kurt Tong, who was the US consul general to Hong Kong until this summer, said the city’s “degree of autonomy” was “a complicated question” and not a “binary” issue.
“It has its own currency, its own legal system, its own regulatory system,” said Mr Tong. “The US and others have been rightly complaining that China has been eroding Hong Kong’s political autonomy over the last five to 10 years — but Hong Kong has never had complete autonomy.”
Mr Tong said the bill opened the possibility that the US “could precipitously make a change on its stance on Hong Kong, depending on what is going on in the streets of Hong Kong at the time, rather than based on the broader situation with respect to Hong Kong’s autonomy”.
The protests have already severely affected Hong Kong’s economy, with the government forecasting the city will fall this year into its first annual recession since the global financial crisis in 2009.
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