Beijing has accused American lawmakers of a “political plot” to thwart China’s development after the US House of Representatives approved legislation that could pave the way for diplomatic action and economic sanctions against the Hong Kong government.
The lower chamber of Congress on Tuesday backed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, moving it a significant step closer to becoming law.
The bill, which Beijing considers an attempt to interfere in China’s internal affairs and contain the country’s rise, passed the House on a voice vote.
Introduced in June by Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, the bill would require the US government to assess whether political developments in Hong Kong justify Washington changing its treatment of the city as a separate trading entity from the Chinese mainland.
The legislation also paves the way for sanctions against individuals deemed responsible for actions to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, such as the rendition to the mainland of anyone exercising “internationally recognised human rights in Hong Kong”.
The bill awaits a vote in the Senate, where it currently enjoys the bipartisan co-sponsorship of 23 senators, and is expected to pass.
Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, which is China’s cabinet, said it expressed “solemn protest and strong condemnation” over the passage of the act.
“This kind of behavior has grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs and is openly adding support to the opposition forces and radical forces in Hong Kong,” Yang was quoted as saying in a statement.
“It has exposed the political plot of the US House of Representatives and some politicians to use the Hong Kong to contain China’s development.”
Yang said the turmoil in Hong Kong had intensified because the US had sided with the anti-China chaotic forces in Hong Kong. He called on the US to halt the bill.
“Without US intervention, Hong Kong will be more prosperous and stable,” he said.
In a lengthy statement responding to developments in Washington, the Hong Kong government “expressed regret” over the passage of the act.
It said the government had implemented “one country, two systems” principle “fully and successfully” in accordance with the Basic Law, the city’s mini constitution.
The statement issued on Wednesday also warned foreign lawmakers they should not interfere in Hong Kong internal affairs in any way.
Lawmakers in Washington also approved a bill that blocked the export of crowd control equipment such as tear gas to Hong Kong authorities.
Known as the PROTECT Hong Kong Act, it was introduced by Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts.
A resolution was also passed in the House to recognise the city’s bilateral relationship with the US and “condemn the interference of the People’s Republic of China in Hong Kong’s affairs”.
Applauding the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticised those who sided with Beijing for fear of jeapordising their economic interests.
“To those who want to take the repressive government’s side in this discussion, I say to you: What does it profit a person if he gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his soul?” she said on the House floor.
An attempt by US President Donald Trump, who last Friday said that relations with the Chinese government were now a “love fest” after the announcement of a partial trade agreement, to veto the legislation could be overruled by a two-thirds majority in both congressional chambers.
Tuesday’s action in the House came a day after tens of thousands of Hongkongers took to the streets to urge US lawmakers to pass the legislation. In the first police-sanctioned rally since authorities imposed emergency laws earlier this month, protesters waved American flags and chanted slogans lauding the US as a “protector of freedom” and “regulator of world order”.
“We’re simply urging the Chinese president [Xi Jinping] and the Hong Kong chief executive [Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor] to faithfully honour the government’s promises,” Smith told lawmakers ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
The handover of the city from British to Chinese rule in 1997 was premised on an agreement that Hongkongers would continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy until at least 2047.
Beijing has pounced on the legislation as an example of American interference in the continuing unrest.
An opinion piece published ahead of Tuesday’s vote by People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, said that passage of the bill would only end up hurting the US’ own economic interests, citing the presence of American citizens and businesses in Hong Kong.
“In a crucial period in which China and the US are meeting each other halfway [on trade], some American politicians are effectively putting the car in reverse by pushing this bill and flagrantly meddling in China’s internal affairs,” it said.
The commentary also accused Republican senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, both of whom are backing the bill, of “selective blindness” after they criticised authorities’ handling of protests during visits to the city over the weekend.
Tensions in Hong Kong, triggered in June over a now-withdrawn proposal to amend the city’s extradition laws, have spiked in recent weeks, both leading up to and following on from the October 5 implementation of emergency laws and a ban on wearing face masks.
In the same week the ban was enacted, two young protesters were shot by live police rounds, while demonstrators’ tactics have expanded to include targeting police officers with petrol bombs and vandalising establishments they perceive to be supportive of Beijing.
On Sunday, two demonstrators were arrested after a police officer was stabbed in the neck.
A senior US defence official for Asia said on Tuesday that violent actions by some protesters were a cause for worry.
“Certainly we have some concern about some of the tactics that the protesters have been using and may use, and I think in single instances where that becomes a real problem we would point that out,” Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said at a conference in Washington.
Yet the US remained “100 per cent” behind protesters calling for fundamental rights, Schriver said, expressing concern that Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities had taken a heavier hand in dealing with the unrest.
Recognising that some protests had turned violent, Cruz urged demonstrators “to resist the urge to respond to brutality in like kind, but instead stand with dignity”.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act includes a stipulation that the US should not deny entry to anyone on the basis of their arrest or detention resulting from their participation in “nonviolent protest”.
Additional reporting by Mark Magnier and Zoe Low