US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, his partymate Tom Cotton and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin have jointly reintroduced the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” to Congress, a move that might prompt Washington to review its policy on Hong Kong and increase uncertainty in Sino-US relations in the days ahead.
The bill dates back to early 2015 when the mysterious disappearances of two Hong Kong bookstore owners Lee Bo and Gui Minhai received widespread coverage in the western media and caught international attention.
Shortly after the incidents came to light, Rubio, then chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, expressed concern about the state of human rights in Hong Kong.
Through his efforts, a bipartisan legislative initiative known as the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” was proposed to Congress.
However, due to the ensuing partisan gridlock in the US legislature, the bill ground to a halt and was temporarily taken off the legislative calendar. It wasn’t until recently that the bill was once again back on the agenda.
Once the bill is passed, the State Department will have to submit a report on the state of human rights and democratic development in Hong Kong to Congress on a yearly basis.
Under the new law, the US government must also identify officials in China and public office holders in Hong Kong whom they have substantial reasons to believe are threatening the freedom and autonomy of Hong Kong and act accordingly such as freezing their assets in the US or denying them visa.
As Rubio put it, the aim of the bill is to “reaffirm the historical commitment of the US to the preservation of freedom and democratic development in Hong Kong”.
He added that his meeting with pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong, whom he described as an “impressive and thoughtful” young man, during his visit to Washington in November last year, has strengthened his resolve in pushing for the bill.
The meeting of Rubio and Wong and the introduction of the bill signaled a new chapter in the political interaction between Washington and Hong Kong, and could open a new international frontier for the pro-democracy movement.
Over the years, civil rights issues and democratic progress in Hong Kong have been rarely discussed in US elections, not least because most American voters find these issues irrelevant to them. And mainstream politicians are not interested either, since Hong Kong’s issues could hardly be used as a rallying point for their campaigns.
However, times have changed. As the “Hong Kong question” has begun to catch the eye of influential and promising politicians like Marco Rubio, it is likely that the Trump administration may “rediscover” the value of our city as a bargaining chip which can give it some leverage with Beijing over other strategically broader issues.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 28
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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