Business sector unhappy with govt inaction over US legislation

September 30, 2019 18:39
That the US Congress will pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in October is deemed a foregone conclusion. Photo: AFP

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act has already been approved by the foreign relations panels of the US Senate and House of Representatives, and is due to be put to the vote in Congress next month.

While the legislative push has provoked a fierce backlash from Beijing, a business figure in Hong Kong said bluntly that the passage of the legislation is almost a foregone conclusion, since the bill was introduced under a bipartisan consensus between the Democrats and the Republicans.

The only possible variables are US President Donald Trump’s stance and how Washington is going to enforce the new law, he said.

Earlier on, the business figure said, the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong (AmCham) had sent representatives to Washington to lobby against the bill.

If even the AmCham, the biggest US business stakeholder in the city, was unable to talk US lawmakers out of supporting the bill, then there is virtually nothing the local business community in Hong Kong can do about it, he said.

That business figure went on to criticize the SAR government for being completely unhelpful over this critical issue, doubting that what Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah was doing when the pan-democrats and pro-democracy student leaders were testifying before the US congressional committees in support of the bill.

He said the SAR administration could have, and should have done substantially more about the issue, such as hiring US lawyers or think-tank members who know their way around in Washington's political circles to lobby Congress members against the bill.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, our government didn’t even bother to do the bare minimum, he said.

There is now indeed a grave concern among the local business community that once the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act comes into effect, the US government might tighten its grip on technology transfers to Hong Kong, thereby affecting our city’s status as a separate customs area in the long run.

Last Saturday, Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po said it is very likely the legislation will be passed by the US congress as it has bipartisan support, adding that it will only be effective after Trump signs it, and the US stance towards the bill remains a big question mark.

If the bill becomes a law, formally, the US Department of State will be obliged to give regular assessments of various aspects of the status of human rights and democracy in Hong Kong to the US Congress, Chan said.

The financial chief pointed out that the legislation won't affect Hong Kong's economy immediately, but one has to pay attention to whether it would affect investment in the city.

Meanwhile, pro-establishment political parties including the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong, the New People’s Party and the Liberal Party have met with US Consul General Hanscom Smith one after another throughout September to express their discontent with the bill.

However, a pro-establishment lawmaker has told us that ever since he assumed office back in July this year, Smith has rarely reached out to the pro-establishment camp.

This pro-establishment lawmaker also lashed out at the US Congress for being heavily biased towards the pan-dems and exclusively listening to the voices of the opposition during its recent hearings.

In the meantime, Lau Siu-kai, the vice-president of the Chinese Association for Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said the question facing us right now isn’t whether the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act can pass Congress, but rather, how rigorously the Trump administration is going to enforce the so-called “sanction measures” against Hong Kong under the law.

He believes Washington will need to take into account the “political and economic space” currently enjoyed by US institutions in Hong Kong when it comes to enforcing the new law.

Lau also reiterated that as far as the central authorities are concerned, it will only focus on the big picture of Sino-US rivalry when examining the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which means our city’s partial and local interests will have to take a backseat.

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 27

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.