US Senate unanimously passes Hong Kong rights bill

November 20, 2019 08:05
Riot police chase protesters at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University during clashes on Monday. Photo: Reuters

The US Senate unanimously passed legislation aimed at protecting human rights in Hong Kong amid a crackdown on a pro-democracy protest movement, drawing condemnation from Beijing.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which the US senators passed by a voice vote on Tuesday, now goes to the House of Representatives, which earlier approved its own version of the measure.

The two chambers will have to work out their differences before any legislation can be sent to President Donald Trump for his consideration.

The Senate then passed a second bill, also unanimously, that would ban the export of certain munitions to Hong Kong police forces. It bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.

China condemned the US measures, vowing to take the steps necessary to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

In a statement, the foreign ministry said the United States should stop interfering in Hong Kong and Chinese affairs and move to stop the latest bills on Hong Kong from becoming law.

The Hong Kong SAR government also expressed deep regret over the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

A government spokesman said the US measures are "unnecessary and unwarranted", adding that "they will also harm the relations and common interests between Hong Kong and the US".

There was no immediate response from the White House, which has yet to say whether Trump would sign or veto the human rights bill. A US official said recently that no decision had been made.

That official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said if the measure gets to Trump’s desk there would likely be an intense debate between Trump aides worried that it could undermine trade talks with China and those who believe it is the time to take a stand against China on human rights and Hong Kong’s status.

At the start of the brief Senate debate, Republican Senator Marco Rubio said, “The people of Hong Kong see what’s coming – they see the steady effort to erode the autonomy and their freedoms,” as he accused Beijing of “violence and repression”.

Senate aides said they expected the legislation eventually would move forward as an amendment to a massive defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, expected to pass Congress later this year.

Under the Senate bill, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for special US trading consideration that bolsters its status as a world financial center. It also would provide sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong have been protesting in the streets amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.

Following passage of the bill, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said: “We have sent a message to President Xi [Jinping]: Your suppression of freedom, whether in Hong Kong, in northwest China or in anywhere else, will not stand. You cannot be a great leader – and you cannot be a great country – when you oppose freedom, when you are so brutal to the people of Hong Kong, young and old, who are protesting.”

Xinjiang, in northwestern China, is home to many mostly Muslim Uighurs, many of whom have been detained in what China says are education camps, but which the US has called “concentration camps”.

In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

“This act neglects facts and truth, applies double standards and blatantly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.

“It is in serious violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations. China condemns and firmly opposes it.”

The US must immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs, or “the negative consequences will boomerang on itself”, Geng added.

China’s foreign ministry said earlier this month that China had lodged “stern representations” with the US about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law, saying it would not only harm Chinese interests and China-US relations, but the US’ own interests too.

It said China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests”.

In Hong Kong, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah warned that the bill could "add fuel to the fire", referring to the anti-government protests roiling the city, RTHK reported.

In August, Trump referred to Hong Kong protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Trump has since called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning that if anything bad happened in Hong Kong, it could be bad for talks to end a trade war between the world’s two largest economies. Reuters

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