Why the new US law on HK could be an ever-present threat

December 02, 2019 12:02
Democracy activists believe Washington’s passage of a new legislation pertaining to Hong Kong will keep Beijing and its proxies in check in relation to policies toward the Chinese special administrative region. Photo: AFP

With US President Donald Trump signing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law, it means that from now on Washington will be examining the status of human rights and the degree of autonomy in Hong Kong on an annual basis before making decisions on continuing the city's special privileges, including its status as a customs area separate from mainland China.

From the perspective of local democracy activists who had been pushing for passage of this bill, the new US law will serve as a Sword of Damocles over anti-democratic forces, keeping them in check.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, one of the leading sponsors of the bill, has dismissed accusations of meddling in Hong Kong affairs, yet there is little doubt that what US lawmakers aim to do is try and influence Beijing’s policies toward Hong Kong through the threat of withdrawal of special trade privileges and imposition of sanctions.

At the end of the day, however, the US president will have quite a lot of room to decide on whether and how to enforce the law; and all Congress can do is merely provide oversight.

It is perhaps for this reason that figures in the financial sector including Hong Kong Monetary Authority deputy chief executive Howard Lee Tat-chi and HSBC Asia Pacific advisor George Leung Siu-kay believe the short-term implications of the new law for Hong Kong’s economy would be mild.

Nevertheless, the sword can prove potentially lethal even if it isn’t drawn for now. As Hong Kong will be subject to US scrutiny over its "special status" every year, the development could undermine confidence in the city among international investors.

Though Trump, who is known for being interested only in seeking trade and economic benefits, might not be keen on drawing this sword, it will still present a threat to Hong Kong in the long run if one day, the Americans elect a new president who accords priority to ideology over everything else.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 29

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal