Washington's new laws could ultimately end up hurting HK

December 03, 2019 17:36
New US laws aimed at defending Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms can prove to be a double-edged sword for HK people, some observers warn. Photo: AFP

After getting swiftly passed by both houses of US Congress, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the Protect Hong Kong Act were signed into law by President Donald Trump last Wednesday.

The legislation has opened a fresh chapter in the “New Cold War” between Washington and Beijing, as it marks the first time Washington has aggressively attempted to wade in Hong Kong affairs through legal actions.

Basically, what the United States is doing is this: recognizing an “Achilles’ Heel”, it is putting Hong Kong's trade privileges and special status up in the air in order to put pressure on China and limit the room for Beijing in diplomatic chess games.

Chinese authorities must now rethink their strategies and play a more careful game, including trying to improve the quality of governance in Hong Kong and the territory's development path.

Speaking of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, I have some concerns.

First, the new law requires the US Secretary of State to make a certification to Congress every year on whether the state of autonomy in Hong Kong fulfills the requirements under the United States–Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992.

Once any case of violation of human rights, freedom or autonomy is found in Hong Kong, the US government can consider revoking the special treatment that is accorded to Hong Kong vis-a-vis the rest of China to which the city is entitled to under the US-Hong Kong Policy Act.

Potential sanctions terms laid down in the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act could pose a severe challenge to Hong Kong’s status as an international financial hub as well as its role as the mainland’s window to the world.

Second, under the new law, it is entirely up to Washington to decide whether or not the autonomy and human rights in Hong Kong have been undermined, and to identify the officials or entities that it deems are responsible for the violations.

Besides, in order to “punish” such officials or entities, the US government can deploy means such as unilaterally denying them visas, freezing their assets on American soil, or holding them legally accountable.

All of these, in my view, are blatant and hegemonic acts of interfering in the domestic affairs of other sovereign regions.

Third, the new law stipulates that the US government cannot deny visas to Hong Kong protesters who have been convicted by the city’s courts “purely on political grounds”. This constitutes contempt of Hong Kong's rule of law and is tantamount to harboring those who caused havoc here.

Fourth, the certification requirement from the Secretary of State to Congress amounts to an annual torment that puts foreign investors in Hong Kong to unnecessary risks and variables, factors that could prompt an acceleration in capital outflows from the city.

Fifth, as far as Hong Kong’s economy is concerned, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act is effectively like the sword of Damocles hanging over its head.

The negative impact of the new law would be substantial if the White House is bent on using it and leveraging it as a weapon. And what if Washington's allies, particularly the European Union, decide to follow suit?

Lastly, by enacting the bill, Washington could fuel the social unrest in Hong Kong further in the name of defending human rights and freedoms, making Hong Kong a pawn in the great power rivalry between the US and China.

At the end of the day, it is the Hong Kong people that could end up getting hurt as the city suffers both politically and economically.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 26

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

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President of the Association of Hong Kong Professionals