Bipartisan delegation to raise issue of sanctions mechanism under Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in US talks

Natalie Wong

A bipartisan group of executive councillors and opposition lawmakers will raise the issue of the sanctions mechanism under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in a meeting with US officials in California, according to delegation members.

The visit of the seven-member Hong Kong delegation, financed by the US Department of State, is the first since President Donald Trump signed the act into law in November amid accusations by Beijing of meddling in China’s internal affairs.

Regina Ip is in the seven-member delegation visiting the US. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The act requires the US government to assess Hong Kong’s levels of human rights and democracy each year to determine whether Washington can continue to grant trade privileges under the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act. It also allows for diplomatic action and economic sanctions against the city’s government and officials.

The four-day programme, themed the “US-Hong Kong Dialogue”, was organised by the non-partisan World Affairs Council in San Francisco and kicked off with a dinner on Thursday to welcome the visitors.

According to Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who sits on the Hong Kong leader’s cabinet, the Executive Council, among those at the dinner were the State Department’s Jonathan Fritz, deputy assistant secretary for China, Mongolia, and Taiwan Coordination Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs; Jennifer Hendrixson White, a senior staff member for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; and Hanscom Smith, the US consul general for Hong Kong and Macau.

“More people from Washington were supposed to come but had to bow out because of the coronavirus outbreak,” Ip said.

The dialogue is “a meaningful opportunity for senior officials from Hong Kong and the United States to deepen the mutual understanding and exchange that has long been a hallmark of US-Hong Kong ties,” a US State Department spokesperson said, without elaborating on the agenda.

The event “builds on the momentum of last year’s US-Hong Kong Legislative Exchange, which was convened by the Mansfield Foundation in August 2019 in Montana”, the spokesperson added.

Ip, who is also a lawmaker, said key topics for discussion on Friday would surround relations between the two places within the framework of the legislation and the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act.

Horace Cheung said any sanctions would harm US interests in Hong Kong. Photo: David Wong

Fellow executive councillor and lawmaker Horace Cheung Kwok-kwan, vice-chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said he would reiterate their opposition to any possible sanctions under the act.

“Any sanctions [against officials or individuals] are unnecessary and will harm the interests of Americans in Hong Kong,” he said. “The independence of our judiciary remains intact.”

The legislation includes a requirement that the US government produces an annual report – due to be submitted to Congress by the end of the month – assessing whether Hong Kong has retained enough autonomy from China to continue the city’s distinct trading status.

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The law also calls for sanctions against any individuals or entities deemed to have violated freedoms guaranteed under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

The pro-establishment camp rarely makes high-profile trips to meet the US' executive and legislative branches.

The delegation includes Exco convenor Bernard Chan and councillor Martin Liao Cheung-kong, and opposition lawmakers Jeremy Tam Man-ho, Kenneth Leung and Charles Mok.

Tam said he would follow up on how to initiate the sanctions mechanism against local officials, the police chief and pro-establishment figures in relation to alleged abuses during the months-long anti-government protests.

Samuel Chu, managing director of the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, said given the bipartisan make-up of the delegation, he expected the two acts would be discussed in “general and conservative terms”.

“While I think this meeting won’t get into the real meat, I think it always helps to have lawmakers ask questions and share their perspectives [with US officials] face to face,” he said.

His group planned to host a two-day conference next week in Washington to explain the effects and limits of the sanctions for US groups, with Republican Senator Rick Scott and Democrat Representative Jim McGovern expected to attend.

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney

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