The US Senate’s passage on Tuesday of legislation that warns Beijing against encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy has focused attention on whether US President Donald Trump will sign the final bill into law.
While the recent spotlight has been on the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, there remain more than 150 other pending bills that aim to counter China on multiple fronts – from the economic to the ideological – that could wind up on Trump’s desk.
The glut of anti-China legislation underscores the enthusiasm for one of the few issues that the two US political parties agree on, and one that Republicans are willing to foist upon their leader, who has been trying to wrangle a trade agreement with Beijing for more than a year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Trump’s most important ally in Congress, helped give the Hong Kong bill – which had broad bipartisan support – the push it needed this week. Senator James Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and others had publicly called on McConnell to work with him and the bill’s sponsor, Senator Marco Rubio, to move it towards passage.
The Kentucky Republican joined as a cosponsor of the bill on Monday as Rubio and Risch pressed for its approval. McConnell then urged Trump “not to shy away from speaking out on Hong Kong himself”. Also on Monday, he criticised Beijing for the government’s mass internment of ethnic Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
Prompted by a New York Times report based on hundreds of pages of leaked Chinese Communist Party documents on the internment camps, McConnell called the system “a handbook for this Orwellian campaign to effectively erase a religious and ethnic minority in a region that is supposed to be legally distinct from the rest of China”.
The Chinese government has called the Uygur camps “boarding schools” and defended them as part of a campaign to root out and prevent terrorism.
The Uygur Human Rights Policy Act, passed by the Senate in September, is among the many bills targeting China that might make it to Trump’s desk. Nearly identical legislation awaits passage in the House of Representatives, where it has been cosponsored by more than a quarter of the chamber, a ratio higher than what the House version of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act had before it was passed unanimously.
The Uygur bill would require the US director of national intelligence to report to Congress on “security threats caused by the Chinese government's reported crackdown” on Uygurs, “the frequency with which other governments are forcibly returning Turkic Muslim refugees and asylum seekers to China, and the development or transfer of technology that facilitates mass internment and surveillance”.
Vocal support from the Senate majority leader marks an inflection point in the bipartisan drive in Congress to counter China, said Robert Sutter, a professor of practice of international affairs at George Washington University.
“McConnell's statement on China, Hong Kong and Uygurs seemed to be a big benchmark, given his reluctance to take a leading position critic of China in the past,” Sutter said.
Just a day after the Senate passed the Hong Kong act, the House voted 417-1 to approve that version, officially dispatching the bill to the White House, where Trump will have 10 days to decide whether to sign or veto it.
Still before Congress are more than 150 other pieces of legislation either devoted specifically to China, such as the China Technology Transfer Control Act, or with provisions relating to it, including the National Defence Authorisation Act, which must be passed annually.
Subjects of the legislation include cybersecurity, the fentanyl trade, political influence operations, trade and investment, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Like the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which could significantly threaten the trade and economic relationship Washington has with the semi-autonomous city, some bills have the potential to interrupt international trade and investment.
For example, the China Technology Transfer Control Act, with versions in both the House and Senate, would require the US secretary of state and the commerce secretary to formulate a list of “national interest technologies” that could no longer be sold or transferred to China and would authorise sanctions against anyone found to have violated the order.
“I don't think we're quite at the point of being able to make an assessment … of how much of this [legislation] is going to get passed,” said Anna Ashton, senior director of business advisory services and government affairs at the Washington-based US-China Business Council.
“I do think that it's reasonable to anticipate that national security issues are going to continue to be a driving concern on the Hill and that they're going to result in legislative action that does have an impact on commerce, on US companies that are engaged in business with China,” she said.
“That's an area where we're going to have to continue to try to engage in the conversation and help inform policymakers with their thinking through how to address the problems they're seeing in ways that don't inadvertently damage US interests,” Ashton added.
Legislation pertaining to companies with pharmaceutical supply chains in China and Chinese companies listed on capital markets in the US are among the measures that could be disruptive for businesses, she said.
Still, while the pile of legislation looms, some pundits dismiss concerns that it will lead to any significant or long-lasting damage.
The passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act “should not be considered as a game changer that indicates other bills about China will now have an easy time to pass,” said Arthur Kroeber, head of research at Gavekal Dragonomics, a financial services company headquartered in Hong Kong.
“The reason this bill passed the Senate was mostly because it was a relatively easy thing to say yes to,” Kroeber said. “The bill asks the US government to review the status of Hong Kong, which is less substantive than some of the other bills about investment and capital, for example.”
“Coming into the 2020 election year, it would become more difficult for lawmakers to organise to pass other pending bills,” he added.
Trump has made victory in the trade war he started in July 2018 a key objective.
Beijing wasted no time in threatening him with retaliation if he signs the Hong Kong Act.
In a statement after passage in the Senate, the Chinese foreign ministry said Foreign Vice-Minister Ma Zhaoxu had summoned William Klein, the US embassy’s minister counsellor for political affairs.
“China will take strong opposing measures, and the US has to bear all the consequences,” the statement said.
Additional reporting by Jodi Xu Klein
More from South China Morning Post:
- Hong Kong human rights bill clears US Congress, is sent to Donald Trump to sign into law
- US Senate rush to pass Hong Kong democracy bill brings growing concerns over city’s future into focus
- China summons US diplomat, vows to retaliate if Donald Trump signs Hong Kong democracy act into law