More high-ranking American senators have signed onto legislation aimed at supporting democracy in Hong Kong, just days after thousands of protesters in the city marched in front of the US consulate there to call for support from the US government for their cause.
Susan Collins, a Republican representing Maine, and Kristen Gillibrand, a New York state Democrat, were among the four senators who co-sponsored the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 on Monday, which brings the current sponsors to nearly twice the number that signed on when Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and one of the Senate’s most vocal critics of China, introduced the bill in June.
“The United States must make clear to China that its interference in Hong Kong’s affairs will have consequences,” Rubio said. “This month we must pass the bicameral and bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.”
“The United States and other free nations must hold China to its promise to the world in a legally-binding treaty with Britain that it will fully respect Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms,” Rubio added, referring to the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, under which the two governments agreed China would reassume control of Hong Kong.
The additional congressional support for the bill, which would require the US government to assess Hong Kong’s level of political autonomy annually to determine whether it should continue to have a special trade status, comes as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee works to bring the legislation to a vote.
The special administrative region of China has that status per the US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, a measure taken to keep business and other ties to the city intact after its 1997 handover from the UK to Beijing.
“The committee is working on a bipartisan basis on finalising text of the bill and it could move in the next few weeks, pending that final text,” Suzanne Wrasse, the committee’s director, said in an emailed response to questions.
Washington is increasingly getting drawn into the political unrest in Hong Kong, where anti-government demonstrations have been erupting regularly for more than three months.
Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, on Tuesday expressed “deep regret” over the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, calling it a move to “interfere with SAR affairs”.
While Lam did not name the individuals, pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, including Joshua Wong Chi-fung, have called for the legislation to be passed. Wong is leader of Hong Kong’s Demosisto pro-democracy movement.
Speaking in an interview last month, Hong Kong’s recently departed US consul general, Kurt Tong, said passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would make more sense than defining specific conditions under which the Hong Kong Policy Act would be altered.
Tong, who retired from the post on July 5 and is now a partner at Washington-based risk consultancy The Asia Group, said of Rubio’s legislation: “The applications are less severe than an actual change to the Hong Kong Policy Act or a change in the implementation of the Hong Kong policy”.
“It's hard to imagine a situation where that report would say anything other than what it said earlier this year, which is that Hong Kong has a high degree of autonomy but it's headed in the wrong direction,” Tong said.
Rubio’s legislation comes at a time of rising suspicion about China among lawmakers of both parties in Washington.
Chris Smith, a Republican representing a district in New Jersey, introduced a similar version of Rubio’s bill in the House of Representatives with six co-sponsors. That number has risen to 21, including four who signed on last week.
The newest co-sponsors of Smith’s version of the bill include Pete Olson, a Republican from Texas, and Harley Rouda, a Democrat from California.
Additional reporting by Owen Churchill.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Hong Kong protesters warned not to try Beijing’s patience as Chinese state media denounces rally at US consulate
- Hong Kong leader vows not to let US become a stakeholder in city’s affairs, and calls on anti-government protesters to stop asking Washington for help
- US making ‘unnecessary’ link between human rights and trade, Hong Kong commerce chief Edward Yau says
- Hongkongers march on US consulate to call for human rights help