The House passed on Tuesday legislation aimed at helping Hong Kong democracy activists in their fight to preserve political freedoms from encroachment by mainland China.
The most important of the three bills, which passed by voice vote under suspension of the rules, would threaten Hong Kong’s continued special trade status with the United States if the State Department is unable to certify that the city is sufficiently autonomous from Beijing. The status gives Hong Kong easier rules on foreign investment, customs and export regulations.
The legislation from Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J. would require the State Department to provide a yearly report to lawmakers confirming Hong Kong’s political autonomy from China. If Foggy Bottom is unable to make that certification, the city’s special trade status would have to be ended, in whole or in part.
The bill includes a waiver the president can use if he or she determines that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous but that it would not be in U.S. interests to revoke its special trade status. The legislation also gives the administration the flexibility in determining whether to end some or all of Hong Kong’s special privileges under U.S. law, which are formalized under the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act.
“The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act conveys to Beijing that it cannot undermine the city’s freedom while expecting America to still give that city preferential trade arrangements,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who leads the Foreign Affairs Asia-Pacific Subcommittee, in Tuesday floor remarks.
In addition, the House passed by voice vote under suspension of the rules two other Hong Kong-related measures. A bill from House Rules Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Mass., would forbid the export of guns, tear gas, pepper spray, and other crowd control and defense equipment to the Hong Kong police, which have been criticized for excessive and unnecessary force, including recently firing live ammunition, at protesters.
“People are furious about well-documented cases of excessive force, brutal tactics and the tolerance of violence against protesters and journalists by the government,” Smith said from the floor. “The Hong Kong police’s actions are a cause in and of themselves of protest.”
The third and final Hong Kong measure from Sherman criticizes China’s violations of Hong Kong’s sovereignty.
All three measures were advanced to the floor unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in late September.
Democracy protesters in Hong Kong have publicly pleaded for lawmakers to push through the three measures. On Monday, more than 130,000 protesters rallied in Hong Kong to urge Congress to pass the legislation.
“This sends a clear and unambiguous message to Hong Kongers and China — the U.S. will hold the Chinese government accountable to their infringements on Hong Kong’s autonomy and human rights, and the Hong Kong government will have to answer for the violent crackdown and abuses of pro-democracy protesters,” Samuel Chu, managing director of the Washington-based nonprofit Hong Kong Democracy Council, said in a statement. “HKDC now calls on the U.S. Senate and the White House to follow suit immediately and pass and sign the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law.”
The Senate has its own version of the Hong Kong democracy legislation, which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced out of committee in September.
“In Congress, Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate stand united with the people of Hong Kong,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in floor remarks. “If America does not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests then we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights anywhere in the world.”