The US Senate has unanimously passed legislation aimed at protecting human rights in Hong Kong amid a crackdown on a pro-democracy protest movement, drawing condemnation from Beijing.
Following the voice vote, the Hong Kong human rights and democracy bill will go to the House of Representatives, which approved its own version last month. The two chambers will have to work out their differences before any legislation can be sent to President Donald Trump for his consideration.
“The people of Hong Kong see what’s coming – they see the steady effort to erode the autonomy and their freedoms,” Republican senator Marco Rubio said at the start of the brief Senate debate, accusing Beijing of being behind the “violence and repression” in the Asian financial hub.
Under the first Senate bill, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo would have to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for special US trading consideration that bolsters its status as a world financial center. It also would provide for sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong.
There was no immediate response from the White House, which has yet to say whether Trump would approve the human rights bill. A US official said recently that no decision had been made, but the unanimous Senate vote could make a veto more difficult for the Republican president.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said if the measure got to Trump*s desk there would probably be an intense debate between Trump aides worried it could undermine trade talks with China and those who believe it is time to take a stand against China on human rights and Hong Kong’s status.
In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the passage of the human rights bill, and vowed strong counter-measures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.
“This act neglects facts and truth, applies double standards and blatantly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement. “It is in serious violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations. China condemns and firmly opposes it.”
The United States must immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs, or “the negative consequences will boomerang on itself”, Geng added.
Pompeo said on Monday the United States was gravely concerned about Hong Kong’s deepening unrest and violence, urging the city’s government to tackle public concerns and China to honour the promises it made to maintain liberties after taking back the territory from British rule in 1997.
Pompeo addressed the issue again on Tuesday before leaving the United States for a NATO meeting in Brussels.
“We continue to urge everyone to do this peacefully,” he told reporters. “There is a political resolution of this that is achievable, we hope that’ll be the path forward.“
Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain handed it back to China.
Demonstrators in Hong Kong have been protesting in the streets amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.
Several dozen are trapped inside Polytechnic University in the city centre by a police cordon. A standoff between protesters and police at the campus has reached its third day.
Following passage of the bill, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said, “We have sent a message to President Xi (Jinping): Your suppression of freedom, whether in Hong Kong, in northwest China or in anywhere else, will not stand.
“You cannot be a great leader – and you cannot be a great country – when you oppose freedom, when you are so brutal to the people of Hong Kong, young and old, who are protesting.”
Xinjiang, in northwest China, is home to many mostly Muslim Uighurs, large numbers of whom have been detained in what China says are vocational training centers, but which some US officials have called “concentration camps.“