Republican lawmakers are set to face off against President Donald Trump as they push for approval of a Hong Kong human rights bill that could further upend relations with China and derail a preliminary trade deal.
“We need to send a clear signal that we stand with the people of Hong Kong and if they [China] go in by military force against the agreement they had in 1997, we’ll respond in the most fierce way,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
New enthusiasm for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act among the president’s closest congressional allies is a further test to the White House’s efforts to stay one-step ahead of the anti-China sentiment brewing on Capitol Hill.
The Hong Kong legislation, which was passed last week in the House by a voice vote, would require the administration to deliver annual reports assessing whether the territory is autonomous enough from Beijing to justify its special trading status.
It would also place economic sanctions on people accused of violating the terms of Hong Kong’s autonomy from mainland China that was agreed to in 1997 when the territory was handed over by the United Kingdom.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he had no updates on when the bill may be taken up in the upper chamber. The White House declined to comment on the legislation.
Still, taking a hard line on China has emerged as one of the few areas of clear bipartisan consensus. Lawmakers from both parties have introduced more than 150 bills in the current Congress aimed at pushing back against the Chinese government.
While Trump has appeared tough on China’s trade policies after imposing tariffs on roughly $350 billion worth of goods, he has been accused of turning a blind eye to Beijing’s human rights abuses while offering praise to the country’s communist regime and its leader, Xi Jinping. The escalating tensions over Hong Kong protests have led to a sense of urgency among lawmakers to step in where the administration won‘t.
“If China doesn’t uphold the standards that we agree to, I don’t want to trade with them,” said Rep. Ted Yoho, a Florida Republican who serves as the top GOP member of the House Foreign Affairs Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation Subcommittee.
In the quest to reach a landmark trade deal with Beijing, the administration has shown a slow going approach on other fronts, such as human rights and defending Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
“It’s been over a year now that every time Congress gets spun up about something on China, the administration does something meaningless to deflect it,” said Derek Scissors, a China expert and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
But the administration may be ready to signal a tougher stance. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to give a speech on Thursday that is expected to be a harsh criticism of Beijing. The event, however, has been delayed by several months in what was seen as deference to the ongoing trade talks.
The speech could be timed to take some pressure off efforts to pass the Hong Kong bill, Scissors said.
“I think he’s going to try to say something to take the pressure off,” he said, adding that even if the Hong Kong bill doesn’t do anything drastic, if Congress starts “making laws to intervene in what China sees as its internal affairs, that’s like the big gun“ when compared to any executive action that could be easily issued.
China has already warned that it would take “strong countermeasures” if the bill becomes law. “It would not only harm China’s interests and China-U.S. relations, but would also seriously damage U.S. interests,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said last week in Beijing.
All this is happening as Trump pushes for a so-called “phase one” agreement that would de-escalate U.S. tariffs in exchange for China significantly boosting its purchases of U.S. farm goods. The agreement, which Trump wants to sign next month, could provide comfort in the coming election year to an important rural voter base that has been battered by the trade fight.
Trump reportedly told the Chinese president in June he would stay quiet on Hong Kong as trade talks progressed. The president later denied that exchange took place and said negotiations could be affected should anything “bad” happen in the Chinese territory that has been the scene of regular pro-democracy protests that have often turned violent.
The administration has also been accused of slow walking a response to allegations of Beijing’s repression and mass detention of Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups in western China.
However, the White House preempted an effort by Democratic lawmakers to bolster proposed House legislation directing the administration to take action on the issue after the administration this month rolled out similar export and visa restriction policies just two weeks ago that had been under consideration for much of the past year.
“The president can’t afford to look weaker than Congress and he certainly can’t look weaker than the Democrats for political reasons,” said former Rep. Charles Boustany, who co-chaired the U.S.-China Working Group during his tenure in Congress.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said he wants the legislation to move as soon as possible.
Rubio, known for his hawkish views toward China, has introduced numerous other bills aimed at Beijing. Some elements of those, such as tightening investment and capital restrictions on Chinese companies, are being discussed internally at the White House as other potential ways to hit Beijing.
He blamed the delay on a “traffic jam” of funding bills. “I hope there’s nothing deeper than that involved,” he added.
The Hong Kong bill was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with a unanimous vote. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), who chairs the panel, said he also has not been given any indication on when it may come for a full senate vote.
“There’s a lot of discussions going on on it but I think the primary thing is the fact that we’re so short of time on the floor,” Risch said.
Graham linked his support for the Hong Kong bill to his strong opposition to Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, effectively abandoning Kurdish allies to a Turkish military offensive.
“The perception of abandoning the Kurds is going to give open season to other thuggish regimes like China who want come after Hong Kong thinking we will not support them,” Graham said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee in charge of trade issues in the upper chamber, said he “definitely” supports the Hong Kong bill.
“All we’re really asking is that China live up to what it agreed to,” he said.