On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives approved the Senate’s version of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act by a vote of 417-1. On Tuesday, the Senate passed the bill unanimously. In October, the House of Representatives had passed its own version of the Bill with a unanimous voice vote. In the US, a Bill must be passed by both houses of the Congress (Representatives and Senate) in identical form. Once the same version of the Bill has been passed by both houses, it becomes a law after the President has signed it.
Even so, this is not the only China-related legislation pending in the US, since there are over 150 such legislations that aim to counter China, the South China Morning Post reported. Some of the other subjects include the mass internment of Uygurs, cybersecurity and Taiwan and the South China Sea among others.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed another Bill that would ban the export of certain crowd-control munitions such as tear gas to the Hong Kong police force in light of the anti-government protests that have been ongoing in Hong Kong for more than five months.
Most recently, over 1,100 protestors were arrested in one day after Hong Kong Police officers found about 3,900 petrol bombs in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Since the protests began, official statements from the Chinese government have accused foreign forces of interfering with domestic affairs by supporting the protestors.
Therefore, the passing of the Bill is believed to further strain US-China relations. An editorial in China’s People’s Daily said, “Turning a blind eye, individual US senators pushed for the bill, supporting the rioters. Talking about “democracy” and “human rights,” they act on behalf of Hong Kong residents and defend their own “right” to point fingers at Chinese affairs.” Read | Explained: Why Google has pulled an ‘anti-India’ app off Play Store
It further said, “The Chinese government is determined to protect national sovereignty, security and development interests, implement the “one country, two systems” policy and oppose any external force interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs.”
The latest versions of the Bill were introduced during the 116th (2019-2021) session of Congress in the midst of the anti-government or pro-democracy protests.
The protests began in June against the introduction of an extradition Bill (introduced in April) as per which certain criminal suspects could be extradited to China. Opponents of the Bill argued that it would give China greater powers to target activists and journalists, thereby undermining the region’s autonomy. Hong Kong, which is a former British Colony was handed back to China in 1997 and it has its own judiciary and a separate legal system.
While the Bill was withdrawn in September, the protests have since then escalated into a larger demand for universal suffrage. Significantly, Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China or the Basic Law will expire in 2047, and it is not clear what Hong Kong’s status will be after that. The “ultimate aim” of this law is to to select the Chief Executive and the members of the Legislative Council through universal suffrage.
Passage of the Bill
Before the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act came into the picture, the US-Hong Kong Policy Act, 1992 governed the country’s policies towards Hong Kong, allowing it to treat Hong Kong separately from mainland China for certain matters such as trade and transport. Then came the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2017, that would amend the ‘92 act. This was introduced in the 113th session of Congress (2013-2015) in light of the Hong Kong Chief Executive elections that were held in 2017. The Bills were subsequently introduced in the 114th (2015-2017) and 115th (2017-2019) session of the Congress. Also Read | Altaf Hussain: Once ‘king’ of Karachi, he now wants asylum in India
In February 2017, the bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was introduced by Senator Marco Rubio, “to reaffirm the United States’ historical commitment to freedom and democracy in Hong Kong at a time when its autonomy is increasingly under assault.” Both the House and Senate versions of the 2017 version of the Bill did not receive a vote, as a result of which the Bill wasn’t enacted.
Implications of the Act
Under the new Act, the US Secretary of State will have to annually certify if Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to be eligible for special treatment by the US. As per the provisions of the 92 law, the US President can suspend certain elements of this special status if Hong Kong is believed to be “not sufficient autonomous” from Beijing. Since Hong Kong is treated as a separate entity from China for economic transactions for instance, trade war tariffs that the US imposes on China do not apply to exports from Hong Kong. In the event that US starts considering Hong Kong ports as part of China, trade relations between Hong Kong and the US could be impacted.
Furthermore, as per the rights Bill, the US will also be able to impose sanctions on individuals responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong. It also has implications for visa applicants who have been arrested to convicted during the ongoing protests. Under the provisions of the Act, they cannot be denied a visa for participating in the protests. The US government can also freeze any US-based assets of individuals identified to have taken part in the abductions or extraditions of Hong Kong protestors.
Another non-binding resolution passed by the House of Representatives has condemned Beijing’s “interference” in Hong Kong’s affairs.
US-Hong Kong relations
US-Hong Kong relations are based on the framework of “one country, two systems” that is established in the Basic Law enacted by China’s National People’s Congress. As per this Act, it is established that the US government treat Hong Kong as a non-sovereign entity distinct from China for the purposes of US domestic law.
In its 2019 report on Hong Kong Policy Act, the US Department of State notes that between May 2018 and March 2019, China’s central government has instigated “a number of actions that appeared inconsistent with China’s commitments in the Basic Law”.
“The tempo of mainland central government intervention in Hong Kong affairs — and actions by the Hong Kong government consistent with mainland direction — increased, accelerating negative trends seen in previous periods,” it says.
The range of US-Hong Kong relations encompass trade, commerce, finance and law enforcement cooperation among others. In 2018, Hong Kong was the US’ largest bilateral trade-in-good surplus, at $31.1 billion. In 2017, Hong Kong was the fourth largest market for US exports of consumer-oriented agricultural products.
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