HONG KONG - Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates are urging the U.S. Congress to pass a human rights bill that could impose trade sanctions on this international financial center, a measure that critics say could cause more harm than good.
At a massive pro-American, pro-democracy rally on Monday evening in central Hong Kong, supporters called for the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that would put at risk Hong Kong’s special economic status with the United States and impose sanctions on officials who are deemed to be “suppressing basic freedoms.” The bill has bipartisan support and is expected to be brought up in the House for consideration as soon as this week. However it remains in committee in the Senate with no set timeline for legislative action.
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An 18-year-old student who spoke out at the rally said the U.S. human rights bill, “will be the most powerful weapon we have so far against the Chinese communists.” The student said he would not give his name for fear of retaliation from the Hong Kong government.
For more than four months pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have taken to the streets, holding mass rallies and marches, to oppose what they see as efforts from the Beijing government to erode their civil liberties and their autonomy. While a part of China, Hong Kong has been allowed to maintain its own political and legal systems under a “one country – two systems” agreement.
Pro-democracy supporters are encouraged to see the United States take a strong stand in support of their movement.
“It’s time for the world to react, because this is not only a fight for Hong Kong people, it’s a fight for the whole world, it’s a fight for democracy and freedom. And that’s what the Americans stand for,” said Ken Yu at Monday’s rally.
Two Republicans senators, Ted Cruz from Texas and Josh Hawley from Missouri, were in Hong Kong over the weekend to support the democracy protesters, who are demanding democratic reforms that include universal suffrage. Currently Hong Kong voters elect about half the legislature, committees representing business interests select a number of seats, and Beijing appoints the city chief executive.
“Sometimes the fate of one city defines a challenge of a whole generation. Fifty years ago it was Berlin. Today, it’s Hong Kong,” said Senator Hawley on Twitter.
Senator Cruz told journalists in Hong Kong that Chief Executive Carrie Lam canceled a scheduled meeting with him after he refused to keep the conversation confidential.
"She seems to misunderstand how free speech operates, and also how freedom of the press operates," said Cruz, a vocal critic of China.
Pro-Beijing officials in Hong Kong, who could be targeted for sanctions under the U.S. human rights bill, see it as unwarranted interference in Hong Kong’s autonomy.
If the Americans want to intervene in our affairs, such as dictating the pace of democratic development, they're interfering in our high level of autonomy. It's not for them to judge,” said Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing member of the Hong Kong legislature and the chairperson of the New People’s Party.
Many business leaders see possible trade sanctions as harming the people of Hong Kong, who would suffer from the loss of jobs and the flight of capital from this global financial center.
Hong Kong continues to be rated the world’s freest economy by the Heritage Foundation, for its high level of free trade, few restrictions on foreign ownership, and strong government integrity. However, the Washington D.C.-based conservative think tank also noted that political freedoms in Hong Kong have “been strained by PRC [People’s Republic of China] political interference in recent years.”
President Donald Trump has downplayed the democracy protests in Hong Kong while emphasizing resolving difficult trade talks with China.
Richard Bush, an analyst with the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said by openly encouraging the protests in Hong Kong, Washington may give Beijing an excuse to crack down against the democracy movement that the Chinese have long charged was instigated by the United States.
“Anything that we do that seems like it's taking the side of the protesters will only confirm for Beijing's propagandists that we really are trying to create a color revolution in their terms,” said Bush.
On a visit this week to Nepal, Chinese President Xi Jinping said anyone attempting to split China “will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.”
Recent protests have resulted in clashes between police and protesters, and provoked condemnation from pro-Beijing officials, who call the emboldened protesters “terrorists.”