Senior US lawmakers have introduced legislation aimed at pressuring Hong Kong to shelve an extradition bill that critics say would further erode the autonomy that the former British colony was guaranteed on its handover to mainland China.
The move, which increases pressure on the territory’s government to suspend the bill, came as a senior adviser to Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, suggested the bill could be delayed and activists in the territory called for another mass demonstration on Sunday.
Members of the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China – led by Democratic congressman Jim McGovern and Republican senator Marco Rubio – introduced a measure that would require the US secretary of state to certify every year that Hong Kong remains autonomous from mainland China. Failure to certify would mean that Hong Kong would lose certain trade-related privileges with the US that are not enjoyed by mainland China.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would also require the US president to determine who was responsible for the abductions and renditions to mainland China of Hong Kong booksellers and businessmen.
The legislation against the extradition bill, which Hong Kong’s government argues is needed to plug a loophole favouring criminal fugitives in the territory, would also require the US commerce department to issue an annual report to determine if the trading and financial hub was enforcing US regulations on the export of sensitive technologies.
“As over 1m Hong Kongers take to the streets protesting amendments to the territory’s extradition law, the US must send a strong message that we stand with those peacefully advocating for freedom and the rule of law and against Beijing’s growing interference in Hong Kong affairs,” Mr Rubio said.
The proposed legislation would update the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act, which allows the US to treat Hong Kong differently to mainland China in terms of trading privileges. While the 1992 act also requires the state department to produce an annual report on Hong Kong, the new legislation would require the president to actively certify that Hong Kong remained sufficiently autonomous to continue to qualify for the privileges afforded under the 1992 law. The Hong Kong government did not immediately respond to the proposed changes to the Act.
The much tougher posture that Congress has towards China will inevitably bleed over into how Congress views what is happening in Hong Kong – that the Chinese are not abiding by their commitment and are essentially threatening democracy in Hong Kong
Bonnie Glaser, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Mr Rubio and his co-sponsors introduced a similar bill two years ago but it did not have enough support to pass through the Senate foreign relations committee. The new version appears to have more chance of success since it was co-sponsored by Jim Risch, the Republican head of the foreign relations committee, and Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the panel.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, has also backed the legislation, which consists of companion bills in the House and Senate. On Thursday, she urged Donald Trump to raise the issue with President Xi Jinping as part of their trade discussions. The two leaders will meet at the G20 summit in Japan this month.
Larry Kudlow, the top White House economic adviser, on Thursday said: “I’m just asking a simple question here regarding the values, norms, structures, rules of the Chinese government hierarchy. Do they want the kind of liberalisation that we are pressing for on the trade front? When you see what’s going on in Hong Kong you kind of raise your eyebrows.”
The Hong Kong protests against the extradition bill erupted into violence on Wednesday after clashes between protesters and police.
In Hong Kong an activist group, the Civil Human Rights Front, called on Friday for another protest on Sunday and again on Monday outside the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s de facto parliament.
The group organised a protest last Sunday that it said drew more than 1m people – the territory’s largest demonstration since its handover to China in 1997. Legco was due to debate the extradition bill last Wednesday and pass it next week but postponed the debate without setting a new date for its resumption.
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has insisted the bill will be pushed through. But on Friday one of her top advisers, Bernard Chan, said in a phone interview with a local radio station that he thought it would be “impossible” and “very difficult” to continue discussion of the extradition bill in light of the “massive conflict” on Wednesday.
Anson Chan, head of the Hong Kong civil service before and immediately after the handover, said Congress was becoming more supportive of Hong Kong as the anti-China mood in the US capital became more pronounced.
“It is almost as if in Congress, and in the state department, they have suddenly woken up to the importance of Hong Kong as an outpost for liberal values and as a barometer for what goes on in the mainland and the attitude of the Beijing leaders,” she said.
Highlighting the criticism of the extradition bill in Washington and the mounting anti-China stance in Congress, Republican senator Ted Cruz joined forces with Democratic senator Ed Markey to introduce separate legislation that would require the secretary of state to produce a report on how mainland China uses Hong Kong “to circumvent US export controls, customs duties and sanctions, as well as conduct espionage and influence operations”.
The White House declined to comment on both of the congressional bills introduced on Thursday.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she expected lawmakers would take a tougher stance than they did during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution mass pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and that they would “lean on the administration” to adopt a harsher response.
“The much tougher posture that Congress has towards China will inevitably bleed over into how Congress views what is happening in Hong Kong – that the Chinese are not abiding by their commitment and are essentially threatening democracy in Hong Kong,” said Ms Glaser.
Leslie Tisdale Reagan of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said there was more congressional support for Hong Kong now because the anti-China sentiment had become much tougher in recent years.
She said that in contrast to the response to the Umbrella Revolution, the extradition bill had a more direct impact on US security. She said Beijing had increasingly shown that it planned to “erode” autonomy in Hong Kong. “The context is so different from 2014.”
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi