WASHINGTON: The Senate unanimously passed a bill yesterday aimed at supporting protesters in Hong Kong and warning China against a violent suppression of the demonstrations, a stark contrast to President Donald Trump’s near-silence on the issue.
The vote marks a challenge to the government in Beijing just as the US and China, the world’s largest economies, seek to close a preliminary agreement to end their trade war.
The Senate measure would require annual reviews of Hong Kong’s special status under US law to assess the extent to which China has chipped away the city’s autonomy.
“The United States has treated commerce and trade with Hong Kong differently than it has commercial and trade activity with the mainland of China,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the bill’s lead sponsor, said on the Senate floor.
“But what’s happened over the last few years is the steady effort on the part of Chinese authorities to erode that autonomy and those freedoms.”
Hong Kong’s position as a global financial hub has already been shaken by months of protests and police responses that have grown increasingly violent.
US lawmakers have voiced strong support for the demonstrators and warned China against responding with violence.
The legislation comes at a difficult time for Trump as his administration is trying to complete the first phase of a long-awaited trade deal with China.
Vice-President Mike Pence said it would be difficult for the US to sign a trade agreement with China if the demonstrations in Hong Kong are met with violence.
“The president’s made it clear it’ll be very hard for us to do a deal with China if there’s any violence or if that matter is not treated properly and humanely,” Pence said in an interview with Indianapolis-based radio host Tony Katz.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday urged Trump to personally voice support for the protesters, which he hasn’t yet done.
Nor has Trump indicated whether he would sign the legislation if it gets to his desk.
The House unanimously passed a similar bill last month, but slight differences mean both chambers still have to pass the same version before sending it to the president.
The Senate measure passed by unanimous consent, which means there was no roll call vote because no senators objected to it.
Rubio said on Twitter before the vote the bill, S 1838, will “head over to the US House & then hopefully swiftly to the President.”
That is one option: The House could simply take up the Senate bill. The other option would be to reconcile the differences between the two versions and have both chambers vote on the compromise bill.
Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, the lead Republican sponsor of the House bill, said he expects the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees to go for the latter option to work out the slight differences.
He said the resulting compromise could be included in a defence bill slated for a vote later this year.
“We have to get it passed and we have to get it passed quickly,” Smith said.
“The legislation tells protesters that Congress has their back, that we are fully supportive of democracy and rule of law in Hong Kong.
“It tells Xi Jinping that there’s a price,” he said of China’s president.
“There’s one provision after another that says, ‘we’re not kidding.’”
The bill would also sanction Chinese officials deemed responsible for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.
The Senate also unanimously passed a bill to ban the export of munitions such as tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets to the Hong Kong police force.
The House would still have to pass the same version of this measure as well for it to go to Trump to be signed into law.
Quest for power
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly warned that there would be “strong countermeasures” for passing legislation supporting the Hong Kong protesters.
That could affect the delicate negotiations between the world’s two largest economies to get the trade deal over the finish line.
“What was already complicated just got more complicated, and the bill’s passage adds to the growing list of political reasons why Xi and Trump are unlikely to find a compromise,” said Jude Blanchette, a China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“While Xi has more control over the domestic political environment in China, he’s not immune from the bad optics of negotiating with a government that he claims is tampering with his own political system.”
The timeline for completing the trade agreement could collide with this legislation landing on Trump’s desk.
A congressional aide said the Senate measure was drafted with help from Treasury and State Department officials, but a senior administration official on Monday cautioned that Trump’s seal of approval is the only one that matters.
Because the Hong Kong bill passed both the House and the Senate without a single lawmaker objecting, there would probably be enough support to override a presidential veto.
“Today’s vote sends a clear message that the United States will continue to stand with the people of Hong Kong as they battle Beijing’s imperialism,” said Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. “The Chinese Communist Party’s quest for power across the region is a direct threat to America’s security and prosperity.”