WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed legislation aimed at protecting human rights in Hong Kong, one day after a unanimous vote in the Senate drew condemnation from Beijing as an unwarranted interference in its domestic affairs.
The bill now heads to President Donald Trump’s desk. The White House had no comment on the legislation after the 417-1 House vote. Trump is expected to sign the legislation even though it could further complicate his efforts to reach a preliminary trade deal with China, after the bill garnered veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
“Today, the Congress is sending an unmistakable message to the world that the United States stands in solidarity with freedom-loving people of Hong Kong, and we fully support their fight for freedom,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during consideration of the bill.
House members on both sides of the aisle brushed off a warning from a Chinese government spokesperson that “China will have to take strong countermeasures to defend our national sovereignty, security and development interests if the U.S. continues to make the wrong moves.”
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, S. 1838 (116), would require the secretary of state to certify, at least once a year, whether Hong Kong continues to have enough control over its own affairs to warrant maintaining its special trade status under U.S. law.
It would also empower the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Hong Kong or Chinese officials who take actions that violate human rights.
“I urge the president to sign this critical bill into law as soon as possible,” Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a statement after the House vote, reflecting the view of many lawmakers.
The congressional action follows six months of increasingly violent protests in Hong Kong that are driven by concerns that the former British colony’s democratic traditions are increasingly being eroded by Beijing.
It also comes amid increasing speculation that Trump’s efforts to wrap up talks with China on a “phase one” trade agreement could slip into 2020, despite his announcement last month that the two sides reached an agreement in principle.
Trump on Wednesday downplayed the importance of reaching any deal, saying he was content to keep collecting tariffs he has imposed on more than $350 billion worth of Chinese goods.
“We continue to talk to China. China wants to make a deal. The question is: Do I want to make a deal? Because I like what’s happening right now. We’re taking in billions and billions of dollars,” Trump told reporters.
Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control on July 1, 1997, under a treaty negotiated by China and the United Kingdom that guaranteed the city “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs.”
“Today, it is beyond question that China has utterly broken that promise,” Pelosi said. “America has been watching for years as the people of Hong Kong have been increasingly denied their full autonomy and faced a cruel crackdown on their freedoms and an escalation of violence.”
The attacks this week by Hong Kong police on university students “have shocked the world as unconscionable and unacceptable,” Pelosi added.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), co-sponsor of a similar House bill that won approval last month, likened the events in Hong Kong to the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square that ended in a massacre by government troops.
“Tragically under President Xi Jinping, human rights abuse throughout China has significantly worsened,” Smith said. “We stand in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong. There will be strong sanctions, other ramifications, for this crackdown, for this abuse of power.”
The House also passed a second bill, 417-0, that would ban the export of certain crowd-control munitions to Hong Kong police forces, including tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns. The Senate passed the legislation on Tuesday.