Donald Trump inauguration

United States Congress set to introduce Hong Kong human rights act ‘in coming days’

Bill proposed in wake of disappearances of five Causeway Bay booksellers looks to target officials responsible for suppressing freedoms

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 4:05pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 10:18pm

The United States Congress looks set to introduce a human rights act on Hong Kong “in the coming days” as Donald Trump takes his anti-China rhetoric to the presidency, the Post has learned.

“I look forward to reintroducing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in the coming days,” Marco Rubio, co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said in an email through a spokesman on Tuesday. “America must show leadership and support these values in our foreign policy.”

The bill was proposed in the wake of the disappearances of five Causeway Bay booksellers in 2015 who later turned up in the custody of mainland authorities. It proposed punitive measures against any government officials in Hong Kong or the mainland responsible for suppressing basic freedoms in the city.

The law would require the US president to identify persons responsible for the surveillance, abduction, detention or forced confessions of booksellers and journalists in Hong Kong or other actions suppressing basic freedoms, and to freeze their US-based assets and deny them entry into the country.

Trump’s ascension to the presidency has raised hopes among democracy activists in Hong Kong that the US will take a harder line against China on the city’s democratic development.

In recent weeks Trump has questioned the one-China policy which governs America’s relationship with Taiwan and made overtures of support to Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, sparking a fresh point of contention with Beijing.

Trump’s words have left Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp waiting to see if they will find an ally in the incoming leader.

The guest list for Trump’s inauguration in Washington on Friday includes Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the city’s former No 2 official turned democracy activist. Chan, who was invited by her Republican contacts, said she hoped to meet the president-elect.

Under the Obama administration, the US government has ­spoken out from time to time on issues such as the Occupy ­pro-democracy protests and the ­disappearances of the Causeway Bay booksellers.

“Hong Kong is a critical global financial hub and well known to Mr Trump, his powerful inner circle of global financial players and, of course, many members of his likely cabinet,” said Nirav Patel, president of The Asia Group, a US-based consultancy firm.

The former deputy assistant secretary of state for the US government’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs called it the “right game plan” for Trump to support the “unique qualities of Hong Kong’s political culture and system”.

“The president-elect’s actions since the election – as evidenced by his commitment to double down on strategic engagement with India and Japan and stand up against Chinese assertiveness – demonstrate that he is committed to standing with and up for America’s Asian allies and partners,” Patel said.

What does a Trump presidency mean for China?

But any political involvement in the city’s affairs will no doubt fuel Beijing’s unease over what it calls “interference” by foreign governments in Hong Kong civil society.

Pro-Beijing politicians have claimed that the student-led Occupy movement, which paralysed the city’s central business district in 2014, was plotted by foreign governments, referring indirectly to the US and Britain in particular.

Outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying vowed to provide evidence of foreign meddling in the political movement but never followed up on his pledge.

Trump’s inauguration coincides with the start of election season for the city’s top job. On the agenda will be how the next chief executive handles the contentious issue of universal suffrage, and whether the following election five years from now sees the city’s leader chosen not by the 1,200-member Election Committee but by all Hong Kong voters.

While pro-democracy figures like Chan hope Trump’s administration will support their cause, some observers question the president-elect’s level of interest in the city’s democratic development.

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“There are differences between Taiwan and Hong Kong issues from a US policy perspective,” said Professor Richard Hu Weixing, head of the University of Hong Kong’s department of politics and public administration. Unlike Taiwan, he said, Hong Kong was not a “sensitive and defining issue” between the US and China.

While Washington might “weigh in to support Hong Kong’s democratisation process for ideological reasons and political value” and Trump could “escalate tension over Hong Kong if there is a highly contentious US-China relationship”, Hu said such a situation was unlikely in the near future, adding that Hong Kong was “not high on [Trump’s] agenda”.

Strong tensions between the two powers might not work out in the city’s favour. On the business side at least, Hong Kong would be vulnerable in the event of a US-China trade war.

Writing on the implications of a Trump presidency for Asia, Nomura analysts Young Sun Kwon and Minoru Nogimori said: “Hong Kong is the entrepôt for a significant amount of business between China and the US.”

They noted that declining trade volumes would be negative for local businesses in packaging exports from the mainland destined for the US.