US senators revive bill that would punish officials who curtail Hong Kong democracy and freedom

Senator Marco Rubio says city’s ‘autonomy increasingly under assault’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 1:23pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 February, 2017, 11:14pm

Three US senators, including former presidential candidate Marco Rubio, reintroduced a shelved Hong Kong human rights bill on Friday that would establish “punitive measures” against government officials in Hong Kong and mainland China who suppress basic freedoms in the city.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act is a piece of bipartisan legislation first proposed in the wake of the 2015 disappearances of the five Causeway Bay booksellers, all of whom eventually resurfaced on the mainland.

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It would “renew the United States’ historical commitment to freedom and democracy in Hong Kong at a time when its autonomy is increasingly under assault,” according to a statement on the website of Rubio, co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC).

“The importance of this legislation was further impressed upon me late last year after meeting with pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong [Chi-fung],” Rubio said.

Describing Wong, a well-known pro-democracy campaigner in Hong Kong, as an “impressive and thoughtful young man”, the senator for Florida said the city “must not go the way of Beijing’s failed authoritarianism and one-party rule”.

In response, Wong said: “On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover to China, I believe it is an appropriate time [to reintroduce the bill].”

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Wong, who was the face of Occupy Central in Western media coverage of the 79-day protests in 2014, said the bill would increase the democratic movement’s bargaining power, and that he hoped to attend future hearings hosted by the US Congress on the bill.

“I’d be happy to see the bill passed soon,” he said.

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

It also requires US authorities not to deny visa applications from Hong Kong residents on the basis of their arrest or detention associated with the Occupy protests.

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“This bill would empower the [US] president to hold Beijing accountable and send a strong message to Chinese officials, that attempts to undermine liberty in Hong Kong and walk away from their promises will not be without consequences,” said Senator Tom Cotton, who co-drafted the bill.

Ben Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also co-drafted the bill.

A Hong Kong government spokesman criticised the act.

“[The government] expressed deep regret over the foreign legislature’s introduction of a bill seeking to interfere in the affairs of Hong Kong without evidence indicating mainland authorities have enforced law across the boundary,” he said.