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A man waves an American flag at a protest rally in Hong Kong on Monday as demonstrators called on US lawmakers to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019.
The US House of Representatives passed legislation in support of human rights in Hong Kong on Tuesday, moving the bill one step closer to becoming law. The bipartisan legislation, supported by both Republicans and Democrats, would require that the US government assess whether political developments in Hong Kong justify Washington changing its treatment of the city as a separate trading entity from the Chinese mainland.
Lawmakers also approved a bill that blocks the export of crowd control equipment, such as tear gas, to Hong Kong authorities.
Returning after a two-week break, the lower chamber of Congress approved the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, a bill that Beijing considers an attempt to interfere in China’s internal affairs and contain the country’s rise.
The legislation also paves the way for sanctions against individuals deemed responsible for actions to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, such as the rendition to the mainland of anyone exercising “internationally recognised human rights in Hong Kong”.
The bill awaits a vote in the Senate, where it currently enjoys the bipartisan co-sponsorship of 23 senators, and is expected to pass.
The legislation blocking the export of US-made police equipment, such as tear gas, to Hong Kong is known as the PROTECT Hong Kong Act, introduced by Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Lawmakers also passed a resolution to recognise the city’s bilateral relationship with the US and “condemn the interference of the People’s Republic of China in Hong Kong’s affairs”.
Applauding the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticised those who sided with Beijing for fear of jeapordising their economic interests.
“To those who want to take the repressive government’s side in this discussion, I say to you: What does it profit a person if he gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his soul?” she said on the House floor.
An attempt by US President Donald Trump, who last Friday said that relations with the Chinese government were now a “love fest” after the announcement of a partial trade agreement, to veto the legislation could be overruled by a two-thirds majority in both parts of Congress.
Tuesday’s action in the House came a day after tens of thousands of Hongkongers took to the streets to urge US lawmakers to pass the legislation. In the first police-sanctioned rally since authorities imposed emergency laws earlier this month, protesters waved American flags and chanted slogans lauding the US as a “protector of freedom” and “regulator of world order”.
“We’re simply urging the Chinese president [Xi Jinping] and the Hong Kong chief executive [Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor] to faithfully honour the government’s promises,” Smith told lawmakers ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
Beijing has jumped on the legislation as an example of American interference in the continuing unrest.
An opinion piece published ahead of Tuesday’s vote by People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, said that passage of the bill would only end up hurting the US’ own economic interests, citing the presence of American citizens and businesses in Hong Kong.
“In a crucial period in which China and the US are meeting each other halfway [on trade], some American politicians are effectively putting the car in reverse by pushing this bill and flagrantly meddling in China’s internal affairs,” it said.
The commentary also accused Republican senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, both of whom are backing the bill, of “selective blindness” after they criticised authorities’ handling of protests during visits to the city over the weekend.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz attends to reporters at the U.S. Consul General's House in Hong Kong.
A senior US defence official for Asia said on Tuesday that violent actions by some protesters were a cause for worry.
“Certainly we have some concern about some of the tactics that the protesters have been using and may use, and I think in single instances where that becomes a real problem we would point that out,” Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific security affairs, said at a conference in Washington.
Yet the US remained “100 per cent” behind protesters calling for fundamental rights, Schriver said, expressing concern that Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities had taken a heavier hand in dealing with the unrest.
Recognising that some protests had turned violent, Cruz urged demonstrators “to resist the urge to respond to brutality in like kind, but instead stand with dignity”.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act includes a stipulation that the US should not deny entry to anyone on the basis of their arrest or detention resulting from their participation in “nonviolent protest”.