Last week, Congress sent to the President’s desk a bill supporting pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), passed the Senate by unanimous consent and the House by a vote of 417-1 (last month, the House passed a similar measure authored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ)). It is unclear if President Trump will sign the bill into law. Given the implications it could have for the ongoing “phase one” trade deal negotiations with China, President Trump could veto it to save face with the Chinese. Due to the bill’s bipartisan and near-unanimous support, Congress would likely override a veto.
The bill requires the Department of State to provide annual reports to Congress regarding whether Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify its unique treatment, which has especially important implications for trade between the United States and Hong Kong. Ending Hong Kong’s special status would see its imports and exports subject to the tariffs that currently exist on trade between the United States and China. The bill also requires that the Department of Commerce submit an annual report on the extent and nature of violations of U.S. export controls and sanctions law occurring in Hong Kong.
The bill provides for sanctions against persons responsible for the extrajudicial rendition, arbitrary detention, or torture of any person in Hong Kong, or gross violations of human rights within Hong Kong. The bill authorizes the President to impose sanctions by blocking assets, blocking persons from receiving a visa, admission, or parole into the United States, and revoking existing visas or entry documents.
Chinese officials have urged the United States to reconsider, and claimed that Beijing would impose “strong countermeasures” if the bill becomes law.
The bill’s timing complicates the “phase one” trade deal. While neither side has said that its passage into law will end negotiations, tensions have been rising since President Trump and President Jinping’s handshake agreement in October. President Trump recently noted the deal was close, but as more time passes without a concrete agreement, there are signs the two sides are slowly drifting apart, again.
A related bill, which also awaits President Trump’s signature, prohibits the export of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and other crowd control munitions to the Hong Kong Police Force.