U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law on Wednesday congressional legislation backing protesters in Hong Kong despite angry objections from Beijing, with which he is seeking a deal to end a damaging trade war.
The new legislation, approved unanimously by the U.S. Senate and by all but one lawmaker in the House of Representatives last week, requires the State Department to certify, at least annually, that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify favourable U.S. trading terms that have helped it maintain its position as a world financial centre. It also threatens sanctions for human rights violations.
Congress passed a second bill — which Trump also signed — banning the export to the Hong Kong police of crowd-control munitions, such as teargas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.
“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong. They are being enacted in the hope that Leaders and Representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long term peace and prosperity for all,” Trump said in a statement.
At the heart of matter is Beijing’s promise to allow Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years when it regained sovereignty over the city in 1997, a pledge that has formed the basis of the region’s special status under U.S. law. Protesters say freedoms have been steadily eroded.
Trump had been vague about whether he would sign or veto the legislation, while trying to strike a deal with China on trade that he has made a top priority ahead of his 2020 re-election bid.
Hong Kong’s government expressed strong opposition to the legislation early Thursday morning in the Chinese-ruled region, saying the bill will send the wrong signal to demonstrators. China’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, said Beijing would take “firm counter-measures” if the U.S. continues to interfere in Hong Kong.
Later, vice foreign minister Le Yucheng summoned U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad to demand the U.S. immediately stop interfering in its internal affairs and stop causing further damage to bilateral relations, China’s foreign ministry said.
Activists, however, hailed Trump’s action.
“I know that many people in Hong Kong are happy that the U.S. government has passed a new bill,” said Figo Chan, a 23-year-old Hong Kong protester who was honoured with the John McCain Prize for Leadership at the Halifax International Security Forum last weekend.
“No one wants to die and no one wants to be hurt,” Chan said. “I hope that citizens of many different countries can in their own way fight for democracy.”
After Congress passed the bill, Trump’s aides debated whether the president’s endorsement could undermine efforts to reach an interim trade deal with China, and most of them ultimately recommended the signing to show support for the protesters, a person familiar with the matter said.
The decision was also influenced by the overwhelming majorities in the Senate and House in favour of the legislation, which was widely seen as making the bills veto-proof, as well as the landslide election victory in Hong Kong earlier this week of critics of Chinese rule, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
If Trump had opted to use his veto, it could have been overridden by two-thirds votes in both the Senate and the House. The legislation would have automatically become law on Dec. 3 if Trump had opted to do nothing.
China has denounced the legislation as gross interference in its affairs and a violation of international law. After the Senate passed the legislation, Beijing vowed counter-measures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio applauded Trump’s decision. “The U.S. now has new and meaningful tools to deter further influence and interference from Beijing into Hong Kong’s internal affairs,” Rubio said in a statement.
Could upend U.S.-Hong Kong relationship
Last week, Trump boasted that he alone had prevented Beijing from crushing the demonstrations with a million soldiers, while adding that he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping that doing so would have “a tremendous negative impact” on trade talks.
Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting Hong Kong freedoms when he referred in August to its mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.
Trump again referred to “riots” last week, but has also called on China to handle the issue humanely.
Many see the U.S. legislation as symbolic, but the bills’ provisions have the potential, if implemented, to upend relations between the U.S. and Hong Kong and change the region’s status to that of any other Chinese city.
Analysts say any move to end Hong Kong’s special treatment could prove self-defeating for the U.S., which has benefited from the business-friendly conditions in the territory. If Hong Kong becomes just another Chinese port, companies that rely on the territory’s role as a middleman or for trans-shipping would likely take their business elsewhere.
That said, the bills contain strong waivers that would allow the president to block their provisions on national-security and national-interest grounds.
According to the State Department, 85,000 U.S. citizens lived in Hong Kong in 2018 and more than 1,300 U.S. companies operate there, including nearly every major U.S. financial firm.
The territory is a major destination for U.S. legal and accounting services. In 2018 the largest U.S. bilateral trade-in-goods surplus was with Hong Kong at $31.1 billion US.
Trade between Hong Kong and the United States was estimated to be worth $67.3 billion US in 2018, with the United States running a $33.8 billion surplus US — its biggest with any country or territory, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.