Rebuking China, Senate moves to protect Hong Kong autonomy

Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up portraits of jailed Chinese civil rights activists, lawyers and legal activists as they march to the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong, Thursday, June 25, 2020. They demand to abolish the national security law and defend human rights and freedom in Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a bipartisan rebuke of China, the Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a bill to impose sanctions on business and individuals — including the police — that undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy or restrict freedoms promised to Hong Kong residents.

The bill targets police units that have cracked down on Hong Kong protesters, as well as Chinese Communist Party officials responsible for imposing a strict “national security” law on Hong Kong, which is considered a special administrative region within China and maintains its own governing and economic systems. The measure also would impose sanctions on banks that do business with entities found to violate the law.

The measure, sponsored by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, comes as tensions over Hong Kong have increased over the past year as China has cracked down on protesters and sought to exert more control over the former British territory.

President Donald Trump has said the administration will begin eliminating the “full range” of agreements that has given Hong Kong a relationship with the U.S. that mainland China lacked, including exemptions from controls on certain exports. He said the State Department would begin warning U.S. citizens of the threat of surveillance and arrest when visiting the city.

“Today, the Senate stood up to the communist regime in Beijing and stood with the people of Hong Kong,” Toomey said. “The mandatory sanctions established in this bill will punish those in China who seek to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy or erode the basic freedoms promised” to Hong Kong residents under its “one country, two systems” concept.

Van Hollen said the bill takes “meaningful action to hold China and its proxies to account for their ongoing efforts to extinguish liberty and democracy in Hong Kong.”

The legislation “sends a strong, bipartisan message that the United States stands with the people of Hong Kong,” he added.

The Senate vote came a week after one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., blocked it at the request of the White House. Several technical changes involving possible Treasury Department sanctions improved the bill and made it more likely to win White House approval, Cramer said Thursday.

“I am grateful my colleagues and the Treasury Department were able to work together to improve the bill, bettering its chances of becoming law,” he said after the vote. “It affirms our support for the people of Hong Kong who are fighting for their freedom. I urge the House to take it up and send it to the president’s desk.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a related vote, the Senate also approved a measure stating that enactment of the bill would put the Beijing government in direct violation of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty that ended British rule in Hong Kong and granted the city partial sovereignty in 1997.

“With the world focused on the pandemic, Beijing thinks this is their opportunity to steamroll Hong Kong,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., the resolution’s sponsor.

China has said it wants to “improve” the lives of those who live in Hong Kong, “but reality, that means stripping the people of Hong Kong of the basic rights and liberties” guaranteed to them under the 1984 treaty, Hawley said.

“We must stand up to China’s continued imperialism” and respond strongly to any crackdown in Hong Kong, including reconsideration of China’s special trade status with the U.S., Hawley said.

The Senate legislation now goes to the House.