US lawmakers moving to amend bill crucial to Hong Kong economy

U.S. lawmakers reintroduced a bill known as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy after the extradition bill protests erupted into violence this week.

The move came a day after Hong Kong police declared the demonstration around the city’s legislature earlier this week to have been a riot and fired more than 150 canisters of tear gas, several rubber bullets and more than 20 beanbag rounds to disperse protestors – a much more aggressive approach than in 2014 when police fired a grand total of 87 rounds of tear gas throughout the 79-day Umbrella Movement in 2014.

Sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic Senator Ed Markey, the bill “reaffirms the U.S. commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law at a time when these freedoms and Hong Kong’s autonomy are being eroded through interference by the Chinese government and Communist Party,” reads a statement introducing the bill.

The bill would require the Secretary of State to issue an annual certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the president to identify individuals associated with any disappearances of dissidents in order to freeze their U.S.-based assets and deny them entry into the U.S.

Under the bill, the Secretary of Commerce has to examine if the Hong Kong government is enforcing U.S. export regulations regarding sensitive dual-use items and sanctions especially in relation to Iran and North Korea.

Most importantly, people arrested or detained after joining nonviolent protest activities for pro-democracy advocacy, human rights or the rule of law in Hong Kong will always have their visa application to the U.S. processed.

“We introduce this legislation today because democracy and freedom are under assault in Hong Kong, and it is critical for Congress to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy, to the human rights guaranteed the people of Hong Kong, and to those peacefully protesting the Chinese government’s increasingly rough oversight of Hong Kong,” said Representative Chris Smith.

The bill was first introduced in 2017 by Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio to reinstate reporting requirements related to United States-Hong Kong relations.

Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, urged the US Congress to swiftly pass the act.

“Doing so will send a clear signal that further erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy, rule of law, and human rights protections will result in concrete consequences for its economy, the territory’s relations with the United States, and Hong Kong and Chinese officials who suppress basic freedoms,” said Freedom House.

This week, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers protested against amendments to Hong Kong’s Fugitive Offenders Ordinances that would allow mainland China to request extradition of people from Hong Kong to the mainland. They fear the law would erode legal protections that underpin the city’s robust economy and reputation as an international financial hub.

Last Sunday, more than one million people were said to have taken to the streets to voice their opposition against the bill. But the peaceful march was only met with the government’s determination to continue to discuss the bill as scheduled.

The government’s decision had prompted strikes and more protests on Wednesday and Thursday, when the lawmakers were supposed to meet for discussing the bill. However, the meeting was called off due to the protests.

Andrew Leung, chairman of the Legco, has yet to announce a new date for the members to meet. It is unclear whether the Hong Kong government will still strive to pass the bill or shelf it.