The blame for Congress’s inaction lies with two men — President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who have both helped to thwart progress of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill that would bolster reporting on Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong and provide for sanctions against those responsible. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the bill unanimously in September. The House of Representatives passed its version of the bill by voice vote last month.
“We need to send a clear message to President [Xi Jinping] that the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with the people of Hong Kong as they exercise their democratic rights,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told me. “For those who claim to support the people of Hong Kong, they should join us in our calls for the Senate to act on the Human Rights and Democracy Act.”
Several senior Senate aides told me McConnell is doing the bidding of the White House, which does not want to upset Beijing while the final touches are being put on their “Phase One” trade deal. Trump reportedly told Xi during a June phone call he would remain silent on Hong Kong while trade talks were ongoing. Reuters reported that Trump delivered a similar message to Chinese trade envoy Liu He in the Oval Office on Oct. 11.
Trump’s indifference to the plight of Hong Kongers has long been clear. In August, he referred to the protests as “riots,” parroting Beijing’s line, and said the United States would not get involved. The State Department has muffled officials from speaking out against Beijing’s handling of the crisis.
But McConnell professes to be on the side of the protesters. In August, he penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled “We stand with Hong Kong” and promised to support the bill. McConnell was part of the effort when the original legislation supporting Hong Kong autonomy was passed in 1992.
“It is crucial to recognize that the dynamics that led to this crisis didn’t begin in Hong Kong and won’t end there,” McConnell wrote. “The turmoil is the result of Beijing’s systematic ratcheting up of its domestic oppression and its pursuit of hegemony abroad.”
He was right, but now he is silent. Senate aides told me that McConnell is running out the clock by pointing to technical concerns that individual senators have raised about the legislation. The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), tweeted Thursday he soon intends to call for a floor vote, to force all senators to show their cards.
U.S. businesses in Hong Kong have a legitimate concern; if the United States were to revoke Hong Kong’s special economic status, U.S. firms’ bottom lines could suffer. But the bill doesn’t go that far. It requires administration reporting on whether Hong Kong still warrants that status and authorizes targeted sanctions against those in Beijing and Hong Kong who are responsible for the worst abuses.
Of course, the Chinese government is threatening to punish U.S. businesses and scuttle the trade deal if the United States doesn’t shut up about its human rights abuses. That’s par for the course. Trump is again falling for Beijing’s ploy to link the two issues. But that linkage only serves to weaken our position on both.
“The United States needs to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We can stand with the people of Hong Kong and stand up for our trade and economic interests,” Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told me. “I’m deeply concerned that the Trump administration once again appears to be willing to sell out the people of Hong Kong and their legitimate democratic aspirations.”
Trump believes he needs a trade deal with China, even a bad one, for his reelection campaign. What’s McConnell’s excuse? He could bring the bill to the floor today, and it would pass with overwhelming bipartisan support. As McConnell himself explained, it’s not just about Hong Kong. This is about the United States’ role in confronting Chinese Communist Party repression and aggression.
The people of Hong Kong will fight for their rights, with or without U.S. support. But if we abandon them now, we sacrifice real moral and strategic leverage vis-a-vis Beijing — for soybean sales. Trump doesn’t seem to care, so Congress must act.