The draft bill — once approved at the annual National People’s Congress, which is underway — will give the Chinese security state far more of a legal basis to operate in Hong Kong.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Chinese plan “disastrous” and a “death knell” for the territory’s relative autonomy.
Pro-democracy activists hoping for similar reactions in Europe were disappointed.
In Britain, Downing Street said in a statement it was “monitoring the situation closely” and that it expected “China to respect Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms and high degree of autonomy.” On Friday afternoon, Australia, Britain and Canada released a similar joint statement.
“As a party to the joint declaration, the UK is committed to upholding Hong Kong’s autonomy and respecting the one country, two systems model,” the U.K. statement continued, according to Reuters.
Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, with the understanding that the former colony would continue to operate mostly under its own rule for 50 years.
“The British statement is pretty standard. But this is not a standard erosion of Hong Kong’s status,” said Steve Tsang, the director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London. “This is a much, much bigger deal.”
The government’s focus on the coronavirus pandemic might partially explain its limited reaction, he said.
On Thursday night, the European Commission’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, Virginie Battu-Henriksson, wrote on Twitter that the bloc attaches “great importance” to the ” ’One country Two Systems’ principle.”
You "can’t do better than voicing such a timid statement?” Reinhard Bütikofer, the chairman of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with China, wrote in response. “Who do you think you are fooling apart from yourselves?”
As in Britain, experts blamed the coronavirus in part for the quiet reactions, or lack thereof. Kristin Shi-Kupfer, a researcher at the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, said the ongoing crisis in Europe means there is “not a lot of bandwidth to tackle this immediately.”
Shi-Kupfer also said European Union statements on human rights in China tend not to be especially robust. “Europe is still very much dependent on China and sometimes struggles to strike the right balance between maintaining its economic interests and standing up for human rights,” she said.
Europe is divided, Tsang said, between nations that take a more favorable view of China, especially in the south and east of the continent, and countries more skeptical of Chinese policies, which means that a united stance against Beijing is unlikely.
As a result, Washington is the likeliest source of high-level objections to Beijing’s actions.
Some of the strongest reactions came from Congress on Thursday. On Twitter, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wrote the “USA cannot let this stand.” Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said in a statement they had introduced legislation to sanction “entities that violate China’s obligations to Hong Kong.”
But experts and critics say China’s commitment to the city’s autonomy has been declining for years.
The Trump administration indicated last month that it would consider rolling back Hong Kong’s favorable trading status, a key point of leverage, if Beijing played too strong a hand. But such a move could put hundreds of U.S. companies operating in the territory at a disadvantage and could disrupt ongoing U.S.-China trade talks.
Tsang said the removal of Hong Kong’s preferential treatment could hurt the pro-democracy movement there. The aim of the U.S. response, he said, should not be to “kill off Hong Kong” but to preserve for it as much self-determination as possible.