The bill, a version of which passed unanimously in the House, would mark the start of a dramatic shift in the relationship between the United States and Hong Kong. It mandates a yearly review of Hong Kong’s special status with the United States, which allows it to be treated differently from mainland China and underpins its position as an international business hub.
An influential bipartisan commission in a report, also released Thursday, separately advised Congress to assess whether Hong Kong continues to be largely autonomous from China, and to abolish its special status if Chinese military or police troops start moving into the territory. On Saturday, Chinese army troops stationed in Hong Kong helped to clean bricks and debris left behind by protesters at a university campus, the first time they have been seen out on the streets since the start of the unrest in June.
The question now is whether President Trump will act stridently in defense of Hong Kong. The president has not recently commented or tweeted on the situation there, even as protests intensified to dangerous new levels this past week, turning university campuses into battlegrounds and prompting daily demonstrations in the financial district.
“His silence is noteworthy and very disturbing,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) in an interview. “We all want a good economic relationship with China. There’s no question about that. But that shouldn’t mean that we sacrifice our commitment to human rights.”
Trump eyes a trade deal with Beijing as a leading priority as he makes his case for reelection in 2020. Though the president announced a tentative “phase one” agreement last month, the two sides are still negotiating on key provisions. Plans for Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to sign a pact at a regional economic summit in Chile this past week fell through when that gathering was canceled by the host government.
Trump said last week that a deal might not be achieved before the new year.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Thursday began a process that would allow the Hong Kong bill to be passed by unanimous voice vote, rather than through a full debate, and he said it could pass as early as next week.
The House unanimously passed a version of the Hong Kong bill last month, but until this week, it had stalled in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has probably been under White House pressure to delay the bill, according to a congressional aide, over concerns that pressure on Beijing over the Hong Kong issue could risk a trade deal with China. His office, in comments to The Washington Post, denied that he was delaying the bill over concerns from the White House.
After protests in Hong Kong intensified this past week, prompted by the death of a student on Nov. 8 following a police operation, senators held a meeting on Wednesday to see whether potential issues could be resolved and the bill could be expedited.
On Thursday, McConnell tweeted that the Senate “needs to stand with Hong Kong” and said he hopes to “take action soon.”
Trump has offered nominal support of the Hong Kong protesters, most prominently at the United Nations in September when he called on Beijing to “honor its binding treaty” to protect the island’s “freedom, legal system and democratic ways of life.”
The president, however, has been careful not to inject human rights issues into the trade negotiations, and he has praised Xi’s leadership while urging him to meet with the protesters to come to a resolution.
Trump has left the more strident language to Vice President Pence, who delivered a rebuke of Beijing in a lengthy speech on China policy at a Washington think tank last month. Pence warned that a trade deal would be more difficult if Chinese authorities “resort to the use of violence” against the protesters.
The White House declined a request to comment on the Senate bill, citing a policy of not discussing pending legislation.
Beijing condemned the passage of the bill in the House as backing “radical forces” in Hong Kong, and Chinese state media branded the move “arrogant and dangerous.” Analysts say “predictable fury” from Beijing will continue if the bill becomes law, probably further complicating the trade negotiations, and could be used as evidence to support China’s claims that Western forces are behind the protests.
“If the bill passes, Beijing’s outrage will also make it difficult for China to sign on to a trade agreement with the American ‘black hands,’” said Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Yet, he added, “it will be difficult for Trump to veto the bill, given the high degree of bipartisan support, as well as the aftereffects of the NBA contretemps, which raised awareness of events in Hong Kong across America.”
The National Basketball Association became ensnared in the situation last month after Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, posted a tweet in support of the protesters, causing a furor in China. Adam Silver, the commissioner of the professional basketball league, has said Beijing even asked for Morey to be fired.
The protests in Hong Kong rose to a new level of intensity this past week. Police on Monday spent hours bombarding students on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong with hundreds of canisters of tear gas and rubber bullets. Protesters lobbed petrol bombs and bricks at officers, who eventually retreated in what was some of the most intense fighting of the months-long movement.
Students then barricaded the campus, and others in the city, setting about fortifying the universities from a possible police clearance. By Friday night, protesters had largely evacuated the Chinese University campus, leaving in droves as volunteer drivers arrived to ferry them to safety.
The campuses were “reflections of Hong Kong-wide disagreement,” the heads of nine universities said in an open letter, “and the government must take the lead with swift and concrete action to resolve this political deadlock and to restore safety and public order now.”
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which recommended the assessment of Hong Kong’s autonomy, acknowledged in its report that if Hong Kong no longer received special treatment, “the loss of all of these benefits would materially alter not only the U.S.-Hong Kong relationship, but global sentiment and decision-making as well.”
Yet, it added, “the future direction of Hong Kong — and with it U.S.-Hong Kong policy — will rest upon the outcome of the historic 2019 protest movement and the extent to which the Hong Kong government respects the aspirations of its people to protect the territory’s autonomy.”