The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, approved unanimously by the House on Tuesday, requires the U.S. government to consider annually whether it should continue to treat Hong Kong as a trading entity separate from mainland China in response to political developments in the city. That special status has allowed Hong Kong to cement its role as an international financial center and exempts its goods and services from the Trump administration’s tariffs.
Concerns about dysfunction in Hong Kong are growing. The disruption of the speech, which leader Carrie Lam was forced to deliver via video Wednesday amid a heavy police presence aimed at deterring protests, underscored how little room officials have to maneuver as pressure mounts for a resolution to the crisis.
China promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy until 2047 — a half-century after its handover from British rule, under a “one country, two systems” principle — but Beijing has been tightening its grip. Under authoritarian leader Xi Jinping, activists say the Communist Party has gradually chipped away at the rights enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong that do not exist in mainland China, such as an independent judiciary and freedom of assembly.
After months of clashes between pro-democracy protesters and riot police in Hong Kong sparked by now-shelved plans to allow extraditions to the mainland, the city’s government invoked emergency powers to ban masks at demonstrations. The intensifying crackdown on protesters led U.S. lawmakers to support the bill, which needs a green light from the Senate and the White House to become law.
“The extraordinary outpouring of courage from the people of Hong Kong stands in stark contrast to a cowardly government that refuses to respect the rule of law or live up to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, which was guaranteed more than two decades ago,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Jimmy Sham — a leader of the Civil Human Rights Front, the group behind huge, peaceful marches over the past months — was attacked for the second time. Four or five men assaulted him with hammers in the Mongkok district, leaving him bleeding from the head, according to the Front. He was conscious when he was rushed to the hospital.
Sham, who is running for local elections, is one of several pro-democracy candidates to be attacked in recent weeks. His group has called for another pro-democracy rally on Sunday.
“It is not hard to link this incident to a spreading political terror in order to threaten and inhibit the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights,” the Civil Human Rights Front said in a statement.
Earlier in the day, China voiced indignation at what it characterized as U.S. interference, with the official Xinhua News Agency branding the House’s move “arrogant and dangerous.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China would take strong measures to safeguard its interests. He said the bill demonstrated a “naked double standard, which fully exposes the extreme hypocrisy of some people in the U.S. on the issues of human rights and democracy and their sinister intentions to undermine Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability and contain China’s development.”
Yang Guang, a spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, said the bill “openly supports the opposition and radical forces in Hong Kong.”
For Hong Kong, which is tipping toward recession, the bill could portend severe economic consequences. An end to the special trading relationship with the United States would erode the city’s advantages as a Western-friendly business hub and a regional base for multinational firms.
The United States is Hong Kong’s second-largest trading partner, with an estimated two-way trade of $69 billion in 2017. It is also the second-largest destination for Hong Kong exports, which amounted to $42 billion.
Other measures passed in the House on Tuesday would prohibit U.S. exports of military and crowd-control gear used by Hong Kong police.
Hong Kong’s government issued a lengthy statement Wednesday detailing ways it abides by the “one country, two systems” framework.
“Safeguarding human rights and freedoms is a constitutional duty of the [Hong Kong] government,” it said, adding that police have acted with restraint and “in strict accordance with the law.”
A government spokesman added that “foreign legislatures should not interfere in any form in the internal affairs” of Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, riot police sealed off the city’s legislative complex as Lam, the Hong Kong leader, arrived to deliver her annual policy address.
Minutes into Lam’s appearance, pro-democracy lawmakers heckled her and forced her to suspend the speech. Some held signs saying “Five Demands, Not One Less,” a reference to protesters’ demands, with an image of a smiling Lam holding up bloody hands.
Lam “has killed Hong Kong,” said Tanya Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker. “There is blood on her hands. She has made millions of protesters take to our streets. … Hong Kong cannot go back to what it was anymore.”
In her video address, Lam announced measures to address housing supply and affordability in Hong Kong, the world’s most expensive property market. Housing is often cited as a source of discontent, especially among young people who say they are often locked out of an economic system that favors tycoons and the pro-Beijing elite.
The unrest in Hong Kong, Lam said, was a hindrance to economic growth and to the government’s work.
“Employees of all trades and sectors, as well as small, medium and large businesses alike, are deeply worried about the prospects of Hong Kong,” she said. “People are asking: Will Hong Kong return to normal? Is Hong Kong still a place we can live in peace?”
Absent from Lam’s speech was a commitment to a constitutional overhaul that would grant Hong Kong universal suffrage — a promise enshrined in the framework under which China grants the territory autonomy, but one that Beijing has refused to implement in full.
She also did not announce an independent investigation into police use of force, a key demand of protesters. A poll from the Chinese University of Hong Kong released Wednesday showed that almost 90 percent of respondents want such an inquiry, while more than 80 percent want universal suffrage.
“There’s no political sweetener,” said Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing lawmaker. “If she would say something about her potential to introduce reform, I think that would help, but she has to get the nod from Beijing. It is the one thing in her policy speech that would help the current situation.”
Liu Yang in Beijing and Tiffany Liang in Hong Kong contributed to this report.