WASHINGTON: The US Senate, in a unanimous vote, passed legislation on Tuesday (Nov 19) aimed at protecting human rights in Hong Kong amid China's crackdown on a protest movement that has gripped the vital financial centre for months.
Following the voice vote by senators, the "Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act" now goes to the House of Representatives, which earlier approved its own version of the measure.
The two chambers will have to work out their differences before any legislation can be sent to President Donald Trump for his consideration.
"The people of Hong Kong see what's coming - they see the steady effort to erode the autonomy and their freedoms," Republican Senator Marco Rubio said at the start of the brief Senate debate, accusing Beijing of being behind the "violence and repression" in the Asian financial hub.
The Senate then passed a second Bill, also unanimously, that would ban the export of certain munitions to Hong Kong police forces. It bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.
Under the first Senate bill, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for special US trading consideration that bolsters its status as a world financial centre.
It also would provide for sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong.
There was no immediate response from the White House, which has yet to say whether Trump would sign or veto the Hong Kong Human Rights Bill.
A US official said recently that no decision had been made, but the unanimous Senate vote could make a veto more difficult for the Republican president.
That official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said if the measure gets to Trump’s desk there would likely be an intense debate between Trump aides worried that it could undermine trade talks with China and those who believe it is the time to take a stand against China on human rights and Hong Kong’s status.
In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and vowed strong counter-measures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.
"This act neglects facts and truth, applies double standards and blatantly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China's other internal affairs," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.
"It is in serious violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations. China condemns and firmly opposes it."
The United States must immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China's other internal affairs, or "the negative consequences will boomerang on itself", Geng added.
Pompeo said on Monday the United States was gravely concerned about Hong Kong's deepening unrest and violence, urging the city's government to tackle public concerns and China to honor the promises it made to maintain liberties after taking back the territory from British rule in 1997.
Pompeo addressed the issue again on Tuesday before leaving the United States for a NATO meeting in Brussels.
"We continue to urge everyone to do this peacefully," he told reporters. "There is a political resolution of this that is achievable, we hope that'll be the path forward."
Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain returned its longtime colony to Chinese rule in 1997.
Senate aides said they expected the legislation eventually would move forward as an amendment to a massive defense Bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, expected to pass Congress later this year.
Demonstrators in Hong Kong have been protesting in the streets amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said following passage of the Bill: "We have sent a message to President Xi (Jinping): Your suppression of freedom, whether in Hong Kong, in northwest China or in anywhere else, will not stand. You cannot be a great leader - and you cannot be a great country - when you oppose freedom, when you are so brutal to the people of Hong Kong, young and old, who are protesting."
Xinjiang, in Northwest China, is home to many mostly Muslim Uighurs, many of whom have been detained in what China says are education camps, but which the United States has called "concentration camps".
China's Foreign Ministry said this month that China had lodged "stern representations" with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law, saying it would not only harm Chinese interests and China-US relations, but the United States' own interests too.
It said China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests".
Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to its mass street protests as "riots" that were a matter for China to deal with.
Trump has since called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning that if anything bad happened in Hong Kong, it could be bad for talks to end a trade war between the world's two largest economies.
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