Republican senators said Wednesday, Oct. 16, they want to move quickly on legislation to support pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong despite a threat of retaliation from China.
"Hong Kong is a high priority for me," GOP Senator Jim Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said. "We're going to move on it as rapidly as we can."
No date has been set yet for a vote on the Senate version of a measure that passed the House Tuesday to subject the city's special U.S. trading status to annual reviews and provides for sanctions against officials deemed responsible for undermining its "fundamental freedoms and autonomy."
Following the House vote, China's foreign ministry issued a warning of unspecified "strong countermeasures" if the U.S. enacts that legislation and a package of other measures backing a pro-democracy movement that has rocked the former British colony for more than four months.
There is broad backing in both parties in Congress to show support for the protesters and punish China for any crackdown. The White House declined to comment on whether President Donald Trump would sign the Hong Kong legislation, but there are enough votes in the House to override a veto and no significant opposition in the Senate.
The next step will be up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who'll set the schedule for a vote, and he's being pressed by his Republican colleagues.
"I think we're going to get it up on the floor here fairly soon," Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a China critic, told reporters.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang warned American lawmakers to stop meddling in China's internal affairs "before falling off the edge of the cliff," without specifying how it would retaliate. The House action "fully exposes the shocking hypocrisy of some in the U.S. on human rights and democracy and their malicious intention to undermine Hong Kong's prosperity and stability to contain China's development," Geng said.
Both Trump and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have so far prevented the international uproar over Hong Kong from scuttling their trade talks. The two sides went ahead with negotiations and reached some broad agreements last week, even though the House vote was widely expected at the time.
"I don't think this will undermine the prospect of signing a partial deal next month," said Wang Huiyao, an adviser to China's cabinet and founder of the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing. "The Hong Kong bill is not a done deal and there is still room for redemption."
A spokesman for the Hong Kong government "expressed regret" over the House action, which came hours before Chief Executive Carrie Lam addressed a raucous session of the Legislative Council. She barely managed a few words before pro-democracy lawmakers forced her to stop talking. She ended up delivering her annual policy address via video instead.
While the pro-democracy bloc only comprises about a third of lawmakers, Wednesday's display showed they have the ability to shut down debate on major economic initiatives. That spells even more trouble ahead for an economy sliding into recession as protests against Beijing's grip over the city grow increasingly violent.
China's retaliation threat against the U.S. roiled markets during Asian trading, at one point wiping out a 0.8% rally in the regional equity benchmark.
U.S. lawmakers have embraced the Hong Kong protesters' cause as the yearlong trade war fuels American support for pushing back against China, and they have hosted some of the city's activists on Capitol Hill in recent weeks. The National Basketball Association's struggle to manage Chinese backlash against a Houston Rockets executive's support for the movement has only focused wider attention on the debate.
On Tuesday, the House passed H.Res. 543, a resolution reaffirming the relationship between the U.S. and Hong Kong, condemning Chinese interference in the region and voicing support for protesters. Lawmakers also passed the Protect Hong Kong Act, H.R. 4270, which would halt the export to Hong Kong of crowd-control devices such as tear gas and rubber bullets.
Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and a sponsor of the main Hong Kong bill, dismissed the threats from Beijing.
"Retaliation, that's all they ever talk," Smith told Bloomberg TV. "They try to browbeat and cower people, countries, presidents, prime ministers and the like all over in order to get them to back off. We believe that human rights are so elemental, and so in need of protection. And that's why the students and the young people are out in the streets in Hong Kong virtually every day."
The House also adopted a resolution by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of New York and the panel's top Republican, Michael McCaul of Texas, urging Canada to start U.S. extradition proceedings against Huawei Technologies Co. executive Meng Wanzhou. The resolution, H.Res. 521, also calls for the release of two Canadians detained in China and due process for a third sentenced to death for drug smuggling.
Republican Senators Rick Scott of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri visited Hong Kong over the two-week congressional recess that ended Tuesday. Hawley met with local pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong and got into a back-and-forth with Lam over whether Hong Kong is a becoming a "police state."
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' local branch in the city issued a separate statement warning the U.S. against "playing the Hong Kong card." "They are lifting the stone only to drop it on their own feet," it said.
David Zweig, an emeritus professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and director of Transnational China Consulting Ltd., noted that the U.S. legislation stopped short of altering the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, which provides the city's special trading status. So both the bill and any Chinese retaliation would have limited impact.
"China needs to posture with a retaliation of some kind," Zweig said. "But this is really a secondary issue as long as they keep the Hong Kong Policy Act intact. The House could have gone much further with the Hong Kong Policy Act. And they didn't."
With assistance from Bloomberg's Li Liu, Sofia Horta e Costa, Christopher Anstey, Shelly Banjo and Eric Lam.
This article was written by Daniel Flatley, Dandan Li and Iain Marlow, reporters for Bloomberg.