The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed a bill which requires an annual review of Hong Kong’s human rights situation and sanctions against officials linked to rights abuses in the city, moving the legislation one step closer to possible signature by President Donald Trump.
The Senate’s version of Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed in an expedited process without any objections. It will have to be reconciled with a House of Representatives version passed last month into a unified bill that will go back to each chamber for final approval before it is sent to Trump to sign or veto.
In actions that came amid a standoff and siege between police and radical students at Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, the Senate also passed the Protect Hong Kong Act, which would prohibit U.S. companies from exporting non-lethal crowd control and defense items to the former British colony.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill introduced in June by Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, co-chairmen of Congressional Executive Commission on China, would revise current U.S. policy since Britain handed the city to China in 1997.
U.S. policy treats Hong Kong separately from the rest of China in trade, investment, commerce, and immigration—based on Beijing’s pledge to give the territory a high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” model.
The new act would require the U.S. State Department to report annually to Congress whether Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous from China” to justify keeping the city’s distinct trading status, and whether China has “eroded Hong Kong’s civil liberties and rule of law,” as protected by the city’s Basic Law.
“Today, the United States Senate sent a clear message to Hong Kongers fighting for their long-cherished freedoms: we hear you, we continue to stand with you, and we will not stand idly by as Beijing undermines your autonomy,” said Rubio.
“The passage of this bill is an important step in holding accountable those Chinese and Hong Kong government officials responsible for Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy and human rights violations,” he added.
The bill, if enacted, will also enable the U.S. to freeze the assets of, and refuse visas to, officials deemed responsible for human rights violations in the city.
“As the situation in Hong Kong deteriorates, China must understand that the United States of America is committed to the promised freedom and autonomy for Hong Kong,” said Ben Cardin of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Bob Menendez ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “Hong Kong authorities must de-escalate this situation by taking the appropriate steps to address the democratic desires of the people of Hong Kong -- including forming an independent commission to investigate police violence.”
“This legislation makes it clear that the U.S. will stand firmly and unambiguously with the legitimate aspirations of the people of Hong Kong,” he added.
The United States earlier said it is "gravely concerned" the situation in Hong Kong, including the siege at Poly U and other universities.
Rights groups have warned that Hong Kong is now in a state of humanitarian crisis after police fired more than 10,000 rounds of tear gas in recent months, with around 20 percent of those fired into the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) campus during a single day last week.
Lam formally withdrew a planned amendment to the city's extradition laws last month, fulfilling the first of the protest movement's five demands.
But protesters say they will continue until there has also been an amnesty for thousands of people arrested, the withdrawal of the official term 'rioting' to describe the movement, an independent inquiry into police violence against protesters, and fully democratic elections to the Legislative Council and for the post of chief executive.
Government officials have repeatedly ruled out these measures, while calling at the same time for "dialogue" with protesters.