The Senate has passed a bill that compels the government to support Hong Kong pro-democracy activists by requiring it to impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in the territory.
The bill, if enacted into law by president Donald Trump, would also require the State Department to annually review the special autonomous status it grants Hong Kong in trade considerations.
That status is separate from the relationship with mainland China, and a revocation of the status would mean less favourable trade conditions between the US and Hong Kong.
The Senate passed the bill, called the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, by unanimous consent, as did the House last month with its version.
Because the bill, in theory, has the support of a veto-proof majority in Congress, it could be enacted into law even if Mr Trump vetoed it. The chambers are expected to come up with a unified bill to send the president.
Mr Trump, who rarely talks about human rights, has not spoken about the bill, nor has he made consistently strong statements in support of the Hong Kong activists.
For nearly six months, demonstrations have convulsed Hong Kong as activists have struggled to preserve the territory’s semi-autonomy from the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Before Britain handed over the territory to China in 1997, the countries agreed to guarantee that semi-autonomy for 50 years.
Republican senator Marco Rubio said in a statement that the bill sent a “clear message to Hong Kongers” that the US would not “stand idly by”.
He added: “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.”
Mr Rubio led the effort to pass the bill. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, had been criticised by members of both parties for delaying a floor vote on the bill.
Republican and Democratic senators decided to try to quickly pass the bill after hundreds of young protesters fought off a police siege on the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The confrontation, which began Saturday night, was the most violent of the demonstrations, though almost all protesters at the university had fled or been arrested by police by Tuesday.
In recent weeks, the Hong Kong protests entered a more violent phase when activists began disrupting traffic across the city and police tried breaching campuses, considered a last refuge of the demonstrators.
The bill is the latest sign of a strong bipartisan push in Washington to confront China and its authoritarian leader, President Xi Jinping, on a wide range of issues, including commercial practices, global infrastructure building and the detention of at least a million Muslim ethnic minority members in camps in northwest China. Because of the pro-democracy protests, Hong Kong has become a central rallying point.
Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley both flew to Hong Kong last month, while House speaker Nancy Pelosi met recently with activists in Washington.
“We have sent a message to President Xi: Your suppression of freedom, whether in Hong Kong, in northwest China or anywhere else, will not stand,” senator Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, said. “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.”
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