On Thursday, the United States Senate unanimously approved legislation that would impose sanctions on those who support China in their efforts to restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy.
In order for the Hong Kong Autonomy Act to become official law, it must be revised and approved by the House of Representatives before being signed by President Donald Trump.
This comes as an effort to push back against Beijing’s new national security law for the island, which could be enacted as soon as next week.
The law would criminalize acts of secession, subversion of state power, terrorist activities and collusion with foreign forces which are seen to endanger national security. However, it remains ambiguous what actions would be considered a crime under this new law and what the punishment would be.
The law would require Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Officer Carrie Lam to partner with a Beijing adviser to oversee a new security commission to safeguard mainland China’s security interests. Lam would also be granted the power to appoint specific judges to cases of national security.
Furthermore, a separate central government agency to “monitor, supervise, coordinate and support” the national security situation would be established, allowing any existing Hong Kong legislation to be overridden by Beijing when deemed necessary.
“They are moving forward in their process to take away the liberties of the people of Hong Kong. So time is of the essence,” said Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, a lead sponsor of the bipartisan bill.
“Passing a Senate resolution as the consequence to their action is hardly going to be taken seriously in Beijing … and that’s why it’s important to actually do something that shows that the government of China will pay a price if it continues down this path.”
Under this bill, officials who play a role in undermining the one country, two systems model that was promised to Hong Kong under the 1984 Joint Sino-British Declaration, could be denied entry to the US or have their assets seized.
Secondary sanctions would also be imposed on banks or companies that are found to be working with the Chinese officials curtailing the freedoms currently enjoyed in Hong Kong. These sanctions could potentially cut off these individuals from accessing US dollars and prevent them from working with American companies.
The State Department would also be required to report to Congress every year about such parties and the president would be given the power to impose the sanctions. However, the bill also includes a provision that would allow Congress to overrule the president should he unilaterally decide to lift sanctions on someone.
To maximize the chances for this bill to make it into law, Van Hollen, along with co-sponsor Republican Senate Pat Toomey, also plan to file it as an amendment to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, a piece of legislation that must pass in Congress every year.
The Hong Kong sanctions bill was set to pass last week but was blocked only half an hour before the scheduled vote at the request of the White House by Republican Senator Kevin Cramer, who was also a co-sponsor of the bill.
Cramer defended his abrupt decision saying that while he still supports the motion, he wanted to “accommodate” concerns and any proposed corrections from the Trump administration.
“I hadn’t seen it yet. So my concern was, I don’t think we should do a [unanimous consent request] until we have at least considered a technical review,” said Cramer.
“I don’t know how dramatic the changes were that they were advocating or whether they hate the whole idea.”
The delay underlines other complications in the relationship between the US and China as the two continue to clash over issues such as the pandemic, human rights and national security – all while pursuing a trade deal.
Last Friday, Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act (also spelled Uighur), which authorized sanctions against those responsible for the detainment of Uighur Muslims in China. However, he also stated that a key section of the bill would be treated as “advisory and non-binding” as it “interferes” with his conduct of US foreign policy.
Trump has also experienced fierce public backlash after former national security adviser John Bolton, alleged in his new tell-all book that the president “pleaded” with Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win the upcoming election. Bolton also claimed that Trump knew about, and encouraged, the construction of the Uighur re-education camps in China’s Xinjiang region.
In defense, Trump stated that he delayed sanctions on Beijing for their detainment of the Uighur population because the US was “in the middle of a major trade deal.”
Van Hollen was among those who publicly criticized Trump, saying that “the president talks a big game, but when it comes to human rights issues, he ends up caving to President Xi every time.”
“His only priority seems to be selling more soybeans, and he’s happy to ignore human rights violations as part of that.”
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