Congress Passes Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act

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On Thursday, November 21, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 was presented to President Trump after passing with strong bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House just days earlier, on November 19 and 20, respectively. The House had passed a similar version of the act in October, but the legislation was not voted on in the Senate. The passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act comes after months of protests in a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. President Trump has not confirmed whether he will sign the act.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA-12) said, “With the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, we reaffirm America’s commitment to democracy and human rights and the rule of law in the face of Beijing’s crackdown.”

The bill, introduced in the Senate by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), requires the government to re-evaluate Hong Kong’s special treatment as a primarily separate economic and legal entity from China in light of the recent violence in the region. If signed into law, the bill would require the State Department to annually re-certify Hong Kong’s autonomy from China in order for Hong Kong to continue to receive special economic treatment by the U.S. In addition, the president would be required to create a strategy to protect U.S. citizens and businesses in Hong Kong.

Furthermore, the bill imposes sanctions on and denies U.S. entry to people found responsible for “the extrajudicial rendition, arbitrary detention, or torture of any person in Hong Kong; or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights in Hong Kong.” The act would also protect Hong Kong’s citizens from being denied U.S. work or student visas solely based on “the applicant’s subjection to politically motivated arrest, detention, or other adverse government action.”

House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-MA-2) stated that Congress’ action sends “a clear and unmistakable message to Beijing. We will not stand idly by while the Chinese government stifles free expression and tightens their grip on Hong Kong.”

The Chinese government harshly criticized Congress, saying the bill is “a piece of waste paper,” and “neglects facts and truth, applies double standards, and blatantly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs.”

The Trump Administration, in the midst of trade negotiations with China, has not confirmed if the president will sign the act into law. While the president had been expected to sign the bill, on November 22 Trump hinted at vetoing the legislation, saying to Fox & Friends, “[President Xi’s] a friend of mine…I stand with freedom…but we are also in the process of making one of the largest trade deals in history. And if we could do that, it would be great.” While Congress has enough votes to override a presidential veto, there is a possibility of a pocket veto if the president does nothing with the act and lets the legislation die should Congress adjourn within 10 days.

As the U.S. government offered nearly unanimous support for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Hong Kong citizens also made headlines following the overwhelming victories of pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong’s November 24 local elections. Despite previously holding no majorities, pro-democracy candidates won majorities in 17 of 18 district councils. Prior to the elections, pro-Beijing candidates held 300 seats; after the elections, they now hold only 58 of 452 seats.

In October, the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE) expressed solidarity with the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Specifically, ABFE called for the release of Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller who disappeared in 2015 before resurfacing in Chinese detention. Gui, a Chinese-born Swedish national, sold and published books critical of the Communist Party’s regime. In last month’s comments, ABA Director of ABFE David Grogan said, “We urge the authorities in China to release Mr. Gui. ABFE believes the detention of Mr. Gui represents an egregious violation of international human rights standards and a serious threat to free expression.”